In late June, School Strike 4 Climate founder Greta Thunberg shared footage of French police pepper spraying the faces of a group of Extinction Rebellion (XR) activists blocking a road in Paris.
Given the fierce police repression used against the Yellow Vests movement since it erupted in late November, this was hardly a surprise.
Just a small sample of the injury toll tells the story: by June, four people had lost a hand and a woman killed, all from being hit by tear gas canisters, while 23 people had lost an eye after being hit by a projectile known as a flash-ball fired from a special gun. On top of this, several thousand protesters have been arrested.
Repression has been coupled with the introduction of anti-protest laws that allow authorities to declare a gathering illegal, arrest anyone who attends, search protesters and ban people from covering their faces. Even wearing yellow or carrying a yellow balloon at a place where a protest has been banned is enough to get someone arrested.
Here in Australia, the government and police are ramping up their use of repression and anti-protest laws as more people take to the streets to demand action on the climate crisis.
Even before XR’s Spring Rebellion, which began on October 7, Queensland’s Labor government had signalled its intention to introduce laws that could see people who use lock-on devices jailed for up to 2 years.
During XR’s Week of Rebellion, NSW police attempted to impose outrageous bail conditions on arrested protesters, forbidding them from entering the city or even associating with other XR activists.
In some places, XR has come under fire for making declarations about the police being "on our side". This has understandably raised the ire of activists and communities who have experienced sustained police harassment and brutality, particularly Indigenous people.
However, if XR continues — and the climate rebellion surely will — then it will not take long for people to see that the essential function of the police is not to “uphold the law” but to protect the rich and powerful. In this country, that means the fossil fuel capitalists who use their wealth and power to buy politicians.
The fundamentally repressive function of the police is easy enough to see in military dictatorships or authoritarian regimes, but it is harder for people to grasp in so-called liberal democracies. That is because the use of violence and arbitrary arrest against the majority of the population is not so routine or widespread — not yet anyway.
As the movement to confront the climate emergency grows, the fossil fuel capitalists and their loyal parliamentary servants will try to use the courts and police to crack down on the movement.
But this could provide activists with an opportunity to build a new unity.
One of the most inspiring features of the Yellow Vests was the emergence of a new understanding and solidarity between communities that previously had little to do with each other. The movement was disproportionately drawn from rural and regional France, but many came to understand the experience of youth from migrant backgrounds in the big cities after getting their own taste of police repression.
That is what happens when people stand up and fight for their rights: they start to discard prejudices and see through the fake news of the corporate media and politicians.
They realise who their real friends and allies are.
That is the kind of unity that the climate movement needs. Our best guarantee of peaceful protest and protection against violence or arbitrary arrest is sheer strength in numbers.
Most importantly, only a sustained mass movement involving hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people can break the back of the fossil fuel mafia that rules this country.
That’s the kind of movement that Green Left Weekly is dedicated to building. But we can only continue to do this with your help.