Opinion

Climate Activism and the Social Licence to Protest

As laws increasingly impinge on the right to protest, SEI Youth Fellow Sacha Shaw reflects on governance, coercion and police response to recent forms of climate activism.

Image by Ethan Wilkinson via Unsplash.

What I would call a lifelong activist sat down with me and showed me a video on his phone from 1999. I had been talking with him about his experience and concerns about the treatment of activists in Australia but also globally. The video was grainy, but you could clearly make out what going on. Lots of yelling and shouting voices as the police chainsaw down what he called a “bi-pole” – a structure frequently used in forest protests to suspend the “bunny”, aka the protester, sometimes up to 50 metres above the ground.

The trick behind a bi-pole lies in the fact that it is connected via ropes to the surrounding trees. This ensures that if someone cuts down one of those connected trees, they risk bringing down the whole bi-pole network including the activist, so up in the canopy it is literally ‘bodies on the line’.

In the video, the police appear not to care. The revving chainsaws failed to drown out the piercing screams from another activist that “you are going to kill him”, referring to the protester in the tree.

The video continues but not for much longer. In the blurry footage, he points out one of the protesters – one of his old friends, and he tells me flippantly, “he drank himself to death”. My activist friend goes on to explain how environmentalist groups have been painted into a corner. A corner with few options out. Bankrupted, marginalised and derided to a point where even suicide appears attractive, or as he cynically put it “we’ll all end up inside”.

The social licence to protest is degrading and eroding; death by a thousand discursive cuts and legislative amputations.

And to my friends, family and colleagues, although you may not agree with the strategic approaches of some groups, please resist the narrative that activists are criminals and by extension deserving of such heavy-handed punishments.

“The social licence to protest is degrading and eroding; death by a thousand discursive cuts and legislative amputations.”


In recent weeks Blockade Australia took to the streets of Sydney. And the response from the commentariat and the NSW police – even prior to Blockade Australia’s week of action – was alarming to say the least.

Blockade Australia has no history of violence which makes police action and the attendant claims of proportionality so mind-bending. To give one example, on the Sunday before Blockade Australia’s week of planned actions, the police executed a raid on the property where many of the activists were staying.

I spoke with a representative of the group who was there that day and who asked to remain anonymous. They told me the raid was triggered when a few Blockade Australia activists stumbled on two camouflaged people surveilling the camp from the scrub. Apparently, they had been there for several days. In the ensuing raid, approximately 100 officers descended on the property, now officially designated a crime site.

The representative told me, and confirmed by video evidence from the day, there were dogs, the riot squad and a helicopter. Nothing particularly surprising, but there was a name that wasn’t familiar – the NSW Strike Force Raptor.

So, who are the Strike Force Raptor, aka the ‘Raptor Squad’, aka the anti-bikie squad? According to police, the Raptor Squad is a unit of the NSW Police Force, that targets “serious and organised crime, in particular those who have a propensity for violence”.

The Police and Emergency Services Minister David Elliott said the Raptor Squad pursues “urban terrorists”, using proactive and high-impact policing. And Raptor Commander Jason Weinstein said the aim of the Squad was “to lawfully harass [criminals], making them uncomfortable to the point [where] … they get arrested and are incarcerated, or they desist from their activities”.

Leaving to one side whether the police even have the right to ‘lawfully harass’ anybody, why are non-violent climate activists the targets of a policing unit designed to respond to serious, organised and violent crimes?


Environmental activists nationally are frequently the subject of new legislation aimed to prevent their demonstrations. A quick survey of laws already passed and laws currently under debate will uncover a nationwide trend towards the criminalisation of dissent including fines in excess of $20,000 and imprisonment.

Legislative pushes by state and territory governments are restricting peoples’ ability to engage in peaceful protest. Those willing to stand up against perceived injustice are increasingly facing state coercion and over-policing.

“Leaving to one side whether the police even have the right to ‘lawfully harass’ anybody, why are non-violent climate activists the targets of a policing unit designed to respond to serious, organised and violent crimes?”

It feels stale, but nonetheless true, to draw your attention to the spiralling weaknesses of democracies when there is no legitimate dissent. Bankrupting and disempowering activists – to the point where our legal system applies uniquely harsh laws to them – fosters an intolerant and stifling civic arena.

I would also not hold my breath, nor suggest that because of the new Labor Government things will fundamentally change. For each new law, Labor has supported – if not directly tabling the new legislation.

Max and Tim, two protesters from Blockade Australia, both arrested on raid on 19 June, were released on 12 July. Over three weeks in isolation cells – denied exercise, bail and a trail.


Sacha Shaw is an SEI Youth Fellow for the Grounded Imaginaries project, researching community-led responses to the climate crisis. He has an academic background in environments and society, specifically investigating novel international law formation at UNSW Canberra. Additionally, he has a keen interest in journalism and civil society in Australia and internationally.