Written by Breana Macpherson-Rice and Elizabeth Morley, originally published on Medium, March 8 2018.
Another year, another International Women’s Day.
But this past year has not been insignificant for women politically; huge women’s marches have echoed our anger as revelation after revelation related to sexual violence has propelled the #metoo movement, throwing into the spotlight issues that have always been known deeply by women, but have never been deemed sufficiently serious enough for social reckoning.
As two young women who spend a lot of our time organising for climate justice, we want to use this international women’s day to drive home that it is beyond time that environment and progressive groups started taking the issue of sexual violence seriously.
As young activists, we thought the smaller, more grassroots groups we were a part of would be different. We saw a lot of rhetoric around this issue — safe spaces, inclusivity — and assumed that these groups were always trying their best to implement community accountability and survivor-centric approaches to sexual violence in our communities.
But over the years we have seen how depressingly far from the truth this is.
Some of the women we most admire and respect for their passion and skill in organising are also the ones who we no longer see involved in these groups — and one of the predominant reasons for this is that issues of sexual violence have not been taken seriously.
We talk about being survivor-centric, but when shit hits the fan, we still always see groups moving to defend their mate who they couldn’t possibly imagine being abusive.
The perpetrators are cushioned, insulated — their work, their reputation, are always put first at the expense of the survivor who is subject to questioning and disbelief.
And as sexual violence is fundamentally about power, it follows that women who stand at the intersections of discriminations and systemic oppressions like Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women, women of colour (WoC), women with disabilities and trans women in our movements may face even greater threats of sexual violence — which also goes part of the way to explaining our movements’ lack of diversity.
We feel stupid even writing this because it has been said before so many times, by so many women before us, but it still happens all the time. And not only is it deeply, deeply wrong that we continue to operate this way, but it is also a huge disadvantage.
Not only do we need women in leadership positions in these spaces for the sake of “diversity”, but also because they provide essential leadership.
Anyone who is not totally oblivious to the world around them will know that women so often are the driving cogs of our movements, putting in the hard work of building essential relationships and dealing with grievances that arise.
Women, and women of colour particularly, have life experiences that often give them an astute understanding of how this oppressive world works — and that knowledge is incredibly important to inform the work that we do.
When we make space for perpetrators at the expense of survivors, we are shutting out some of the most valuable leadership in our movements.And this is a vicious cycle that we need to break if we are serious about the causes we dedicate our organising time to.
This International Women’s Day, let’s call #TimesUp on sexual violence in our movements. Take some time in a group you are a part of to educate yourselves on survivor-centric approaches to sexual violence — that is to say, when instances of sexual violence arrive, how to proceed in ways that believe the survivor and act on their needs and requests. Discuss what you can do to implement community accountability practices in your group, and how you can make your best efforts to make sure all women will be supported in the work we do together. It’s not fun work, but the longer we refuse to take this issue seriously, the more our movements will continue to suffer.
I pulled the emergency stop cord until it bore my full weight. The drone of the conveyor started to abate, and, with it, a long bed of coal, the end point of a process of extraction that stretches hundreds of kilometres into the heart of Queensland, ground to a halt.
The next 12 hours stretched onwards, snapping into moments of clarity I have rarely experienced. The closest analogy I have is with watching my mother die of cancer in a palliative care ward: acute, intense, all consuming. Yet this time the immediacy of the events was infused with a strong sense of empowerment.
By locking our arms to the coal conveyor belt at Abbot Point port, myself and four others – Tess Newport, Juliet Lamont, Luca Lamont and Jeffrey Cantor – shut down Adani’s primary operations in Australia.
The port is of strategic importance because it is owned by Adani. It is an operating facility, able to process 130,000 tonnes of coal a day. It joins other sites where people have taken direct action against the Carmichael mine, such as at the Adani Australia head office in Townsville; the construction site 300 kilometres south-west of Bowen, where they are preparing the ground for the railway to service the mine; and on the Aurizon-owned railway line, which feeds into Abbot Point.
The port is a gateway to the dozens of existing mines in the Bowen Basin, which holds Australia’s largest coal reserve, and a key to mining in the Galilee Basin, where there are a number of small mining projects but not yet coal. To my mind, it is a symbolic threshold to coalmining itself.
By locking on at the port, we sought to cut the production line at its strongest point, showing the world, and in particular our elected representatives, the measures ordinary people are willing to take in opposition to this mine.
I was the first to be cut out by the Bowen police, an ordeal that was both physically and mentally challenging. Under the guise of fire safety, we were covered with heavy leather blankets, beneath which it was impossible to get a full breath of air. My world was reduced to a small window of light where the blanket did not squarely meet the ground – a gap that proffered very little stimuli, except for the sparks jetting through from the angle grinder used to cut the arm lock. A trickle of water gritted with swarf ran down my face and soaked my clothes, and I listened for the sounds of my friends’ voices, every so often punctuating the scream of metal on metal. For three hours I lay still, my back and shoulder muscles tightening and releasing in a constant cycle.
Every time I moved slightly, the police would tell me I would be there for another several hours and that I should unclip myself from the lock-on device. My approach was to speak as little as possible in order to deny them the control of conversation. This was generally effective, and they realised that they would have to do things the hard way – cut through 15 millimetres of reinforced steel and unclip me themselves.
I was surprised to find that I wasn’t overly scared through the process. I felt as I had on other occasions that seemed to have an existential weight to them, where the unfolding of events were entirely out of my hands – a particularly turbulent flight, for example.
I was proud of what I was doing. I was exhausted and in pain, but not fearful. The strongest feeling I had was the struggle to maintain my resolve. Sometimes this meant forcing myself to think of why I was there; in a trying abstraction from the situation, to think of the communities and the environment that would be devastated by the mine. Other times, when this approach proved too difficult, I would simply count to 10 in my head. Or even to three.
In the first month of 2018, there were a total of nine community-led, peaceful protests to defend the Galilee Basin. Ours was the first of its kind to target the port and was followed a week later by a similar action to shut down the facility.
Afterwards, I read that the Adani media team referred to our action as a “violent protest”. The chief executive of Abbot Point Operations, Dwayne Freeman, wrote that “the protests that we are now seeing are no longer peaceful … police and local workers were subjected to threats of physical violence and death threats … Not only are they putting themselves at significant risk, they are putting our staff and the Bowen community at risk as well.”
Not only are these claims hypocritical, not only do they disagree with the facts of what happened, but the Adani company line is a direct attempt to play workers and environmentalists off against each other in the effort to maintain the lie that the Carmichael mine will be good for regional Queensland.
The only violence is the violence of the coal industry’s dispossession of Indigenous land. The violence of taking unlimited water from the Great Artesian Basin. The violence of six open-cut coal pits and five underground mines – all just the Carmichael proposal – that would displace the habitats of at least five endangered and vulnerable species in the Galilee. The violence of the slow bleaching death of the Great Barrier Reef. And the violence of a primarily automated, extractive industry whose profit-myopia again and again leaves ghost towns in its wake.
Beneath the media releases from well-groomed executives, beneath the quarterly reports and the never-ending search for finance, it is violence that is at the core of Adani’s operations. People and the environment will bear the costs of this company’s scramble for profit.
Again, facts matter little in the Adani narrative. The reality is that among the five of us was returned serviceman Jeffrey Cantor, whose years of experience around heavy machinery working in mine sites meant that in accessing the port and stopping the coal conveyor we followed particularly high safety standards. We stopped the conveyor in a conventional and deliberate way.
Before the protest, we spent hours poring over the Google map of Abbot Point. We were able to draw a significant amount of information from the satellite images: the size of the facility; where the train feeds into the port; the size and number of coal piles; the stacker-reclaimers acting as nodes in a network of conveyors that feed coal onto the jetty stretching two kilometres into the water, where export ships are loaded.
I had been involved in a number of #StopAdani rallies in Sydney during 2017, and I was inspired by their success in forcing Commonwealth Bank, the last of the “big four” banks, to rule out funding for the mine. Yet I was dismayed that even without funding from an Australian bank, the Carmichael proposal still seemed to have legs. Minister for Resources and Northern Australia Matt Canavan was still pushing the project, and the Queensland Labor Party still refused to follow their rank-and-file in standing against it. I realised that more needed to be done, and I was inspired by a number of my friends and colleagues who had already been up to Queensland to take part in the groundswell of civil disobedience against the mine.
Community-led, nonviolent direct action has a number of uses. By delaying construction, you can hold off progress until the public is sufficiently informed and outraged, whereby more people will come, more people will protest, and eventually a mass movement will force politicians to pay attention. The stories from folks at the blockade camp – talking about their times in Tasmania, at the Leard, at the Bentley – acted as inspiration. These were the lessons and models of success on which our action was based.
As we lay there, locked to the machine, the port workers watched on, bemused and unfazed behind the glow of their cigarettes. When the police arrived, the officers tried all number of manipulation tactics to get us to lock off. They cut off our backpacks full of water. They isolated us with the leather blankets. And they told us over and over that they would be unable to respond to incidents of domestic violence in the area because all available units were attending to us. This last line has become routine in police negotiation – a cynical exploitation of the failings of police priorities.
What was remarkable to me was that the police were clearly in training when they cut us out – they had never dealt with a mass movement of environmental civil disobedience, unlike the Franklin Dam in Tasmania, the Bentley and the Leard in New South Wales, or the present dispute over logging in Victoria’s Kuark Forest. The prime example of this is that both Jeffrey and I suffered burns and lacerations from the grinder they used to cut the metal. I’ll never forget the image of Jeffrey walking through the doors of the cell, joining me a couple of hours after I was taken into custody – wiry white beard; heavy, worn-out shoulders like mine; and a dark red snake of caked-on blood running the entire length of his forearm.
Once I was removed from the conveyor belt and arrested, the Bowen police were courteous. They walked my limp and exhausted body to the police wagon, without protest from me. I was driven to Bowen in the dead of night – I was arrested at 3am, after locking on at 10.30pm the night before – and put in a cell where I slept.
The next morning, in the processing room, police took my fingerprints and mugshot. They returned my personal property, bar my phone, which was seized for evidence, and gave me my charges and bail conditions. I noticed on the forms that the officers’ names were missing. One of the two police outright refused to provide his details, telling me that he’d introduced himself multiple times over the course of the night. I asked to fill up my water bottle – it was hot outside and I didn’t know how long I’d be waiting to be picked up. The first cop refused and told me to sit down. Once he left the room, the second granted me access to a tap.
About 8.30am, I was released into the bright Queensland heat. There’s a particular sense you get walking out of the police station, equally disorienting and liberating. I felt dishevelled, exhausted and great. I bought myself an iced latte and some shorts from the op-shop, and headed to the public library to remotely erase my phone’s contents.
We were charged with trespassing, non-compliance with police orders, unregulated high-risk activities, and disrupting the port. I was handed the fourth charge on a small slip of paper when we were outside the police station taking a group photo, and it seemed to have been an afterthought. We are due to face court on February 13.
I’m saddened to read the Adani narrative on me and all the others who have put themselves on the line to ensure coal stays in the ground in the Galilee Basin. They say that we – locals, doctors, First Nations peoples, farmers, teachers and students – are reckless, militant and non-peaceful protesters. This couldn’t be further from the truth.
The Adani line must be seen for what it is: a direct attempt by a multinational corporation and its shills to divide communities on one of the most thoroughly collective issues we face, the need for just transition from industries that wreck the planet to sustainable practices, with an unwavering focus on making sure workers do not fall through the cracks of sectoral change.
I am not opposed to the use of division as a political tool. The question is where to make the cut.
To ensure that communities are not left behind by extract-and-abandon mining companies, to ensure that families are not torn apart by fly-in fly-out work and other union-busting tactics, and for a safer climate, where ordinary people take hold over the direction of their resources, their time, their energy and their future, a division must be made between those who produce and those who exploit, between those who work and those who profit. It is clear on what side of this line the Adani Group falls.
Climate change is a collective problem. It requires a collective solution.
Most people don’t know that more Aboriginal children are being taken from their families today than in the ‘Stolen Generations’. We spoke with Aunt Deb Swan from Grandmothers Against Removals (GMAR). Aunt Deb started GMAR in 2014 with four other Gomeroi grandmothers, Aunt Jen, Aunt Suellyn, Aunty Hazel, and Aunty Patty, to fight the systematic removal of their grandchildren.
“We always knew it was about racism. My sister, Jen had her grandkids removed. She made complaints, and was already looking after them.”
Another woman from Gunnedah, Suellyn Tighe, applied to be the legal carer of her grandkids. “Suellyn was assessed, supposedly by ‘independent people’, but her grandchildren were placed with their white grandparents who weren’t even assessed”, Aunt Deb said.
Aunt Deb believes that the kids should have been placed with Suellyn, “They had more contact with her — a stronger bond.”
“We worked out this was happening to other grandparents and parents in Gunnedah, so we joined forces.” That was the beginning of GMAR.
“Sorry means you don’t do it again” is a refrain often heard at GMAR rallies. It has been nearly a decade since Kevin Rudd’s apology, yet child removal rates have increased by 400%. “The apology was a meaningless thing,” says Aunt Deb. “A lot of people thought the Stolen Generation had finished. The apology was to the older generation but it’s a continuing Stolen Generation.”
The “Apology” implied that the removal of Aboriginal children from their communities has stopped. Despite how strongly this idea is embedded in our national consciousness, it is false. Aboriginal children are placed in out-of-home care at a rate ten times that of non-Aboriginal children, with a placement rate of 52.5 children for every 1000 compared to 5.5 for every 1000. Tonight, there will be more than 14,000 Aboriginal children sleeping away from their families.
The mechanisms of removal and relocation are coordinated by the NSW Department of Family and Community Services (FACS). Aunt Deb emphasises that FACS often removes children because of “unconscious bias”. Asked whether this bias is rooted in individuals or the organisation itself, Aunt Deb says it is both. “It’s a continuation of the APB [Aborigines Protection Board]… management wants to prove their power and control, and the caseworkers and managers prioritise [that] power and control over what’s best for the kids”.
“What they should be doing”, says Aunt Deb, “is following the Bringing Them Home Report”.
The Bringing Them Home Report (BTHR) was commissioned by then-Attorney-General Michael Lavarch, after years of pressure from Aboriginal organisations. It examined the trauma inflicted upon Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people through forced removals. The report, which was largely in response to the Stolen Generation, made recommendations to address the continued practice of removals and informed Rudd’s decision to issue an apology.
The report was released 20 years ago. Aunt Deb says government agencies have done nothing since.“The only recommendation that was implemented was the ‘Aboriginal Placement Principle’, and yet they don’t do it!” Aunt Deb says. The Placement Principle states that, if Aboriginal children are to be removed, they should be placed within their family, extended family, language group or broader Aboriginal community in that order. Only if none of those options are available should children be relocated to a white family. She refers back to Suellyn’s case. “Aboriginal relatives weren’t even considered, despite the Placement Principle.”
Aunt Deb asserts that “when FACS are assessing Aboriginal families, they never look for strengths”. According to Aunt Deb, “FACS gives excuses” for their ineptitude such as being “overworked’”. She points out that “they would have less work if they didn’t take our kids!”.
She recounts how some children have been taken away due to “reports about stupid things like playing in the front yard with no shoes on”. Innocuous things can add up to a justification for removing kids.
Aunt Deb also recounts instances of blackmail from solicitors “if you don’t sign the papers they won’t give contact to the grandparents or the families.”
A significant issue is that FACS’ policies allows for “interpretation of the best interests of the child”. Rather than clearly setting out what children’s’ best interests are, FACS allows individual caseworkers to ‘tick the box’ without having to adhere to a strict policy. Aunt Deb reminds us that “the Bringing Them Home Report states the best interests for the child are to be with their family.”
Raymond “Bubbly” Weatherall, a Gamilaraay Maari (man) and Birriwaa (warrior) from Collarenebri, supports the work of GMAR. He and Aunt Deb acknowledge that “there are still issues” and agree that kids in immediate danger should be removed and placed with other family members, but tell us that the number and conduct of removals indicates there is a problem with the current system.
One way of understanding the scale of the issue is through its financial cost. Child removals are exceptionally expensive. According to the Australian Institute of Family Studies, $3.6 billion was spent on ‘child protection and out-of-home care services’ in 2014-15.
“Most kids are removed without early intervention.”
The “government should be refocusing the funds”, Aunt Deb says. She argues that the government could use its money more efficiently by offering preventative care to families. According to Deb, that would make “the family unit stronger so the kids can stay at home”.
Indeed, the Human Rights Commission notes that similar problems existed during the Stolen Generation. “Many people have said that Indigenous children were removed from appalling living conditions. However, nothing was being done by government agencies to improve these conditions for Indigenous families.”
Underpinning the issue of forced removals is intergenerational trauma. As Bubbly points out, “Aboriginal families have been broken up so much.” The BTHR notes that “The laws, policies and practices which separated Indigenous children from their families have contributed directly to the alienation of Indigenous societies today.” There is a cruel irony in the fact that the circumstances from which FACS removes children were often created by the past removal of Aboriginal kids. With the continued removal of Aboriginal children, the cycle of intergenerational trauma is likely to continue.
A complicating factor in child removals is that, according to Aunt Deb, FACS workers “don’t understand how Aboriginal families work”.
“Their cultural plan is to give [removed children] books”, said Aunt Deb, which she sees as inadequate and wilfully ignorant. “The cultural plan should always be that you return them to family. They need to be living [culture] with their family – that’s how they learn. Taking them away from their family and culture is the most traumatic thing.”
Aunt Deb says that FACS workers have told her that “no program could give us what we’ve [GMAR] told them.”
In light of this, Aunt Deb emphasises the need for FACS to listen to Aboriginal families and communities in order to do what’s best for the kids. She points to FACS workers not “mixing with and seeing Aboriginal people in their own personal life” resulting in a bias against Aboriginal families drawn from popular media and opinion.
But Aunt Deb says GMAR will not accept “reduced by 2020”, a date drawn from a Department of Social Services publication titled “National Framework for Protecting Australia’s Children 2009-2020”. “We want the kids back with their families immediately, not setting dates”.
Aunt Deb has called for the whole system to be overhauled with a focus on greater accountability. “How long do these kids have to wait to get back with their families? These kids are still being traumatised every day they’re away from their families.”
The BTHR was released twenty years ago. “I’ll probably be dead in 20 years, the kids will be over 18, if they do another research report, and you keep telling us to go through a process”.
“Sue’s grandkids are now placed with her. They came back just before Christmas.” Nonetheless, Aunt Deb says that Sue will still have to “apply [for] guardianship and get them out of [FACS’] hands.”
There are some indications of progress, however. Aunt Deb recounts one long term Aboriginal activist saying that GMAR was the “quickest movement to produce change” that he had seen. Some of that change is coming through work that GMAR is doing with FACS on new guiding principles on caring for Aboriginal children. “We’re working on that with them now (…) Implementing has already started. [We’re] starting local Aboriginal advisory groups – going around getting people to start their own local groups. Then going to focus on [how to] getting the kids back, so it’s a shorter and more appropriate process once they’ve found suitable relatives to get them to.” Aunt Deb and GMAR’s demands echo the BTHR’s principal finding “that self-determination for Indigenous peoples provides the key to… eliminating unjustified removals of Indigenous children”.
When asked what students can do to support GMAR, Aunt Deb said, “Turn up to rallies and support us that way, that’d be really good.”
Becoming aware, listening to Aboriginal people and believing them is the first step to addressing the issue. Otherwise, Aboriginal people will keep facing the reality that A.B. Original describe in “Jan 26”: “I turn the other cheek, I get a knife in my back / And I tell ‘em it hurts, they say I overreact”.
Most media coverage and left-leaning discussions on social media since have focussed on the role of sexism and racism in paving the way for Trump’s victory. The connection between anti-immigrant sentiment and job losses in the US due to outsourcing and low-cost immigrant labour, is a deeper story which has mostly been ignored or glossed over. Warning: shitloads of hyperlinks because we don’t fuck around.
While previous waves of technological development have made industries and jobs redundant, new ones have been created in their place. Thus, countries like the USA and Australia have seen a decline in the share of employment in manufacturing and agriculture and an increase in employment in the service sector.
Globalisation (aka neoliberalism) over the last couple of decades has created an increasingly polarised world, where unprecedented productivity and wealth in rich countries exists alongside enduring poverty in poor countries. It’s a world in which Australians have the second-highest per-capita water usage in the world while 1 in 10 of the world’s population have no reliable access to safe drinking water. While this reflects a history of colonialism, technological change is also implicated, as access to information and communications technology and the most advanced machinery determines access to the benefits of the global capitalist economy.
Inequality within countries is also rising, even in wealthy countries which have benefited from globalisation as a whole. Urban Australia, where new service industries and informations & communications technology have concentrated, has benefited at the expense of regional and rural Australia. In those areas, the long-term loss of agriculture, manufacturing and mining jobs has led to permanent structural unemployment and economic decline which may be worsened by automation.
The prospect of the 4th industrial revolution leading to large sections of the world’s population becoming not only unemployed but unemployable, has led to calls from high-profile tech pioneers like Elon Musk for a Universal Basic Income. This would cushion workers from the effects of displacement from AI and automation and allow people to pursue other things. However, these proposals remain below the radar of mainstream political discourse. And while many on the left embrace robots as a pathway to economic abundance and freedom from the drudgery of work, conjuring visions of ‘fully automated luxury communism’, asa utopian future is by no means certain.
Meanwhile, cutting-edge new private settlements using new technologies are being built in poor countries like Nigeria to shield local elites from the effects of climate change. The dystopian future is already here, a future where those with access to resources and technology are seeking to wall themselves off from the majority who will have to go without.
Recently, in order to avoid doing any actual study about environmental issues, I’ve been binge watching National Geographic’s Doomsday Preppers. It follows US families who’ve devoted themselves to preparing for any number of doomsday scenarios – everything from natural disasters like earthquakes and hurricanes to a nuclear attack or economic collapse. Many have invested tens of thousands of dollars or more in any number of elaborate schemes to protect their family from catastrophe – underground bunkers, home-made tanks, surveillance systems, booby-traps, you name it. Of course, most are also obsessed with stockpiling as many guns and as much ammunition as possible so they can defend themselves and their families from the hostile masses should society go belly-up.
It’s easy to dismiss the “preppers” as paranoid nutjobs, and I suspect this spectacle is the primary appeal of the show. Preppers seem like the ultimate proof of the absurd individualism of American culture – so convinced that the government is either incompetent or out to get them, and so distrustful of everyone else in their communities, that they have become obsessed with total self-reliance. Most of the protagonists are suburban white men, and I’m sure you could write essays for gender studies about prepping as performative masculinity, a macho façade which hides a deep sense of insecurity.
However, there is more beneath the surface. Many preppers are interested not only in defence, but in ensuring they can provide for themselves after the collapse. This has led many of them to ingenious DIY green designs in their attempt to ensure self-sufficiency. There are lots of examples of excellent home gardens built along organic/permaculture principles, rainwater collection or water purification systems and home-made renewable energy setups. One guy has even built an apparatus like a giant magnifying glass using the screen from an old television, which enables him to cook and even melt steel using only sunlight.
One of the most interesting examples I found was in season 3 episode 3, where Arizona family man Chad demonstrates both sides of the prepper universe. Chad is convinced that the US government is eventually going to wage nuclear war on its citizens, so he is building a bunker in his backyard and giving his young daughters firearms training.
However, Chad has also developed an aquaponics garden which easily produces enough food for his family. Aquaponics is a combination of fish farming and vegetable gardening, where the water (containing nutrient-rich fish crap) is pumped through the garden beds and then waste plant material is fed to the fish, forming a closed system that requires no other inputs. This allows fish and vegetables to be grown very quickly and efficiently. The only waste produced is algae, which, in a further stroke of genius, Chad is able to convert into a natural fuel called biodiesel, enabling his family to be self-sufficient not only in food but in fuel as well.
As environmentalists, I wonder if there isn’t something we can learn from people like Chad. Ultimately the environmental movement must focus on broad social change, not just celebrating people who’ve cut themselves off from society, but the preppers have many important lessons to share about how to do more with less. They show us that other ways of doing things are possible – maybe if we can convince them that Bush didn’t do 9/11, we can get somewhere.