Protesting against coal with Rising Tide
I just told a bloke I met for the first time today in ‘Suspension’, the most activist-friendly coffee-shop in Newcastle, that being involved with groups that protest, that work for positive change, is enlivening.
I am here to tell you that you feel extremely alive when you paddle a kayak out on to the harbour with many others as part of one of the ‘flotillas’ organised by Rising Tide and stop the coal ships for the day. And Vera Deacon has done that in her 80s!
It reminds me of the day 200,000 of us sat down in Sydney’s main streets for the Vietnam Moratorium. And stopped the city.
And when you trespass on to the coal loaders and stop them operating for a few hours.
Or when you run breathless with fear and excitement (and probably lack of fitness once you are over fifty) through the fence and up on to the mountains of coal in the grounds of one of NSW’s filthiest power stations, ‘Bayswater’ near Muswellbrook. You feel very alive then.
I have form as an active member of the Vietnam Moratorium. I was voted on to the NSW co-ordinating committee of the Moratorium, at the age of 24 when I was single mum with a two year old, or a ‘deserted wife’ as they called us in 1970.
I arrived in Newcastle in 1988 with three of my four kids, 15 months after my second husband died of cancer. We were following the eldest who was starting university here. I straight away looked for groups similar to those I had been involved with on the far north coast of NSW: environment groups and co-counselling. And Quakers.
I went to some environmental group meetings which spawned Newcastle Greens and Trees in Newcastle. I was one of the earliest in Newcastle Greens. And later on I was the (un-official) Newcastle representative to the Greens’ meeting in Sydney that made the decision to form The Australian Greens. I just said that I didn’t think that Newcastle Greens would stand in the way of such a move. (That being the low level of enthusiasm I had judged from our group, for centralisation of any kind.)
My three younger kids were exposed to people talking about politics. I especially remember one magical Greens’ night at John and Carrie’s that included as well as big pots of food, someone playing the didgeridoo. I was glad that they experienced that particular night. This was about the time that Ian who was one of the organisers of The Wilderness Society Newcastle, came on board with the Newcastle Greens and that felt like a strengthening. (I had joined The Wilderness Society from the far north coast, soon after it was formed over the Franklin crisis.)
Other environmental groups started springing up about ten years later, notably Rising Tide. I have been arrested three or four times over the past four or five years with them. On the coal-loaders twice, in the grounds of Bayswater power-station, and in the entrance of parliament house, Canberra. I must come across as a middle-aged feral!
I am happy to answer to the term environmental activist. Or to hippy, from my positive experiences in the hippy commune movement from 1970 in south eastern Queensland and in far northern NSW.
The Sydney Morning Herald was recently kind enough to call me an ‘eco-writer’.
April 08 trespassing on the site of the 3rd coal loader.
The only time I got arrested with my full-time forest activist son Ben was on the first coal-loader jaunt. He had already been diagnosed with cancer by then, had had the exploratory surgery that could do nothing, and a few rounds of chemotherapy, but bounced back into his old spiritual self with the leadership qualities he had exhibited when he came into his own in the forests of NSW and Tasmania.
I felt constricted with fear for him. He was taking photos. It was raining and cold and muddy. Later we were all, about 23 of us, held and harassed in the police station cells in Newcastle for hours. They had taken our water bottles. There was a tap attached to the top of the filthy toilet in the cell I was in with four of the young women. None of us drank from it. I was concerned about Ben, in with the other activist blokes, but weakened by illness and treatment.
In the cells with the idealistic young women, including one who meditated for a bit, I started to tell the story of being in the police station in Kuwait, when I was twenty and a traveller, and how much more desperate and dangerous it was then. I think it was Naomi who particularly wanted to hear, but we were interrupted by the police wanting to catalogue us: photos and fingerprints.
I was concerned that one of the young women in another cell, Chrissie, might get hypothermia and told a cop who seemed to be interested in OH & S and he went and talked to her and got her a blanket. You can always rely on those people, and the reps in a place, to take some responsibility.
The police took everything: our jewellery, wallets, and the aforesaid water bottles as well as our fingerprints and photos.
At one stage an assertive and cranky female cop asked us if we wanted her to get some Maccas in. It must have been about 2 pm by then. I was more concerned about us not drinking anything for hours. All we protesters and ferals had strong ideas on nutrition too. Young rangy men started saying ‘can they leave the meat off mine?’, and ‘can I just have chips?’
‘If you are going to be pedantic, I won’t bother!’ said she, and she didn’t.
Pete Gray had told us early in the day, at our six am start, that he was not happy missing out on actually being in the protest. I assumed he was on bail or something. Pete had a whole feast lovingly arranged for when we got out, late in the day. He had a table set up on the path right outside the police station with a huge selection of breads and dips!
There is often this intense appreciation of each other as individuals who have bothered to step off the well-trodden path and put ourselves on the line in order to try and wake the population up. Wake up to the dangers of evaporating our coal-mines into our atmosphere. Our grandchildren’s only atmosphere.
Bob Brown said at Ben’s funeral in Newcastle in 2009, ‘He was one of the VERY FEW WHO ACTUALLY GET IT!’
Before that I tried to get arrested in the same vicinity as Ben was trying to not get arrested. I walked into the exclusion zone of the Weld Forest in Tassie earlier in 2007. Ben and other direct action activists were climbing through the bush secretly, so that the police could not grab them and put them out of action, while lots of us were walking on the easier logging road. It was still seven kilometres each way, deliberately in the exclusion zone. Including young women with prams. On that rough logging road. There was a public and media blackout zone so the logging company could take out more old-growth forest. I had meant to get arrested but they did not arrest any of us that day.
I have written about meeting some of the Tasmanian forests through Ben’s inviting my daughter and me down there in my novel based on truth: Darwin’s Dilemma: the damage done and the battle for the forests.
In November 2008 we trespassed on Bayswater power station near Muswellbrook.
It was a big drive. I took my car. Jude sat next to me. Jonathan in the back said something about the despair of having all this environmental catastrophe on us. And I said, No! It was ever thus! Before we knew all this. It is the existential angst! The anguish of being conscious beings in animal bodies. I certainly felt it as a young person very keenly, extremely keenly, reading Albert Camus. Fromm was the antidote, The Art of Loving shared amongst those of us who most needed it. And then later Island by Aldous Huxley. The impetus for my own utopian novel, Life in Time. Jude later said that she enjoyed that conversation between Jonathan and me.
Graeme Dunstan was there in his very obvious van. It had a loudspeaker on it! I knew him vaguely as one of the organisers of the Nimbin Aquarius Festival in 1973: the ‘Survival Festival’. I went over ten days early from my banana shed in Mullumbimby to help with the setting up of the festival. Graeme made us a cup of tea out the back of his van after the Bayswater escapade.
I felt again the rush of fear and excitement as we breached the wire fence. And then we run, together. Get in before they stop us! As usual I giggle with the excitement and the unusual effort and wonder if I will keep up. Later, further in, the black mountains of coal are huge and the coal slips away from under my feet which makes me giggle more.
Later we covered for the couple of photographers who needed to get out and get the film out.
One of the workers said he thought we were doing the right thing.
When the police were there and we were reduced to lots of standing around on top of a hill, one of the young protesters said that he thought it was like the anti-Vietnam protesters, everyone thought they were wrong at first and then they were proved right. He seemed a bit thrilled when I told him that I had been part of that too when I was about his age. I was even voted on to the organising committee of the NSW Vietnam Moratorium when I was 24.
And the only time I have been arrested with my daughter was in 2009, in the entrance to Parliament House Canberra, with Rising Tide and people from other states. About 200 of us were arrested when we gathered to try to encourage Kevin Rudd to go for reasonable targets at Copenhagen. My daughter had been radicalised when we spent the night in the Styx Forest as guests of Ben and his small band.
Mind you, I also feel very alive when I swim in the sea, or walk in the bush, and surprisingly when I walk, or catch public transport, in the rain. It takes me back to being a kid, when we all walked or caught buses or trains a whole lot more. A bit of discomfort (not too much thanks!) activates the senses. As does the witnessing of human interactions when we are out in the public space, as opposed to sealed, de-humidified and homogenised, in our cars.
How much more do we then feel enlivened if we meet with others of similar values and try to push for environmental sustainability, or for social justice? And get out there in it?
As Pete Gray signed off on one of his emails to a group of us fellow protesters,
‘Pleasure makin’ trouble with you!’