The headline screamed "Professional protestors" and the article concluded with "well practiced fringe activists engaging in fear mongering." Even though I wasn’t surprised, I couldn't help but groan.
It’s a standard and surprisingly effective tool in the belt of the coal and coal seam gas industries. They trot it out at every chance they can get. It delegitimises dissent to their actions. They portray those that are raising questions and concerns as crazy radicals with a specific political agenda who have hijacked locals to achieve their own political aims. It portrays the companies as inherently reasonable, open to talking and negotiating with the locals, who might be concerned, but only because they have been led astray or are misinformed because of these professional protestors. In six degrees, a small volunteer-run collective, we often joke about how if we’re the professionals we’re due for a pay rise. But in many ways, it’s not something to be joked about. It’s a hardline, strategic tactic by companies who are willing to go to great lengths to ensure the success of their fossil fuel projects. It’s a tactic that detracts from the hard work that local organisers have done. It’s a tactic that holds implications for future blockades.
In the case they were talking about, it was particularly unfair. It was mid-January and exactly a week into the Kerry blockade. Out the back of Beaudesert in south-east Queensland, the blockade was trying to prevent access to a drilling site for a coal seam gas well. This was a blockade initiated, supported, attended and organised by people that live in the Kerry Valley and the surrounding Scenic Rim. A blockade that started when a couple of locals decided that their part of the world, with its gently undulating cropping lands that give way to steep escarpments and some of Queensland's most popular national parks, should not be a testing ground for the coal seam gas industry. The local group is called Keep the Scenic Rim Scenic; they were running the show and all they were asking for was a baseline water study before drilling occurred. An ask more reflective of a conservative approach to risk than a radical ideology. They’d been asking politely for a long time and they’d had enough.
The week before, on the first morning of the blockade, I was one of three non-locals who the organisers had asked to come help out. The other thirty or so people that put off work that morning and got up well before the sun to get there in time - because local stretches for quite a long way - were farmers, tourism operators or like Anne, my high school geography teacher, put up with a long commute in to Brisbane so they could live in a beautiful place. They invited us that morning not to ask what they could do - they had that figured out - but because they had spread the word far and wide through their local networks and were worried that the gas workers would show up with a heavy police presence to force their way in. They’d never done anything like this before and wanted help from people who knew what to expect from the police and how to engage with them in those types of circumstances.
Our role was pretty minimal - we discussed the likely legal implications of blocking the driveway, outlined what would happen if and when they got arrested, organised a watch-house pick-up run, and checked that the people considering being arrested, if it came to that, had identification. Perhaps more importantly, we acted as a sounding board for the few sleep-deprived organisers and reassured them that they were doing a great job. We did the few, small things we could to slightly lessen their load.
Would they have been more hesitant to ask us to come if they knew that they would be getting negative media coverage because they asked for help from outside their valley? Are others who decide to stand up for what they believe in, whose farms and tourism operations are being threatened by the actions of multi-billion dollar international corporations, less likely to ask for help in the future? In many ways, it’s too early to tell what real implications this will have for future blockade organisers. But it has the potential, and is done for this very reason by the gas companies, to scare people off. To stop them from asking for help. To let the gas company divide and conquer.
The vast majority of people that are being directly affected by the booming coal and gas industries are farmers or small business owners whose jobs already require incredibly long hours and whose spare time has already been subsumed fighting forces much larger than them; who care deeply about standing up for what they believe in but have never considered putting their body on the line for it before. Who don’t know what to expect or how things will pan out once they’ve decided they’re not going to let the trucks in.
So what do we do? We can all play it smart at the blockades we do go to - to respect the decisions of the local organisers, defer any media questions to them and be cognisant that perhaps it’s not the best time to tell blockade war stories. But perhaps more importantly, we can reject their premise and work to counter the idea that “legitimacy” to protest relies on you living where the injustice is occurring and that thinking beyond our own backyards is something to be applauded, not denigrated. What it would take to do this, I’m not sure. Not letting stories like the one that appeared in the Australian slip by without being noticed and attacked for its fallacies is a starting point.
Shani Tager is a founding member and active campaigner with the Six Degrees Coal and Climate Campaign at Friends of the Earth Brisbane.