Among many talents, skills and expertise they have on environment, my dear friends Rae and John Sheridan are scientists and climate activists. Last week I posted a picture and brief story about their new pup Chaos who they adopted while fighting to protect the environment in New South Wales, Australia. This protest event took place in July. Here is a short factual account by Rae Sheridan about the events that took place when Rae, John and the members of 350.org took a stance on the establishment of a coal mine in Whitehaven Coal’s Maules Creek mine site.
Above, Rae Sheridan on the scene of the protest when she got arrested.
Far right and in front, Rae and John Sheridan hold banners with members of the 350.org.
A Physical Stance Counts
by Rae Sheridan
The police road block two kilometres from camp was our first taste of being part of a ‘suspect’ group. After the road-block, we were welcomed at camp and immediately given a tour of the very considerable facilities; kitchen, information tent, campfire gathering circle, farm barn-cum meeting hall, solar recharging nook, communications unit, toilets, showers and a little further the tepee belonging to indigenous activist Muzz the owner of an impressive part dingo Mother, Dubi, and her irresistible ten 7-week-old pups.
The NSW convoy arrived as we put up our tents. A flurry of activity followed with a walk up a nearby hill led by Muzz and Dubi. From a craggy summit lookout we had a good view of the surrounding rural farms and in the glancing rays of a winter sunset we learnt of what was at stake with the clear felling of the critically endangered Grassy Whitebox woodland, and cultural heritage sites of the Gomeroi people, the traditional owners of the Leard State Forest.
There were around 200 people in camp. Before dinner we met in the barn for a basic briefing which covered some of the history of the campaign, legal aspects and an outline of the two planned actions for the next day. We decided along with about 40 others to be in the band that would seek to trespass on Whitehaven Coal’s Maules Creek mine site to disrupt the logging operations knowing that if successful we would be arrested. Others planned to blockade a mine approach road. Dinner was a buzz with folk meeting and sharing stories. There was a sense of anticipation and excitement. For many of us, this was our first foray into deliberate arrestable illegality. Further planning followed. Our band was asked to form sub groups to devolve care, making checking on each other and monitoring of the whole group easier. We choose intrepid as our foursome’s name … fitting for the most senior of the smaller groups. We put together our provisions for the next day in our back packs and set alarms for 1:30am. With a 2am start planned we realised that the moon would have set and we’d be walking in the dark.
The trip to the mine site had to be overland as the roads were policed on every approach. As our 12 kilometre route passed houses and crossed roads we had to walk in silence and without lights. Led by three local ‘scouts’ we evaporated in single file into the darkness …along tracks, across recently sewn fields, along fence lines, across creeks and finally into forest. For our subgroup of veteran bushwalkers this was an unusual variant in which a loftier purpose added to the fun. Our timing was spot on. At dawn we crossed onto the mine site and past the Whitehaven Coal signage warning of trespassing. Within minutes flickering orange lights announced the arrival of 2 ‘security’ utes. Both ‘sides’ knew their ‘rights’. The security guards could not touch us, just advise. We marched on shepherded by security fore and aft, stopping to plant eucalypt seedlings and greet the dawn with photographs of the landscape intact on one side of the road and levelled on the other. Girt by pink plastic ribbons, some isolated ‘habitat’ trees still stood erect. Their wild inhabitants had 24 hours to evacuate before their homes would also be felled.
We moved to a road junction attracting more security officers on all sides. They warned us to be careful, not to venture off the road in case we should ‘trip’. More sapling planting was accompanied by singing, a banner display and a bite to eat. Eventually three police vehicles arrived stimulating another round of photography on both ‘sides’. We were charged with trespassing, our packs examined and as two Greenpeace paragliders sailed overhead, each of us was photographed, our details taken and, in groups, we were ferried off the site in paddywagons to a road junction near our camp. The entire 4 hour standoff was marked with civility touched with a cast of theatricality. John’s request for a senior’s discount on the fine was taken in good spirits. Back at camp we learnt that the other larger party had made a colourful ‘act up’ on one of the roads leading to the mine site. There was a short debrief after lunch.
How do you assess the impact of the protest? Social media, local media and some mainstream news outlets reported the action. The deforestation ceased the next week after the company was threatened with a court injunction. The fight will be back in court in September. Meanwhile the site is being thoroughly cleansed of trashed forest in preparation for explosion-driven excavation. The fight to save what remains of this unique forest is ongoing.
The experience left me convinced that physically taking a stand counts. I feel it is a necessary frontline strategy to combat environmental injustice. For me it is the logical next line of action – a restorer of mental health in the face of so much frustration and it was fun. Taking action has had a ripple effect. In my immediate circle of friends and relatives taking direct action has raised awareness of the threat of coal mining. It has stimulating self reflection in others leading to a reassessment of what getting arrested means. My 70th birthday could not have been spent in a better way for a better cause. On a less personal level non-violent direct action definitely feeds the voracious media and brings wide awareness.
I was impressed with the organisation, preparation and the monitoring of this direct action by the numerous supporting groups especially 350.org. I was impressed by the commitment of the wonderful local farming families. My quandary is why more ‘affected’ people are not involved? I’m convinced that the arrest of one popular ‘famous’ person such as a football player or singer would overcome a crucial hiatus in changing attitudes to non-violent direct action. More folk would be motivated and mobilised. It is reassuring to hear that there is a growing demand for non-violent direct action workshops. I cannot help but feel that the more the public hear stories from individuals at the protest line the more non-violent direct actions will be seen as an effective, risk adverse and safe form of protest…. especially for the retired who do not have the threat of a career being compromised by having a ‘record’.
It is now two weeks after the action. I have been fined $100 and not the $350 that was expected. John, as yet, has not received notification. A collateral benefit is that we have become besotted parents to one of Dubi’s pups.
We look forward to being part of further non violent direct actions as an effective way to support farmers such as Rick Laird and the climate change movement.
Rick Laird, fifth-generation farmer from Maules Creek, said, “We have exhausted every legal and political avenue to make our voices heard. Whitehaven’s mine will destroy our community and our livelihood. We’ve seen this happen in mining areas all over the country – eventually the farmers will be forced to move out. My family has lived here for generations: we are prepared to fight for this place.”
7th July, 2014