we still have our bodies

On Sunday 2 November, Brisbane Airport rejected a climate change billboard as “too political”. The billboard was the initiative of a handful of climate and environment NGOs who sought to reach G20 leaders arriving in Brisbane before the G20 Leaders’ Summit beginning on 15 November. Brisbane Airport tweeted

Yet this wholly apolitical airport apparently had no qualms about running advertisements for Chevron, or defending dredging near the Great Barrier Reef – companies and issues that are political, to say the least, and possibly even a little controversial.

This behaviour, which has the effect of denying a means of expression to civil society, is certainly not without precedent. In 2008 I was part of a grassroots campaign against an arms fair scheduled for Adelaide over Remembrance Day. Our group had fundraised to get a billboard of our own, and arranged to have a simple message appear: “Hands up for peace. No arms for war”. This billboard, too, was rejected as being “too political”.

It seems a bit rough, doesn’t it? We let corporations – some of which are wantonly manipulating our politicians while plotting how to cook the planet – dominate the public and private spheres, advertising as they will. Yet if citizens pool their resources to stand a chance of competing, they aren’t even given a guernsey. Public places are, bit by bit, turned toward private ends, and the tools of public debate – flyering, postering, petitions, billboards – are increasingly locked away for the use of those who can pay and promise not to be “too political”.

Yet necessity is the mother of invention. Frustrated by the failure of existing institutions and the lack of access to democratic channels, activists are discovering and utilising alternative means. Like a dammed river, the creativity of Australian civil society is pooling outwards, finding other routes, finding places to break through.

You can see this in the actions of Jonathan Moylan, whose fake ANZ media release succeeded in drawing attention to Whitehaven Coal’s plans to destroy the Leard State Forest. You can see this in the actions of education activists who used a live broadcast of the ABC’s Q&A to loudly condemn Minister Pyne’s plans to remove the cap on university fees and make students wear the costs. And you can see this in the actions of those protecting Gloucester, using what means remain available to them – their bodies – to peacefully take action against AGL’s coal seam gas project.

I think it comes out most poignantly though in the actions complementing 350.org Australia’s recent “Pacific Warriors” tour. This tour brought 30 Pacific Islanders to Australia to share their stories of how global warming is affecting their homes. Lacking Australian citizenship, these are people who, in a scarily absolute sense, have negligible influence over Australian domestic policy, even as it endangers their own homes, peoples, and cultures.

So they did what they could. On Friday October 17 they took part in a flotilla of Newcastle Harbour, to block coal ships from taking their black death out into the world. Sailing in traditional canoes they made themselves and brought to Australia, they came face to face with the ugly steel hulls of the Australian coal industry.

In the following days, people in Canberra, Melbourne, and Perth, took part in solidarity actions to further dramatize the tragedy of climate change. Sydneysiders converged on the office of Whitehaven Coal. Canberrans took part in a sit-in of the Mineral’s Council of Australia’s office. In Melbourne, ANZ’s Collins Street building was occupied by Melbourne residents and Pacific Islanders. On the Western seaboard, a group including George Nacewa from Fiji, occupied the headquarters of Buru Energy, protesting against dangerous fracking.

What place do these actions – which are often against the law – have in our democracy?

This question isn’t new, and was confronted many decades ago by Dr. Martin Luther King in his Letter from Birmingham Jail. In this now famous letter, King describes how the Negro community of Birmingham was denied a chance to air its grievances, and was instead compelled to employ civil disobedience:

“It is unfortunate that demonstrations are taking place in Birmingham, but it is even more unfortunate that the city’s white power structure left the Negro community with no alternative.”

He goes on to describe attempts to negotiate, and the manipulation and recalcitrance of the Birmingham’s city fathers and economic community. Only when such attempts had been frustrated did the people of Birmingham come to realise:

“We had no alternative except to prepare for direct action, whereby we would present our very bodies as a means of laying our case before the conscience of the local and the national community.”

King goes on to argue that the “very purpose” of non-violent direct action is to create negotiation – to sidestep the powerful broadcasting of the oppressor, to

“create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue.”

He concludes the section in question by regretting that the “beloved Southland” has been “bogged down in a tragic effort to live in monologue rather than dialogue.”

Keep these words, and the actions of Brisbane Airport, in mind. Even as the fact that global warming is already harming our planet becomes clearer, institutions deny civil society the chance to spread their message, and the mainstream media continue to circle the wagons to spread doubt and condemn those who dare to act (this latter point shown no more clearly than by the AFR’s campaign against the ANU’s recent divestment decision.)

In response to the greatest threat facing our home, and our people, Australians are choosing to be, in the spirit of Dr. King, ‘extremists for love’. We will gladly campaign with billboards, if you will let us. But if you won’t, we still have our bodies.

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