The blockade of Australia’s biggest coal port Newcastle by climate protestors over the weekend resulted in 109 arrests. Wendy Bacon speaks with those arrested about the price of peaceful protest.
On Sunday night, 109 protesters were arrested for continuing the blockade of the Port of Newcastle after their permission notice had expired at 4 pm. Two protestors spent the night in a cell.
It was a diverse lot who attended the Rising Tide blockade; among them the Knitting Nannas, the oldest protester in Australian history, many more over the age of 75 mingling with the children and families, many travelling from afar, even former coal sector types concerned about the impact of fossil fuel exports on the climate.
The protest was undoubtedly a success in raising awareness of the failure of the two major parties to tackle climate change and stop the approval of new fossil fuel projects. Most of the mainstream media covered it here; it was big on social media, and even made news on the BBC.
Yet there is a cost to peaceful protests, fines and detainment for those who, even peacefully, don’t abide by the government’s protest laws.
On Monday morning, Lord Mayor of Sydney Clover Moore tweeted, “It’s absurd that 100 people have been arrested for peacefully protesting against the most serious issue of our time. We must phase out fossil fuels faster, fairly and forever. I support peaceful protests and the Rising Tide blockade of the world’s largest port.”
NSW Premier Chris Minns however was not a fan of the climate action.
On Friday, Minns had told 2GB Radio, a conservative talkback channel, that he did not support the protest but that it was ” … very difficult for New South Wales Police, or even the Minister for Police, to front up last week and say we’re banning it.
Minns: show me the money
“I don’t support it, I’d rather it didn’t happen. We sold $40 billion worth of coal last year and we need it if we’re going to transition our economy to renewable energies.”
The riposte from protest organisers Rising Tide was logically, then why don’t you raise the tax and royalty rates on coal producers and make the economic pay-off more substantial?
In response to Minns, Schofield said, “If Chris Minns thinks that coal taxes are so important for transition, we call on him and his government to support a 75% tax on fossil fuel export profits … We are building a mass movement to take on the fossil fuel industry if our government won’t. I don’t want to live without fighting for my generation’s right to life.
“We’ve been calling for an end to fossil fuel projects and … we decided to take the next step and send a crystal clear message to the Government. That we will disrupt the fossil fuel industry if they [the government] won’t take them on and make them pay their fair share. Over a hundred people including myself were out on the water yesterday after our Form 1 approval, to send a crystal clear message to the government.
“We applied under the legislation to have a legal protest – they won’t be able to rescind our approvals because we have stepped outside the bounds of the law. Our democracy is founded on the right to protest and that included breaking laws that the government of the day has imposed. That is how the unions won the 40-hour work week, and how suffragettes won the right to vote. It an ongoing fight and it one that we are participating in for climate justice.
Penalties and charges
Most of the protesters were charged under Section 14 A of the Marine Safety Act.
Of the 109 arrested, many were held in custody past midnight – for more than 6 hours – and two, Isaac Leonard and John Wurker, refused bail and stayed in custody overnight.
Wurker and Leonard pleaded guilty and received a $600 fine. They were charged with operating a vessel in a way that “unreasonably interfered with the lawful use of those waters” (Section 14 of the Maritime Safety Act.) They refused bail overnight due to onerous conditions that the police wanted to impose.
Wurker, representing himself in court, said “We are now towards the end game of a climate change catastrophe”.
Leonard was represented by Legal Aid solicitor James Wallace, who said Leonard refused conditions placed on him regarding those with whom he could associate. The police wanted him to break contact with friends and his NDIS support worker who are also members of the Activist group Rising Tide.
Isaac Leonard’s guilty plea on Monday meant that he did not have to sign a bail agreement.
Leonard, who is a blind 23-year-old science student, was embraced by fellow protesters when he emerged from court. He told a press conference outside the court that he had been in custody all night because the police had given him “bail conditions which effectively meant that I couldn’t associate with my support workers and with my friends and I decided to refuse bail”.
Asked how he had found his experience of being in custody, he said, “I don’t know how to describe it … it was quite nerve-wracking”.
Asked about a previous conviction after a Rising Tide protest on a coal train earlier this year and whether he was sorry, he said, “I think it is a shame that people like me have to do this when the government is refusing to act. It’s like we’re doing their job for them.
Asked whether he would do it again, he laughed and said “can I say no comment to that?”
“I made that decision because the government is refusing to tax the $70 billion [ coal industry] profits, is refusing to commit to ending coal export and even more is building new coal mines and drilling more gas wells and even I can see the absurdity in that.”
John Wurker is a retiree from Canberra who grew up on a farm in the Upper Hunter Valley: “My brother-in-law drove a truck up there. My father used to work with the scrap and other material from the mines”.
He said that although he now lives in Canberra, he understands the local perspective. He said that coming back to Newcastle, he had found that most of the community understood the situation. “They understand the transition that has to take place. It has happened, it happened with shipbuilding, it happened with the steelworks and what we don’t want that to happen again where Newcastle takes a dive. We want a just transition, socially and economically.”
Wurker was also arrested at the coal train protest in April. Asked if he had any regrets, he said firmly, “No, as Isaac said it is such a pity that ordinary citizens have to be doing this … it’s non-violent civil disobedience that has been the catalyst for really important social change over centuries whether it is universal suffrage or the end of slavery. Usually, it is vested interests that are holding back social change and in this case, it is the fossil fuel lobby.
97yo Reverend Alan Stuart being one of 109 arrests at the #PeoplesBlockade has made international news. But as a local, being front page of the paper in a coal-focussed city is most important. There are alternate economic plans for Newcastle. No more coal exports by 2030! pic.twitter.com/NNb4Tmwn9T
— RisingTideAustralia (@RisingTideAus) November 28, 2023
As for the police response: “Why else would we have been given bail conditions that would have been appropriate for a bikie gang? Non-association for a fine-only charge? It’s not appropriate. On principle, I was not going to take those bail conditions.”
By pleading guilty and completing their cases, both Wurker and Leonard dispensed with the need for bail.
MWM is aware of at least one older woman who is in her seventies who has a previous conviction and was placed on onerous bail conditions. She will be seeking to have a court vary these.
Knitting Nannas with a clear message at the #PeoplesBlockade 💚🧶 Join them by pledging powerful peaceful action that DEMANDS #NoNewCoal and for our leaders to #MakePollutersPay for a #JustTransition 👇🏽https://t.co/NFyUIuIzH1 pic.twitter.com/xXdL0c75Mc
— RisingTideAustralia (@RisingTideAus) November 25, 2023
Another ‘first’ was the police charging the oldest person in the history of Australia, 97-year-old Reverend Alan Stuart, a Uniting Church minister. Stuart was congratulated by the family of Bill Ryan who was previously the oldest person ever to be charged. Bill’s sons Col and Gary Ryan congratulated Alan. “The torch of responsibility is being taken up by a diverse and intergenerational legion, each member fuelled by a shared sense of urgency to address the pressing issues of our time.
“While our father may no longer hold the title of the older climate protester to be arrested, his legacy remains intact, contributing to a shared story of unwavering dedication to safeguarding our planet for future generations.”
Police and family assisted Reverend Stuart off a pink boat with Fossil Fuel Floods sign on the side to wild cheers from the shore as he was led into custody.
After his release, he said, “I joined the protest – whatever happens to me doesn’t matter but what happens to the climate does because the climate is going to affect future generations, my grandchildren and great-grandchildren as well as other people’s. I want them to have the same privileges as we had growing up.
“I grew up in the 40s 50s and 60s and no one was worried about the climate, but now we know that we can affect the climate.”
At the other end of the age spectrum is Anjeli Beames from Adelaide who was arrested on the water on Sunday. “I am a school strike for climate students,” Beams told MWM. “I got arrested yesterday because the Australian government has consistently refused to listen to the demands of young people for action on climate change.
“My future is getting sold by the fossil fuel industry for profit and I am not going to sit idly by while that happens. It is the Australian government’s failure to act that is forcing young people like myself to step up. They treat us like we are criminals but they are the ones putting their greed above our lives.
“The Climate crisis is here and now and if there is any hope of mitigating the consequences and saving people’s lives, we have to stop new fossil fuel projects and that includes new coal. Students across this country have been protesting on the streets for years and we have not been listened to so it is time for us now to step up and start taking more drastic action to ensure that our voices are heard and our future is secured on this planet.
The redoubtable protest group Knitting Nannas had a marquee on the beach from which health workers who attended the protest supplied first aid. Approximately 20 Knitting Nannas joined the port blockade in kayaks and one, Bronwyn Vost (74) remained on the water in the final disobedience action and was arrested. The question is, how far will authorities go in imposing harsh bail conditions in order to discourage further protests?
The story of charges and court action will play out. Still, despite the police enforcement, the Newcastle Port blockade was a terrific success in raising awareness about the world’s number one challenge: tackling climate change.
Wendy Bacon is an investigative journalist who was the Professor of Journalism at UTS. She worked for Fairfax, Channel Nine and SBS and has published in The Guardian, New Matilda, City Hub and Overland. She has a long history in promoting independent and alternative journalism.