Control those climate children

The September school climate strike in Perth was a good one.

On a clear sunny day, Forrest Chase was packed with some 12,000 people.  Waving placards, learning chants, and generally sharing in an upswelling of community, protest and healthy low-fi anger.

There was talk of needing action on climate justice.  Transitioning to renewables.  Supporting workers who would lose their jobs.  Learning from Indigenous people how to live sustainably, and working together.  Powerful speeches about the plight of our planet.  There were thousands of school-aged children, including those leading the protest, but it was gratifying to see people of all ages in attendance.

The march began.  I walked next to an excellent drumming band – it felt oddly like a cross between the HBF fun run and Woodstock.

Then everyone sat down on William Street for a while.

We started moving again, and things took a subtle but interesting turn.  I heard a whisper that the police had blocked off the main CBD street, St Georges Terrace.  So be it.  Then another whisper – it had been organised for the march to turn right there.

The Terrace was about as blocked off as it could be, without an actual wall having been built.  There was a continuous line of five large police vans, with blue lights on, and over 20 police officers in yellow vests, armed with both guns and batons, doing the dutiful stare ahead.  Some people tried to get through the barricade.  They generally didn’t.  A marshall explained that he had repeatedly tried to get a lady through with a pram and two children, who was finding it hard on the main thoroughfare.  No luck.

After speaking with two of the event’s organisers, the rough state of play is they were in talks with the City of Perth (including the Police at some stage), for some two months before the event.  They discussed safety issues and told the authorities the route they were going to take.  One week before the event, they were told they needed to get a permit for Forrest Chase – so they did.

The organisers were never told they couldn’t go along St Georges Terrace.  They published their discussed route on social media.  The event happened and the police converged and unexpectedly barricaded the Terrace as the march approached.  It turns out everyone sat down for a while because the event’s dedicated police liaisons were talking to the police, trying to work out why the march was suddenly blocked.  They presumably gave up and the march continued along William Street instead.

This might seem like a storm in a teacup.  But it is disturbing.

Clearly a decision was made to disallow the march from the Terrace.  This was not done gently.  It was done with a disproportionate and intimidating show of martial force.  Probably appropriate for a national bikie convention – not so for peaceful schoolchildren.  This is a shame because the police in Perth are usually friendly and decent, fostering good relations with the public.

It was done without notifying the event organisers.

The protest involved some name calling of large Western Australian-based oil and gas companies.  It’s no surprise that the fossil fuel industry featured.  The route was therefore planned along the Terrace, past said big corporates.  It is becoming increasingly evident that fossil fuel interests have spent the last few decades, and very significant amounts of money, obfuscating climate science in order to confuse the public.

So why did the barricade materialise at such a peaceful event?

The official police explanation was “The protest group did not receive the appropriate permit that allowed access to St George’s Terrace. The road was blocked for safety and security reasons”.

This explanation does not stand up to scrutiny, for a number of reasons.

I followed up with the police to dig deeper, asking these questions:

  1. What were the actual safety and security reasons that were specific to St Georges Terrace?
  2. Does St Georges Terrace have unique requirements for march permits, compared to other streets in the CBD?
  3. Given the meetings held with the Police before the march, including discussions of the route and safety issues, and the creation of police liaison roles, why were the protesters not informed in advance that the Police would be blocking their route along the Terrace?
  4. Who made the decision to block the Terrace?

The WA Police Force spokesperson re-stated their official explanation, and added “No further comment”.  They did not attempt to answer any of the questions.

If the route change was for safety reasons, what exactly were the safety issues?  The protesters were not remotely dangerous.  The Terrace is no more hazardous to walk on than William Street.  And safety planning usually involves actual planning, which involves communication and discussions in advance.  You don’t make an impulse decision on the day when there are over 10,000 people involved.

Or maybe it was to minimise traffic chaos?  No, same problem, the event organisers would have been told in advance.  Also, the Terrace was blocked to traffic anyway.  Tumbleweeds were blowing behind the police line.

Or because the protest couldn’t afford to get the marching permit?  They didn’t have a permit for William Street or The Esplanade either.  And if the permit was a real issue, they surely would have been told (as with Forrest Chase).

In the circumstances, and without any compelling or meaningful alternative reasons, a number of people have concluded that big corporates simply didn’t want the climate protest to go past their front door, so measures were effected.

If this is the case, it was wrong.  It was manipulative of a civil rights movement being held in good faith, for very good reasons.  It was a waste of police resources.  It was damaging to our justice system, by being deliberately disrespectful to the event organisers, and to the event itself.

It was also misplaced.  The State should encourage positive and intelligent activism.  Climate destruction poses a real and present danger to not only our environment, but our society, stability, economy and, most relevantly, survival.  It is in everyone’s interests to deal with this threat.  The incident mirrors the Federal Government’s line that children should stick to the curriculum and stay out of activism.  As the kids tend to reply, what’s the point of a Year 12 certificate in a dead world.

If I was a child, concerned about my planet and my future, resorting to skipping school and marching through the CBD to protest the fate of the world, I would have seen the lines of police and thought “they want to scare me”.  And my trust in them, and in my society, would have diminished.  And then I would have thought “we’ve got them worried”, and smiled.

Alex Fletcher