Here’s something that happens whenever a disruptive climate protest gets media attention: the level of disruption is exaggerated, or fabricated, in an effort to inspire public hate against protestors. This is one of a few tactics being used to suppress climate protest, in Australia.

When climate activist Violet Coco blocked the Sydney Harbour Bridge last year, the police claimed that the protest “prevented an ambulance responding to an emergency under lights and sirens as it was unable to navigate through the increased heavy traffic”. It was later revealed that was a complete fabrication by the New South Wales police. The absurd, excessive jail sentence handed to Coco, 15 months, was lifted on appeal. In the original sentencing from magistrate Allison Hawkins, the phantom “ambulance” is repeatedly referred to:

“You have halted an ambulance under lights and siren. What about the person in there? What about that person and their family? What are they to think of you and your cause? In fact, you do damage to your cause when you do childish stunts and dangerous stunts like this. It angers the community and rightfully so.”

In the header image of this post, a painting has been spray-painted. Look closer, and you’ll realise the glass covering on that artwork is the thing defaced – but the majority of headlines of that action and most others involving artwork imply or explicitly declare the artwork itself has been irretrievably destroyed.

The fossil fuel companies and governments that are the subjects of protest have an interest in deflecting attention to something else: to the unhindered pathways of ambulances, or to the preciousness of artwork. In this way, they end up gaining the support of centrist, professional small-l liberals who agree with the protest’s point, but now have to sternly decry the methods as unacceptable. It’s based on a lie, but it works amazingly well.

There’s been something of the same type of exaggeration happening this week.

A few days ago, the protest group Disrupt Burrup Hub travelled to the luxury mansion of the CEO of Australia’s largest fossil gas company, Woodside Energy. Currently, Woodside is suing DBH after a protest which involved a fake gas leak at their headquarters, and DBH are trying to stop the massive gas Burrup Hub mega-project.

The CEO’s mansion was recently in the news: four eshays snuck through an unlocked doggy door, found the keys to her $150,000 Maserati Ghibli, and took it for a joyride around the neighbourhood.

If you’re wondering how someone can afford all that, Woodside CEO Meg O’Neill will make around $12.5million AUD in pay this year, which is not all that much compared to the CEO of her former employer, ExxonMobil, who raked in ~$53m AUD in 2022.

Here’s what happened at O’Neill’s mansion: members of the protest group ‘Disrupt Burrup Hub’ travelled there carrying a spray can and some locks. Their obvious intent was to deface the front of the home from the street. When they arrived, at least ten West Australian police officers were waiting for them and they were immediately arrested before they could do anything. A film crew from the ABC’s Four Corners attended too, obviously tipped off by the protesters.

O’Neill said: “What happened Tuesday has left me shaken, fearful, and distressed. I’d like to thank the Western Australian police for their swift response and acting to ensure the safety of my family”. The Premier of Western Australia has been red-hot with outrage. “Single issue activists are now engaging in a new tactic — targeting public figures and their families in their homes”, he said.

This is their ‘ambulance’ moment. Woodside and their advocates in media and state government are trying to frame this like DBH were Charles Manson cultists, ready to invade the home of Woodside’s CEO to murder and maim – rather than young protesters preparing to vandalise the wall of a mansion built with fossil fuel blood money.

Later, Disrupt Burrup Hub released a statement describing how counter-terror police forcibly entered the home of an activist under suspicion of “conspiracy”:

They don’t get mansions unless they destroy our homes

Burrup Hub is an amalgam of Australia’s worst proposed new gas projects. The carbon it unlocks, when burned, will be the equivalent of about 15 new coal-fired power stations.

What we know, for sure, is that the action of creating new supply of fossil fuels contributes to increase the burning of fossil fuels. The constant expansionist pressure in the supply side creates a caste of people whose massive material wealth depends on people continuing to demand and to burn their planet-heating product (a more detailed rationale is in this report by a US economist).

Woodside understands this. They want to present their actions as those of a morally neutral and innocent supplier – ‘we’re just meeting demand and if we don’t, someone else will’. A recent analysis by a local research firm showed that increasing production also increases demand for fossil fuels. And the 2021 finding against Shell also found that removing one unit of supply results in less than 1 unit of supply elsewhere replacing it.

In short: it is worth protesting. It’ll produce massive emissions domestically, and it’ll enable worse emissions by creating a situation where Woodside have to fight, with every ounce of their power, to ensure we end up in the worst case scenario for climate, rather than the best-case.

This expansionist madness creates a situation where Woodside can only profit by destroying our homes. Meg O’Neill’s Maserati depends on the physical ruination of the atmosphere that surrounds and fills the place you live. This is a straight-line: the fuels burning up our planet pay for their mansions.

The only way to remove this psychopathic force fighting to destroy our homes: tighten the screws on fossil fuel supply. Unsurprisingly, the counter-response from corporates and governments has been fierce.

Australia’s anti-protest problem is getting worse, fast

This event comes in the context of state anti-protest laws that have been worsening rapidly, with the explicit purpose of criminalising non-violent but disruptive actions by groups like Just Stop Oil, Disrupt Burrup Hup and Extinction rebellion. The DBH protest was immediately framed as a violent attack on a family because state governments and police have been trying to present climate protesters as “extremists” and “terrorists” for years, now.

Police in Western Australia recently raided the home of an Indigenous woman protesting the destruction of sacred rock art and seized photos from a journalist relating to the gas project which threatens the sacred site. In 2021, WA counter-terror police raided the homes of climate activists over the use of washable chalk patterns drawn on the ground near Woodside’s headquarters.

In South Australia, anti-protest laws were rushed through by the government in time for a fossil fuel industry conference held in May 2023. Fines for disruptive protest were increased from $750 to $50,000, 721 times more onerous. SA’s Premier, Peter Malinauskas, is the brother of Robert Malinauskas, head of external affairs at fossil fuel giant Santos. The South Australian Labor party defended the anti-protest laws on Twitter. “The South Australian government is at your disposal, we are here to help and we are here to offer you a pathway to the future”, SA’s Minister for Energy, Tom Koutsantonis, told the gas lobby at that conference.

In New South Wales, anti-protest laws were passed through with the obvious aim of clamping down on climate protest, with a similar massive increase in punishments for disruptive protest. They were written up by the former government Liberal party, but supported by the Labor party, who now hold government in the state. Violet Coco, mentioned above, was the first person to be convicted under the new laws.

In mid-2022, 100 police officers descended on a camp of climate activists in the Blue Mountains and pre-emptively arrested them for planning disruptive actions. “The huge raid featured helicopters, the paramilitary Public Order and Riot, Raptor Squad and Operations Support Group, the Dog Unit, Police Rescue and plainclothes officers”.

“We were surrounded at dawn by men in cammo gear, hiding in the bush, with heaps of guns. Then helicopters started buzzing overhead. Police cars and buses came speeding through the neighbourhood, lights and sirens wailing. Police dogs and black clad men in body armour and full face helmets came barging into our space. This massive, costly police operation is aimed at preventing climate activists from taking action.”
- Blockade Australia statement

Victoria and Tasmania have recently passed severe penalties for non-violent protest, too. So, that’s pretty close to everywhere, in Australia, actively bringing the hammer down on climate protest. A recent report from Human Rights Watchcontextualises these new laws among Australia’s bad habit of breaching human rights through oppressive laws and legislation, and Australia’s status as one of the world’s big suppliers of fossil fuels.

“Climate protesters are being increasingly and disproportionately subjected to vindictive legal action by Australian authorities that is restricting the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and expression,” said Sophie McNeill, Australia researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Magistrates in New South Wales have been imposing harsh penalties and bail conditions on climate protesters that violate basic rights.”

There is a lot of cash tied up in the continued sale of coal and gas in Australia. That’s a lot of Maseratis and mansions at risk if the world takes rapid climate action. Pair this with the flinching trigger-finger Australian media, politicians and authorities have for cruel and excessive punishment, and you end up with Australia as it currently is: a thousand times more concerned about killing climate protest than the climate crisis itself.

A deep and shameful failure in solidarity

Another spectacle that breaks out whenever these disruptive protests happen is a chorus of tut-tutting and synchronised finger-wagging among centrists, professionals and Very Serious People, all who say some variation of roughly the same thing: “Well, ACTUALLY, this protest will only turn people against climate action” The attempted Burrup Hup protest was no different.

Australia’s Minister for Climate Change and Energy, who hasn’t mentioned the months of record-breaking heatwaves, bushfires and temperature records that have been occurring around the world, took to Twitter to defend the polluter:

Ostensibly pro-climate “teal” politician Kate Chaney made a similar defense of Woodside Energy: “[the right to protest] does not extend to pre-dawn attacks on the homes of people they disagree with….I have serious concerns with the proposed gas processing facility expansion on the Burrup Peninsula, But the stunt these individuals were allegedly planning to pull risks undermining the genuine climate activism that is happening in our State”.

The Conservation Council of Western Australia, a major conservation and environment group, said “endangering or threatening people – particularly at work or in their home – is never acceptable. There is a very clear line between disruption and intimidation”.

Right-wing media has dined out. The Australian has already published several articles, and Caleb Runciman, a reporter at the West Australian, berated one of the 19-year-old activists for being “unable to answer questions about the transition to renewable energy” (but oddly hasn’t taken me up on my offer to test his own energy knowledge on a live-stream).

A corporate and right-wing media pile-on isn’t surprising. What is really, really grim is the lack of solidarity from fellow climate folks in Australia. The CCWA even contributed to the false narrative of O’Neill being in serious physical danger from activists carrying paint and bike locks.

This is really pretty damn grim. A variety of climate groups in Australia should have been the first ones to come out and loudly defend climate protest and enhance the message of Disrupt Burrup Hub, but their silence (or their criticism) has been deafening. The fact that the police can now prevent protests before they even happen using their powers of surveillance should itself have drawn loud objections, but there has been nearly nothing.

On Thursday, in the UK, Greenpeace enacted something similar. Conservative PM Rishi Sunak has recently doubled down on opening up new fossil fuel projects, and in response, Greenpeace activists scaled his massive mansion and draped the entire building in oil-black sheets while he and his family were out on holiday:

Conservative media obviously didn’t like it. The Daily Mail’s “HOW ON EARTH COULD THIS BE ALLOWED TO HAPPEN” has already become a meme among climate activists, with their outraged words being overlaid onto data showing smashed climate records.

I have tried to find a single instance of any climate or environment group, or pro-climate politician in the entire UK decrying this protest on Sunak’s home as a ‘step too far’. I have found nothing at all. What a shocking contrast to Australia’s unedifying and shameful anti-protest pile-on.

Disruption works, but it needs your help and your voice

The reality is that disruptive protest is effective – far more effective than the critics realise. When people are surveyed about their views on disruptive protest, they suspect it doesn’t work. But when experts in social movements are asked about their views, the reality is extremely different:

"The experts who study social movements not only believe that strategic disruption can be an effective tactic, but that it is the most important tactical factor for a social movement’s success...this points out how our intuitions can be flawed when it comes to understanding social change, and how we shouldn’t take people’s first reactions as the indicator of an effective protest"
- James Özden, director of Social Change Lab

Liz Hicks, postdoctoral researcher at the University of Münster, wrote recently:

“Disruptive protest may be unpopular at the time, because it is confrontative, conflictual and cultivates what Martin Luther King Jr described as ‘creative tension’. Social movements have used it successfully throughout history, however, even if that success was not apparent at the time. That success reflects that conflict, tension, discomfort and emotions such as anger and moral shame are often the motors of social and political change.”

Conservatives, right-wingers, fossil fuel companies and captured governments will always object to any form of climate protest – polite and disruptive, alike. Centrists and corporatist politicians will always wring their hands about anything that offends their theory of change (‘just be born into power, like I was, it’s easy’). When activists target actual fossil fuel infrastructure, the responses are just as excessive as targeting the exterior wall of a CEO’s mansion:

This is because it fundamentally doesn’t matter what the protest looks like. You can draw washable chalk outside Woodside’s office, or you can plan to paint the walls of where the CEO’s Maserati sleeps. You’ll face the boot, either way.

There will always be some paper-thin excuse for the overblown response. The only priority here is protecting coal, oil and gas; everything else is secondary. And because disruptive protest works, the response will always be brutal.

Climate protest – particularly disruptive protest – is a vital part of creating vivid pressure in a space where routine, sameness and status-quo familiarity protect ingrained fossil fuel reliance.

Given the worsening state oppression, Australia’s stagnant and badly insufficient climate policy and the ever-worsening slew of climate impacts breaking out across the world, these brave people need public support more than ever – not silence and grumbled murmurs of disapproval from shockingly weak-willed climate folks.

It’s almost certain that in a some years from now, these protests will be universally recognised as brave interventions. But look: there’s never been a better time to get ahead of the curve. Skip the queue, get ahead of the pack: show some solidaritywith climate protesters today. They need it more than ever.

  1. Thanks Ketan. Just one correction… anti-protest laws in South Australia were introduced the day AFTER a traffic stopping protest against the major APPEA conference in Adelaide. Conference had already ended. The ambulance argument was raised in media of course. Ambulance Officers Assoc Secretary opposed the legislation, and pointed out that ambos have tech and training to ensure they always get through!

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