Melbourne hosted a four-day open-air confrontation in late October. On one side, some of the world’s biggest mining bosses and a few hundred cops; on the other, hundreds of environmental protesters, who got up before dawn to picket the entrance of the annual International Mining and Resources Conference (IMARC). It was the latest in a series of recent advances for the environment movement. While far from being the biggest protest of 2019, it showed in miniature many of the dynamics we can expect to see on a bigger scale in the years to come.
In the years after the federal coalition came to power on a pro-coal platform in 2013, environmental activism was largely confined to rural areas. The cities largely stayed quiet. But in the last few years, the growing climate crisis, the widespread outrage at the Adani coalmine and the momentum of an international movement have combined to bring climate activism back to the big urban centres – where, potentially, millions of people can take part and disrupt the centres of capitalism.
Around Australia, hundreds of thousands marched for September’s climate strike. That showed the potential strength of our side. For a week in early October, hundreds in Melbourne and Brisbane took part in daily actions organised under the name of Extinction Rebellion. The most confrontational actions in Melbourne were organised by its student wing: they occupied and re-occupied key intersections to bring the city to a halt. Despite a furious right wing media backlash, the protesters received overwhelming public support. That showed how widely the climate crisis is understood.
The blockade of the mining conference demonstrated something else: the need to identify, name and confront the people responsible for the destruction of the planet. As an increasingly popular slogan of the movement puts it: “The earth is not dying. It’s being killed, and those who are killing it have names and addresses”. They have conferences, too. Not just IMARC: every big mining town is keen to host a festival of the oppressors. Perth’s got a Resources Technology Showcase planned for late November, and Wollongong will host the thrilling Coal2020 early next year.
Some of the most despicable mining capitalists – such as Hugh Morgan, a long term funder of climate denial and anti-union think tanks – were unsurprised by the picket. Morgan’s a class warrior for the industry. He expects the mob to hate him, and he’s happy to hate them back. But other conference attendees were shocked. One complained to Channel 7 news that it wasn’t just fossil fuel miners represented at the conference: what about those who refined aluminium for bicycles?
He makes a good point. It wasn’t just the most infamous carbon-industry capitalists at the conference. Loads of bosses from all wings of the mining industry were there, keen as ever to look socially responsible. BHP ran a session on the “social licence to operate”; there was a workshop on “diversity and inclusion”. Peter Ker, the resources reporter for the Australian Financial Review, complained that protesters had targeted “such a politically correct conference” (unlike many mining conferences, he noted, “there are no topless barmaids at IMARC”). But when the government’s resources minister, Matt Canavan, addressed this very enlightened conference, he described his vision:
“The green light. A green light for new mining basins ... That is what we are getting on with now with the development of the Galilee Basin through Adani’s project ... Australian coal and gas helps end poverty. Australian coal and gas helps improve air quality and Australian coal and gas helps reduce carbon emissions.”
The oh-so-woke capitalists who profit from supplying raw materials to the bicycle industry didn’t heckle. They have a sense of class solidarity. No matter the mineral, they all want to maximise their class power at our expense. This means banding together to secure favourable terms for mining and ensuring governments support the industry. And they know that if their mates in the coal and carbon industry fall victim to social movements, so might they.
The picket itself was an attempt to combine three important tactical principles. First, it directly targeted those responsible for wrecking the planet. It wasn’t about appealing to the consciences of our enemies. It aimed to inspire solidarity on our side, and hatred of the bosses. Second, it did so in the city, where the ruling class has its command centres (and fancy conference centres) – and where we outnumber them by millions. Third, it aimed to disrupt by mobilising as many people as possible – not just a small crew of in-the-know saboteurs. It wasn’t a bad start: hundreds turned out before sunrise ready to link arms. We’ll need more as the movement grows. The capitalist state has a tailor-made apparatus to shut down small-scale resistance. To really take the fight to them, we’ll need both the numbers and the audacity to overwhelm the police who defend the system.
The cops came ready for a fight. After a frustrating week of cat-and-mouse with Extinction Rebellion earlier in October, Melbourne’s riot cops wanted to put on a good show for the international bosses their city was hosting. They spent four days playing with their capsicum spray, their batons and their horses. Dozens of us were punched and sprayed. A couple of protesters were hospitalised, and up to 80 were arrested. (Despite this, the picketers maintained their spirit throughout the week, and most of the arrested protesters were back in the mix as soon as they had been processed.) Squads of cops bashed through the picket repeatedly to march the mining bosses into their diversity-and-inclusion workshops.
As the week went on, they used pepper spray more freely, and they more openly showed their political colours. A couple of cops are now supposedly under investigation for visually demonstrating their fascist sympathies and hatred of “hippies” in front of photographers. To run a society so unequal, so depraved and so chaotic, bosses need a loyal guard of sadists who enjoy meting out pain. Without that apparatus – and it’s not just the police, but the spies and the army – capitalism can’t continue. Without defeating that apparatus, our side can’t win.
Those of us in Melbourne who’ve attended protests in the last five years have become familiar with the sting of the Victoria Police’s ultra-powerful OC foam, along with its distinctive chili-pepper aroma. Under the enlightened rule of Victoria’s Labor government, the police have been outfitted with an astonishing array of pain-inducing devices, and encouraged to use them freely on protesters deemed too inconvenient. “Progressive” premier Daniel Andrews declaration that the police were “doing every one of us proud” and his promise of more money and political support came just a few days after Queensland’s Labor government passed new anti-protest laws designed to intimidate environment activists. Labor, too, will do whatever they must to defend mining bosses – right now, that means criminalising protest and unleashing police brutality to terrorise those fighting to stop climate change.
A threat to the fossil fuel bosses is a threat to every capitalist. So all the big institutions that live to defend capitalism linked arms in the defence of IMARC– Labor and Liberal parties, the cops, even the woke aluminium bosses. An anti-capitalist world view helped many of the Blockade IMARC coalition fix their targets and find our strategy. And in the aftermath of the police violence, when the Liberals tried to outbid Victorian Labor by threatening to further criminalise activism and even boycotts, socialist students took the lead in initiating a public rally in defence of the right to protest.
That rally took place a week after the blockade had ended. It brought together around 500 people. Socialist Alternative member Jerome Small, who’d organised the blockade and was one of the first protesters arrested, spoke. So did Victorian Greens leader Samantha Ratnam, who’d also been present at the blockade. Others from the blockade coalition spoke too. All insisted on the importance of standing up to repression. Some observed that 50 years ago, in 1969, anti-war activists had been arrested in Melbourne for handing out anti-draft leaflets in the city. A week after those arrests, 500 had gathered to hand out leaflets illegally – and in a nice, unintended, symmetry, both that rally in 1969 and our rally in 2019 took place on the steps of Melbourne’s General Post Office building.
As the climate crisis intensifies, the struggle for climate justice will be ever more tightly linked to the fight for democratic rights and civil liberties. We’ll have to combine disruption with mass action, targeting the bosses who are wrecking our planet and the system they run. Knowing that capitalism despises real democracy and thrives on repression, we must respond to its growing authoritarianism with renewed determination to protest in ever greater numbers.