Let’s make two assumptions.
First, you really, really believe that 5G is dangerous to our physical health, and that Telstra has really, really harmed people by the introduction of the technology to Mullumbimby.
I know that is a giant leap for many folk, but humour me.
Second, let’s assume that Telstra, and our local member, are correct that the tower fire in Mullumbimby was deliberately lit.
Is it justified?
This raises that thorny old question about when it is morally permissible to damage property in the interests of a cause – is it a breach of the principles of non-violent direct action?
Before I state my own position, it is worth reflecting on a few interrelated considerations.
Nelson Mandela helped found and was head of the military wing of the ANC, which was responsible for bombings of property and the killing of civilians.
He did not practice non-violence, and yet he is one of the most revered people of our times.
Similarly admired actions litter the activists’ archives – the Ploughshares Eight, BUGAUP, the Thatcherite miners – all involved destruction of property.
Second, most engagements for change over the last 100 years have involved property damage of some sort or other – suffragettes, environmentalism, labour activism.
Third, there are shades of grey as to what property damage is – if someone blocks a road to protest climate change there can be economic loss, costs to workers and employers. Is that property damage?
The least worst conclusion is that ‘minimum necessary damage’ to property is justifiable by activists.
So, the breaking of a lock to get into a shed and film a torturing chicken farm, or graffitiing on a public building, or a tripod over a bulldozer, or the occupation of a politician’s office are examples of this.
True, there is property damage, but it is at minimal necessary levels. Greenpeace and Sea Shepherd practice and preach this effectively. On the other hand, bombing of abortion clinics, setting fire to timber mills, and trashing shop windows cross over a line.
In my days on forest blockades, property damage beyond the very minimal necessary was shunned because of the potential for violent backlash, the alienation of moderate supporters, the risk that things would go wrong and harm people, concerns about police (over)reactions and the counterproductive responses from the general public.
And so to the assumed deliberate destruction of the 5G tower.
First, I think it really stretches the boundary of non-violence.
To take out communications for a town and hinterland in the aftermath of a catastrophic rainfall event risks serious harm or death to people.
It is not hard to think of scenarios where people’s ability to get help in an emergency was completely hampered. If property damage carries real risks to the physical wellbeing of the community, it is not non-violent at all.
Second, it has caused a classic backlash against the activists and the cause.
If I were still a magistrate, I’d be thinking prison.
Many people I know generally sympathetic to activism are about ready to strangle the next person that even mentions 5G at the dinner table.
It really has caused grief to grieving people way beyond inconvenience.
Small businesses were unable to operate, families could not connect to pick up children, broken down cars had to be abandoned (mine too) and alternate communications (including homing pigeons and a town crier) were overloaded.
Third, this was not by any means necessary or minimalist.
5G fears are not comparable to an apartheid state/totalitarian regime that disenfranchised, oppressed and shot people on the basis of the colour of their skin.
These vandals are no Mandela’s.
Australia, with all its faults, even with its corruption of political donations, failure to bridge the gaps with First Nations people, media ownership concentration and disgraceful climate change policies, has at its beating heart the rule of law, the separation of powers and a vibrant, if imperfect, democratic process.
Right next to the burnt tower is graffiti proclaiming the dangers of 5G.
Go hard with that I reckon. Maybe even climb the tower with some banners if you’ve got the guts. But burning key infrastructure crosses my tolerance level.
I’m open for discussion on all of this – it is hard territory with shades of grey and plenty of room for robust debate.
What if you really believe 5G is murder? What is necessary then? Is there a ‘reasonableness’ test?
Some of the brilliant heart-felt writing in the wake of Black Lives Matters related to looting and destruction in the USA argues that property damage is justifiable in the face of overwhelming state brutality, and structural economic and racial injustice.
There is a vision that the BLM protests without property damage would not have been taken seriously or been as effective in changing the dominant discussion. Maybe so. Perhaps I am guilty of being old and staid.
But here in downtown Mullumbimby, struggling out of the mud of the biggest (un)natural disaster of our times, looking up at the smoking remains of the tower, I reckon Gandhi should have the last word:
‘It is an old argument… in defence of terrorism. Sabotage is a form of violence. People have realised the futility of physical violence but some people apparently think that it may be successfully practised in its modified form as sabotage. The destruction of bridges, etc., by means of explosives does not touch this evil but only provokes a worse evil in the place of the one it seeks to end.’
Now, about the morals of eliminating Putin…