Have you ever thought about closing down the biggest coal port in the world?
Well we did, and we did!
A group of enthusiastic activists young and old, calling themselves F.L.A.C. (Front Line Action on Coal), put out the call around the country to come and join them in Newcastle, where the coal from the Hunter Valley is loaded onto ships and sent all around the world to be converted into black soot and pumped into the sky.
A mob of us from Castlemaine heed the call and spring into action. I come to realize I have languished somewhere between a clicktivist and a slacktivist for far to long. It is time to become an Activist!
We set off at first light for the long and boring trip. Driving over Mount Alexander as the sun rises, a pink ball shimmering in the fog, the thrill of adventure pulsing in our veins (plus a dose of black coffee). The rest of the day is uneventful; the constant threat of being crushed to death by a Mack truck keeping one from nodding off, till at last we see the sun setting on the Hunter River at the other end of a long day.
After dark we arrive at the rendezvous, to a warm welcome, complete with hot soup and fresh baked bread, mm, starting to feel at home already. There are over a hundred of us, from crusty old veterans of past battles; Roxby Downs, The Franklin River, The Vietnam War, to baby faced innocents on their first mission, all as keen as mustard. No one seems to be in charge, but we all lend a hand and things get done with a minimum of fuss. The next three days are a whirlwind of meetings and workshops and N.V.D.A. training (Non Violent Direct Action) for the upcoming events, in between eating our fill of delicious vegan food (plus some kangaroo) and getting to know a hundred strangers all at once.
We divide into groups to hammer out the details.
Like filming a remake of Gone with the Wind, where the evil Scommo ditches his long and passionate love affair with Coalene (or was it Coalette) and ends up tying the knot with the mercurial Wendy Turbine.
Shot in an hour and a half with no rehearsal; no mucking about, this mob!
My group hive off to plan our actions:
We go straight into NVDA training: lining up in two rows, face to face, and practing the art of de-escalation. We feel what it feels like to have someone yell in our faces, and learn not to get aggressive in response, but not to shrink away either. We hold our ground, then we swap roles.
Once we are fully versed in the philosophy and practice of N.V.D.A. we get to plan our actions. Over the last few days there have been sporadic actions targeting the coal trains, including a brave young teenager locking-on to a locomotive. Looking around at all these people ready to put their bodies on the line, there are people from all up and down the east coast. Proudly, there are more of us from Castlemaine than from Sydney. Altogether there are enough people to bring the whole God damn port to a stand still. Yeah!
The coal comes rolling in on freight trains over a kilometer long from all over the Hunter valley. It is stacked neatly in 5 huge piles about 15m high and as long as a coal train.(see above) Next to each stack runs a conveyer belt and a rail. On the rail runs the biggest moving machine I have ever encountered in my entire life; the stacker reclaimer: A behemoth with a giant arm that wheels about, scooping up coal and loading it onto ships. There are 9 berths for 9 ships. There is always a ship being loaded, 24 hours a day, every day of the year. The loaders never stop loading, the ships never stop shipping; 100,000 tons a day, 40 million tons a year, the juggernaut rolls on relentlessly, keeping the coal fires burning, add infinitum till the coal runs out (in about 500 years, unless they find some more, or unless someone puts a proverbial spanner in the works. That’s where we come in.) After much tooing and frowing we are all agreed that the best course of action is to target the stacker reclaimer, bringing the entire juggernaut to a grinding halt. All decisions are consensual, of course. We use hand signals to communicate, showing our approval by raising our hands and twiddling our fingers. For disapproval we do the same thing but upside down. This is part of an elaborate sign language that means we can communicate without talking over each other. Very democratic, very harmonious. Very fun!
D-Day – Saturday morning, early. We finish our porridge, synchronize our watches. Water bottle-check! Hat-check! Sandwiches-check! Nappies-check! (we could be there all day)
We hit the road, heading off into the unknown. Rumour has it there are 60 cops lurking in the shadows, ready to pounce the moment we show our faces. The entire police force is represented; The Dog Squad, the Riot squad, Search and Rescue, the Mounted Police on their magnificent steeds, there are frogmen in zodiacs zooming up and down the river, choppers buzzing overhead, scanning ever inch for suspicious activity; the whole menagerie: Basically anyone who wants to get away from the office and get a piece of the action.
The Street Theatre Group head off first and create a noisy and colourful event in the park, attracting a big crowd of curious onlookers. Naturally the Dog squad and the Horse Squad and the Riot Squad rush over there to see what all the fuss is about. The frogmen want to come too but are ordered to stay put as they would look ridiculous and put the Police Force in disrepute.
Our number one recruit Bill Ryan, a crusty old war veteran who survived the Kokoda trail (impeccable credentials wouldn’t you say?) sets off on his zimmer frame (he is 92 years old) with his faithful partner-in-crime, to lock-on to the railway track, yet again! Last time the magistrate said:
“Bill, couldn’t you take up another hobby, like fishing.”
So this time he brings his fishing rod.
Bill is quite possibly the oldest person in Australia to be arrested.
Meanwhile our gang is waiting for the call, hiding in plain sight. We sit in silence, a bit edgy, a bit anxious, just waiting till the coast is clear. Someone jumps up and heads for the nearest shrub to do a bit of ‘live streaming.’ Pretty soon there is a stampede in all directions. An old lady across the road is clearly amazed by the sight of so many bare bottoms. She picks up her mobile. Oh no, we are sprung. Quick, everyone let’s get out of here!
As luck would have it, we all manage to cross the entire city of Newcastle undetected by the best and brightest of the NSW Police Force. We all manage to scrabble under the fence of the facility and make a mad dash for the Stacker Reclaimer humming away in the distance, scooping up truckloads of coal in every mouthful.
We decend on the machine like ants looking for honey, searching for the perfect place to lock-on. Ideally a shady spot, not too windy and not too dirty. But the whole thing is covered in a blanket of black soot, so we all end up looking like coal miners anyway. Our affinity group heads for the highest point. It has a commanding view of the endless mountains of coal and a glimpse of the Pacific Ocean, perfect for selfies.
Once everyone is comfortable, we stop behaving like a colony of ants and start behaving like a flock of cockatoos. Whooping and howling and singing and chanting, asserting our territorial rights over our new home. One sprightly young fellow has managed to find a cozy spot dangling from a rope at the far end of the gantry that scoops up the coal in its giant maw, looking for all the world like a giant tea bag. He immediately launches into ‘live streaming’ on Facebook; describing the situation in graphic detail while slowly panning over the mountains of coal, every minute or two encouraging the viewers to share the stream. After a couple of hours of non-stop streaming there are over seventy thousand viewers. Wow, these young people really know how to use social media!
After a while, just when we are starting to get bored, the cops arrive, en mass; lights flashing, sirens wailing, a convoy of black SUVs with tinted windows, crammed with men in black uniforms wearing tinted sunglasses. Quite a spectacle! Eventually, after much coming up and going down and huddling together and gesticulating and talking authoritatively, they make their move. The first onslaught is the crack team of negotiators specially trained in the art of psychological warfare, flown in by chopper from the latest global hot-spot. But they are no match for our crack team of trouble makers; everyone from young ingénues fresh out of high school, to a phalanx ofcrusty old grandparents anxious about the future of their many grandchildren; a formidable combination!
The next wave is the riot squad, six burly blokes, all in black, boots polished, shirts ironed, bristling with the latest high tech gadgets. They don’t actually have much to say, preferring to mill about scowling menacingly. No results. Time to deploy Search and Rescue; six burly blokes all in white (to match the riot squad, no doubt.) An angle grinder is produced. It is turned on. It makes a load noise.(that should scare the living daylights out of them) Their leader explains in graphic detail how painful the procedure can be. Safety cannot be guaranteed. Permanent disfigurement is a real possibility. Our brave captives do not flinch, their resolve does not waver for a moment, knowing full well it is all bluff and bluster. The Grinder must be deployed. Sparks fly, metal heats up. It is getting scary. We are covered in blankets, strapped down so we can’t move. We can’t see the grinder just centimetres from our fingers, we can’t feel the sparks cascading down the blanket, but we are getting sprayed with water so we don’t get burnt. Despite all that bluff and bluster the rescue team are actually trained not to hurt anyone, which they manage to do by and large, with a couple of painful exceptions. (Their adversaries are not after all, hardened criminals, but harmless protesters.)
Search and Rescue have brought only one small angle grinder. Maybe only one person is trained to use an angle grinder. (They can be dangerous if handled inappropriately) Or maybe they have pretty strict fiscal restraints in their department, what with the budget deficit and all. There are 26 people locked on, so the entire operation ends up taking all bloody day, which suits us fine.
Eventually we are hauled off to the cop shop to be processed, like cheese. The poor staff have to spend hours filling out boring paper work, all generated by their colleagues, outside all day having fun, except for the Riot Squad who seemed palpably chagrined at the extreme lack of riots.
We manage to keep our spirits up in the cells by singing silly songs and playing silly games, and then it is all over. A day well spent, a job well done. Yeah team!
All the 26 activists charged, including my daughter, were released on bail to appear in front of the crusty old Magistrate in early October, so stay tuned for the next exciting episode.
Ben Laycock, crusty old activist 2018
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If you want to see the live stream from Max, doing ‘the teabag’ click Here