In the lead up to the Adani rally and convoy on April 21, The Echo profiles some of the activists behind the effort to stop the largest coal mine on the planet being built.
Aidan Ricketts is lecturer with the School of Law and Justice at the Southern Cross University and was a key activist in the CSG free Bentley protest movement.
What got you started with activism?
I grew up in Bjelke-Petersen’s QLD, so I have experienced a rigged electoral system and an authoritarian police state from an early age. Many NSW people have never understood that QLDers didn’t re-elect Joh – only 37 per cent ever did. Brisbane was a city under occupation by its own police force in the 1980s and it wasn’t safe for young people to be in public unless they looked and behaved ultra-conservatively. I was there at the punk gigs with the threat of the task force attacking, I had friends arrested simply trying to walk to the Clash gig at Cloudland Ballroom, (luckily I got through). Cloudland Ballroom was illegally demolished some time after.
The youth, the subcultures and the dissidents of Brisbane were not actually enjoying our violent suppression. I was arrested in about 1984 shortly after I finished my law degree because I stood at a rally on the stairs of parliament at 21 years of age and addressed the crowd, explaining in purely legal terms how the government of QLD was totalitarian. Of course I was arrested as I walked off, that kind of proved I was right. In reality, I was arrested because they didn’t have a special branch file on me, they hadn’t seen me before.
I moved on to become involved in the Daintree campaign after the road had been forced through. People were in grief about the road but I had not seen it before the road, so I had fresh eyes and could see how much there was left to save up there, but it was dangerous, to be young and politically active. I was personally threatened by an undercover police officer at Cape Tribulation, I am not making this stuff up. I was told “we are watching you, one step out of line and you’re in trouble”. I eventually took refuge in Northern NSW for my own safety, and somehow despite my love of Far North Qld, ended up becoming part of the community here.
I joined the North East Forest Alliance old growth forest campaigns from 1991 onwards. The first time myself and a number of other QLD political refugees met the NSW police at a blockade we couldn’t believe it. It was like the people who come to tell you that the real police will arrive if you don’t stop what you’re doing, it wasn’t even scary to us. Things have changed a bit, the riot squad at Glenugie in 2012, well NSW has learned a lot about being a police state since the 1990s.
What led you to write The Activist Handbook
After the success of the North East Forest Alliance campaigns in the 1990s and early 2000s, I realised I had learned an enormous amount. I was freshly out of an incredibly hard fought battle waged in the forests, in the courts and in the media for well over a decade and we had won a decisive victory for the old growth. I had a moment to ponder what the best thing I could do for activism might be. If I joined another campaign it would only be one campaign. I was already working as a law lecturer, so being an educator and an activist, I decided to go for activist education, so I might help thousands of people to wage nonviolence. I set up a subject at Southern Cross University Law School teaching about activism, it still runs to this day, it’s called “Public Interest Advocacy” and its runs for a week every second summer school. I wrote the study guide for that and started doing activism consultancies for groups in various places. There was a big demand for training materials, I made a CD Rom but there was no platform to market it so eventually decided to write a book. Australian publishers doubted it would sell, but the UK publisher Zed Books jumped at the idea. Ironically I have sold the vast majority of the books in Australia, (and quite a few in the Arab spring) so the OZ publishers made the wrong call. The Activists Handbook was released fortuitously at exactly the time that the coal and gas campaigns by Lock the Gate were taking off around the country so suddenly there were many new activists skilling up and the book hit the spot to meet their needs.
Presumably you will be again taking a lead role in training activists in nonviolent protests at Adani like you did with Bentley?
Yes. In the lead up to Bentley I was active in the formative stages of Gasfield Free Northern Rivers (GFNR), with the most inspired and intelligent group of fellow activists I have known. The whole GFNR experience was another giant learning curve for me and everyone. I learned new conceptual frameworks based on complexity theory for promoting the emergence of social movement groups. Annie Kia was a major influence on me and the wider group. The complex adaptive social movement that emerged around Bentley was truly of historic significance. It was an incredibly powerful uprising of the overwhelming majority of the region, together our region fought off the fossil fuel industry, the NSW government and stared down the operational plan to send in 800 riot police. We won.
What are those principles, and have you developed any new techniques since Bentley?
Nonviolence is the number one key principle. Without this, in a country like Australia, you will lose mainstream support instantly and provide a justification for increased repressive force by security forces. Nonviolent direct action is a key tenet of democracy, and to put it most simply, violence itself is undemocratic.
Bentley taught us so much about mobilising a grass roots social movement from below, about setting up the boundary conditions to allow it to emerge and to have maximum local autonomy, but to also stay focused and inclusive. We learned more about both leadership and organisation and how these can be very flexible, even fluid at times provided the right shared understandings are in place. We also learned a lot in our interactions with regional police about maintaining the best relations possible and keeping on communicating.
Most of all we learned not to be too ideological about how your movement is structured, but to let it develop the structures that work for it, in all the different domains in which it operates. It’s not about proving that you are the most democratic, the most leaderless or even the most horizontal, it’s about having the wisdom and intuition to experiment with structure and leadership to maximise the agency and energy of the emerging movement, but enough discipline and focus in the political and media campaign to drive home the outcome.
Why support the Adani convoy?
It’s a no-brainer. At this time in the late Anthropocene we are in an extinction epidemic, we are facing a dangerous climate emergency and the time for real action was a decade ago, yet our corporate dominated major political parties can’t bring themselves to stop building new coal mines. Adani isn’t the only one either, NSW is planning just as a big an expansion but over several projects. It is climate crime. Adani is however the one that really projects the madness of the coal huggers in our parliaments onto the biggest global screen possible. The underground water, the reef and the atmosphere all threatened by the most dodgy project imaginable. I have a history in North Qld and Far North Qld, and even the economic damage that this mine will cause far outweighs a few mine construction jobs in the short term, let alone the sheer idiocy of the environmental impacts. Bob Brown is national treasure. He has lived a lifetime of service to patient, focussed direct action and political action in a world that is scarcely listening and yet he never gives up. Anyone with the time and mobility to join the convoy should do so. Activism is always the best experience in your life and in this time in the Anthropocene, the most worthwhile thing we can do.