Climate Change Activism on Parade
a report of the Helensburgh Climate Camp
9-11 October 2009
Helensburgh is a coal mining village in Dharawal country north of Wollongong; its coal mine, Metropolitan Colliery, is the oldest operating mine in Australia.
Once the property of the people of NSW, the coal mine is now owned by Peabody Energy, a US corporate coal mining giant, and a massive expansion of the mine is underway; river wrecking, long-wall mining under the Woronoa dam and its catchment, the most reliable source of Sydney's water supply.
The expansion will lift mine output from 2 million tonnes per year to 5.2 Mt pa and Peabody, infamous in West Virginia for the destruction of hundreds of kilometers of waterways by its practice of mountain top mining, promises world's best practice ... and of course, jobs. Ho hum.
On the weekend of 9-11 October some 200 activists of the NSW climate change movement came to town to camp in the sports grounds. On Sunday about 500 paraded through the village to blockade the mine and say: the end, for coal, is nigh. It was the first ever major climate change / environmental justice protest in the southern coalfields of NSW.
Since the first Oz Climate Camp in Newcastle in June 2007 climate camps have proliferated nationally and internationally as the distinctive form of climate change activism in these times. Movement building events, they combine the camaraderie of a camp with information exchange, networking between activists and activist groups, practical lessons in direct democracy and direct action and an opportunity to get media attention.
The Helensburgh Climate Camp was organised by a loose affiliation of web connected activists calling themselves the Climate Action Network, which came out of the Climate Action Summit in Canberra last February. It brings together folk from the NSW Greens, Friends of the Earth, Rivers SOS, Socialist Alliance, Greenpeace (though not overtly), Resistance, the Australian Student Environment Movement (ASEN), Newcastle Rising Tide and various Climate Action Groups (CAGs) of which Newtowners dressed in blue were the most visible.
Peacebus.com was also visible at Helensburgh with flags, lanterns and banners but this report is a view from an old man at the margins who took no part in any meetings or talk sessions. Rather I gazed in wonder and admiration at the determination, intelligence and competence of the generation of young (20-30 somethings) people who are the engines of climate change activism in these times.
If there is to be a tomorrow, from these fine young people will come the leaders of tomorrow, i reckon, and they are consciously cultivating skillfulness in organising events which are decentralised, unauthoratarian, grassroots, inclusive, respectful and consensus based. Anarchism at work.
From practice at successive climate camps they learn how to work together and grow in confidence. At Helensburgh participants were urged to link up in independent and self sufficient groups called "neighborhoods" which were in turn linked up by meetings of "Spokespersons Councils".
The camp site was a shabby football field built from leveled coal tailings, bleak, wet, cold and wind swept. Setting up was a contest between will and weather. Gale force winds in the evening, blew down all the marquees that had been erected on the first set up day. Hostile climate in a hostile town.
But how well and in what good spirits the weather was weathered and the hostility of the coal dependent villagers met with kindness, respect and an invitation to dialogue about what a just transition from coal might mean.
In the lead up organisers made a big effort in this regard by letter-boxing the town, conducting a regular information stall in the shopping centre and presenting a public meeting. Wollongong media followed the story closely and remarkably fairly and, thanks to all this pre-publicity, Helensburghers turned out in mass to witness the parade and the mine blockade.
The parade was colourful with flags and banners, joyful with improvised music (trumpet and plastic container percussion) and confident with chants: "What do we want? Green jobs! Where do we want them? Helensburgh!"
Some Helensburgh folk expressed their anger with shouted abuse and some threw eggs - Peacebus.com as Tail-end Charlie copped some splattering. But the overall the mood was one of curiosity. Something was happening, indeed history was being made, in the streets and Helensburgh was in the news.
But a contest at the mine gates was not to be. Like the Newcastle Harbour Authority in the face of people's flotilla blockade of coal ships last March, Metropolitan decided that voluntarily closing for the day was less challenging than being forced closed by climate change activists.
Some activists responded with actions elsewhere: a banner drop on the wall of the Woronoa Dam and a lock-on and banner-drop at another operating Illawarra colliery, the BHP-Billiton Dendrobium mine near Port Kembla which is also undergoing a massive expansion. Four young people were arrested for this, charged and swiftly released. How wonderfully nonchalant they were about getting arrested. And how unfazed the cops!
Some 150 cops were rostered for the event Unlike the policing of the Newcastle Climate Camp with its pushy horses and rough handling, Wollongong cops were restrained and polite; helpful even - it was the cops who had secured the use of the football ground as a camp site. Climate camps it seems are learning experience for cops too.
Thus at the gates of Metropolitan, the promised blockade became ritualistic civil disobediance. Temporary security fencing and police lines defined the protest ground and those who felt so inclined went and sat as a mob on the road up against cop boots. Some nine people chose to be arrested there, some pressing forward of the line, others skirting and invading from the flanks. No aggro either way and the arrestees were quickly processed and released without bale or restrictive bail conditions.
We paraders gathered in a pocket park adjacent to the mine gate where a PA on a flat top ute served as a improvised stage and brilliantly coloured banners rigged against it served as a backdrop. A picnic in the park and Helensburgh residents gathered about to watch the show and hear the speeches and the music.
Julie Sheppard of Rivers SOS spoke strongly and so too Greens MLC, Lee Rhiannon - "Coal is a dying industry," she said. But the most interesting moment at the mike was when it was opened to dialogue and Paul Smith, Helensburgher, retired miner and grandfather was allowed the mike to express dissent.
A brave act and other Helensburghers moved closer to support him. Paul reckoned the protest invasive and inappropriate. It ought to be elsewhere, he said, Macquarie Street or Canberra say. "We have a democratic system and you ought to be using".
Seemed to me that Paul Smith was talking like an old man grumpy because his sleep in front of the tv had been interrupted by the knocking of a neighbour. The neighbour was there to tell him that his house was on fire.
The PR mills of the coal lobby were quick to respond with spin. Once Climate Camp protests were off the front page of the Illawarra Mercury, the next headline was: "Green Coal!" in big font and green ink too.
It was story about BHP Billiton's expansion of the Dendrobium mine from 7.5 to 10.5 Mt pa and the decision to forgo about 70 million tonnes of mainly coking coal by not long-wall mine directly under the Nepean, Cataract, Georges and Woronora rivers ... just very close and all around. A concession none the less.
Democracy at work: castles in the sky, lies on the ground and under it too. You can go back to sleep again, Mr Smith.
27 October 2009
The text above was first drafted as a report for the November edition of the Nimbin Good Times. What else to say about Helensburgh Climate Camp 2009?
That arriving in the Camp was like being welcomed back into an extended family that gathers regularly for celebrations at different parts of the country - the activist family. Many the familiar face, many the warm embrace from young ones, old ones and children met at protest actions in past years.
Good medicine it is, let me tell you, for the heart of an old man when he hears his name called loud and he turns to see a young man running joyfully towards, arms open for embrace. It was , Jonathon Moylan, whom i had met in Newcastle and been impressed by his intelligence and his Quaker moral clarity and commitment.
Jonathon's name had appeared on the organising elist in association with the drafting media releases, these from the comfort of shelter. Now on site his face was pink from the exposure to the cold winds and his brain somewhat addled by the buffeting and lack of sleep. Next day he came down with a fever, lay limp in the Chai Tent, receipient of much tender care.
As already said the set up of the camp had been a climate challenge and the Rising Tide crew, who had been at the front line, came to me not only with warm greetings but also with hair raising tales of marquees billowing and guyropes with steel posts attached lashing in the gale.
"I felt like telling the climate to go get fucked," said Steve Phillips quixotically.
The next night brought a different challenge: local lads harassed the camp, riding over tents on their bikes i was told. There was no organised security and the organisers were loath to call the cops. It was soon sorted out and a night watch created, thanks to the interventions of the likes of Scotty and our friends from the Tent Embassy, who have dealt with such threats before.
Many the hug and warm greeting from these friends: Uncle Dootch, Darren Bloomfield, Winiata and Robert Corowa. Being Dharawal country Dootch was the elder who did the welcoming to country; he welcomed me with a big hug and grinning admiration for the mural Happy Wheels was bearing at the time: "Rudd: proCoal, proWar, proNuke. Let the dead dance!"
Darren Bloomfield, who for many seasons was the resident host at the Embassy and who was the leader of the walk that went from Botany Bay to the Embassy last February, greeted me warmly and shared his news. No longer at the Embassy his time there seems to have transformed him into an itinerant sage with the gift of the gab.
Maybe its the rawness of the pain he carries, but I loved the way he spoke whenever he took the mike; the inclusiveness and the down to Earth good sense of what he had say.
Winiata is another former long time host at the Tent Embassy and he had come from Canberra bearing a big 4 m x 3 m koori flag. I love his big and gentle spirit. He jibed about my outrageous reputation.
"Many are those who have been ordered off and if they ever came together in one place they would be a big party of extraordinary people," he said. "But no one else but you has been ordered off, invited to return and ordered off again all in the space of one week."
I was pleased to offer him a pipe and having toked he took up his guitar, set himself up under the awning and began to sing his, to me very familiar and welcome, repertoire as his contribition to Camp morale, the aural equivalent of my efforts with the visuals.
The camp had a "Sovereignty Tent" allocated for the shelter and comfort of kooris elders and visitors. Winiata together with Robert Corowa aka Spooki of Lismore, their guitars and song, made it a place of entertainment through out the Camp.
Amongst the koori visitors to the camp were two prominent spokesperson from the opposition to Northern Territory intervention: Harry Nelson, a senior Warlpiri elder from Yuendumu community and Richard Downs, spokesman for the Ampilatwatja walk off protest. They were on a national tour being hosted by the Stop the NT Intervention Collective, Paddy Gibson their host. In solidarity they had called in.
I had met Harry Nelson at the Tent Embassy in January when he was in Canberra for the Stop the Intervention Rally. He greeted me by holding my hand gently, introducing me to Richard and wishing me well, like we were long time gray head brothers.
The wind was relentless and the rain, though light, was persistent and icy cold. Some of the young women i noticed had come unprepared for such weather and their bare legs, arms, faces and open necks were pink with exposure. On meeting Tessa, the defacto site manager, clip board in hand, my first impulse was to give her a pair of gloves.
Likewise my companion and apprentice lantern and flag person, Marie Jack, a slender framed grandma who had come down from the tropical north coast of NSW for the action, was rattled by the exposure and made needy for shelter, warm food and drink.
The only shelter, if one discounts the draughty marquees, was the awning of the sportsfield amenity block which had its back to the prevailing wind and here the registration desk was set up and also the community kitchen. With all the baggage, equipment, supplies and shivering people gathered there, it looked like a Bosnian refugee camp.
Using a couple of square meters of that shelter, Marie and i set about rigging some flags. For want of any direction i tied them to the low fence between the field and soon we had a line of flapping flags, an exaltation of colour, and the Camp looked less desolate for them.
My age mate, Allan Roberts, hero of the No Rally in the Valley, also gave me a hand. 'Twas the first time i had seen Allan since that action and he was still processing it, telling me and not telling me because of arrest fears, about the aftermath; very confusing for him and me. I was glad to be over it and far away.
A friend had offered accommodation in his granny flat of his house in Corrimal, a Wollongong suburb about 30 km south and i took Marie there, driving via the Stanwell Park and the spectacular coastline made all the more spectacular by the magnificent surf stirred up by the gale.
Marie and I were to do this drive each day of Climate Camp, an enchantment that caused us to be absentees till midday and after. What I missed not being a full time camper, i gained in comfort keeping Marie warm in Corrimal.
On Saturday we returned with a bunch of lantern frames which i had prepared in the days before and we set about papering them in the so called arts tent. The plan was to create some lantern enchantment in the camp that night similar to the Newcastle Climate camp June of 2008.
We were joined in the task by Robert Corowa's son, Jack Brady Corowa, a lively 11 year old. It was the first time I had met Jack though i had known of his birth. He told me his mother was an artist and then, when i inquired further, he revealed sometimes an artist and many times in mental institutions.
Like his father there is a rebel in Jack (he insisted on going about bare footed in the cold and wet) and also a sharp wit and boundless enthusiasm. Jack returned in the afternoon to help rig and light the lanterns and a task he made theatrical by inventing us as super heros, Lantern Man and Light Boy, "bearers of light, dispellers of darkness!"
The clear sky that allowed us to rig the lanterns did not last; grey clouds returned and with darkness came more rain. So we chose to hang lanterns in whatever tents and marquees we could, entertaining anyone and everyone we met with our superhero lines; Jack bubbling with excitement and joy.
Spooki and Jack had lived most of his life apart and the joyful interaction they had at the Camp would, I knew, be a treasured and bonding memory for both.
Before departing the Camp, Spooki thanked me for my engagement with Jack aka Light Boy. "Incandescent boy," I dubbed him and Spooki laughed.
The peak moment of Helensburgh Climate Camp for me was at the end of the parade. Unlike the Newcastle Climate Camp parade, the carrying of my 4.2 m poles in the parade was uncontested. Well done, police liaison.
As I understood it, the flags and poles were okay in the parade but they were somehow supposed to disappear when they got to the police lines at the mine gate. Just how they would disappear i wasn't told but on the basis of this i put Peacebus.com with its mural and its PA in the parade at the tail end to be on hand to bring in the poles.
The flags and tall banners gave the parade height, colour and an appearance of carnival. I was surprised to see how many Helensburghers had turned out to watch it.
The parade strung out so that at the end none of the trumpet, percussion and chanting could be heard. I noticed that the crowd was somewhat sullen and some parts of it down right hostile. Indeed as an obvious target, Peacebus.com took some direct hits from flying eggs.
Too good an opportunity to miss, I jumped out turned the speakers to face forward and aft, cranked up the Peacebus.com PA and addressed the crowd as I rolled down the road to the mine.
"Why are we here?" is how i began and in a calm and measured voice i spoke of the necessity of protest.
Will Saunders, renowned for painting No War on the Sydney Opera House, was in the centre of the parade and he later told me that as he struggled to identify the voice on the PA, that calm voice of reason in such improbable circumstance, a surreal episode from the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy came to mind. After the parade, he guffawed and apologised simultaneously as he recalled that in the story the voice was that of an old hippie who combined no optimal grip of reality with a peculiar vocal talent for inducing trust and calm whatever the threat.
Whatever it worked and other young people came to me after less ambivalent in their gratitude and praise. Also true is that my soothing tonsils got distracted.
A troop of cops followed behind Peacebus.com and i chose to use the opportunity of this captive audience to say something gratuitous about police corruption in NSW. There is logic in this i claim: when challenged about the endemic corruption of their institution, cops are less likely to get righteous and punishing.
Maybe it was that old hippie again because what I had to say was a litany learned from my times in Nimbin organising resistance to the US Drug War for the HEMP Embassy. But the Drug War was far from peoples' concerns that day and my drift into irrelevance soon brought forth angry shouts from the crowd.
Imagine my joy and relief when I saw Steve Phillips of Newcastle Rising Tide walking back through the parade towards me. "I trust you have come to spruik," said I and he climbed into the passengers seat and took up the mike forthwith.
Steve, a seasoned climate change activist, had all the facts and figures of climate change at his command and a cofidence born of many a media call and many a protest crowd address. This day he was truly inspired and the crowd listened. When we got to the mine gate he got out of the cabin and finished his oratory on his feet and to appreciative applause.
Open mike, I announced, and another climate change activist seized the moment to address the Helensburghers. Another followed to lead some chanting. The passion and dialogue of this spontaneous SpeakOut made it one the magic moments of the day.
My impulse was to extend it and invite Helenburghers to use the mike. But out of respect for the organisers whom i knew would have negotiated and scheduled mike use to the minute and only for the approved, i demurred and let in wind down.
The approved speakers podium and PA had been set up on the back of a ute parked at the kerb of the public reserve we had occupied by the mine gate. The bearers of the tall Rising Tide "Stop Coal Exports" banner rigged it as a backdrop to the stage and my apprentice, Marie, without any direction from me, put the long "Cut Carbon" banner across the front. All ad hoc yet they made the stage look great.
With the help of my friends i collected the flags that had been carried in the parade and tied them onto whatever uprights were available including the temporary security fencing near the mine gate. All uncontested by the cops.
The flag and banner rig had the effect of transforming the otherwise nondescript park into a carnival ground and it was accomplished one flag at a time with such subtly and apparent skill, that curiosity overwhelmed the hostility in the crowd. We looked as if we knew what we were doing.
I also put out the Happy Wheels folding table and chairs and sat back to listen to the speeches and the music from the stage. One of the chairs was soon occupied by a man who introduced himself to me and and the various Peacebus friends who came by, as Russell. After an hour or so, he revealed that he was a Helensburgh resident who had happened upon our parade while shopping and followed it in curiosity.
He loved what he saw and he loved what he heard.
"This is a big day for Helensburgh," he observed before he departed. "We have not had events like this before. Entertainment and dialogue. Beauty!"
In the lead up I had proposed painting a specific banner for the event. My daughter Softly Dunstan had come up with a design and i had sewn up the borders and was about to start marking out and painting when i was discouraged by a short but untimely bout of 'flu.
Passing through Newcastle on my way south I had loaded up the Rising Tide flags and banners which I has made up and these i arrayed at the Camp and in the parade as promised. They looked great but, being so visually strong, they gazzumphed all other art and made the event look like a Newcastle Rising Tide production, which it was not.
At the Camp I learned that there had been a call to theme it blue, the symbolic color of water. When the parade began out front was a stretch of blank and not very interesting, blue drill cotton; folk from the Newtown Climate Action Group also dressed up splendidly in blue parading together as if they were an entry in the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras. But I didn't hear about this artful call and it seemed that few had.
Very likely there will be more Climate Camps and I came away dreaming of ways to enhance their visuals both in terms of dressing the camp itself and also the assoicated parades and protests.
A generic climate action flag would be good, a distinctive design in blue - this my project for the next Climate Camp.
Best we can.
For the Earth.
To the dust!
19 November 2009