By Nic Avery. Originally published in The Saturday Paper, February 10 2018.
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.