In Denial?

On Monday evening, two weeks ago, we walked into a bar in Mount Eden. The bartender smiled.

“What are you ladies celebrating tonight?”

“A good day in court.”

“Great, who’s not going to jail?”

“Me.”

We sat down for a beer. A twelve months suspended sentence was a good result, according to the lawyers. No active punishment, but a promise that if I appear in court again within the next year, they’ll throw the book at me. Verena, Johno, Nick and I had landed in court for illegally climbing a crane near New Zealand parliament on the 6th June. We had deployed a massive banner, ‘Climate Denial, Huuge Mistake! RESIST’.

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Content warning: This blog contains references to domestic violence.

Climate denial has been an elaborate game, played by those in the world who see their profits threatened by murmurs of climate justice. We dropped the Greenpeace banner from the crane when the US secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, arrived to rub shoulders with our government. The United States had just pulled out of the Paris Climate Change Agreement, which echoes our own government’s reluctance to do, well, anything, about a rapidly changing climate. Rex Tillerson spent the previous 10 years as CEO of Exxon Mobil, and was a key player in multi-million dollar campaigns to spread doubt about climate change. He helped oil companies maintain their grip on global economies and policy. While fossil fuel emissions soared, denial and doubt have paralysed proactive responses to climate change for decades. This denial comes at a cost. It costs us time. It costs us energy. It costs us our humanity.

So we hung a banner about it. It might inspire resistance, or at least reminds people the option is there. It had been a cold wet morning in Wellington, and we got up sickeningly early to climb the crane before the company’s employees arrived. We hauled gear up fifty metres of ladders with sirens and shouts ringing in our ears. A more abrupt start to the day than I’m used to. When we got underneath the locked cab of the crane, Verena and I blocked the ladder while Nick and Johno rigged lines for us to climb around it. The driver of the crane and another worker climbed up to us. Rarely have I seen anyone more upset and angry. It was disconcerting. Obviously we didn’t want to upset them; their crane just happened to be the perfect tool to deliver a message. As Verena de-escalated the situation I thought about the pressures that people are under. Every day. The pressures of our system are so immense, that an unforeseen interruption to a working routine can trigger a deep emotional response. It shows how close our fear lies to the surface. For many, it’s the fear of what happens when their routines are interrupted. For climate activists, it’s the fear of what happens if our routines are not interrupted.

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Eventually, the two men simmered down and the police climbed up to us. After the usual attempts to bring us down, one policeman said,

“You’ve made these men angry, you realise you’ll be responsible for domestic violence tonight?”

Verena was shocked, but replied, “You know that’s more likely to happen when the rugby’s on.”

“Don’t you bring rugby into this!” He exclaimed.

If that’s not a dark insight into what’s happening in New Zealand I don’t know what is. Domestic violence is a terrifying epidemic in this country, with particularly high rates when a game is on. The policeman made an unwarranted assumption about the two men. He also used widespread and heartbreaking trauma as a bargaining chip. But shame on us- for touching his precious rugby.

In spite of the rain, and a torrent of emotions, we made it on top of the cab. I saw one of the workers standing on the roof of a nearby building with his colleagues, watching the show. I met his eye. Tough game, this one. Verena and Nick abselied off the crane’s arm, and the banner unfurled artistically in the breeze. ‘Climate Denial. Huuge Mistake! RESIST’.

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Sometimes a challenging situation puts things into perspective. I distracted myself from the dizzying height, and considered the parallels between denial on a global and personal level. Denial of climate change denies the lives of those suffering the impacts of the climate crisis. Essentially, it’s a denial of human kind’s susceptibility to threat. Denying our vulnerability is akin to denying the human experience. As individuals, we build walls of denial every day to avoid or defend our vulnerability. Denial prevents us from accepting our own mortality, and from recognising the daily harms of the system we support. This denial comes at a cost. It comes at the same cost as denying climate change. It costs us our time on earth, it costs us our energy, and it costs us our humanity.

Maybe it’s time to stop denying the debilitating pressures and fears we experience under the current status quo. As we resist climate denial, we might also resist the urge to deny our own fragility, and admit that we get a little bit terrified. Of each other, the past, the present, the future, and ourselves. Accepting ourselves as vulnerable beings might allow us to explore the depths of the human experience, the existence of which is all too often denied. A system of mass exploitation, like the neo-liberal capitalist dream we’re living, require that we deny the experiences of other human beings, and deny our own experience of being human.

Acknowledging our own humanity could help us recognise the humanity of those in other spaces, and other times. If we stop denying the existence of life, perhaps we will celebrate it. If we stop denying the existence of challenges, perhaps we will respond to them.

 

 

By Siana Fitzjohn

Photos courtesy of Greenpeace New Zealand

This content may have brought up difficult experiences, for help or advice on domestic violence situations call the NZ helpline on 0508-744-633.

Rivers of Resistance

We jumped over the barriers, ran past police and sat down in front of the gates. Linking arms, we chanted.

Kua hari!

Kua koa!

Kua tu te tikanga!

Kua haurangi

Katoa mai te ao!

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Photo: Hera rain

We were blocking the entrances to the 2017 Petroleum Conference in New Plymouth. Local and international oil delegates were arriving to discuss the expansion of the oil and gas industry in New Zealand. From memory, our chant translated to- “We stand here carrying strong principles. Those in the world who are deluded do not hold the principles we hold.” The chant is over a century old, echoing from the peaceful resistance movement in Parihaka. The “deluded” people we addressed were the delegates pushing a fossil fuel agenda in a climate that’s already wreaking havoc. They stood in front of our blockade, rain dripping down their suits, looking surprised and uncomfortable. They averted eye contact as the crowd chanted, “What do we want? CLIMATE JUSTICE. When do we want it? NOW.”

Put simply- we want to make society accountable to those worst impacted by our collective behaviour. The hundreds of thousands of people expected to die each year from the effects of a rapidly changing climate, for example. A conference promoting industries that exacerbate the climate crisis met our definition of injustice. So we came to shut it down.

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Photo credit: Hera rain

A number of groups collaborated to run the blockade. Climate Justice Taranaki, Friends of Waitara River, Frack Free, Parihaka, Oil Free Wellington, Oil Free Auckland, Greenpeace, Auckland Peace Action, 350 Aotearoa, Pacific Panthers, and Ngatiawa Ki Taranaki Trust. The Petroleum Conference had drawn climate activists from all over the country to the home base of New Zealand’s oil and gas industry. Taranaki. The land and sea here have been subjected to onshore and offshore drilling for more than 150 years. This is the front line of fossil fuel resistance in Aotearoa. But Taranaki has its own deep history of non-violent resistance that began long before the climate movement. Those of us lucky enough to stay at Ōwae marae before the blockade were given a taste of that history.

When we arrived at the marae the day before the blockade, and were greeted with a provocative pōwhiri. I’ve not yet learned Te Reo, so I listened to the sounds of words merging with bird-calls outside. I noticed the language echoes the land. Te Reo joins in with the birds, rolls into valleys and flows with rivers. It sounds like Aotearoa. Then we heard the story of Parihaka, and the community’s non-violent resistance to land theft and persecution by the state. It’s one of the most significant and inspiring peace movements in Aotearoa’s history. Injustice runs deep in this part of the country.

For those of us who haven’t had our lands, culture and identity ripped from underneath us I think it’s hard to understand the depths of harm done to indigenous peoples. Listening to stories of the land and its people connected our upcoming direct action with a much older movement for peace. The oil conference represented the industries sending the climate into chaos. But for many people it represented more than that. It was a continuation of colonisation that attempts to sever Maori people from the land and ocean that grew them. The oil and gas industry’s occupation of Taranaki is symbolic of something far older, and far deeper than the climate crisis. It symbolises an assault on a whole culture of people. That assault has been repeated thousands of times over, whenever human beings and the living earth are treated without respect or dignity.

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Photo credit: Hera rain

Many of us came from different streams of climate activism, and our streams were joining a bigger, deeper, river of resistance. A river that runs through generations of oppression and dispossession. Making decisions as a collective of groups is always hard, and there were differing opinions about the level of physicality that can come under the umbrella of non-violence. How much physical resistance is acceptable while keeping everyone safe and maintaining our peaceful kaupapa? The sheer gravity of the issues mean that emotions run high at events like this. When smaller streams of movements merge with a bigger, older river the initial mixing process can be messy. The water can be churned up; new sediment and debris can muddy what was once clear. Little eddies go spiralling off, distracting from the main flow. Bad weather and heavy rains, such as the growing consciousness and urgency in the face of crisis, can see many more streams and trickles racing into the river. For a time, it will be more turbulent than it was before.

We were a churning mix of passionate people. Everyone with their own vision of what peace and justice looks like; everyone with their own ideas about how we achieve it. At 6am the next morning we assembled in front of the whare for a karakia, to unite us in the principle of peaceful resistance. Around two hundred of us turned up and split into teams to surround the TSB showplace, where the police were already waiting for us. For those of you who haven’t participated in a direct action, it’s hard to imagine the intensity of energy and emotion flying through the lines of a blockade. You arrive with the fires of injustice in your stomach. You carry feelings of responsibility for harm inflicted on the earth and its people on behalf of a society you live in.

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Photo credit: Greenpeace NZ

So we shouted our chants. And we sang. I wondered if anything was resonating in the hearts of the oil delegates standing before us. But I wasn’t there to bring them to a more conscious existence. I was there to stop their industries from having a future. I didn’t care if they realise the depths of the damage they’re a part of or not, I just want them to stop. After a couple of hours the police warned us that they’d be arresting us if we didn’t move aside from the entrances. Nice try. Our chanting got louder.

Kua hari!

Kua koa!

Kua tu te tikanga!

Kua haurangi

Katoa mai te ao!

The police started picking people up and carrying them to the side. Once they had cleared most of us aside, a crowd of conference goers started making their way up the road towards the gate. If we wanted to get back in the way, this was our chance. We pulled the barriers back, and flooded back in front of the gates. A guy called Aaron threw himself down beside me, his guide dog curling up patiently at his side.

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Photo credit: Greenpeace NZ

Police held everyone back and made a path for delegates to squeeze along the fence line. A few of us jumped up to try and intercept them. Predictably, we got into a gentle scrum with police. Although I was told myself that shoving matches aren’t always helpful or necessary, the energy of the crowd rippled out and carried me with it. Police tried to shove us back as we pushed forward. The whole crowd of us rocked, tightly packed together. I had hold of one of my best friends, Zoe, by the arm. Because we’re both small, and stronger than we look, we were able to break through the line of police and cram ourselves against the fence to keep the delegates from the gate. A few others fell through with us, and the police reformed their line with us behind them. It was rather funny− staring up at the backs of police, their arms around each other, bracing.

Narni Eriwata made a speech on the loudhailer, and commented on the presence of so many pakeha people at the blockade. It reminded me how late to the table our people often are on this one. Comparatively speaking, we’re new to this. The hurt and injustice doesn’t run so deep for us. I could feel the sharp prickle of my privilege. When a policeman grabbed me by the neck of my jacket in the pushing match I didn’t have to feel any fear. To an extent, blockades still feel like a game to me. I haven’t been racially profiled by police, nor have my family. State forces haven’t cleared my ancestors off their land. When I’m jostled by police I’m not triggered to experience cumulative trauma that comes from police violence and oppression of my ancestors, family, or myself. It must take immense strength, understanding and dignity for local iwi, along with other indigenous peoples and people of colour, to remain calm in this situation. They have so much not to be calm about.

Narni Eriwata
Photo credit: Hera rain

The climate and environmental justice movement are tributaries of the bigger movement for indigenous rights. Some people might not recognise it, or try to draw false separations between them. But climate change isn’t a mere symptom of fossil fuel use; it’s a symptom of cultural genocide and violent exploitation. The effects of the global climate crisis are not distributed equally. Although we sat arm in arm at the blockade, Maori, Pacific peoples, pakeha and a sprinkle of other nationalities, the togetherness veiled inequalities within our own movements. I may be shouting the same chants, but it isn’t my land that was stolen and fracked for gas. It wasn’t my culture that was violated. And it isn’t my island home sinking into the sea. The depth of feeling I have on these issues merely skirts the edges of the true depth of emotional and psychological harm being done by a colonised climate.

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Photo credit: Hera rain

For me there’s a level of imposter syndrome that sets in when I involve myself in indigenous rights, because I know that blind spots of my privilege reinforce violence and oppression every day. I often distrust my own thoughts, my own perceptions of a situation, because they’ve been conditioned by an oppressive system. As pakeha people we need to realise the history that we represent. Engaging in diverse movements can make you acutely aware of the ways you have supported systemic violence. In a blockade it’s easy to try and calm people down without realising we’re suppressing the emotional expression of someone less privileged than ourselves. Suppressing people’s emotions contributes to oppression, and we do it all the time. It can be painful having our ignorance made obvious to us. But these are the pains of growth. Fear and guilt can prevent us from forming relationships, so we’d better learn how to deal with those feelings, fast. Acknowledgement and acceptance of how we participate in, as well as resist these systems, is part of the healing process. And there is no quick or comfortable way to do it. Generations of injustice will take generations to acknowledge. Some wounds may be too deep to heal, but we can stop them from becoming deeper. And in the spaces between passion, guilt, realisation and grief lie the beautiful, imperfect elements of our humanity. A roughly cut, raw humanity that so often remains hidden or undiscovered behind the walls of our colonised imaginations.

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Photo credit: Hera rain

In working towards a better world, we must learn to let go of the stories that previously defined us. Those of us blockading, the police, and the oil delegates were all characters in a collection of stories society has told itself. These stories are starting to fall down. The myths of our society and the path it’s on are starting to expose themselves as just that- myths. Will we learn to let them go? Our humanness lies somewhere underneath our individual circumstances, underneath our stories. To see the humanness in ourselves, and one another, we may need to shed a few layers. Otherwise we’ll cling to these dehumanising myths as if they define and identify us. The article that came out on the day of the blockade demonstrated just how hard the powerful are trying to make us cling to our habits, as if they are a core and unchangeable feature of our identity. One article read, “Those in the petroleum industry were well aware of climate change and agreed with the use of renewable resources, but the reality was “the very use of oil defines us”, said Stewart.”

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Yes, our use of oil has influenced how we identify ourselves. So does violent colonisation, so does domestic violence, so does rape culture. These are parts of our identity as a society− does it mean we can’t change? When we recognise that part of what identifies us in this world is harming others, we have a choice. Either we continue to live in self-denial that this harm is occurring, or we shift shape. Embrace a new identity. If we’re brave enough.

After about five hours the police managed to get the oil delegates into the conference. We were soaked, but elated. We gathered together on the street at the front of the venue, drumming on the barriers, singing, shouting, celebrating. We’d shown the strength of Aotearoa’s resistance to the industry and its expansion. This was captured on the face of a man who covered himself in oil-coloured molasses and performed one of the most passionate, chilling hakas I’d ever seen. Humans, when they express themselves, are truly impressive creatures. No photo or article can ever capture the power and momentum of a protest. Something gets stirred in the air, in our hearts, that can’t be turned into words.

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Photo: Hera rain

After the petroleum conference was over, we were invited to the Poroporoaki at Ngamotu beach. Pakeha people were asked to stand back and give space for iwi and members of other indigenous groups to form a semi circle at the waters edge and reconnect with the ocean. That relationship is as deep as it is powerful, and I felt incredibly privileged to get a glimpse of it. At the end we were invited forward to step into the water. We stood together in the ocean, the waves lapping around our ankles and sucking the sand from beneath our feet. For a moment I felt the fear dissolve. Before the pain of injustice and inequality, this ocean held and rocked the tiny organisms of our ancestors. The sea stirred living beings into existence. This is where we came from, where we belong. It may take generations, but the large and small rivers of resistance, however rough and rocky their path, will one day reach the ocean. The ocean with its depth, its strength, its capacity. The ocean that connects us.

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Photo: Hera rain

Blog post by Siana Fitzjohn

Special thanks to: All who participated in organising the blockade, Hera rain for permission to use images of the day, and to the Pacific Panther Network for their support in writing this piece.

Climate, Councils, and Common Sense

Every year the government release areas of ocean for oil and gas exploration. Every year we get up in front of a city council to tell them why it’s an exceptionally destructive idea.

In spite of the enormous risks associated with deep sea drilling, the public are not consulted on any phase of the oil exploration program. We have to rely on local body councils to formally oppose the oil and gas block offers on our behalf. There are only so many ways to articulate the sheer lunacy of oil exploration at a time when our climate is in crisis. We have spent years researching and explaining the harm done to the marine environment at each phase of the exploration process, the irreparable damage that would occur if the drilling went wrong, and the climate chaos that would ensue if the drilling went well.

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Green shading shows the areas the Government is proposing to allow oil and gas drilling in. Credit: NZP&M

You run out of ways to repackage the logic, evidence, and intellect. So sometimes you try something different. But even when you do, the media have a way of cherry picking your words so that you appear to be holding an argument on conventional terms. To their credit, all Christchurch city councillors, bar one, agreed to oppose the oil exploration permits and even strengthen the tone of their submission. In spite of this overwhelmingly rational response, the one councillor who supported drilling efforts was given the most media space. The quotes picked from my deputation made it look like I was meeting David East on his conservative neoliberal economic playing field to make my case, when that could not have been further from how I think. The Stuff article is a perfect example of how outdated and ill-informed viewpoints get given a disproportionately large media platform, because his attitudes were in no way representative of the tone in the council chambers. This is how the media can work to keep unconscious and harmful attitudes alive, even though, societally speaking, they’re far past their prime.

It’s always nerve wracking making a formal speech to council, especially when you’re running on too little sleep and too much caffeine. But in addition to more direct forms of dissent and opposition, sometimes it’s worth taking the time to bring a bit of perspective to your local representatives. Below is the deputation I gave to the Christchurch City Council. The overall response from was incredibly encouraging, and gives me hope that our local body councils are far more receptive to moral reason than central government.

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‘Climate Angel’ bears witness to council meeting. Image pulled from Stuff article http://www.stuff.co.nz/environment/climate-news/85992453/climate-change-fears-alarmist-christchurch-city-councillor-david-east-says

Christchurch City Council deputation on 2016 Oil and Gas Block Offers:

My name is Siana Fitzjohn, and this is the third deputation I’ve made to a local council on the Oil and Gas Block offers. Over the last five years, a massive amount of intellectual energy has been poured into opposing deep sea oil exploration, and yet the insanity prevails.

If deep sea oil drilling goes wrong, it will wreak havoc with our marine ecosystems; if it goes right, it will wreak havoc with our climate.

Oil and gas are fossil fuels, so let’s start with climate change. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report stressed that we must leave 80% of known fuel reserves in the ground if we are to avoid catastrophic climate change. Yet this government is proposing to look for more. The World Health Organisation predicted that from 2030 an extra 250,000 humans a year will lose their lives to malnutrition, malaria, diarrhoea and heat stress brought about by a changing climate. We can no longer hide behind a screen of scientific uncertainty- climate change is killing people. But we all hear this kind of information all the time, and human lives are fast becoming a statistic. While science can tell us the likely consequences of our actions, it cannot tell us how to feel about them.

Now to the economics. The huge economic risks of oil spills are borne by the state, and they increase massively when you include the risks posed to all industries that rely on a functioning marine ecosystem. Our laughably low royalty rates ensure we’d see pitiful rewards for plentiful risks. Even within a neo-liberal economic model, exploring for oil and gas during the climate crisis is like flogging a decaying horse. It is up against all logic to risk the health of our oceans to pursue a fuel that’s changing the chemical composition of our atmosphere.

When we make deputations it is tempting to do as I just did- roll out the intellectual reasons that oil and gas exploration is a singularly stupid idea. But this can come at the expense of our emotional understanding. Deep sea oil exploration is not still on our Government’s agenda because they do not understand science, it’s still on their agenda because they do not understand empathy. For too long we have let people in power dictate what counts as a ‘sensible’ submission against their senseless proposals. Economic arguments are the veil our leaders hide behind to avoid the moral implications of their decisions. Keeping emotions out of reasoning is a way of keeping ourselves emotionally insulated from the impacts of our behaviour. Western industrialised nations have to stop pretending that our industries and lifestyles aren’t causing immense harm to human and non-human beings. Climate change occurs because of the cumulative impacts of decisions made in rooms like these.

Deep sea oil drilling threatens places that we love, and creatures that we know, with a disaster they’d never recover from. If that isn’t a good reason to get emotional then I don’t know what is. And when we talk about the impacts of climate change, we’re talking about the mass suffering of human beings, and an emotional response to that is completely appropriate.

We’ve let science describe climate change as a story of rising CO2 in the atmosphere, when it is as much a story of capitalism, colonisation and exploitation. We will not be affected equally by this crisis. People’s experience of climate change will depend on their race, gender, and privilege- or lack of it. To me, climate change feels like a pleasantly warm winter in Dunedin, but to some people it will feel like starvation. Climate change will sound like forests burning, it will taste like dehydration, and look like dying crops. I don’t know what’s more shocking, that one species could change the composition of an entire atmosphere, or that we know our habits are killing people and we still can’t change them.

We need to start taking responsibility for the effects of our industries and behaviour. We need to recognise that the 2016 Oil and Gas Block Offer is an act of slow violence. This is because fossil fuel extraction exacerbates a crisis bringing displacement, disease and death to a lot of people. So either we have a Government who cannot conceptually link deep sea oil exploration with the human impacts of climate change, or we have a Government that can, and are pushing ahead regardless. Either way it is deeply concerning.

Our coastlines should not be put at risk to prop up a dangerous industry in its death throes. If an oil spill were to happen off Canterbury’s coast, we’d be the community dealing with the emotional aftermath. We’ve experienced the trauma of losing a city, do we want to invite the trauma of losing our marine ecosystems? Because I guarantee you it won’t be oil executives or National MP’s clearing oil and dead dolphins from the beaches- it will be us.

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As you all know the public are not permitted to formally oppose any of the oil and gas exploration process. We are relying on you, our local body representatives, to be a voice of moral reason. Oceans and coastlines are our home, they are precious to us and to all the other lifeforms that live along them. Putting living ecosystems at risk to pursue fuels that jeopardise humanity’s very future on this planet is a very unique kind of wrong. The decisions we make in today’s world will affect people we’ll never meet, or love, or laugh with. But they’re still people, and as human beings I think we have a responsibility to look out for one another. I implore you not only to reject the block offers in the Canterbury Basin, but to stand against the Government’s entire deep sea oil agenda. Because no amount of black gold in the world is worth risking human lives for.

 

 

 

ANZ Blockade and Backlash

It has taken me a while to gather my thoughts about the ANZ blockades in Dunedin on Thursday. There has been a lot to process. Some of you may have seen the media sh** storm that followed- but let’s start at the beginning.

What did we do? At 8am on Thursday morning, a large group of us gathered in the Octagon for a briefing. At 8:40 we made our way down the road to two ANZ branches on opposite corners of the street. One hundred and thirty of us lined the pavement with banners and sat in rows against the doors to blockade the banks.

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Why? Because ANZ have 13.5 billion dollars invested in fossil fuels. That money is helping to fund exploration and extraction of oil, gas and coal. Let’s be clear- the climate is in crisis. Deserts are growing, with droughts, floods, fires and storms becoming more common. The climate is changing faster than expected. All fossil fuels we burn increase the speed and intensity of these changes. A changing climate is the biggest threat to human life. Therefore, any decision to fund climate-polluting activities is violent. No two ways around it. ANZ bank is profiting from funding projects like the Carmichael coal mine in Queensland, Australia. The mine is a direct assault on the ancestral land of indigenous peoples. The emissions from this proposed mine would wreak havoc on the climate, thus endangering human lives.

Our blockade of ANZ didn’t come out of the blue- it came after 2 years of lobbying the bank to divest from fossil fuels. Letters, meetings, public engagement, the lot. ANZ refused to pull their support from the fossil fuel industry. They carried on with business as usual. So we’re left with the decision- allow them to continue funding hazardous activities, or act? We chose to act. If business as usual is harmful, then we had to interrupt their business as usual. We had a moral obligation to shut them down.

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Carmichael coal mine, photo obtained here

 

In Christchurch, Hamilton and Wellington, 350 protesters had succeeded in getting bank branches to close for the day. After these successes, we felt it was time to step it up. When we saw the sheer volume of people lining up outside the two banks, we boldly decided to take a group back up the road to blockade the doors of a third ANZ branch. This is what civil disobedience is about. Using the human resources you have to disrupt as much harmful activity as you can. So we got another group seated outside the doors of the third bank, arms linked, in peaceful protest. We were trespassing on ANZ’s property, obstructing their doors, and everyone was aware that we could be removed or arrested by police. At that point, we could never have anticipated how the day would unfold.

We thought of three scenarios: the banks would close (as they had in other cities), the police would arrest us, or move us aside. None of those things happened. The banks kept their doors open, and when customers approached the blockade, police encouraged them to use ‘reasonable force’ to get through us. It is one of those surreal situations where you have no idea what is happening, even when it is happening in front of you. Once getting the go ahead from police, many customers waded over the top of people sitting on the ground. Suddenly people were getting trodden on, and catching heels to their faces. We were shocked. We had not anticipated that the bank would remain open and actively encourage people to climb through us. We had not expected to be pitted against the public. The police had every cause to move us out of the way, but they didn’t.

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Photo: Sam Fraser-Baxter

Some customers calmed down once we explained to them that they weren’t our target- that we were holding ANZ accountable for their immoral investments. If anything, we had the customers’ interests at heart- their money should not be used to fund operations that harm people. Many were annoyed, but ultimately understood and left without pushing through. Our singing and smiles diffused many encounters with ANZ customers, and we kept up a huge amount of energy and enthusiasm- reminding ourselves why we were there, and why it was important. But a disturbing number of customers began to launch themselves through our lines of people before I could even explain our position. People were getting kicked and trodden on, all with reassurances from the police that it was acceptable to do so. It was the active encouragement from police that gave customers the confidence to walk over my group. It is quite scary to see how ready people are to act forcefully and violently when people in positions of power encourage them. We were caught off-guard by this strategy- police were not actively moving us, but encouraging the public to confront us. I was often brushed aside by police as I tried to explain the situation to customers. A couple of students in the back row of our blockade had tears running down their faces- just from the sheer shock of being physically hurt by members of the public.

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Photo: Sam Fraser-Baxter

Committing to civil disobedience is quite a big step. Once you have made the choice to create a blockade, there is a strong moral obligation to stay put until you are removed, or until you achieve your objective. We expected to be moved out of the way. We were caught out by the tactics of ANZ- by keeping the bank open and encouraging customers to push through us they put us into conflict with their customers- making the action 350.org vs the public. Our target was ANZ, not their customers, but the bank successfully victimised themselves by instructing police to leave us be, while staff comforted customers that managed to make it into the bank. This was cunning, and it worked.

At long last the media showed up. Just in time to see an 85 year old woman being escorted by police over the lines of peaceful protesters. They had their story. Young activists block an elderly woman from her monthly trip to the bank. A tangible, visible victim that all New Zealanders can sympathise with. We can all agree- that situation should never have occurred. That woman should never have been escorted over the top of people. She should have been taken to the back entrance where the door was not blockaded. Staff let her out of this door, but made her wade in through our blockade. Alternatively, the four police officers could have moved us out of the way in a matter of seconds, and cleared a safe path for customers to enter the bank. The police are there to ensure public safety and they failed to do so. Their first priority should have been to keep the public (which includes us) safe. They had an obligation to ensure that nobody was put at risk, and that nobody came to physical harm. They did neither of these things.

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Image obtained from Stuff video

In the media coverage, the burden of responsibility for that woman’s distress was placed solely with us. The coverage successfully removed responsibility from ANZ and the police, who worked together to create that scenario. Now don’t get me wrong- as a group we need to take responsibility for the collateral damage of our actions. When we’re going against powerful institutions we will inconvenience people, people will take it personally, and we will hurt people’s feelings. That is the unfortunate reality of direct action, and it does upset us. But the damage being done by the prevailing status quo is far more immense, far more devastating and far more invisible. From 2030 to 2050 climate change is expected to kill an additional 250,000 people per year. Malnutrition, malaria, diarrhoea and heat stress will take an increasing number of lives. ANZ is funding this crisis, and profiting from operations that will cause humans immeasurable suffering. If there were any questions about the moral implications of Thursday’s action they should have been directed at ANZ. How can they justify investments in climate polluting projects, which will mean that hundreds and thousands of women and men will miss out on the opportunity to grow old at all? That level of injustice is so completely unimaginable that we block it out, and focus instead on the immediate and localized impacts of direct actions.

If I were able to make an apology to the elderly woman who had to cross over our lines, it would be this:

“I am sorry that we live in a world where powerful institutions spend your money on climate pollution. I’m sorry that ANZ, the media and the police used your discomfort for their own agenda- to delegitimise an urgent and valid cause. I’m sorry that you were pushed over us instead of being escorted to a back door. And most of all, I am sorry that you thought we were against you, when we actually care deeply about every human being on the planet.”

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It has been incredibly painful and interesting to watch the media fallout from this action. We were painted very clearly as aggressors, out to prevent the public from going about their business. What’s interesting is that people who are pushing for social change will always be held to a much higher moral standard than any other group. The media vilified us for inconveniencing members of the public- and yes, we did inconvenience many people on Thursday. But ANZ’s funding of oil, gas, and coal extraction will literally kill people. Untold numbers of people. The moral consequences of our action are completely incomparable to the moral consequences of ANZ’s investments- yet we were the ones hung out to dry by the media. Unfortunately, people tend to scrutinize the behavior of protesters and pounce on the negative consequences of our actions as a way of avoiding uncomfortable truths- the institutions that we trust and support with our money are violent. We’re not ready to accept that our daily lives hold up violent systems, that the institutions we trust with our money are using it to endanger future generations. They invest in harmful industries, and we enable them to do it. Banks like ANZ try to evade responsibility for the effects of their investments, and are able to maintain a calm and reassuring façade. When we interrupted their business, they worked with the police to ensure that we were pitted against other members of the public, while they appeared passive and largely invisible. The media spin took the focus away from ANZ completely, and therefore did not hold them accountable for the deeply immoral nature of their investments.

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Throughout the day we had a lot of positive experiences as well. It was incredibly exciting and invigorating to see our people being so staunch, and so brave. We had a lot of good responses from passers by, bus drivers, and customers that clocked on to the importance of our action. I was so impressed by everyone’s commitment- to blockade three banks from 9 till 4:30 in the face of verbal and physical abuse is an astonishing feat. I saw people pushing their boundaries and challenging themselves, realizing that they’re a lot braver than they’d thought. The songs and rhymes we came up with helped keep our focus on the bigger reasons for our action: business as usual is harmful- we were out there preventing business from being conducted as usual in the defense of the climate. At 4:30 we cheered and packed up after a long and emotionally draining day.

I witnessed many things on Thursday that disturbed me a lot. After getting together with our group to debrief afterwards, we started to piece together what happened, and the realisations that came from it.

The first is that many people are literally prepared to stand on top of other human beings to get to their money. The eagerness of some people to breach the obstacle of a human blockade was unnerving, and it shows just how fragile people feel when their daily routines are interrupted. I saw a businessman being encouraged to ‘take the path of least resistance’ over the top of the youngest and smallest member of my group. If we stop and think about that situation for a minute, it illuminates so much of what is wrong about our society.

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Secondly, many of us recalled how quickly violence became normalized. After a few customers had been encouraged by police to walk roughly over my group, I came to expect that behaviour. Since the action, I have been confronted with my own complicity when watching violence being done to others, and I am appalled that I was not firmer with customers and the police, that I didn’t do more to stop people from being hurt. My group started expecting to be walked over. Police told them it was their decision to remain put, and therefore their fault if they were trodden on. My group members said that they began to internalize that victim blaming, and started thinking “well, yes, I did put myself here- it’s my choice to be walked upon.” It’s only on reflection that we realized this was utter bullshit. Every human being deserves to be treated with respect. People essentially asked the police for permission to stand on people and hurt them. Once that permission was granted, customers absolved themselves of responsibility for their own actions. It’s ok to stand on these protesters because the policeman said so. Power works in insidious ways, and all groups attempt to deny that they were responsible for violence because they find another to blame for the behavior. We put our trust in the police to protect us (as is their responsibility) and that trust was broken. We put trust in customers to recognize what we were doing, and to treat us as people- and in many cases that trust was broken.

Many people who were walked on are surprised at the level of emotional impact it has had. Many reported feeling both empowered and dehumanized. They knew that they were part of something really powerful, and really admirable. To act non-violently is incredibly brave, because you are putting trust in others that they will not hurt you- and that trust is not always rewarded. When someone is violent towards you it can shake your trust in humanity. Many of the group felt like they were treated as objects- obstacles to climb on. As a group we’re all really aware of the toll these actions can take, and we’re getting really good at supporting and looking after each other. We have to. Because social change is not going to come easily.

This action has impacted the participants quite deeply. Not only because of the emotional intensity, but because we got an insight into the ways that powerful institutions like the banks, the media, and the police work together to maintain the status quo and delegitimize direct actions. ANZ, the media and the police succeeded in turning public opinion against our action, and distracting everyone from what’s going on globally. It’s one thing to have a really rough time of it on the front lines; it’s another to be completely misrepresented by the media. The public backlash has been quite shocking. Comments range from being ‘disgusted’ with our behavior to suggesting that we get stomped on. Rest assured, young troll, we did.

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The media orchestrated their story flawlessly, they took the one angle that would be sure to derail the conversation, cover up the real issue, and keep the real victims invisible. By ‘real victims’ I am not talking about us. I am talking about the billions of people that will suffer the effects of climate change. I’m talking about masses of lives that will face disease, displacement, conflict, and extreme weather events. Because these are the lives we should be talking about when we do actions like blockading a bank. It’s not about us, it’s not about our actions, it’s not about customers, the general public, or the police. It’s about the people who are suffering at the hands of powerful institutions. It’s about the future generations that have to deal with the fallout of the climate catastrophe.

You can read the spin here.

The media successfully constructed a story that would keep climate victims invisible. They told a story that focused on the shortcomings of our action instead of the monumental level of harm caused by the industries ANZ is supporting. The media distracted most people, even supporters, from the most pertinent moral questions raised by our protest. By letting the media dictate our conversations about climate change and systemic violence, we give them power to maintain the status quo. This system does not want to change. Institutions like the media and ANZ will do everything in their power to frame us as a threat to the public’s peace of mind. They will do everything in their power to keep the public from realizing just how harmful and insidious their agendas are. If I could ask readers anything, it would be to publicly question and criticize the role of our banks in upholding climate violence. Don’t let them dictate the terms of the conversation, we have to make those with power accountable for the effects of their actions.

As far as our group is concerned, don’t worry about us. We’re taking care of each other. If Thursday taught me anything it’s how incredibly lucky I am to be part of such an amazing passionate group of people. We’ve all been shaken, many of our illusions have been shattered, but we’ve proven to ourselves just how brave and ambitious we are. We’ve built a trustworthy, supportive community. We’re getting stronger, we’re getting smarter, and we’re a force to be reckoned with.

 

As for ANZ- all I can say is that you should have trespassed all 130 of us when you had the chance. We’ve seen through your strategy, and we’ll be seeing you again very soon.

 

Kia kaha everyone,

 

Siana Fitzjohn

 

Letter to the epic Emily Drinkwater

This is a letter to Emily Drinkwater, who we tragically lost from our activist community two weeks ago. I decided to make my dialogue with Emily open source, so that those who were not fortunate enough to meet her can receive some inspiration by proxy. Now, although words can be useful and evocative, it’s important to mention that no words could do justice to such a wonderful creature as Emily.

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Dear Emily,

What a whirlwind couple of weeks. Since hearing about your death it has been an absolute cascade of emotions. From the excruciating sobbing curled up on the lounge floor in the foetal position, to dancing maniacally around the room with my flatmates, to just feeling plain numb. I’m trying to get the hang of this new reality, trying to grow accustomed to a world without you in it. I thought we’d go way back to the start of our journey. I met you at a non-violent direct action course at the Greenpeace warehouse 6 years ago. Your blunt, salty humour and mischievous grin immediately put me at ease. After sinking a few too many crate beers together, and watching you write your name in the air with your bum, it became obvious that you were a bloody good sort. I was only 19 back then, just learning how many ways there were to stand up for a cause. Suddenly I was surrounded by people like you, who were passionate, energised and committed to taking a stand on important issues. I could never have predicted how tight-knit our activist family would become, or how much it would come to mean to me.

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Shortly after the training Tim and I stayed at your flat in Mt Mauganui. That night we got (fairly) tipsy and charged out to plaster the entire main street with stickers “FONTERRA STOP SHITTING IN OUR RIVERS”. Even though I was a young, naive and rambunctious teenager, I was impressed by your spunk and commitment to positive change. Since then, my respect and love for you has only grown.

Whenever I arrived back up at Greenpeace, you would always be there with a grin and a hug and some good yarns. You’re one of those people that I could go for months without seeing, but when we caught up it was as if we’d never been apart. You looked like you’d just popped out of the ground one day. You had the warm earthy glow of someone who spends their time outside, wandering the world freely in your feet that refused to be shoed. You trod so lightly upon the earth, and didn’t rely on material possessions for fulfilment. You retained a sense of wonder at the natural world, at every little conscious being that surrounded you. This was something that affected everyone in your vicinity, and we were reminded to slow down, take a step back and appreciate the amazing diversity of life that surrounds us. You always struck me as a free spirit, someone who tried to distance themselves from the superficiality of modern society. You had this amazing ability to make new people instantly feel safe, relaxed, and cared for. You were one of those people that nobody forgets meeting. You had a special kind of commitment to a better world. The kind of commitment that had you painting banners to the wee hours of the morning, making sure that volunteers were never short of chocolate, and never forgetting to do the small, practical tasks that made everybody’s life easier. All of your hard work and thoughtfulness was never for any kind of social validation. You never sought recognition for your countless deeds. You truly embodied the values that we were all trying to live by. For you, caring for other people, particularly children, came as naturally as breathing.

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And let’s not forget your sense of humour. My god could you make me laugh. You made the most quirky observations about the world around you, and spoke with such blunt and dead pan humour that you never ceased to delight and surprise me. You had such an uncanny ability to speak your mind, unabashed and unpretentious, and you spoke with the kind of honesty that left me in stitches. Half the time I don’t even know if you were trying to be funny, but you were Em, you were. You had this way of looking at the world that was simultaneously amusing, refreshing and deeply thought-provoking. Some of my happiest times with you were spent hanging out in the kitchen or the bunk room, having a laugh at this crazy, crazy world. I always counted myself lucky to know a human that was so unfailingly down to earth.

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Over the years we’ve had so many adventures. One of my most amazing memories of you was when we were on the Rainbow Warrior for a training. I was standing on the bow of the ship looking out at the smaller boats rocketing around in the waves accompanied by over 100 dolphins. Groups of dolphins cruised effortlessly alongside each of the boats, leaping into the air, clicking and whistling at each other. We were providing them with some quality entertainment, and they turned our training into a circus. Pretty soon the boats started dropping swimmers off in the water in front of the Warrior, practising for when swimmers would be used to force seismic survey vessels to change course and disrupt their seismic ocean blasting. I have this wonderful image of you floating in the water, surrounded by dolphins, directly in the path of the Rainbow Warrior. You looked like you had disappeared under the bow, and I had the ‘oh, fuck’ moment. But you floated down alongside the ship and the smaller boat fished you out, and dropped you off out in front of the ship again. I remember being completely over-awed by the entire situation. Your bravery and willingness to put your body on the line, the skill and passion of our actions community, and the fact that we were surrounded by the glorious and fun-loving marine mammals that we were trying to protect. It filled me with confidence that a fairer, safer world was within our reach.

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When I went on to join the climb team, you came to our intro weekend to cook for us and calm our nerves. You talked me through things, helped me get my head around techniques and gave me the assurances I needed to abseil off that godforsaken bridge. Never have I been so scared shitless in my life. But you’d be there at the end of the day, with an epic hot meal, to remind me that humans are supposed to push their boundaries.

While I was becoming a ninja, you were becoming a pirate. You made an amazing addition to the boat team, and I had the pleasure of being in one of the boats with you as we whizzed out to farewell the deep sea oil flotilla that left to challenge Anadarko on the high seas. We had some pretty hairy times in the boats on our combined team trainings. I could never understand how you could manage to drive the boats when I couldn’t see a damned thing for all the water in my eyes. For this reason, I had to develop a level of blind trust that you knew what you were doing, and I would just cling on for dear life until you dropped me off at the structure or boat that I had to climb. We had the easy job, it was you who was looking out for us and keeping us safe on the water. It’s people like you that remind me how absurdly brave humans can be when they’re supported by a team. No matter how soaked, salty or tired we got out on the water you would always be able to crack a joke or a chocolate bar to boost moral.

The times that I’ve seen you in the last few months are particularly memorable. You were in the car with me on the way to Wellington before we boarded the Tangaroa vessel. It was my first big Greenpeace action, so, naturally, I was somewhere between weeing myself and throwing up. I was going through all the scenarios in my mind where something could go wrong- someone would stop us on the deck, the ship would leave before we got there, and even if through some stroke of sheer luck we did manage to board the ship I would find a way cock up the interviews with media. But you knew exactly what to say, Emily, to get me to chill out, focus, and trust that all would be fine. And it was. Your bravery was infectious, and it was impossible to be scared or negative when you were around. You were no stranger to the front lines, having participated in countless actions and blockades over the years. You knew the ropes, and could be counted on.

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I last saw you when we lead over 200 people to blockade the entrances to the petroleum conference. While I was pinging up and down the blockade giving people water and cookies, you were sat calmly in the middle, talking to people, getting to know them. You instant ability to connect with others is something I was always in awe of. You made the people in that blockade feel safe and valued. You built relationships quicker and easier than anyone I know- and relationships hold communities together. You gave people the courage to stand up for their principles, and take action for social justice. At this critical point in human history, nothing is more important than that.

I remember you opening up to me about some of your time in Tanzania, working with children there. You cared so much, and I know you would have been really challenged by the human suffering that you witnessed. I can’t tell you how proud I am to have known you. I have seldom met humans as gutsy as you. The last time I saw you Emily, giving you a big hug before you got a ride back to Taranaki, I remember counting our community so lucky that we had caring people like you who could empower people to act on their values. Many people in this world do not get given the strength and confidence to do that, and you were able to provide that for people. Words cannot express how valuable that is.

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And Em, now comes the point that I have been avoiding- your actual death. You took your own life. Even to write it down feels like I am breaking some kind of taboo, because the enormity of it is so devastating. But I think it’s important that I don’t run away from this fact, because it is such a huge societal problem in New Zealand. I think we’re going to have to get better at addressing it, and talking about it. Stigma can prevent us from realising that this is everybody’s problem, and therefore within everybody’s responsibility to fix. We should acknowledge that this is a social issue- so we need everyone in this society to work co-operatively to come up with solutions. I think we have to face up to the fact that we are living in a society that is making people sick. Unless we take collective action to change the way we live and communicate with each other, this will continue to be a problem in New Zealand- a problem with horrific impacts. I am so, so sorry that I never realised how much you were struggling. It has taught me some valuable lessons though Emily. Sometimes the fight is so big to protect the environments we love, the creatures with whom we share the earth, and the future generations we’ll never meet, that we can forget that the biggest challenge is internal- the challenge to find our own peace of mind in the face of such overwhelming circumstances. We love so deeply, and care so much about people and places external to ourselves, yet sometimes it is our internal self who needs our love the most. We need to love each other, and ourselves, more fiercely than ever in face of humanity’s challenges.

Like everyone else who knew and loved you, I am finding ways to cope. You are so real and so present in my conscious thought that I like to crack a joke or have a wee chat to you every now and then. You told me a number of times recently that you had never tried coffee, but had vowed to try it on you 30th birthday, which would have been a week ago. I knew you were dreading it Em, but I seriously underestimated the lengths you’d go to avoid a flat white. They really aren’t that bad. Then again, you always were one to reject social norms. Touche Emily, touche.

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I guess it’s time for me to wrap this up and say au revoir. You have touched me, Emily, in a way that few others have. You were cheeky, honest, kind and good. You gave me a glimpse of the values that are truly important. I will endeavour to live my life by the lessons that you taught me, and incorporate your energy into every fibre of my being. You embodied the spirit of the world we’re striving for Emily, and I’ll carry you in my heart until we create a place that you can be happy in.

Arohanui you awesome, awesome human being.

Siana

P.S. To all you humans out there who are struggling- we love you, we need you, and as a society we can learn to support you. If you need to reach out, call Lifeline 0800 543 354

Dare to Disobey

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Breaking the law is one thing. Asking others to join you is another.

On Monday, at 7:00am, over 200 people descended on the Sky City Convention Centre in Auckland to disrupt the Petroleum Summit. At the summit, local and international experts “with their fingers on the oil and gas pulse” were gathering to showcase their industry. The Government was also poised to launch the new oil exploration areas for 2016, and to sell New Zealand as a land of milk and honey to the oil executives.

When you’ve spent years campaigning against the largely invisible threat of deep sea oil drilling, you jump at the chance to confront your target. Their aim was to rub shoulders and discuss ways to further the deep sea oil agenda in New Zealand. Our aim was to rain as hard as we could on their parade. If you’ve been keeping up with climate science, you’ll know that exploring for any more fossil fuels is an act of violence against humanity. Every decision that’s made to release new reserves of carbon into our atmosphere jeopardises our future on this planet. So when a convention is being held that further enables industries to explore and extract for fossil fuels, there is a deep moral incentive to oppose it. But here’s the catch- the Petroleum Summit, along with oil exploration, is legal. Obstructing the conference, however, is not. So we’re left with one option. Disobedience.

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Photo credit: David Tong

Greenpeace put the call out to the public to participate in a mass act of civil disobedience to blockade Sky City, and prevent people from entering the conference. The 200 of us split into groups and blocked the entrances to the convention centre. At last we caught sight of the oil execs, dressed in their best, desperately trying to muscle their way through rows of protesters. There’s a beautiful video of one such interaction in this Radio NZ article- I don’t think the oil exec could have embodied the stereotype more wonderfully. They attempted to wade over crowds of us sitting in front of the doors, then retreated to mutter frantically into their phones. They looked like fairly ordinary (if a little frumpy) people. Yet this system grants them power and leverage to make decisions that harm human beings.

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Photo credit: David Tong

The sheer lunacy of pushing for oil exploration at this critical point in the climate crisis is overwhelming. It’s times like this that I sit back and ask myself- is this the reality I’m living in? Sometimes situations are so dark and absurd that they’re hilarious. Greenpeace caught on to this opportunity for dark humour. The placards we held outside Sky City were inspired by the game Cards Against Humanity, renamed Oil Against Humanity. The funny, provocative question and answer placards painted the grim reality of fossil fuel expansion and its disastrous effects. It was our chance to laugh mirthlessly at an industry that is used to getting the last laugh.

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Photo credit: David Tong

I cannot even begin to describe how proud I was to be part of such an amazing group of protesters. It was emotionally overwhelming, seeing people singing as they were carried away from the doors by police. It was humbling to see everyone stay so calm and positive throughout the experience, even though we know how deeply serious these issues are. There was such a rich diversity of people, many of whom had never participated in civil disobedience before. It was obvious from the elation on everyone’s faces that we were learning a lot. People were starting to realise the collective power we have, as citizens, to stand by our values. The authority of corporations and governments only exist while people stay obedient. Their unjust system relies on our compliance, and our choice to comply is within our own control. Some people were in their seventies and had made the decision to join in and put their bodies on the line for future generations. This is what power looks like. When people come together to challenge the status quo. When people start to disobey authority.

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Photo credit: David Tong

 

 

It takes a tremendous amount of courage to be disobedient for the first time. I personally hated getting into trouble as a kid, the thought of being told off by anyone in authority terrified me. As humans we’re always trying to be good, and we’ve been conditioned to think that breaking the law, or obstructing someone, is bad. Humans also want to fit in socially, and be seen to be acting in a way that is ‘good’ and mindful of others. This makes it difficult to challenge the status quo. But things are changing. We’re building a community of people where standing on principal, and resisting harmful action, is the normal and right thing to do.

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Once you get a taste of a community like this, it’s hard not to feel empowered. Mass civil disobedience is uplifting in a way that nothing else is. Suddenly you’re surrounded by people who understand, who care, and who are helping to give each other the courage to be disobedient. Building this community is essential if we’re going to create the changes that this world so desperately needs. We’re in a privileged position in New Zealand, because civil disobedience is still a relatively safe thing to do. We have to take advantage of that opportunity. We have to demonstrate to the oil industry, and to the rest of the world, that we cannot abide social and environmental destruction any longer. Those industries have had their day, now it’s our turn.

Everyone who participated in the action on Monday got a taste of the energy that comes from making headway. We’re on the right track, and change is getting closer.

Till next time,

Siana Fitzjohn

 

Climbed It for the Climate

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Suddenly we were on the ladder. Adrenaline kept me putting one arm out in front of the other to keep climbing. We were making it; we were actually getting up. I felt a little queasy by the time we reached the top, wishing I’d grabbed more sleep the night before. I looked at Kai and Aidy as they emerged on the gantry, they looked as surprised as I did. Leaning back out over the ladder I saw that Niamh and Gen had successfully locked on to the railings below. Gen and I shared a grin- we’d both been to the same ‘well-to-do’ girls’ high school. What would St Margaret’s think of us now?

Gen locked on below us

Before we could do anything else we had to wrangle the banner into position. This turned into a bit of a battle of wills. The banner had to be rigged in one direction while the prevailing wind whipped relentlessly in the other. We let slip a few choice phrases as we wrestled the sail, which read “CLIMB IT CHANGE #stopdeepseaoil”

To bring everyone up to speed, the ship we were occupying was the Tangaroa, a government owned research vessel that is being contracted by oil companies, like Chevron, to explore for deep sea oil. Media reports said that we ‘stormed’ onto the ship, but I think that “scrambled” or “scuttled” are more appropriate descriptions. The ship had undergone a 24 million dollar refit (funded by taxpayers, of course) to enable it to conduct the early phases of oil exploration. The vessel is operated by NIWA, which stands for the National Institute of Water and Atmospheric research. The irony astounds me. We were there to highlight the outrageous misallocation of scientific resources by our government. This was a research vessel that should be doing science in the public interest, yet it was being commandeered to serve the interests of commercial oil companies.

Now, most of us know that humanity cannot afford to burn the majority of known fossil fuel reserves if we are to keep climate change to a barely “manageable” 2 degrees Celsius. To search for more oil or gas is a reckless move, and gambles with the safety of future generations.

So there we were, atop the ship to draw attention to our government’s reckless pursuit of fossil fuels. After a while Niamh and Gen were arrested and taken off the ship, heads and banners held high, but the three of us were a little harder to get to. It is a strange position to be in, when you realise that your actions will be interpreted as dangerous, harmful, reckless and radical. For I feel that deep-sea oil exploration is far more dangerous and radical than anything I could achieve in a harness and hardhat. We live in a society where one non-violent protest by 5 individuals could be seen as out of order, a cause for outrage, in spite of the fact that it poses no physical harm to anyone. Enabling oil companies to operate off our shores puts our marine environment at constant risk from an oil spill and humanity at a greater risk from climate change. In pursuing fossil fuel exploration they are prepared to risk the safety of our oceans, climate and future generations for monetary gain, yet our actions are dubbed extreme?

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Police ponder on what to do with us…

In fact, the most extreme thing I did all day was to learn how to operate a smart phone. Half the time I was convinced it was going rogue, bringing up drop down or pop up menus, options and Apps if I so much as glanced at it. The most high-pressure situations I encountered that day were staring blankly into that clever little screen. Suspended on rope above a deck was not the best time to get acquainted with new-fangled technology.

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With so much going on, I struggled to reduce it all down to anything remotely clever or catchy for social media. It’s bizarre that I can spend so much time blogging, email-writing, and blitzing social media with climate related messages, yet when I’m under pressure my mind turns to absolute mush. I turned to the others, and appealed for ‘tweets’. Kai took the phone, but handed it back a minute later, “I’ve got nothing”. At least we were all in (and on) the same boat.

Apparently Steven Joyce ‘tweeted’ at us something like, “Stop trolling, you’re boring.” I wish we’d seen that, because we would have replied with something like this…

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The other minor challenge of the day was transferring my wee from my bursting bladder into the allocated bottle. Now I’m not sure how many of you have operated a she-wee, but it’s certainly an experience. Especially when big lenses are pointing up at you from a couple of hundred metres away. I had to convince my brain that I was not in fact weeing directly into my harness and jumpsuit, but down a handy little tube into a bottle, which already contained the combined urine of my team-mates (whose biological equipment enabled them to tackle this task a little more gracefully). Moments like this that make me proud to call myself an activist. By the time we had a three-way cocktail of wee in our bottle we had formed a rather special bond with each other.

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A wee cocktail…

The level of trust that’s required for civil disobedience is quite profound. We had to have complete trust in each other to keep everyone safe, and to ensure that our message was received loud and clear. While the message “Climb It Change” might look like we’re merely showing off our ropes and puns, it is actually a metaphor for all of the ways that people can take action to affect change. It is clear that we can no longer rely on the actions of governments to keep our climate safe. The pervasive fossil fuel agenda of this government and oil companies is going to continue unless we take action to stop it. Actions can take many forms- marching, bike riding, blockading, tree-planting, banner-painting, re-designing and educating- people can be powerful in many different ways and there is no one right way to challenge an unjust system.

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Aidy and Kai hanging out

Oil exploration off New Zealand’s coast is lawful injustice. Exploring for more fossil fuels will contribute significantly to climate change- the biggest known threat to human life. My respect for human life outweighs my respect for the laws that we broke by occupying that ship. I fear the consequences of climate change far more than I fear the legal ramifications of our actions. To change the status quo we have to get up the courage to challenge it.

We know that what we did was largely symbolic. The ship left the next day to continue exploring for oil. Our actions are only a tiny part of a very large movement. What counts is not the cheeky endeavours of a few climbers, what counts is the collective conscious action of people to create positive change. We hope to draw attention to those working tirelessly around the world for a safer climate, many of them facing persecution, physical hardship, or imprisonment.

Our actions are only successful if they encourage others to pursue social and environmental justice. People are realising that a fairer and healthier world is possible, but it’s being held at arms length by corporate and governmental power structures. As government officials from different nations meet in Paris, to discuss how strong or weak to make their climate policies, we have to take our future in our own hands and act on climate change regardless of their “decisions” or “agreements”.

 

 

The support and best wishes we received from friends and strangers were truly humbling. We’re lucky to be part of such a passionate community.

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After a long day Aidy, Kai and I climbed down at 7pm and piled into the paddy wagon (which surprised me with its lack of seat belts!). A few finger prints, DNA swab and a mug shot later I was let out into the police waiting room, where people were waiting to pick us up. Kai was the next one out. Part of our bail conditions was that the five of us could not directly or indirectly associate with any of our team who had been on the ship. If I had walked over and hugged Kai at that very moment it would have been an act of civil disobedience, punishable by imprisonment.

This is the ridiculous power structure that we live under. Who would not want to change this system?

 

In solidarity,

 

Siana Fitzjohn

 

P.S. Epic footage here courtesy of Kai and Aidy (on the GoPros) and Greenpeace New Zealand

Dunedin mourns: Oil and Gas are Dead

death oil

Today it is with great sorrow that we announce the death of Fossil Fuels. The cause of death was climate change science. Oil Free Otago members gathered outside the Scenic Hotel to show our support and respect for New Zealand Oil and Gas, who struggled for so long to keep Fossil Fuels alive even when it looked like there was no hope. Despite their best efforts awareness of climate justice kept spreading, and Fossil Fuels finally succumbed.

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Fossil Fuels’ vital signs had been dropping dangerously for years

Fossil Fuels is survived by Renewable Energy, who will take on Fossil Fuels’ responsibilities in the community.

A service was held and members shared their memories of Fossil Fuels and made their farewells.

“Fossil Fuels drove me to my first day at school and has always been there for me, but now Fossil Fuels it’s time you went back to the ground where you belong.” -Bridget

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We’ll remember Fossil Fuels for making our cars faster, our buildings taller, and would always help us to buy more stuff. Fossil Fuels was crazy about nature and loved getting into rivers, oceans and out into the fresh air. We’ll always remember how much Fossil Fuels loved animals- always all over them, sticking to them like glue.

 “Ah, Fossil Fuels, we got up to some mischief. There was the time we stole Hollie’s parents’ car, or when you left me alone on the side of the road stranded after a big night. You weren’t the most reliable friend, but we’ll always remember you.” -Siana

Fossil Fuels was also incredibly popular. Countries would often get jealous of each other and start violent wars just to see more of Fossil Fuels. There were times, however, when Fossil Fools recklessly exploded in a temper, which hurt the people who loved Fossil Fuels the most.

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 “After I had been in a relationship with Fossil Fuels for a while I realised how dependent I was, in the end I think it was a destructive relationship and I am almost relieved that Fossil Fuels’ time has come.” – Aoife

I spite of these bad habits, many of us became completely dependant on Fossil Fuels in every aspect of our lives. But with loss comes opportunity, and we will embrace a bright new future with renewable energy as we commit Fossil Fuels to the ground to forever remain in peace.

Our thoughts are with New Zealand Oil and Gas today, as they meet at the Scenic Hotel in Dunedin to come to terms with their loss.

Obituary by Siana Fitzjohn

Time Travel With the Dunedin City Council

Yesterday I travelled back in time. When we entered the Dunedin City Council chambers to make a deputation on the 2016 oil and gas block offer I felt the clock tick back 150 years. What can only be described as a throne sat at one end of the room, presumably to seat the Mayor. All around the walls robe-clad past officials stared at us severely from their picture frames, as if still passing judgement on proceedings.

The council members (11 men, 3 women), Mayor, members of the public and reporters filed in and took their seats. We were all asked to stand, I assumed it was for a formal opening or karakia, but what followed was a full on Christian prayer, with all the ‘amens’ to go with it. It felt a little like entering a cult. It seems completely inappropriate to integrate a single religion into a local government meeting. It’s exclusive to those who identify with different belief systems or with atheism, and it perpetuates the conventional atmosphere of the public forum.

So Rosemary and I went and sat in what looked like a dock, and implored the council to oppose the government’s oil and gas block offers. These are the huge chunks of ocean that are made available for companies to explore oil and gas. We had a mere ten minutes to unpack the issue.

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Original photo: Graham Warman

Now, ten minutes is not a lot of time when you need to cover

  • the deconstruction of democracy
  • the huge risks posed by deep sea drilling to marine life
  • our laughably inadequate ‘oil spill response plan’
  • the emotional and psychological impacts of an oil spill
  • the importance of our oceans for our cultural identity
  • AND the climate justice implications of oil and gas exploration

Needless to say we were a little out of breath by the time we were done. Throughout the talk I could not help feeling like we were medieval peasants bringing our grievances to the lords of the land. Councillor Hilary Calvert slouched like a bored schoolgirl, and made little attempt to conceal her disdain. When the questions began firing at us, I realised that the attitudes of certain councillors were as out-dated as the surrounding décor.

Councillor Andrew Whiley, our beloved spokesperson for ProGas Otago, kindly reminded us that this meeting was about the oil and gas block offers, not about climate change. Congratulations Sir, on your belligerent refusal to connect the dots. It’s easy to defend oil and gas exploration if the major moral imperative not to extract fossil fuels is deemed irrelevant to the conversation. Climate change science states that if we burn more than 20 or so percent of known fuel reserves, we’re toast. If councils compartmentalise issues they evade the moral implications of their decisions.

The next question was from Hilary Calvert, who asked me if I had made a written submission, and if so what did we think we were gaining by “having another bite at the cherry…”

Wow. She had basically asked us why we thought our viewpoint was important enough to warrant an extra 10 minutes of her time. Not to mention our written submissions had been personal, and we were making the deputation on behalf of Oil Free Otago and the 400+ people that had signed our petition. I did not know how to reply, so I merely shot back, “I’m not sure I understand the relevance of your question.”

I should have said, “We are pursuing every democratic avenue available to us to ensure that this issue receives due attention. We’d gladly spend all day explaining to the council the infringement of climate justice proposed by this block offer. Frankly if you think that a written submission and a ten minute deputation is going overboard then I don’t think you comprehend the seriousness of this issue.” Bloody hindsight. The great thing about Hilary’s question is that it was a personal attack. Meaning she had no alternative ammunition. Ha.

Councillor Lee Vandervis asked why we wouldn’t compare Dunedin to other cities like New Plymouth and Aberdeen, who had profited from oil exploitation? Hated to break it to him, but we’re about 50 years too late. The link between our fossil fuel use and the hazardous effects of climate change is now indisputably established. We no longer have the excuse of ignorance. We can’t afford to burn the majority of the fossil fuels that we know about. Any decision to explore for more fossil fuels now directly endangers the wellbeing of future generations and ecosystems.

It is clear that some of these councillors are still living in a fantasy land. We don’t want to burst their bubbles, but their opinions are relics of the ancient past. These select few would see Dunedin turned into the last outpost of a dying oil industry, with abandoned drilling platforms rusting away offshore as an ode to their idiocy.

As you can probably tell, I am a little frustrated after yesterday. Every attempt was made by a few councillors to derail, distract and discredit the conversation. There is only so much time you can spend stating the bleeding obvious to people before you sound like a broken record. Take heart though, progress is being made, if at the pace of a sleeping snail. The council will rework their submission to reflect the public feedback, as per their responsibility, but they are not taking an opposing stance like we’d hoped. Councils around the rest of the country are looking more positive. Christchurch lead the charge to oppose the block offers, with Kaikoura following suit. This shows that local governments can demonstrate good leadership and respond to the needs of their communities. Congratulations to both of those regions!

The Dunedin City Council, however, appears to be a bastion of conventional thinking. They’re clinging to wishful fantasies of economic prosperity from a resource that the world is turning its back on. Real progress is being made towards a greener future for Dunedin, yet these few key representatives are steadfastly refusing to help change the game. The younger more progressive councillors look jaded, and who wouldn’t be in an environment like that? The Dunedin City Council is helping to reinforce current unjust power structures and uphold corporate interests instead of representing the interests and requirements of the citizens they represent. When a council contains a disproportionate dose of archaic opinions that get in the way of sound logic, science and justice there is a power imbalance. We have to stay positive, but we need to be honest and realistic about where the council is at. On this issue I don’t believe they have the ability to truly represent their community. I think it’s time they were refreshed.

Thank you to all of the groups, volunteers and citizens around New Zealand that submitted to their councils on the 2016 oil and gas block offers. Some councils are faster to respond appropriately than others, but keep on pushing. Social change takes time, but we’ll get there.

In solidarity,

Siana

Article on yesterday’s public forum in Dunedin here.