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Suburban Lock On

May 24, 2012

It’s 9am on a Saturday morning and we’re talking lock on devices. The trick says Jo is to have plenty of metal and make it impossible for the police to drill through. She shows a picture of a long narrow metal tube just wide enough for an arm and explains how there’s a bar in the middle to hold on to – or choose to lock off.

The day before two 60-something Broome grandmothers locked on for seven-and-a-half hours in a van concreted to the main road to James Price Point. They wanted to disrupt Woodside’s work at its proposed gas hub and highlight the threats of industrialisation to the Kimberley. It was only when police removed the wheel nuts on the tyres and threatened to topple the van that they locked off.

There’s twenty of us from community action group Stop Coal Seam Gas Sydney who have turned out for this workshop on non violent direct action (NVDA) today. For the past 18 months we and thousands of others have been campaigning against proposed coal seam gas (CSG) mining four kilometres from the CBD and 400m from people’s homes. We’ve been rallying, leafleting, writing submissions and engaging with elected politicians to show our opposition. More than 25,000 people in NSW signed a petition against Coal Seam Gas mining. More than 3000 marched 2km down King St last September. But what if all this fails and the rigs finally roll in?

The physical power of the body has always been used in protest, most often as a bulk presence in street marches and rallys where people are counted as one of a crowd. But with NVDA anonymity goes out the window, it’s you, your individual confrontation that is the action. Ghandi taught NVDA as Satyagraha or truth force and it has been used as a dramatic moment to force the reckoning on many social justice and human rights campaigns. In NSW and Queensland recently it’s become a significant part of the campaign against coal seam gas as people put their bodies on the line to halt the invasion of mining equipment.

For nearly three weeks last October and November a group of Liverpool Plains farmers blockaded a farm at Spring Ridge to stop mining company Santos getting into its coal seam gas exploration site. In December when Gloucester farmers in the Hunter Valley set up another blockade against AGL they described it as “doing a Spring Ridge”. In January this year there were15 arrests at Kerry in Southern Queensland during a 10-day blockade to stop Arrow Energy drilling for coal seam gas in the Scenic Rim.

The people at today’s meeting is a typical picture of those forming what is Australia’s largest ever grass roots movement. Mostly women, mostly over forty, mostly galvanised into action by the fear for future generations, our children’s children if we don’t fight to protect our water, land, environment now.

Aiden Ricketts has been leading NVDA workshops in regional Australia for the past six months. “This is arguably the most significant shift in non-violent resistance tactics in Australia since the earliest environmental blockades in the 1970s. Farmers have already shown their preparedness to be arrested at ‘greenie’ style blockades in southern Queensland and this new strategy will involve even more widespread resistance to mining activity,” he says.

Unlike a rally or a march most people think of police and arrest when there’s talk of direct action. Just what are the consequences and how likely is it to be arrested? An enormous amount of pre-planning goes into a direct action, Sally the legal head present today tells us. When Rosa Parks refused to get out of her seat on that bus in Alabama it wasn’t a random event but planned for maximum media, legal and social impact. When the police came to escort her, the cameras, media, communications, messaging were there.

We learn the planning team is usually called an ‘affinity’ group and should have clear rules. In Rising Tide for example these are no shouting and no running. People choose early on if they are going to be an ‘arrestable’ or ‘non-arrestable’. Support people are vital, particular if someone is arrested. This could be watering plants or feeding pets, says Sally. I immediately thought of how my daughter’s violin practice would become a non-event if I was out of the picture for too long. We all have our concerns. I’ve a bad back, says one mother so I can’t sit for a long time.

Tripods or ‘pole seats’ are another way of blocking roads and creating a spectacle. D-lock were another good way to lock on though if you threw away the key it could be tricky and it might be uncomfortable if the police tried to saw or burn through. But as well as spectacle, non-violent direct action is also about disruption and walking onto a mining site can also have a huge impact because of OH&S rules and regulations.

One of my daughters loves a man in uniform but an NVDA is not the best time to engage with them. There’s lots to learn. If a police asks “who’s in charge here?”, shrug and walk away. If they say “nice day” ditto. You only have to give your name and a phone number if you’re under arrest – except if you’re in a car and then there’s no option. Trespass is a common charge as is damage to property if you cut a fence to get onto private land. Don’t be arrested for swearing or hindering as it’ll undermine your opportunity in court to talk to your cause.

Jo who has spent time on blockades at James Price Point gives more tips. “Make sure you video using analogue film.” she says. “This way they (the police) can’t say it’s been ‘digitally’ altered and dismiss it as evidence.” She tells of walking back and forth across the road to disrupt traffic going to James Price Point, of covering all her clothes in dress-ups and sprinting to a tent to quickly disrobe before the police arrived.

Non violent direct action forces government and its infrastructure to confront the people who it decision making directly impacts.

But it’s also about more than that. It’s opening up the decision to public scrutiny for as philosopher Jaana Parviainen says, even when witnesses disagree with protesters’ positions, protests frequently force them to reconsider their own.

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