Police and the Legal System

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Too many activists are left traumatised by police action, in debt due to legal costs or isolated in long-running court actions when they are ‘abandoned’ by campaigns or activist groups. Resources have been drawn from around the world and from our own experience here in Australia to help activists, organisers and legal workers to better support activists facing the police and legal system.

However there are many things that we can do individually and collectively to better enable us to deal with the pressures involved in facing the police and the legal system.

Overcoming repression

It is important to distinguish between ‘political repression’ and the normal workings of the legal system.

In Australia, most activists who are arrested, charged and convicted are not targets of systematic political repression.

We just face the normal, everyday workings of a conservative and institutionalised legal system, a system of police, courts and judges that has trouble recognising civil disobedience and protest as legitimate. We get arrested and treated like anyone else who has broken the law. It’s not nice, but it’s not political repression.

Political repression, however, is the deliberate targeting of political dissidents designed to prevent, undermine or stop their actions. It can involve being recognised and monitored by sections of the police, security forces or government as a target, and includes a range of tactics designed to hamper our ability to continue our work as activists.

Political repression takes many forms but can often be exercised through the legal system. Political dissidents have always been the target of government surveillance and repression. It is important to take these attacks seriously and resist them.

It is important not to allow fear or the threat of repression to scare us away from political participation. Stories about vast conspiracies and elaborate surveillance technologies can create an atmosphere that discourages activism. This is part of the repression and is the first element that needs to be resisted.

Government harassment of political activists clearly exists today, violating our fundamental democratic rights and creating a climate of fear and distrust that undermines our efforts to create political change.

We have learnt from activists in highly repressive regimes that the goal of state terror is to isolate and separate social movements, and that in order to withstand such political harassment and violence, activists need to develop strong and resilient support networks.

It is valuable to learn from the attacks on social justice movements in the United States of America that came to light during the 1960s.

Largely hidden at the time was a vast government program to neutralise domestic political opposition through “covert action” (political repression carried out secretly or under the guise of legitimate law enforcement). The 1960s program, coordinated by the FBI under the code name “COINTELPRO,” was exposed in the 1970s and supposedly stopped. Notwithstanding this exposure, there are concerns that such covert action persists.

For more information about COINTELPRO go to the Freedom Archives website.

In Australia, we have a different political framework and system of police and security forces. But the targeted surveillance and harassment of political activists does occur here.

Holly Hammond writes in Spy vs Activist: Managing Security Risks (2012)

‘Recently it came to light that a minister in the Australian government, Martin Ferguson, has advocated for increased surveillance of anti-coal and other climate activists, and for stronger penalties for actions taken on energy infrastructure, after being approached by energy companies. While the direct link between industry targeted by activists, a government minister, and resulting surveillance of activists is noteworthy, it is nothing new for activists to be monitored by either police, ASIO or private companies.’

The ‘open source intelligence’ activities of NOSIC (the company contracted by the Australian Federal Police to monitor activists) appear to mostly be tracking online activities and social networks for example on Facebook. We must assume that this kind of monitoring has been going on for many years, as well as less frequent but more invasive practices such as phone-tapping, bugging, and infiltration of activist groups by undercover agents.

See also:

Political surveillance

Surveillance of activists

Fear of the police

Fear of the police and legal system is one of the most effective social control systems that the government has. When facing any sort of police or legal sanctions, activist campaigns and movements must develop ways to help activists overcome fear of police and the risk of charges, jail and violence.

Julia Hernandez, former director of Tutela Legal, a Catholic Legal Support office in El Salvador, asserts that that most critical factor enabling people to overcome fear is their solidarity with others in their organisations (Mahoney and Eguren, 1997).



Most importantly, take responsibility for yourself and make it clear that all participants should do the same. Each person is responsible for their own life, experiences and behaviour. This extends to taking responsibility for one’s participation at a demonstration, protest or rally.

This means taking on any legal ramifications for your actions, and making sure you have made yourself known to the legal support team if you have any concerns about getting involved in arrestable actions.

In an action, it can also mean informing others around you of any relevant medical details, pointing out any dangers, being sure that people standing with you have heard police warnings or are informed of any developments. Fundamentally it means owning your action and choices.

Respect others – ensure your actions are not going to harm, degrade or endanger other people taking part in actions, or innocent bystanders.

Don’t forget to be aware of and respect the environment around you too.

And remember:

If you don’t protest injustice when you can, you may find yourself unable to. Read about the S11 Legal Support Team and Activist case studies as a further resource.


Making empowered decisions

Following are 9 useful tips:

  1. Know about the injustices you are fighting. Be clear about what your vision for social change looks like, and what strategies and tactics it involves.
  2. Be clear about how you want to participant in a protest or action and what you hope to achieve.
  3. Educate yourself about the risks involved in certain protest situations.
  4. Be reflective of your own needs in such a situation and vulnerabilities which might be different to others (you have may child care responsibilities, you may not be an Australian citizen, you may be pursuing career or travel options that having a criminal record may foreclose).
  5. Know your rights in protest situations.
  6. Know what the potential consequences are arising out of a particular protest; what are the likely charges, penalties and other ramifications flowing from that.
  7. Know you limits, barrier and respect them (and the limits and barriers of others)
  8. Know what potential triggers may be for you and take action to avoid or minimise these (this may involve informing support people of these)
  9. Own your actions and choices. Be prepared to take responsibility for your actions.

Avoiding trauma

Activists, all too often, seem to put themselves last when it come to caring about people and planet. The macho attitude that “I’m fine” when they are clearly not or hassling over-worked people to do more work when they are trying to take some time for themselves is counter productive.

We need to take care of our selves and those around us if we are going to be able to keep on resisting and having a good time doing it. This is mental as well as physical health issue.

Legal information, support and solidarity is only one aspect of looking after each other when taking political action.

For useful information see the Activist Trauma Support website.

Dealing with Surveillance

Developing strong ‘security culture’ practices will make you and the people you are organising with safer. The aim of ‘security culture’ protocols is to put measures in place to make you feel safer. Paranoia only immobilises people.

“Security is a process that protects you in some fashion, whether in the run up to, during or after the event(s) you are involved in. This means, that security is there to facilitate the smooth operation of your action, campaign, etc. and help keep everyone safe… There is no such thing as a 100% fail‐safe system. There is always some risk; and security processes help reduce that risk to an acceptable level. It is up to you to define what the acceptable level of risk is and how best you can deal with it. Security is not a single thing; it is a process and a state of mind.”

From a Practical Security Handbook for Activists and Campaigns (v 2.7), page 3, download from ActivistSecurity.org

Useful resources on activist security and creating a strong security culture:

Rackus Society ‘Security Culture for Activists’
‘The Security Handbook’ by the Activist Security Collective
Surveillance Self-Defense (US based and specific, with useful generic information)

Anti-oppression organising

Some activists in Australia experience higher levels of police violence and legal threats or may be less able to cope with legal repercussions. Activists who are Aboriginal, Muslim or from an Islamic country, activists who are gay, lesbian or queer, transsexual or transgendered or who are experiencing mental illness or homelessness or have a criminal history may be particularly targeted or vulnerable to police and legal repression. Racial profiling or raciliaised policing, where police stop, question, target or search a person because of their race or (suspected) religious background has been documented in Australia and around the world.

See Community Law – Racial Profiling

Activist legal support needs to recognise that white, middle class or educated activists can be privileged in the legal system, and that others are particularly vulnerable to violence or discrimination. Support and solidarity across lines of difference and discrimination is crucial if all activists are able to withstand police and legal repression.

Most people in detention do not choose to be arrested, and incarceration is a tool of the powerful most frequently used against those who are poor, non-white, or illiterate. If we choose to be arrested as a direct action strategy we also must acknowledge this in our relations with other people who are in detention.

Mass arrests can also cause crowding in cells and this can make experiences of detention even harder for other inmates. This happened in Darwin at the height of the Jabiluka Blockade. Some Aboriginal women were transferred to prisons outside Darwin, which made it impossible for their families to visit. The women asked the Jabiluka arrestees to accept bail and thereby enable their return to Darwin prison.

It is also important to recognise that solidarity across lines of class, race and gender can often be paternalistic. Gary Foley (1999), for example, writes of the repeated problems of patronising attitudes and paternalism amongst white solidarity activists who support Aboriginal struggles. But he also writes of the principles for,

“successful cooperative action … between Koori [south-eastern Aboriginal] community activists and non-Koori supporters”

which have also been in evidence in some local campaigns, but also since the 1972 Aboriginal Tent Embassy.

Solidarity activists in these campaigns,

“did not seek a say in how the protest was run … [and] were more aware of the need for Koori people to be determining their own destiny politically, and they were prepared to stand with Koori activists when the crunch came”.

Foley urges non-Koori supporters to make sure that they join a group that,

“genuinely supports Koori control of Koori affairs and is in some way affiliated with, or taking guidance from, the local Koori traditional owners and/or local Koori community”.

Gary Foley, ‘White and Blackness in the Koori Struggle for Self-Determination’ (1999) The Koori History Website, available http://www.kooriweb.org

Organisers, activists and legal support workers need to respond to political and social repression as core to activist legal support.

These are all things that activist campaigns must overcome if they are to involve more people in the campaign and support people who are already a part of it.

For useful resources to assist in thinking through how race class and gender intersect and workshop resources for thinking through these issues with collective and affinity groups see Australian Student Environment Network.

Affinity groups

Affinity groups, self-sufficient support systems of about 5 to 15 people, who work together in achieving a particular political objective is another way to minimise the risk of trauma and to support one another when taking political action.

For useful information on affinity groups, what they are and how to establish one see:

  • Nancy Alach’s article here Affinity Groups and Support
  • Starhawk’s article here Affinity Groups