Chalking up controversy

After recent counter-terrorism raids on six WA Extinction Rebellion members, local activists are trying to start a conversation about what they see as the disproportionate consequences of their protests.

Climate activist. Photo: Harriet Flinn.

On August 20, six climate activists from Extinction Rebellion had their homes raided and were arrested amid allegations they used spray-chalk methods during a protest against Woodside’s Scarborough Gas Project.

In response to their arrests, fellow climate and civil rights activists have began protests outside Woodside headquarters in Perth’s CBD, calling for the charges against the six individuals (who they are calling the Spray Chalk 6) to be lifted.

Kelly Hawes is a member of the Spray Chalk 6 and had her home raided, and was fined $2000 in ‘reparations’.

“A couple weeks ago myself and a few other XR members were outside Woodside headquarters, protesting against the newly proposed and extremely harmful Scarborough Gas Project.

“We used spray-chalk on pavements and sidewalks that had phrases like ‘no new gas’ and ‘pollution tax’,” she says.

“It was only two weeks later when police came and raided my home at 7am, as well as 5 other XR members. It lasted for several hours. We were then arrested with a property damage charge.”

Kelly Hawes on her home being raided. Video: Harriet Flinn.

“It was quite intimidating at the time, I was really confused why my actions had warranted this incredible overreach of police resources.”

Ms Hawes was the first individual of those arrested to face court, where her bail restrictions were lifted.

The remaining five members are awaiting their court hearing, and are currently under the bail conditions that include not associating with one another and to not go within 200m of Woodside headquarters.

“I am very grateful that my restrictions have been lifted – but I’m here today, to keep fighting for the other members – for my friends – who cannot be,” Ms Hawes says.

XR protest outside Woodside headquarters. Photo: Harriet Flinn.

Carmen Stobaus is another member of the six who had her home raided following an arrest.

“I was shocked to find counter-terroism police demanding to enter my home at 7am.

“They seized my phone and the raid lasted for four hours. It was a ridiculous amount of force being used in response to chalk,” she says.

“I felt like this was an opportunity taken by police to make us more vulnerable. They didn’t need to go this far over chalk.

“The worst part was that I couldn’t associate with any of the others who had been arrested, as it tore down our support system at a very unstable time.”

In the recent protest, XR activists have continued with their chalk-activism methods on the public sidewalks outside Woodside headquarters to express their anti-gas messages.

XR member Gerard Mazza was one individual who received a move-on notice when writing with chalk on Woodside Property.

Two protestors on receiving move-on notices. Video: Harriet Flinn.

“Chalk is easily wipeable, easily washable, there is no real damage to property being done.

“The damage that I did is minuscule compared to the climate damage Woodside is doing every single day, and will continue to do with their Scarborough Gas Project,” Mr Mazza says.

“We are allowed to be here and to protest non-violently. If they want to intimidate us with move-on notices and raids – so be it.”

Australian gas advertising. Photo: Supplied.

XR members say there is a hypocrisy within the system, given Australian Petroleum Production and Exploration Association (APPEA) also use spray-chalking methods to advertise their pro-gas messages, although there is acknowledgment of a different approach to pre-approvals.

“Although APPEA most likely obtained a permit, it’s still interesting to see them using our tactics of anti-gas protesting – the ones we are getting charged and arrested for – to spread their pro-gas messages,” Mr Mazza says.

“It’s incredibly hypocritical when you see companies and organisations, such as APPEA, using chalk spray on pavements to promote their pro-gas messages, when we were arrested and raided for practically the same thing,” Ms Hawes says.

A spokesperson from APPEA says the activists are misinformed, and says the oil and gas industry is doing the heavy lifting when it comes to tackling climate change.

“Natural gas has only half the greenhouse gas emissions of coal when used to generate electricity and it can do things renewables simply cannot do, such as power manufacturing plants.   

“Our industry are the ones making billion-dollar investments in emissions-reduction technologies and not carping from the sidelines.”

Senior lecturer at Curtin University Dr Rocco Loiacono teaches property and comparative law, and says if the actions of these protesters constitutes damage to private property, it is unlawful.

“However, as far as raids go, we have seen familiar examples in the past of Australian Police utilising these counter-terrorism methods to impede on individual rights and fundamental freedoms,” he says.

“A recent example is Zoe Buhler, who last year made a post to social media (i.e., expressing her opinion) which resulted in an arrest in her own home, in her pyjamas, in front of her children, on the way to an ultrasound.”

Woodside Energy senior media advisor Christine Forster says Woodside respects people’s rights to peacefully protest.

“As for the Scarborough Gas, this project contains virtually no carbon dioxide compared to conventional oil and gas reservoirs,” she says.

The remaining members of the Spray Chalk Six are awaiting their court hearings.