Getting Away with Crime, A Tale of Privilege

By Lian – reach me here: lian [at] riseup.net

I was in court a few weeks ago. The legal part of a ‘lock-on’ action some friends and I did at Hazelwood power station in Victoria in November 2008 is now finally over. It was a good result too. I got a diversion: A 12 month good behaviour bond and no conviction. Sweet right? Well maybe but maybe not…

The action itself was pretty good. The best part of it was the sweet video we made – check it out at whosepower.wordpress.com. The second best part was the debates we had with each other and some of our friends in the climate movement about how change can be made. We approached the action with an unconventionally hostile approach towards government and media. For example on our website we said:

“This is not a call to government to make a series of policy changes. This is not a call for large businesses to become “greener” under the illusion that profitability and what is socially and ecologically beneficial are not in conflict. This is a call for you, friend, to share your experiences, thoughts, words on three simple things. What are we struggling and acting for? What would it take to realise these things? And are we prepared to do what is necessary? Maybe everything depends on these answers.”

This was in the wake of other actions that explicitly pleaded with politicians to ‘solve this problem for us’. We wanted to take direct action back to its true meaning, by showing that people can shut down coal infrastructure themselves and can bypass representatives like politicians who are inevitably going to stab us in the back. We wanted to spark change by inspiring people to shut down coal fired power stations. Simple.

But exactly how many people did we think would be inspired by our model of non-violent direct action? Surely we wouldn’t need many groups carrying out similar actions in order to have a real effect on coal burning. And the action was so easy to organise, far easier than large scale climate camps. Much more bang for your effort.

Back to the court case and the stellar result (or was it?). Diversion programs (known as Section 10  in NSW and a spent conviction in some other states) are one way in which the inherent racism and classism of our court system manifests. Applicants, like myself, have to prove that they have ‘good character’. This means some combination of not having prior criminal convictions, being a good student (they even ask you for your grades), being employed (you basically give them a resume), volunteer work, if you co-operated with police, ‘passing’ a face to face interview, if your family knows about your charge and who knows what else the magistrate considers. It boils down to the court saying ‘Hey, you’re a good member of society. We wouldn’t want you to start associating with bad people now, so we will let you off this time, as long as you stop messing about.’ Of course being white and not-poor helps convince the court you are ‘of good character’. I remember reading a zine about racism in the justice system made by some folk in Aotearoa. It stated that Pakeha (White Kiwis) are many times more likely to get diversions than people of colour and especially Maori in New Zealand courts.

Us activists love these legal loopholes. They allow us to be rebels, to break the law and get away with it (kind of). And hey, if the system is willing to give us a freebie because some of us are shiny, let’s take a mile every time they give an inch right?

But what does it mean to be using our privilege in this way? To be taking advantage of what we know is a white supremacist, classist and capitalist institution?

When we glorify these ‘non-violent direct actions’, we are glorifying the people who can pull them off – people who can negotiate the court system, people whose race and class privilege them to do so.

By all means there is a place for ‘lock-ons’ but let’s not let them become the only accepted model of action. It becomes particularly problematic when we consider that these actions are charismatic. They are public, build reputations and are media grabbing compared to secret actions or behind the scenes work. So who gets to be the public face of ‘activism’? Who gets perceived as our leaders?

Have we allowed the legal institutions of the state to co-opt the climate movement? Have we become complicit in oppression by adopting a particular kind of action that conforms to the needs of privileged people, both within and outside the ‘movement’? What cost does that have for less privileged people within the climate movement? And how does this all affect alliances we are building with other social movements?

To me the most positive thing about the climate movement is its potential for diversity. We undeniably have an amazing combination of very experienced and the new, the unashamed radicals and shiny types. Together we can do anything. The trick and the crux of my critique is not to let only one form of action dominate. We need our small affinity group actions, our mass mobilisations, our speaking tours, cop-watch programs and confrontational actions. We need it all and that means the destructive and constructive, the secret and the open, the midnight spray painted slogans and the front page story. That we have the ability to pull off all this and more surely isn’t news to anyone. Maybe it is just our own culture that is standing in the way.