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Feb 3, 2009

Climate of creative disobedience

“If you disobey a police directive, there is a risk you will be arrested and charged with trespass,” I explained gently to countless groups of people as they lined the fron

John Hepburn

John worked as a mechanical engineer making components for the coal, oil and nuclear industries before becoming an environmental activist in the mid 1990's. He co-founded a successful recycling business in Brisbane before moving to Sydney to work with Greenpeace. He has a strong interest in the politics of technology and in social movement strategy, and, like many, is extremely concerned about climate change. He works part-time as a senior campaigner with the Greenpeace Australia Pacific climate change campaign.

If you disobey a police directive, there is a risk you will be arrested and charged with trespass,” I explained gently to countless groups of people as they lined the front of Parliament House yesterday.

Around two and half thousand people of all ages and from all over Australia gathered to encircle federal Parliament on the first sitting day of 2009 to demand urgent action on climate change. It was the culmination of the three day ‘climate action summit’ which saw over 150 community climate change groups meet for the first time to develop a national campaign strategy.

Some faces showed thinly disguised fear at the prospect of disobeying police instructions. Others had travelled for hours to link hands all the way around Parliament House and nothing was going to stop them. “But it’s our Parliament! – there’s no way the police can stop this many people!”

After the Kevin Rudd’s appalling capitulation to the big polluters and his announcement of a pathetic 5% emissions reduction target, the organisers of the Climate Action Summit applied to The Usher of the Black Rod for permission to form a human chain all the way around Parliament. It was to be a symbolic protest about the capture of our politicians by the big polluters and the need for urgent action in response to the climate emergency.

The request was denied. We said that we were going to do it anyway. They said they couldn’t let us do it because it would create a precedent and that we had to stay on the protest lawn out the front. We said we were going to do it anyway. They offered us a compromise to form a chain across the front of Parliament. We said we were going to do it anyway, and that if they wanted to arrest people we would co-operate fully to help minimise disruption. So when we arrived at Parliament yesterday morning, it was a standoff.

The crowd started to gather from around 7:30am. A hot Tuesday morning in Canberra, outside of school holidays…it was a big ask. We were hoping for at least a thousand people – just enough to stretch the 1.6km distance. But the stream of red just kept on coming. Busses from Sydney, Melbourne, and around NSW, people on bikes, pedestrians, a constant stream of red shirts and red banners until we had up to two and half thousand people milling around the front of Parliament.

Mums, dads, grandparents, young children, babies, teenagers, from all walks of life and from all over Australia. It was truly inspiring to see the diversity of the climate change movement that had gathered to raise their voices. The police didn’t stand a chance.

When the call went out, the crowd slowly started moving from the front of Parliament around the sides. Some walked boldly, heads held high as though they owned the place (which we do). For others, their trepidation slowly turned to grins of delight as they saw the police step aside and let us pass. Ten minutes later, the two ends of the line joined up at the far end of Parliament – mission accomplished! Cheers went up around the perimeter. You could tell people could sense of their own power. Over two thousand people had stared down the politicians, bureaucrats and police and had participated in civil disobedience to stand up for something they believe in. They did it peacefully and creatively, together with their friends and family, and they had a wonderful time doing it.

If you’ve ever been involved in direct action protest with your community, you will know that it is one of the most empowering and inspiring things you can ever do. And if you’ve studied history, you will know that we owe many of our basic rights and freedoms to people doing civil disobedience.

Climate change poses such a profound threat to our future, and our Government is failing so comprehensively, that people are left with little choice but to start taking direct action themselves, and to start building a social movement to turn politics on it’s head. These past few days have been an important step in that journey. And it’s only going to grow from here.

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4 thoughts on “Climate of creative disobedience

  1. blogSanity

    […] Opening Address, John Hepburn Coordinator, Greenpeace Australia Pacific Climate Change Campaign Post: Climate of creative disobedience, Rooted, John Hepburn Summit: Presentations Summit: Essential PowerPoint, David Spratt Summit: Media Summary Summit: […]

  2. John Hepburn

    John, I really understand your frustration that not enough is happening. All of the things that you suggest are important. But my own view is that the most powerful force for change that we have is the power of collective action. The protest at Parliament was powerful because it gave a couple of thousand people a sense of their own power. This was a stepping stone along the path towards people taking further direct action. In July 2008, over a thousand people took part in direct action to close Newcastle coal port for a day, resulting in over 60 people being charged with tresspass. In 2009, we need ten thousand people to be taking this kind of direct action, the the protest at Parliament was part of the journey towards this.

  3. Report Backs from the National Climate Summit

    […] Climate of Civil Disobedience, John Hepburn […]

  4. D. John Hunwick

    It is ll very well feeling good about linking up with others, even around Parliament House. The problem is that after all that the Rudd target of a 5% emission reduction still stands. Unless the action actually produces change then it is the sound of one hand clapping. UNless more direct action is undertaken than just holding hands then the fate of the earth is sealed. ON the individulal level, reduc your own emissions. At the local level make your local government put solar heaters (or PV cells, or insulation) on to every public building), at State Level visit parliamentarians and demand they reduce their own carbon emissions by 10% in time for the next election or you will vote for the othe party, and at Federal Level choke up every conceivable means of communication (phone, fax,email, mail etc) with the demand that politicians of all persuasion opt for an increase in carbon emissions that is far more substantial. Beliv me holding hands won’t do it.