Darren Coyne With activism fever running high on the north coast following the success of the Bentley blockade against gas mining, the public has been invited to hear legal experts discuss the role of civil disobedience in the climate change movement. Southern Cross University will today (Tuesday May 27) host a public symposium at its Lismore campus at 5pm to examine the growing trend of activists willing to break the law in order to protect the environment or change laws. SCU’s School of Law and Justice and the Griffith Climate Change Response Program are running the symposium, which will feature the documentary, Bidder 70. The film tells the story of American climate change activist Tim DeChristopher, who spent two years in jail after making $1.8 million worth of bids for oil and gas leases that he had no intention of paying for. Federal agents removed DeChristopher from the auction, but his action prompted the United States Department of the Interior to cancel many of the leases, saying they had been rushed into the auction with insufficient environmental and scientific review. DeChristopher later told the judge while being sentenced that people committed to ‘fighting for a liveable future would not be discouraged or intimated by anything that happens here today’. ‘And neither will I. I will continue to confront the system that threatens our future,’ he said. ‘Given the destruction of our democratic institutions that once gave citizens access to power, my future will likely involve civil disobedience. ‘Nothing that happens here today will change that. I don’t mean that in any sort of disrespectful way at all, but you don’t have that authority. ‘You have authority over my life, but not my principles. Those are mine alone.’ SCU educator and longtime activist Aidan Ricketts, a member of today’s panel, told Echonetdaily that there was widespread frustration in rural Australia that mining was overruling social, environmental and economic values such as sustainable agriculture. Mr Ricketts said that frustration was leading to a growing trend towards activism and a willingness to get arrested, as shown by the thousands who turned up regularly at Bentley. Meanwhile, Greens MP Jeremy Buckingham told ABC radio that police confronted with the Bentley protest had warned that people could be seriously hurt or even die if there was a major conflict. ‘That was what the police assessment of breaking the blockade meant,’ he said. ‘If they were to bring in hundreds of police, riot squad, horses – there was even talk of water cannons and the like – you had a lot of people in close proximity to heavy machinery on a roadway, casualties were foreseeable.’ Mr Ricketts disagreed. He believes the real reason the action was successful was that ‘police didn’t really have their heart in that operation’ when faced with a well-organised, non-violent protest, and that Metgasco’s business model relied on the use of police to enforce its community-contested ‘right’ to mine. ‘The situation at Bentley was there was an entire regional community opposed to gas so the role of the police became very uncomfortable,’ he said. ‘The real tipping point of a non-violent campaign is where security forces lose heart and don’t want to take part any more. We saw that with the Orange Revolution in the Ukraine, when the police looked at the crowd and said “these are my people”.’ Mr Ricketts said there was also a ‘long tradition in common law recognising conscientious objectors’, which often led to police charges against activists being dismissed’. Another panel member, Dr Nicole Rogers, said climate change activists were ‘compelling the courts and the public to consider what is meant by lawlessness’. She said they do this by ‘highlighting the contradictions and anomalies in the ways in which our current legal system supports the behaviour of those who contribute the most to climate change and criminalises the behaviour of those who seek to curb such activities’. The panel at today’s climate change symposium will feature Mr Ricketts, SCU chancellor John Dowd, Environmental Defenders Office (EDO) solicitor Sue Higginson, and Dr Nicole Rogers from the university’s School of Law and Justice. The symposium will be held at the Whitebrook Theatre from 5pm and will be chaired by professor Bee Chen Goh of SCU and Professor Brendan Mackey, the director of Griffith Climate Change Response Program.
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