The truth about climate change is alarming to say the least. But I was heartened over the weekend of November 25 and 26 to hear it discussed with great clarity and nuance at the Rising Tide Rising Tide blockade of the Newcastle’s coal port.
Speakers at the blockade ranged from scientist to school striker. From Bob Brown to a coal miner-activist advocating transition jobs for his workmates. Awabakal elder Auntie Tracey shared a long-ago story about the dangerous black energy that needed to be buried and kept in the earth.
It is a scary reality in which we now find ourselves. But Rising Tide – the organisation behind the blockade – have a plan.
The plan involves mass civil disobedience. A diverse and inclusive ‘peaceful uprising’ against the coal companies. Building the number of participants until we are physically unpoliceable thus creating a crisis of democracy with the potential to free our political system from the stranglehold of the fossil fuel industry.
When my partner and I arrived on Friday we saw from our camp an enormous ship sliding past on the Hunter River. This is how coal, railed in long trains from Hunter Valley mines, is carried via the port to the river mouth out into the Pacific Ocean and across the world to be burnt at faraway power stations in China, India and elsewhere. Newcastle coal port is the largest coal port in the world. It is responsible for close to one per cent of all global emissions. One of Rising Tide’s aims is to end coal exports from Newcastle by 2030.
Thirty hour vigil
After months of negotiation with police Rising Tide have received permission for a thirty hour vigil to block the shipping channel from Saturday morning until Sunday afternoon. Someone says the cops knew the blockade would go ahead anyway, that’s why they finally agreed.
We find a spot to park our van and drag our kayak off the roof. Everything is well organised in the camping area. Helpful volunteers in hi-vis direct us to designated areas for kayaks, paddles, life-vests, all named and colour-coded. Some available for loan. Tomorrow morning we’ll carry them down to the beach for the launch of the blockade flotilla.
Non violence key
At the Welcome Tent we hear that over a thousand people have already arrived, with two thousand more expected. We are given a participants’ handbook full of info. There are sessions on non-violent direct-action training, social media, legal stuff, weaving in the ‘Yarning Space’, a kids’ program. Bands playing on the beach stage. Early morning yoga and meditation.
Later, sitting in rows of plastic seats in the Gathering Marquee we are briefed by a succession of presenters. They pass the microphone to each other to cover everything from volunteer rosters through to what to expect if arrested. The importance of nonviolence is stressed. Then we are welcomed to country with a smoking ceremony from a Worimi Elder.
In the camp area there is a coffee cart and a volunteer-run kitchen dispensing delicious vegetarian meals. After dinner I can’t resist joining a ‘Civil Disobedience Dance workshop’ run by folk in seventies paisley bellbottoms and wearing coloured wigs. Synchronised disco moves to ‘Staying Alive’. At moments this whole thing feels more like a music festival than a protest. It is a joyful gathering with a deeply serious purpose.
I have many spontaneous conversations with strangers old and young. Seems we all share an understanding that government is not going to deal with the crisis. At this eleventh hour only people-power can bring change.
Having said that, I spot several Green politicians at the blockade, including Barbara Pocock, Sue Higginson, Janet Rice, Cate Faerhrmann, and Adam Bandt. Out on the water some of them pedal a home-made green-flagged raft.
Saturday morning as I head to the beach a convoy of big black vehicles crawls through the parking area. ‘Public Order & Riot Squad’ emblazoned on them. Behind dark windows, police officers are dimly visible. I wave and smile, though in honesty I feel a clutch of fear and anger.
Which is soon forgotten when I hear the passion of the speakers on the stage. I keep tearing up. A final rousing rallying cry from Bob Brown, who is clearly elated to see the next generation now carrying the baton.
The day is grey and damp but Horseshoe Beach is a colourful spectacle with masses of people, kayaks, live music, funny costumes, Knitting Nanas, fluttering flags. There are Greenpeace vessels floating about in case any rescues are needed. Also two large semi-permanent Rising Tide pontoons festooned with banners.
At 10am the Flotilla launches. As I paddle out I remember how much I love being on the water. I also remember that the antidote to despair is action.
We cluster (‘raft up’) for photos and videos. Our vessels drift and bump into our neighbours around the tripod pontoon like friendly dodgem cars. We joke and chat and chant slogans. The Rising Tide media crew point cameras and shout directions from their tinnie. There is much well-orchestrated rattling and thumping of paddles and boisterous chanting ‘No More Coal’.
After dinner while music is pumping and people are dancing, the night flotilla vigil is launched. Volunteers roster for two hours at a time until dawn. My partner does a shift until midnight, glimpsing the full moon through flimsy clouds.
On Sunday morning we paddle out again. The sun shines, the water sparkles. On the beach there are dogs in silly costumes, kids building sandcastles, someone in a koala-suit. A band – which includes a tuba – pumps out a thumping variation of the old specials song: A Message to You Albo. While a slow single file of white-faced blood-red-robed Extinction Rebellion women weave silently through the crowd.
Those who plan to be arrested will stay on the water beyond the designated time of 4pm. Sunday when official permission expires. I feel vaguely wimpy for not volunteering, but a well-prepared cohort of over a hundred people choose to stay out in the shipping lane.
They form a small clump out in the broad river beyond the Rising Tide rafts slowly drifting with wind and tide. Police on jetskis and in large black inflatables are circling. They close in on the activists, broadcasting warnings through megaphones. On the beach we keep up the chanting, music, drumming and flag-waving.
A large grey naval-looking police vessel slices close to the protesters, dwarfing their bobbing canoes and kayaks. A whirring police helicopter circles above. Along the Horseshoe Beach waterline dozens of armed police officers take up positions like a long line of dark statues guarding the water.
The drums keep beating. The crowd chants, ‘Too many coppers, not enough justice!’ over and over, and it morphs into call-and-response melodies. On and on.
Eventually after an hour or so the protesters are charged and they allow themselves to be hauled onto the police vessels.
Later, we join the crowd on the footpath whooping through the barred fence of the yard where the arrestees – our heroes! – are being ‘processed’. All but two are released, most on bail. We watch the two getting loaded into a van. Like criminals. The doors slammed.
Back home in Mullumbimby Monday night, we feel like we’ve been away for weeks. We grab dinner at the pub, then flop wearily to watch our current binge Netflix series. But it suddenly feels kind of trite. Or irrelevant, a distraction. While our planet burns.
Will I slip back into the cosy Netflix-y domestic routine? Or am I ready to hit the road as a climate activist? Either way I definitely intend to be at Newcastle for next year’s blockade. Come!