December 2018 – January 2019

The Nation Reviewed

Activists of a certain age

By Emma Hardy
Meet the septuagenarian fronting a new generation of protesters

Lounging in a fold-out picnic chair is a small, old Chinese woman. She’s wearing a white linen shirt and a sunhat with palm trees printed on the brim. Three people crowd around her, holding umbrellas to block out the sun. She looks calm. She could be at a family luncheon – except for the bike lock bolted around her neck, chaining her to a fence.

She’s holding a sign written in Chinese, with an English version leaning against the seat next to her: “Coal burns our future.” Underneath her linen shirt is a Stop Adani T-shirt.

Hours pass. The sun rises higher, hotter. One by one, the people around the woman are arrested or forced to move on by police. The number of umbrellas shading her shrinks, until an officer removes the last one.

The woman calls out to one of the police officers, asks for some water. The officer nods at her. He takes slow, lethargic steps towards his van, and idly pulls out a drink bottle. He stalls for a bit before dawdling back, placing the water bottle just centimetres from her reach.

“This is our water service,” he says, and steps back.

The woman’s cool demeanour snaps. She bears the fiery expression that earned her the nickname “The Angry Granny of the Movement”. She raises her fist.

“Am I in Australia?” she asks. “Or am I in some dictatorship?”

The cop, chastised, moves the water bottle closer.

Audrey Cooke was one of the first people arrested at the Adani blockade in Queensland’s Galilee Basin. At 72, she’s one of the oldest, too. In December 2017, Cooke joined a community walk-on to an Adani construction site. She sat chained to Adani property for seven hours.

When I meet Cooke, she is smaller than expected. And I expected her to be small. She’s wearing a delicate lavender-blue blouse with a lace collar, a Stop Adani badge pinned to one side. She hugs me as soon as she sees me, then orders a mocha into which she heaps teaspoons of sugar.

“I can’t even speak Chinese,” she confides. “It’s bad, I know. I wrote the sign on Google Translate and had a friend check. I needed to know which way to hold it. I don’t like the publicity personally, but it’s worth it for the movement.”

After her arrest, Junkee published an article describing Cooke as a “chill activist grandma”. The article was shared around the world. Cooke’s friends and family in Hong Kong saw photos of her pop up on WeChat.

“The reason I looked so ‘chill’,” she says, making bunny ears around the word chill, “is because I was meditating. I was not stressed at all. That action, we were on our feet for 24 hours.”

When we think of activists, we usually think of young people. Of marches, protests, social media and radical millennials. In reality, retirees make up the majority of the volunteer base for many environmental organisations. But not every retiree activist has a rap sheet.

Cooke only became involved in activism after her husband died in 2011. Daily exercise and meditation – the same meditation that would help her withstand hours in the brutal Queensland sun – helped her move through the pain. After 18 months, she faced a new reality.

“I became healthier,” she says. “I gained an altruistic outlook: how can I be better use to others?”

Cooke had space to throw herself into causes she cared about. She joined the community group Grandmothers Against Detention of Refugee Children and then, after reading about the Adani mine and the Great Barrier Reef online, signed up to a local environmental group.

“Bill Ryan, he inspires me,” Cooke says. “He’s in his nineties and still going. So at 72 I’m a newbie. I’m young – compared to him.”

Her laugh is manic, cheeky, but mostly cheerful. Her eye contact is intense, focused. Bill Ryan is an environmental activist and Kokoda war veteran. He’s been arrested six times in anti-Adani protests.

Like Bill, Cooke is unafraid of being arrested – anything for the movement, as she puts it. She hadn’t planned to chain herself up. She’d only wanted to see the proposed site of the world’s biggest coalmine, but once she was there she was unstoppable. Still, she’s hesitant to talk about non-violent direct actions – the kind that can get you arrested – for fear that it’s alienating.

“You don’t have to chain yourself to a mine,” she is careful to remind me. “You can join a community group, call your politician, talk to neighbours, spread the word.”

More likely, you’ll see her handing out flyers on a street corner, knocking on doors or sharing articles on social media.

“I find Twitter a useful means to get my thoughts out there.” She leans towards me, lowering her voice. “And I troll people like Matt Canavan.”

“Probably Mr Adani has my picture on his dartboard,” she cackles.

Cooke was born in Singapore, one of seven children. Her father worked for the British Army and was an Anglophile. He sent Cooke and her siblings to English-speaking schools, where they ate ham-and-cheese sandwiches with Western Star butter. The only Cantonese spoken at home was to her mother, and only ever about the kitchen or cooking.

“I grew up in a time when women should be seen and not heard,” she says.

Singapore was too hot, too stifling. She wanted to see the world – really see it, not as a tourist but as a local. She applied for accounting courses in Britain and Australia. Melbourne responded first, and she packed her bags.

It was there that she met her husband, had two children and settled into a teaching career. She took a role at a progressive school out past Dandenong, where she taught VCE Accounting and Information Technology. Her intuitive knack for computers meant that the school put her in charge of their computer technology, too. She loved her work and took on extra whenever she could, then came home and cooked dinner for her children. To her family back in Singapore, she was a rebel.

Mother, teacher, accountant may not be the usual trademarks of a rebel. But earning the label when she was young made it easier for Cooke to see herself as an activist later. She was used to her family’s disapproval.

“I’m normally a reserved person, a private person.”

It’s easy to take Cooke at her word, that she’s just your average granny who cares about her grandchildren’s future. On the other hand, she’s better with technology than most 24-year-olds think they are. She scoffs at the idea of reading a manual, preferring to dive right in. In her spare time, she reads scientific reports on things like renewable technology, nanotechnology and quantum physics.

When she needs a break from environmental activism, she goes on paranormal investigations with a group of researchers from Monash University. Her self-described “naughty hobby” isn’t about ghost tours, she says. “There are a lot of things we don’t understand, and science can have the answers.”

During a speech in 2012, complex systems engineer Brad Werner told a room of fellow scientists that, given the imminence and significance of climate change, the only scientific thing to do is to revolt.

“At 72 years old,” says Cooke, “I’m in a hurry. So I’m doing as much as I can to help.”

Emma Hardy

Emma Hardy is a writer and an improviser based in Naarm (Melbourne).

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