Attending a protest as a reluctant protester

I’m not a natural protester. I’m an advocate yes, a protester no. I suppose that others may consider me an activist though I have no clear definition of all that the meaning encompasses. If it is so, my activism does the work I do, works on the ground in Cambodia and attends some events, but nothing all that, well, publicly active. I never felt like I met the mold of an environmental activist. Nor the stereotype of one either. Contrary, my mum attended plenty of protests as an activist when she was younger at our home in The Netherlands. She seems much more at home in that role. Western Europe in the 60s and 70s in general was full of idealism and activism. I’ve been more comfortable trying to do my small part in education, in on-the-ground works, in running workshops, volunteering, donating, or doing the little things I can. I’m comfortable in the issues that centre in environmental protests but actually participating in them doesn’t fill me with joy.

Except we’re in a crisis period. The system is pretty broken in many places (or rather, it was entirely designed to work this way). I’m not in any way convinced you can change it from the inside. We need to work with people in it to be certain, but we also need far, far more public pressure and it is clear that governments are currently functioning well outside our best interests and seem incapable to handle the enormity of the challenges we are facing. Challenges we have been facing for decades that have been ignored or exacerbated. Or in some cases improved and are now regressing. We need politicians to be inconvenienced. We need them to be worried about votes. We need them to be worried about their children’s lives. We need them focussing on the injustice, the potential water wars, the systemic issues, the laws that require changing and the hundreds of solutions that can be found directly at their fingertips that they only need to communicate and implement. We need huge collectives of people to understand the issues and come together. We need to be coming at this from multiple angles.

I have therefore been a non-active supporter of the Extinction Rebellion movement. Their ability to organize, run workshops, learn, talk and create a space that’s getting better and better at inclusivity has been astounding to watch. They have created a space for eco-anxiety which many are people are feeling, decompressing after events in important self-health and meeting people who can be the opposite to you but welcome you with open arms. I have listened to people I admire across a spectrum of backgrounds join the cause. There are little political movements in my lifetime that have had so much passion and skill at this. And they are making an impact. I’m cautious of course. I grew up with the songs of Sting and Supertramp, and listened to plenty of anti-Vietnam protest stories. I watch the Occupy movement rise and fizzle. I’ve had my own idealism trampled and international law and/or development is a place many become jaded.

These movements tend to be lauded by half the public and derided by the other half when they rise up. That’s just the way it goes. Except unlike many causes which many millions are unwilling to help because it doesn’t directly affect them, this one will affect us all. And the children to come. And unlike some other movements this one isn’t going to go away until we put significant action in place, because it will continue to only get worse and worse. Unlike a number of other movements too, it has a set of very clear demands and a set of clear values. It understands what its goals are. It is non-violent (I’m fairly pacifist by nature wherever possible). It intrigued me and much like tasting the food before making an assessment, you only know when you go.

So when I flew into Brisbane, Australia after an extremely sad year in a climate change ravaged Cambodia (I appreciate the irony of flying in on the same day as this), I felt compelled to at the very least attend, and as a photographer, to document what is feeling like a time in history we will look back and see as an inflexion point. Australia isn’t generally an activist nation, and Brisbane is not a major worldwide city, so I was also interested to know how the movement was going in places like this. I have lived here and it is my Australian home. I was going to stay for an hour or two in the early morning. I stayed for five enjoying the atmosphere and the sunshine and the group of people around me who understood.

Watching others participate, thinking of those whose lives were suffering and ending in rural Cambodia, thinking of friends struggling in Africa, thinking of the kids my friends are having, and understanding the situation that’s coming for us all, I ended up joining in the crowds with some chants. It took a lot of me to get myself up and do so; like I said, a reluctant protester. My voice got a bit louder and by the end it was lost in the sea of others. Other humans far braver than I. It felt good to raise my voice. Sometimes this work feels like you’re shouting into the void. Sometimes it feels like a constant tightrope between balancing everybody’s desires and political leanings with careful, even, centric, rhetoric. Sometimes it’s good to yell you want climate justice, that coal needs to stop,  and that you’re standing on stolen land with a group of people who are just as angry and somehow also just as optimistic. I felt pride and heart at the people sitting peacefully, arms linked on the road, blocking traffic. I was inspired by the young and old, the numerous genders and cultures getting arrested in the name of our environment. The oldest amongst us had probably been to quite a few rallies in their time; their presence felt inspiring, comforting and safe.

My experience was overwhelmingly positive and affirming. It was hopeful. I can’t describe how wonderful an atmosphere it is these events create despite the extremely serious and horrifying consequences we’re protesting. I was grateful at how inclusive it felt. There were many people from many walks of life there and a rare zone of no judgement. I’m definitely on the bland, law side and had some lovely conversations with people doing amazing work in such a variety of skills with the time and means they have. I was also proud of the people spending their privilege. There are lots of people of color who come out on the streets and work behind the scenes but there are also many who understandably do not feel safe to do so. It is in fact less safe for them to do so. It is dangerous being arrested and dangerous being taken to the station. Dangerous to sit in jail. Life threatening.

Before the event, the local organizers had also called to this, pointing out that people of color and Indigenous peoples may be treated differently by the police and are certainly putting themselves at a far greater risk. There was also a call to record – in video and photo – every interaction with the police that was happening. I was proud watching this – as police got engaged, two or three other protesters would walk with them and quietly record the moment unless there was physical aggression. This not only created a record and accountability but it also helps to ensure people feel seen and safer. The #metoo movement has shifted a lot in women and with history, the police here made me feel the same discomfort and power imbalance. I would not have wanted to be touched like this. I am not yet in a place where I can put my body on the line with police. Right now, my body is mine and not open to unwanted touch and violence. I was impressed at the women and non-binary who did do this. I was grateful for the men who rose so others wouldn’t need to.

A word on police if you’re anything like me and worried. I do not have much trust in the police around the world. I really, really wish that wasn’t the case. I stay out of their way and my life does not warrant their attention at all. They are not a feature in my life and I have little interaction with them. And yet, I have seen police beat men with sticks in Tanzania. I have been behind military vehicles guns pointed at the scooter I am on. I have watched police in Australia disbelieve my girlfriends and cause them more harm. I have seen them reject domestic violence. I have seen violent police videos. I have watched them during movements like the Yellow Vests in France and I have heard from friends in the States what it is like to not be white there. I have heard of the deaths, so many, entirely unnecessary. I watch them now lining up on the Chinese side, along Hong Kong. I have looked suspiciously at them when they carry their guns across the world (something we do not do in Holland). I know there are good ones out there. Ones in it for all the right reasons. Smiling, happy, warm and friendly too. And I’ve also had a very kind conversation with someone toting their AK47 in Kenya helping me locate the bathroom. I very much wish that community building and relationships established on trust were being forged in all countries across the world.

The police at this protest were very much of the white, dominant male type (along with a few women). They were largely not there for the community, they came in huge numbers, on their horses, and motorbikes and vans, as a show of force. It’s part of the XR protests of course, to shut down parts of a city, but it was also a fairly disproportional presence. I wondered if they had children. I wondered if they were secretly happy that people were protesting. I wondered if they denied climate change or if they were themselves activists but this was the day job. I wondered what the point was (the main area of the event had been legally set up with approval permission).

Very heartening was Larissa Waters, the Queensland Greens Leader and former deputy attending. She was gracious, inspiring, and kind. She understood the criticism of events like these and communicated the impact they made at a government level.  Before her, Jonathan Sri (a local mayor from the council of Woolloongabba) spoke. Not only did he speak, he left us with a spoken word poem, one that sent tingles up the backs of most of us. The Brisbane City Council later called the demonstrators here extremists. I would definitely not consider myself in that bracket. As far as I understand, demonstrating is not an extreme choice, particularly when compared to other events & groups that receive this wording, and we should be much more careful regarding our language usage.

I think it’s also constructive to keep in mind that fossil fuel companies and wealthy billionaires control our government and line the pockets of many of our politicians. They run campaigns we cannot begin to fathom.

Fossil fuel companies don’t need to protest. They already protest against any shifting in the world with their money. They protest democracy by stifling votes. They protest environment action by funding destructive practices. They control our markets. They protest any rebellion against capitalism by squashing the very notion of it, and producing more and more.

Jonathan Sri speaking at the Extinction Rebellion event.
Larissa Waters, Greens Senator
Larissa Waters, Greens Senator

The day included a free vegan sausage sizzle, water (with reusable mugs of course!), kids area for playing, sign writing, elders space, live music and generally just a whole lot of chatting, chanting, meeting new people and dancing. It was smaller than many large protests; Brisbane has a significantly smaller population than cities like London or Berlin, and is in a very conservative state, but it’s growing and was heartening to see local actions happening across the State rather than coal mines dominating public discourse.

I don’t watch the news (or any commercial television) but I jumped online to see what a few main sites in the country were saying and I was pretty shocked. The levelling of anger, the unbelievable amount of stereotyping and the taunts of hypocrisy left me dizzy (for the record, we’re all hypocrites, the structure of our current society  makes it so). In response to this, Jonathan Sri actually set up a Facebook album to counter this narrative (a great initiative that has since reached thousands of local people).

Obviously, one movement is not the answer to our multiple sets of environmental crises particularly as they underscore the need to work on big, intersecting issues of racism, sexism, colonialism, poverty and inequity. It’s one movement learning & trying. It’s not perfect (nothing ever is) and it won’t be the one thing that delivers the solutions all of us are seeking. But it’s a part; and a big part. It is shifting conversation in public, and in government. It is demanding the truth. It is reaching more people. It is accelerating impact when combined with other movements (like the school protest Friday for Future) and local elections and proposed legislation. And it is providing a space that many people need, or may start to feel they need, as the next couple of years progress.

I can’t speak for anyone else, or the experiences of people of color, LGBTQIA+ identifying folx, those with visa & immigration concerns, and Indigenous peoples, but I hope everyone is feeling increasingly included and part of a possible change. The voices of all those can definitely be elevated more and new, and additional tactics, will hopefully be created and used that are more inclusive and don’t just put white people in the media. It is a movement that is actively learning and iterating with much needed input from a range of voices. 

I don’t know if this is the future. I don’t know where this will go. I don’t know how effective this will continue to be. But so far it has been effective, for an extended period of time, and it’s cutting through the noise more than most things in this incredibly fast-paced news world. It’s somewhat shifting the Overton window.

You can count me in at the next one (back Europe way most likely). Here are some more photos from the event:

P.S. Through writing this piece I learned I didn’t know how to spell protester (turns out it isn’t protestor!)

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