Activist and SCU law lecturer Aidan Ricketts says the riot police at the recent Glenugie protest used an unusual law to move protesters . Photo Eve Jeffery
Since the state Liberal/National government’s push to expand coal-seam gas (CSG) across the state, residents of all political persuasions are uniting against the threat of this unnecessary environmental destruction.
While cynics might claim to be CSG fatigued, there is little doubt a network of wells and toxic ponds spread across suburban, agricultural and forested areas is ludicrous, given clean energy availability.
And yet the struggle continues; last week a second blockade against drilling near Kyogle was established – Glenugie is ongoing – while Broken Head Road residents joined countless other towns and streets and declared themselves CSG free.
But what makes citizen activism tick?
A new breed of educated, intelligent and non-violent CSG-free dissident is emerging, as exemplified by author and SCU law lecturer Aidan Ricketts.
Though he’s been on the frontline since 1984 protecting our nation’s shared environmental heritage, in more recent times he’s been educating those wishing to be a more effective activist while also mediating with law enforcers at protests.
He was also a co-ordinator of the North East Forest Alliance (www.nefa.org.au) from 1991 to 2001, and last year published The Activists Handbook: A Step By Step Guide to Participatory Democracy, which is distributed internationally.
‘I see the explosion of CSG-free campaigning as an immune response to a cancerous growth,’ he told Echonetdaily.
Faced with a failure by our political institutions to protect us from mining, Ricketts says communities are facing the reality that the mining industry runs our parliaments.
‘This is a very big moment in the history of democracy for Australia. I have begun to advocate for a statewide referendum on CSG and I think, like the Lismore poll, a return to democratic principles is the only way to resolve this conflict.’
Repercussions for the current government, and especially the National Party, are likely he says.
Breakdown in the democratic process
‘Communities have expected that a new and high-risk industry would not be imposed on a region when 85 per cent of the residents oppose it.
‘Yet instead of slowing down, doing the science or consulting, we have the NSW government trying to impose this dangerous new industrialisation on the community by force.
‘The social movement is committed to non-violence at the deepest level, but the shock waves of trauma that go through a community when they see government using riot troops to smash legitimate community protest will have unpredictable consequences.
‘The NSW government is playing a very dangerous game in turning the riot squad against its own population, and against a non-violent social movement.’
He describes generally how non-violent protests are co-ordinated. ‘You tend to have a few people in blockade installations; that’s people locked to machinery or up in tripods. In our speak, we say those people are in “arrestable situations”, and they choose to be there.
‘If I am a police liaison rep, my role would be to say to police: “We understand that these people are in arrestable situations, but the group want to know where we can stand and observe the protest without risk of being arrested”.
‘In most situations the commanding officer tells the group where to stand while the police go about unlocking the blockade devices.’
But that all changed at the Glenugie blockade, near Grafton, where 18 people were arrested in a major action by imported riot squad police last week. Ricketts says there were no arrests for disobeying instructions until the riot police tried to frog-march 200 people down the road and away from their cars, belongings and the protest site itself.
‘The riot squad kept moving the protesters from where they were told to be, and moving the police line. That didn’t lead to any arrests. But then they pulled out this quite unusual power – which we checked and they do technically have – and they closed a whole section of road for a temporary purpose.
‘It’s used mainly for when there are road accidents. I’ve been doing this for years and have never seen this done before. As you can imagine, police shunting 200 people down the road against their will led to some arrests. The crowd did very well; we have our own anxiety about how well we can train crowds to be non-violent, especially under pressure.
‘Their task is to passively resist as much as possible, while appearing to comply. As long as we are complying – albeit slowly – we are not arrestable.
‘But then they started pushing people in the back… Interestingly the ones who were getting most stroppy were the older ladies who were offended at being treated so roughly.
‘The average age of those arrested was about 55, which is very much about this movement; it comprises a lot of older people because it is about belonging.’
He says the crowd posed no threat or hindrance to the drilling trucks arriving. ‘It was totally unnecessary to gain access for the trucks as the crowd were already complying with instructions. Despite all of that, relations with the riot police are pretty good. We were getting along well with around about two-thirds of them. But a small portion of them wanted to crack heads, and unfortunately if a policeman decides to grab someone for an arrest, there’s a code of support.
‘So a few people were innocent victims of some over-zealous police officers.
‘It appeared that the riot squad and local command had a strange power struggle going on too. It was unclear what the Grafton inspector was in control of, as was the case for the riot squad. I think there is quite a strong reluctance of the local command to engage because they know that it’s around 87 per cent of the local population who are opposed. It was inevitable that the state government would have to bring up the riot squad.’
As is the case with any successful public-relations message, it needs to be clear and concise.
‘The message at Glenugie was, “After a 48-day blockade and a drill rig tied up for a month, it takes riot police to break a peaceful protest. This is what it takes to bring one drill rig in. A week after the riot police leave Glenugie, residents are still at the blockade site while a second blockade has been established near Kyogle.
‘“The government cannot beat such a broad-based movement with a symbolic show of force.”’