“Grandfathers, youth and parents-to-be alike have spectacularly blocked Commonwealth Avenue Bridge in the national capital with trucks and tents, and have locked onto each other with bright yellow and pink pipes,” read the press release late last week.
“Happening now: Extinction Rebellion blockade Commonwealth Bridge in national capital as government commits future generations to climate collapse.”
I knew about it already: my phone was pinging with irritated Region Media staff members trying to get home to the Northside from Deakin, while I’d (just) managed to turn around at Parliament House for an alternative route.
The protest was part of a series of dramatic actions staged by members of the Extinction Rebellion group, who have glued themselves to the forecourt at Parliament House, set prams on fire in the interest of saving future generations, and dressed themselves as various politicians.
We live in a vibrant democracy where the right to protest is aligned with our right to free speech. Extinction Rebellion is deeply concerned by what commitments Prime Minister Scott Morrison will make at the COP 26 UN Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, that is currently being watched by the world.
The colourful, energetic Extinction Rebellion movement is deadly serious about the need for urgent action on climate change by our elected representatives. But is annoying a lot of people who fundamentally agree with them going to achieve that?
Here’s the rationale from the group’s press release:
“After peaceful climate protesters were, once again, arrested for protesting on Parliament lawns yesterday, and no members of parliament responded to Extinction Rebellion’s demand to meet with them, Extinction Rebellion activists were left with no choice but to set up camp on Commonwealth Bridge.”
So, nobody paid any attention at Parliament, therefore it was necessary to disrupt the lives of thousands of ordinary commuters making their way home instead? To leave those commuters idling in their fossil fuel-powered vehicles, strumming their fingers in irritation as they ran late to pick up their children and feed their families?
And the ACT is the most solidly progressive jurisdiction in Australia, where there was a Greens landslide at the last local election, and where the vast majority of our federal representatives are in Opposition anyway?
A number of Extinction Rebellion members have appeared in ACT courts recently, and they received relatively short shrift from the bench.
Magistrate Robert Cook told Deanna Marie ‘Violet’ Coco that she might look to Gandhi’s model of passive, consistent, law-abiding protest to get something done, rather than leaving Parliament House staff with scorch marks to clean up after she incinerated a pram.
Protest has prompted social change in Australia’s past – the Vietnam moratorium marches in the 1970s come to mind – although the enormous protests against the Iraq War seemingly had no effect at all.
Think of other protests that have been powerfully effective: the Freedom Rides here and in the US where activists and minority groups challenged racism by exercising their ordinary rights as citizens, whether to take public transport or use a community swimming pool.
More recently, school students striking for the climate have created plenty of debate, often around their own kitchen tables.
The bridge blockade was just annoying – not dangerous, like the anti-lockdown protests in Melbourne and Sydney that risked creating COVID-19 super-spreader events.
But you have to ask whether those involved were mostly caught up in the thrill of their own actions, rather than, Gandhi-like, galvanising the masses to achieve real change.
Raise your voices to the heavens, rally your people, make yourselves heard in the corridors of power through the strength of your movement. Bring people on board. But show some courtesy to everyone else while you’re doing it.