Climate activist Violet Coco was arrested in April for disrupting traffic on the Sydney Harbour Bridge. She is the first person to be jailed under the new NSW anti-protest laws, which were rushed through parliament earlier this year with bipartisan support. She was sentenced to 15 months in jail with a non-parole period of eight months. She spoke to Red Flag’s Lily Campbell after being released on bail.
Could you talk about what's happened to you since the time of your arrest? I understand that fairly severe bail conditions have been imposed on many climate activists in the past year.
I was arrested in April and held under 24 hour house arrest in my Mum's small apartment for 20 days. For the next 100 or so days, I was allowed out for just five hours in the middle of the day. During this time, I'd moved to Lismore to help rebuild after the floods. Despite this, I still wasn't granted more freedom to help volunteer with the rebuilding effort. Alongside those curfew hours, I was also given non-association conditions, which restricted my communication with my whole community, including family members.
It's a terrifying day when our government tries to prevent peaceful protest.
I'm sure you would have known at the time of the Harbour Bridge protest your actions risked severe legal consequences. Just days before, anti-protest laws were rushed through the NSW parliament, threatening protesters with fines of up to $20,000 and up to two years' jail time. Now you are facing a minimum of eight months of jail time. Why did you put yourself on the line like that?
I am just so concerned about the climate and ecological emergency. To me, there is no greater risk than ignoring the need to protect ourselves from the destruction of the environment.
The world's leading scientists are telling us that if we don't immediately change our trajectory, we will see billions of lives lost and hell-on-earth conditions. There can't be any hesitation in immediately reducing emissions to zero and restoring our ecosystems. I think it's really important that we respond with the urgency that's required if we’re serious about making that emergency transition happen.
Speaking of hell on earth, I think many Australians have already begun to see what the climate crisis will look like. Has your experience of the fires and floods motivated your activism?
I think the bushfires were a really terrifying ordeal that we all went through. My sister was pregnant with her second child and she couldn't leave the house. She was stuck inside because the air was toxic. That was the first time that we all had to wear masks! And we know, too, that smoke causes huge cognitive repercussions, especially for our children. It became terrifyingly clear to me that at a certain point, with climate breakdown, there is nowhere to run. We will all face the consequences of the criminal inaction.
There's been a real media storm around your sentencing. The NSW premier Dominic Perrottet said your sentencing was “pleasing to see”, and NSW opposition leader Chris Minns, when asked if he regretted supporting the anti-protest laws, said “I don’t regret supporting those laws”. Why do you think both sides of politics are keen to criminalise and silence climate protesters?
I think it’s because we threaten their friendships with the fossil fuel industry. This is an industry that receives $22,000 a minute in government subsidies, and obviously, the relationship goes both ways. Many politicians are guaranteed very well-paid positions in the fossil fuel industry once they're out of politics. It’s all about personal interest, which is short-sighted because there's no place to run from the climate emergency. It doesn't matter how many digits you've got in your bank account if there’s nothing to eat and nowhere safe to live.
I think protest has been such an important part of democracy throughout history. Thanks to protests, Australia was the first place in the world to get the eight hour working day. It’s also not unusual throughout history for protesters to receive harsh punishment for fighting for what’s right. In fact, one of the main activists who fought for the eight-hour working day received over 100 lashes for insubordination.
Often these activists were unpopular in their day, but the point isn’t to be liked. I don't want to upset people so much, but my activism is about saving lives and drawing attention to this emergency. People may not like what we do, and I'm sorry if it causes distress. But it’s nothing compared to the distress that the climate breakdown will bring about, and I hope that people who criticise disruptive protests pay more attention to that issue.
History shows that if you get enough people to pay attention and to mobilise, that’s what has changed the way that democracy is run. We don't need everybody to be on our side; even small amounts of the population can achieve massive change when engaged. Often people say, I don't want to be a protester, but I want action on climate. And that's what we're looking for in our activism: we want people to be engaged in this issue so we can make that change possible.
Also, these protests happened in the lead-up to the federal election. For us, it was a key time to act for the planet, and for both parties, it was a key time to try to silence us.
On the topic of the federal election, Labor leader Anthony Albanese promised that his victory would usher in a new era of climate action. Do you think the current Labor government is doing enough to tackle the climate crisis?
Absolutely not. Just this week, they’ve been trying to pass a bill that would give even more money to the fossil fuel industry. That's not what we need. We need to be putting windfall taxes on the fossil fuel industry, shutting them down completely and ensuring a just transition, particularly for people to have the heating and cooling they need in their homes to survive the climate breakdown. And that money and the capacity for that kind of change is there, but neither Labor nor the Liberals have the will to make anything like that happen.
That’s why I joined movements like Extinction Rebellion, which look towards different forms of democracy to make the changes needed to protect us. You know, in Ancient Greece, where democracy was first brought to life, they would rope people in from the central square and pull them into mass meetings, making them the government for that day. We would do things a bit differently in today’s world, but it’s important to think about how democracy can be organised differently because when people are empowered through participatory democracy and meaningful conversation, they come up with amazing, community and environmentally-minded outcomes.
So where to from here Violet? Will this sentence stop you from protesting? What's next for the climate movement?
I am still incredibly concerned about the climate emergency and highly motivated to see the change needed to avert more disasters. The most important thing to do is to get active, to engage with what's going on and not to let it become overwhelming. It’s important to take care of yourself in that time, but it’s more important not to be silent and to continue the fight to protect our future generations.