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Why aren’t we all crying from the rooftops about Blockade Australia?

Forgive me if I haven’t noticed because, you see, I have had to remove myself from Twitter, but I am informed on good authority that there hasn’t been much tweeting about Blockade Australia. 

Returning almost a year after the Colo raids, when the environmentalist direct action group were arrested en masse in north-west Sydney, the group has carried out major actions across the east coast of ‘Australia’ over the last week. 

On 18 June, the group posted on Instagram ‘WE’RE BACK! An activist on a tripod has stopped all call to the port of Newcastle, the biggest coal port in the world.’ This was followed shortly after by ‘Strike TWO!!! Brad is up a monopole at the Port of Melbourne to resist #climatedestruction on the stolen lands of this continent.’ Finally, ‘HATTRICK! Jem has scaled a bipole to block all four lanes to the port of Brisbane.’

Then, ‘We are back THREFOLD. Exactly one year ago the NSW police tried to smash #blockadeaustralia at the infamous Colo raids. The repression has not phased us it has made us stronger. Today, June 19 2023, we have successfully shut down THREE of Australia’s most destructive economic facilities at the ports of Brisbane, Melbourne and Newcastle. You cannot decapitate the climate movement. Like the Hydra, we rise.’

More than social media, there’s a media blackout. As journalist Wendy Bacon tweeted on 19 June, ‘The actual story is a national one. 3 major ports blocked at same time to draw attention to #ClimateCatastrophe – it’s a first, it’s news. I checked national & Newcastle under news. Still can’t see it.’

The NSW premier, Chris Minns, took to the right-wing Daily Telegraph to declare that he would request a meeting with Facebook to see what they and the police can do to ‘stop the broadcast of illegal acts.’ While civil liberties bodies and a minute pinch of MPs protested against this draconian plan, there hasn’t been much done to amplify Blockade Australia’s actions to make up for the media blackout and stand up to Minns’ threats. 

In their book, We the Heartbroken, which I inhaled in under a day – I was just pushed on through its pages in a headlong rush – Gargi Bhattacharyya writes, 

‘I want to argue that an awareness of death is at the heart of all emancipatory politics and underpin all attempts at living an ethical life.’ It is heartbreak that binds us to each other. We must reckon with that shared experience – which is unavoidable at some stage in everyone’s life – when ‘dreaming of a new world.’

Gargi Bhattacharyya

But we need to bridge the gap between ‘being frozen by sorrow’ as an understandable response to the enormity of heartbreak and the remaking of ‘why we long for change’ which only a recognition of our common heartbreak can bring about. 

I bring this up because it appears clear to me that the Blockade Australia activists who have locked and glued themselves on to the planet-destroying infrastructure that most of us don’t see and which many go further and justify (jobs, growth, growth, jobs), are united in heartbreak. Many, like Mali Cooper who locked on to their car blocking the entrance to the Sydney Harbour tunnel on 27 September 2022, experienced first hand the climate devastation that defines australia since 1788. In their video, Mali talks about Bundjalung country where they are from: 

I’ve been privileged enough to grow up on Bundjalung country. It is beautiful country. I love it up there. my heart is in that place. I’ve watched mass devastation happen up there this year with two one in a hundred year, they say, floods that have happened. This is, this is climate change. it is here. it is happening now. it is terrifying what is going on in the world and we have to stand. I cannot stay silent anymore. I cannot be complacent anymore. I cannot not do anything and this place, this place that invasion began that the colony of australia… this destructive, violent system landed here, hellbent on spreading extractive processes all throughout this continent ripping out of the soil out of the earth out of the place that gives us all of our life they want to take everything they want to take all that we have and use it to make money for a very small few they are leaving so many people in the dust…’

Mali Cooper

Mali Cooper had charges against them dismissed on mental health grounds. Another activist, Violet Coco, was sentenced to 15 months in prison with an eight-month non-parole period, but was subsequently released. They both fell victim to the New South Wales government’s draconian legislation, under which protesters who block roads, bridges and rail lines can be jailed for a maximum of two years. Mali Cooper and Violet Coco were only two of a large group of Blockade Australia activists who were charged with various offences. 

But many of the most severe outcomes haven’t been in the form of convictions but in pre-trial processes such as bail and remand. Blockade Australia activists have been held in custody, including solitary confinement, and been targeted for violence while inside. They have also suffered administrative punishment (including constraints on their movement and communications, association with others and surveillance), and general harassment. BA activist Max Curmi states, ‘I have a massive list of known associations so I can’t talk to any of my friends, can’t talk to most of the community who were involved with organizing the protest.’

And despite eventual legal wins in last year’s cases there is no sign that the governments are softening their approach, as the NSW premier revealed; on the contrary, with much of the public on their side, or at least with the apathy of the majority of the public secured, the cops can continue to arrest and lock up anyone who protests in any way deemed inadmissible by the state.

Along a similar timeline, in Victoria, Crystal McKinnon and Meriki Onus finally had the charges brought against them for organising the Black Lives Matter protest in 2020 (during Covid lockdown restrictions) withdrawn. After the hearing, Meriki Onus was clear:

However, we would like to emphasise that the fight is not over. One death in custody, one death by the state is one too many. We would like to extend our solidarity and support to all people and groups organising and fighting for justice to end racism and the ongoing violence.

Meriki Onus

On the continent now known as australia, hundreds of nations, were violently invaded and subsequently colonised. Policing in the colony originates as a response to First Nations protest. As Amanda Porter and Chris Cuneen show in their chapter, ‘Policing Settler Colonial Societies‘, policing in australia develops to control the colonial frontier and to quell the Indigenous population. What they describe as ‘war-like police operations’ included direct police involvement in massacres such as that at Waterloo Creek in 1838 in which Major James Nunn, the Commandant of the New South Wales Mounted Police, massacred up to 50 Indigenous people and encouraged others to follow suit. The level of Indigenous resistance was the catalyst for their repression by police and eventually their incursion into all aspects of Indigenous people’s lives. At Waterloo Creek, for example, the police massacre was in ostensible protection of settler stockmen. The role of the police was to ensure the unfettered use of Indigenous lands and to protect the rights of settlers to do with it what they will. While the settlers were well able, and did, enact their own terrible reign of terror, the police provided their murderousness with the imprimatur of legitimacy, if not always total impunity. Although the 1838 Myall Creek massacres resulted in conviction for some of the perpetrators, this merely spurred settlers to ‘cover their tracks and avoid prosecution.’ To this day, ‘debate’ over the veracity of the extent of settler massacres of Indigenous people animates latter day defenders of the doctrine of terra nullius. 

One thing is clear when you listen to abolitionists. Not instagram abolitionists, but the people who have been organising and militating for the dismantling of the carceral system and all its tentacles and the building of the world anew. That is, there is no separating out of people on the basis of true innocence. There are no absolute victims. There are no people from whom our attention should be averted when it comes to preserving life. As such, there is no hierarchy of demands or concerns. I don’t say this because I hold sway by glib references to ‘oppression olympics’ and the like, but because I think there’s a tendency to compartmentalise our attention and consequently to align our concerns in ways that worryingly mirror racial taxonomies in alarming ways. It’s worth quoting at length from Ruth Wilson Gilmore:

It seems that anti-criminalization and the extensive and intensive forces and effects of criminalization and perpetual punishment has to be central to any kind of political, economic change that benefits working people and their communities, or benefits poor people, whether or not they’re working, and their communities. This should be a given, but often it’s not. In part that’s because “mass incarceration” has, unfortunately, but for understandable reasons, come to stand in for “this is the terrible thing that happened to Black people in the United States.” It is a terrible thing that happens to Black people in the United States! It happens also to brown people, red people … and a whole lot of white people. And insofar as ending mass incarceration becomes understood as something that only Black people must struggle for because it’s something that only Black people experience, the necessary connection to be drawn from mass incarceration to the entire organization of capitalist space today falls out of the picture. What remains in the picture seems like it’s only an anomalous wrong that seems remediable within the logic of capitalist reform. That’s a huge impediment, I think, for the kind of organizing that ought to come out of the various experiments in worker and community organizing that can produce big changes. Everything is difficult in the USA right now, for all the obvious reasons I won’t waste space on now. That said, I look with hope for all indications of ways to shift the debate and organizing. The answer for me is to consider in all possible ways how the preponderance of vulnerable people in the USA and beyond come to recognize each other in terms not just of characteristics or interest, but more to the abolitionist point, purpose.

Ruth Wilson Gilmore

There is more acceptance of the need to mobilise against incarceration / carcerality on this continent, and to join the Indigenous people who have resisted since invasion in demanding an end, not just ‘raising the age’ or making prisons more ‘culturally competent’, but razing them – and all the structures that feed into them and that determine the lives of many Indigenous people, often from birth – to the ground. It is small but it is more visible. (There are also so many ways in which these movements are open to capture, domestication and to being spat back out as aphorism and training workshop, as writers’ festival panels and, g-d forbid (the worst), research projects).

It seems much harder to stand publicly with Blockade Australia. On the one hand this is because of the level of state repression. White ‘progressive’ settlers in particular know that they can never be served the kind of injustice that Indigenous people are continually branded with. It’s thus safer to declare one’s ‘allyship’ with them. Making public declarations in support of BA it seems would place people in a position of open antagonism with the state because it implies crossing over to the other side on which the state could come down on ‘us’ too. There is also a fear – overegged by anxious whites – that antiracist radlibs would identify these non-performative progressives as ‘preferring’ to support white activists over Indigenous activists. This view racialises struggle, undermining the necessity of fighting on all fronts to protect country from the ever-expanding colonial invasion.

Indigenous sovereignty struggles are centred around the land, air and water, that which gives us all life. There will be no self-determination for people in a decimated environment. Indigenous people continue to lead the way as climate protectors and defenders. Environmentalist organisations have often run roughshod over Indigenous peoples. Ecofascism – a strand within global white supremacism – is not to be ignored. But most climate activists are not ecofascists, which is not to say that a racial-colonial analytics is always centred by white climate activists.

Certainly, there is no abolition without climate defence, as the brave warriors defending the forest against the building of Cop City in Atlanta continue to show us every day. We remember and mourn the assassination by local and state police officers in Atlanta of Tortuguita Terán. We are reminded that ‘Cop City has already stolen the freedom of 42 people who have been charged with domestic terrorism and dozens more who were violently arrested while protesting the project.’ Thus, as Micah Herskind writes, the fight is against both ‘the creation of a $90 million police urban warfare center‘ and ‘to protect the 381 acres of forest land, known as one of the “four lungs” of Atlanta.’ One is not conceivable without the other.

Returning to Ruth Wilson Gilmore, in asking ‘How can we generalize from the racist prison system, to a more supple perception of racial capitalism at work?’ she answers:

I am talking about, for example, how unions that represent low-to-moderate wage public sector job, which have a high concentration of people of color as current and potential members, might join forces with environmental justice organizations, and biological diversity and anti-climate change organizations, and immigrants’ rights organizations, and others to fight on a number of fronts against group-differentiated vulnerability to premature death — which is what in my view racism is. 

Ruth Wilson Gilmore

BA activist, Max Curmi’s account of his time in prison tells us a lot about the joining up of struggles. It is hard to read about the violence and repression, as it is in the accounts of other people who have been incarcerated; it is the sameness that is striking. Due to mandatory isolation during Covid measures, Curmi describes:

You are locked in a box for 10 days. There is no going outside. Food comes in through a little hole in the wall. You can make a phone call a day once you’ve got money coming in from the outside, but that generally takes 7-9 days if you’re lucky. There is no other access to any sort of communications at all.

Max Curmi

But what sticks out is the solidarity and care shown to him, in particular by Indigenous people, when violence was organised against him:

Jail is a very horrible dehumanizing place. A lot of largely poor people in there, who have been picked up going about their lives. There are a lot of people suffering. But my experience with the other prisoners was generally pretty good […] There are rules in jail, like most people are in there for some unfortunate thing and people want to be looked after. Very quickly after that happened a lot of the people in there, particularly some of the First Nations guys, organized themselves and came to my protection. So I was pretty safe reasonably quickly but always at the mercy of the guards who can just grab you and take you and put you somewhere else where no one can protect you.

Max Curmi

Blockade Australia posted on its website on 24 June, 2023: ‘WE CHANGE EVERYTHING OR WE LOSE EVERYTHING.’ Change everything is an abolitionist rallying cry based on the realisation that it isn’t enough to close the cages, we need to a wholesale reorganisation of society if we hope not just to survive, but to thrive. How do we expect prisons to no longer exist when we keep recreating the organised abandonment which breeds the violence, repression and dehumanisation that appears to necessitate them? It is a sick system, but a system that Blockade Australia recognises, is working exactly as intended (echoing Yannick Marshall).

As I write this, several BA direct activists are in custody. Some are out on bail awaiting the full force of the criminal punishment system. It is a price they’ve been willing to pay because, in the words of Naomi whose finger was torn after police tried to forcibly remove her arm from the lock-on device at the Brisbane port action, ‘this injury is so much less than the damage being done to ecosystems, to water, to climate, to all beings.’

It seems to me that what we need to do – and I speak as someone who is not brave enough (or maybe I don’t yet feel heartbroken enough) to carry out direct action – is to find every way we can to support those who are putting themselves on the line for us all. We have to speak out, protest, fund bail, show up in court, whatever it may be. We have to refuse the compartmentalisation of our struggles because, as Gargi Bhattacharyya writes, this is what they want. 

Here is the link to the fundraiser

Alana Lentin