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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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,