this essay appeared in The Sunday Age on November 17
The week that the Extinction Rebellion protests begin to block the streets of Melbourne I am parked in a camping area at the southern end of Gariwerd – the Grampians National Park in western Victoria. The bush around the walking trails is studded with wildflowers. But when camping in wild places, your neighbours are an unknown.
One evening my friends and I find ourselves watching a couple of vehicles roll into our remote campsite at dusk. Three people spill out of two four-wheel-drives and begin setting up. One appears solo, down the steps of his car-top camper, wearing his dressing gown. Bemused, we figure that – unlike last night’s group – he won’t be staying up late and yahooing into the wee hours. A bit later, the woman comes by our campfire and introduces herself.
Angela Crunden and her partner Tony Peck are from Gippsland. When this composed, silver-haired woman tells us that for the last three days they’ve been protesting with Extinction Rebellion (or XR for short) in Melbourne, our eyebrows lift. These are not the young ‘anarchist’ ratbags Peter Dutton would have us repelling.
“There were 30 of us from Gippsland,” says Crunden, adding with satisfaction, “nine from Gippsland were arrested, including a previous mayor from Bass shire.”
The next day we peel off to other parts of the park, but I arrange to speak with the couple when they’ve returned home.
I discover both have had careers in nursing. They have brought up their children while living off the grid in East Gippsland for 25 years. Retired now, they have moved to Bairnsdale but are still immersed in sustainability practice, from which there is no retirement. The couple have been part of a local environmental coalition for years.
Crunden tells me about earlier lonely moments in which she’s been a sometimes unwelcome presence, setting up a one-person climate change information stall outside her supermarket. When the couple speak about Extinction Rebellion’s group training, artists’ offerings, and practices of non-violence, it is easy to see the appeal of solidarity after such solitary vigils.
I ask them why they were pleased about the arrests. Crunden says: “There’s a passion attached to the sacrifice.”
Peck adds: “When people tell us to stop wasting time protesting, we ask them what alternatives they’d suggest. Invariably they say ‘Talk to local politicians, write to your local member.’ We have been doing that politely for 20 years, and we will continue to do it. But it has not brought about the needed change.”
Prior to the phone call I had researched Extinction Rebellion in Melbourne and internationally. The weight of opinion is against their actions in stopping the traffic, but something else catches my eye.
I see snatches of video and photos of people wearing whiteface and flowing red costumes. At first the red people’s appearance is reminiscent of The Handmaid’s Tale. But there are no white bonnets. Draped in red, the performers wear headdresses all of a piece with flowing red garments. Performing stylised gestures with great slowness, they offer utter attentiveness towards what is happening around them. Their movements are made in unison, they walk in slow motion and silence. These visually striking ‘Red Brigades’ remind me of the chorus in classical Greek drama, only in this instance there’s no speaking.
When Peck describes the Red Brigade in Melbourne, his voice catches. “There is a yearning in their movement. They stood nearby and leant towards the people being arrested. We all felt embraced by their presence.”
Following our call I watch a Red Brigade group from Britain in a YouTube clip called “The Rising Tide”. I am mesmerised. A group of 20 or more descend a sea cliff in Cornwall and process along the beach below – first in rows of pairs and later in a V formation. The video and soundtrack are just over two minutes long – no words are spoken, but there are subtitles and hand-painted banners. The Red Brigade members walk calmly into the sea and stand immersed to their waists, unflinching. The ritual action is complete. Fully clothed in the water they stand together: they are a flock, a massed appearance to remind us of what is disappearing.
There is something about the considered gestures and silent action that speaks to me, a leaning-in to give ear to what is happening. It is a bearing of witness. I want protests that look like this. Would beauty and sorrow persuade people?
A friend says to me: “You can’t make change elegantly, it doesn’t come without discomfort. Someone has to be rude.”
Remembering the outcry about traffic congestion during the Spring Extinction Rebellion, I ask Crunden and Peck their thoughts on the inconvenience and disruption caused to commuters; it does not sit easily with them.
They are horrified when I tell them about Shaun Islip, a choir leader I’ve met who was thrown to the ground by environmental protesters at the International Mining and Resources Conference (IMARC). Islip had nothing to do with the mining conference – he was going into the venue on October 29 to do a sound check for the WorkSafe conference the following day. The protesters refused to hear this. Islip was wearing a suit – that, it seems, was his mistake.
The Gippsland couple say the XR training they have received is to avoid blaming and shaming any one individual. And Crunden reminds me that in a public context it is hard to control who is representing you. At the rebellion in early October, she felt very concerned when a man in sunglasses and a balaclava tried to attach himself to their group. She spoke to him: “We don’t wear masks like this, it is not XR practice.”
The protests at IMARC were organised by an alliance of groups including Frontline Action on Coal and Socialist Alternative. Extinction Rebellion maintain that they chose not join the blockade part of the protest, as this type of confrontation is not what they seek.
Miriam Robinson, a spokesperson for XR Melbourne, says: “One of the hallmarks of Extinction Rebellion actions is a creative element, often involving music and costumes. We organised actions during IMARC such as a bicycle ride, a ‘disgust-ation dinner’ and a ‘Dance with Death’. The Red Brigade did not attend the IMARC blockade. They decided that this event was not for them.”
She adds: “Some of our people came in the morning, they were free to come as individuals, but when they saw the police, the horses and the shouting, they put their flags away and left.”
Several people from XR Gippsland had travelled up to join the actions, but they turned around and went home again.
The federal government’s business-as-usual attitude admits little need to respond to extinctions. In his defence of the economy and the “quiet Australians”, our prime minister is beginning to shout. But there are thousands of Australians on both sides of the political divide who protest this denial. They come from the country, the suburbs and the city; they have jobs and farms and businesses and children and grandchildren. They are unlikely to accept being dismissed as anarchists or members of cults. And they are less and less likely to remain quiet.