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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.

Also see

Political surveillance

Surveillance of activists