November 8, 2019

Federal politics

Blockade tactics

By Hayley Singer
Inside the 2019 IMARC protests

At protests, when police start putting on gloves it’s a sign – arrests are coming. Tuesday, October 29, 7.15am. The International Mining and Resources Conference (IMARC) at the Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre. Officers are lined up at the Clarendon Street entrance. They stand shoulder to shoulder, already gloved-up.

My partner and I have just arrived. We have black-and-white placards stuffed in my backpack. They simply say “Blockade IMARC”. A month ago, 150,000 people turned up for the Global Climate Strike over in Treasury Gardens. Now, at Jeff’s Shed, we are only in the hundreds. Easily outnumbered by police.

We lock our bikes across the street, near the casino. Deborah Conway’s “It’s Only the Beginning” blasts out of speakers that line the footpath. It’s a world away from the blockade.

We cross, get the placards out of my backpack. We have sports whistles to make some noise. We don’t yet know it, but the police “snatch squads” are about to start up.

Blockade IMARC 2019 is a community alliance made of environmental groups, First Nations people and solidarity groups. This community meets under four points of unity: to use blockading tactics at IMARC, to shut down IMARC, to mobilise a huge mass of people to protest IMARC and to act as a non-violent protest “held in the traditions of S11, Occupy and the Jabiluka campaigns”. This final point of unity also states, “We are fighting against the violence towards all living beings and the planet which the IMARC Conference enacts, and condemn the violence of the police.

Now, a week later – as I sit on my couch, as I travel to and from work on the tram – I scroll through the Melbourne Activist Legal Services Twitter feed and activist Facebook feeds over and over again. I’m magnetised by accounts of civilian injuries received during the early hours of that first day of the blockade – neck chokes, bruises from trampling by humans and horses, a man who shat himself with fear as he was beaten with batons.

When these first moments of violence broke out, Lidia Thorpe – Gunnai-Kurnai and Gunditjmara woman, and former politician – approached Victoria Police officers. She asked if a traditional owner could come and call for calm and peace. The police denied her request.

Companies attending IMARC – including BHP, Glencore, Yancoal and Anglo American – are among those responsible for producing more greenhouse-gas emissions than the rest of the Australian economy. Others – such as OceanaGold, Cerrejon, and Rio Tinto – have track records of human and environmental abuse that include forceful removal of indigenous communities from their ancestral homelands, dumping of toxic waste, and poisoning rivers, lakes, bays and oceans.

Ned Jampijinpa Hargraves, Walpiri community spokesperson from Yuendumu in the Northern Territory, sings songs about his sacred lands. Origin Energy’s fracking plans are threatening his community’s dreaming. Gooniyandi woman Viv Marlo, Wiradjuri activist Tim Buchanan, West Papuan activist Porobibi, Tjiwarl traditional owner and anti-uranium mining activist Vicki Abdullah, and Mapuche environmental and human rights activist Marisol Salinas all speak of the violence that mining has brought – and still threatens to bring – to their communities, their lands, waters, heritage and futures. Members of the Eritrean community are at the blockade to hold to account Australian-based mining company Chalice Gold Mines for doing $114 million worth of business with Eritrea’s authoritarian regime. They want mining projects to stop destroying indigenous communities.

On Monday, October 28, before the conference properly kicked off, Robbie Thorpe of the Krautungalung people of Gunnai Nation – along with Viv Marlo – performed an unwelcome to the IMARC delegates who were yet to arrive. In the following days, Robbie carried a placard in the shape of Australia. It was wrapped in yellow and black tape that read, “Caution crime scene do not enter”.

My partner and I have a strategy: be prepared for arrest, but do nothing unlawful.

We’ve joined the crowd. We’re two or three rows back from police, walking up the stairs outside Jeff’s Shed. We’re chanting, blowing our whistles. Then, something snaps. A sudden crush: police into civilians. I’m pushed down the stairs. My partner’s pulled in. She’s grabbed by the head, tackled to the ground and handcuffed by the Public Order Response Team. Facedown on the pavement, her line of sight cut off by an officer’s thighs. He has her in a headlock. We have only been at the blockade for 15 minutes.

Two hours later, on ABC News Breakfast, Nationals leader and Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack calls the actions of protesters “disgraceful”. The mining and resources sector, he says, provide “a lot of money, particularly for the welfare payments that a lot of these people are on, no doubt”. In response, on Twitter, Noongar woman and novelist Clare G. Coleman makes the point that the protesters are taxpaying citizens. The mining organisations are not.

Market Forces – an organisation of environmental campaigners, researchers and legal analysts who expose links between financial institutions and environmental destruction – has secured and released information from the ATO about companies, including Anglo American and Yancoal Australia, as making, respectively, $13.95 billion and $6.82 billion in revenue between 2013 and 2017 without paying any taxes.

Yancoal is Australia’s largest coal-only miner. In May this year, the Queensland state government gave it permission to expand its operation in the Surat Basin, north-west of Brisbane. As I write, Yancoal is ramping up its operations to increase its output from 2.8 million tonnes to 3.5 million tonnes per year. Its mining complex, which consists of an open-cut thermal coal mine, coal handling and preparation plant, is now slated to operate for the next 75 years.

While this intensification is happening in Australia, Germany has committed to closing all of its 84 coal-fired power plants, and the International Panel on Climate Change – with its highly specific and conservative recommendations – is calling for swift and unprecedented action from governments and industries to mitigate global heating.

Other, quieter, interactions happen in the mess of those first few hours. A few suited men throw themselves, full-body, at the chain of protesters in an attempt to enter the conference. Others, I notice, target young women in the line; approach them directly and tell them off for blocking their way.

By midday on Tuesday, the blockade is winding down from its first day. My partner and I cross back over to our bikes and ride home. We each have work to do. We each have deadlines.

Wednesday, October 30. 30–40 civilians are pepper sprayed, and over a dozen are arrested, after two climbers hang a protest banner that says “Blockade IMARC for Climate Justice”.

Conference organisers insist that inside it is all business as usual. During session breaks, delegates stand against the glass walls of Jeff’s Shed. Sometimes they just watch. Sometimes they film what’s happening to us outside. And sometimes they smile and wave.

I’m not going to call any instance of police–civilian violence at Blockade IMARC 2019 a “clash”, as has the ABC, or a “scuffle”, a term used by The Age. The physical force and enforceable power of Victoria Police is too huge for those words.

Resources Minister Matt Canavan assures conference delegates that we are like a big bad wolf. They can huff and they can puff, he says, but they can’t blow our house down. In the same address, Canavan says that he’d be happy for the Australian resources industry to take “the Pepsi morality challenge … any day of the week”.

I’m scrolling news headlines on my phone when I read this quote from Canavan in Guardian Australia. It makes me think back to 2010, when millions of litres of radioactive water poured into the World Heritage–listed wetlands of Kakadu national park from the Ranger Uranium Mine, which sits on Mirrar traditional land. At that time it was also found that 100,000 litres of radioactive water was leaking into the earth and rock fissures beneath Kakadu every day. As well as being one of the oldest sites of continual human habitation, those lands are home to more than 280 different types of birds.

Energy Resources of Australia, which is majority owned by Rio, operates the Ranger mine, and has been criticised by researchers and the Supervising Scientist Branch – the federal agency charged with tracking and advising the company – for its mine closure plan.

In an article published in The Conversation earlier this year, human rights adviser and social impacts expert Rebecca Lawrence writes, “It is naive to assume a mining company is best placed to propose their own rehabilitation criteria, given their corporate imperative to reduce rehabilitation costs and future liabilities.”

One of the enormous tasks ahead of ERA and Rio is to ensure that radioactive and contaminated mine tailings – used to backfill the pits – will be physically isolated from the environment for at least 10,000 years. Epic.

I’m sitting on my couch now with a video playing over and over on my phone as I write. It shows a scrambled crowd. People running and screaming. A woman is in distress. She calls out, “Stop pepper spraying!” An officer replies, “Piss off, or I’ll fucking pepper spray you too.”

Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews has commended Victoria Police for “doing every one of us proud”.

Here’s one thing I keep coming back to – the fossil-fuel industry has already released enough CO2 into the atmosphere, ocean and land biospheres to affect global temperatures for generations to come. The term for this is legacy emissions. It refers to the fact that a substantial portion of the carbon emissions already pushed into the atmosphere will remain there forever. Mining histories have long been altering the planet’s future.

Since the blockade, Prime Minister Scott Morrison has pledged to introduce new legislation to “crack down” on the ability of environmental groups to protest. At the same time, an open letter – signed by over 11,000 scientists from 153 nations – has called for swift transitions to the way global society functions. This, they say, is necessary to avoid “untold suffering” as a result of further global heating.

The message from scientists from around the world and the Australian government is – for dangerously contradictory reasons – crystal clear. Worse is yet to come.

Hayley Singer

Hayley Singer is a writer whose work has appeared in The Lifted Brow and Art + Australia.

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