Yesterday’s protest at Hazelwood power station was billed as a day of “community protest and non-violent mass civil disobedience,” and yet despite the small numbers, what was remarkable was the ‘ordinariness’ of the crowd.

One protest with 500-odd people on a dreary day in the backblocks of Gippsland ain’t gonna change the world, but who shows up on the day says much about the evolution of the climate issue — and environmental issues more broadly — in the public consciousness.

It wasn’t an easily compartmentalised demographic — though we can always rely on certain members of the commentariat to imply that the simple act of showing up somehow metamorphoses the individual into something easily nameable and easily dismissable; ‘green religionist, eco-fascist’ and other pejoratives often appended with something about coffee or white wine varieties.

But whether you’d call it depoliticisation or repoliticisation of the environment, these people are profoundly afraid of where we’re heading, and that fear, and the call for an urgent change of direction seems to be bleeding its way across the political spectrum.

An emphasis on conflict is media bread and butter but it has a tendency to skate over much or all of the context in which it occurs – sometimes much of what matters most gets missed. Sometimes the subtleties are everything.

The protest made its way from the meeting point a few hundred metres up the road to the main entrance of the station, where a temporary perimeter fence had been set up to create a sort of no man’s land around the power station that does more than any other to push Victorians to the top of the global per capita emissions league table. Any protesters who made it over the first fence could easily be scooped up by the security guards sentried there before getting anywhere near the permanent one.

Outside the fence, the law was everywhere — on foot, on horseback, on motorbikes, airborne. Media reports put the police presence at 250 — one for every two protesters at a guestimate. Speakers stressed that the protesters had no argument with the police, and it’s hard to imagine many of them having much stomach for this kind of work. One of the first protesters to go over the fence was grabbed up within seconds of his feet hitting the ground — he was charged, driven about 500m from the line and released. By his account the arresting officers were chatty and cordial.

The organisers encouraged people to stand against the outer fence and make a ring around the compound, while the police aggressively discouraged it. Two officers struggled to pull free a girl clinging to the cyclone mesh – when she finally let go she was put down and put down hard. On the hill a mounted officer forced his horse between the fence and protesters to push them back — predictably enough, many stood their ground, the horse got skittish and camera crews sprinted up the hill towards the ensuing commotion.

Which is pretty much what the camera crews did all day — moving up and down the line, literally looking for, waiting for, trouble. For once this was probably fair enough, since non-violent ‘trouble’ — civil disobedience — was specifically and explicitly intended. I had left before things really heated up — but on the news I watched a pretty determined push by protesters on the outer fence, police and security bracing from the inside side, and dragging people back from the outside.

The Australian mainstream is not used to fighting against government policies on the ground — the average suburbanite, which, myself included, is what most of us are, has transient experience of it at best because we’ve grown up in a country that has been free, stable, prosperous and reasonably equitable for a few generations, and those kinds of muscles have inevitably atrophied.

But this is what lends significance to yesterday’s action, even if the numbers are not yet on the ground — that despite a probable discomfort with the idea of civil disobedience, people who would really rather be doing something else turned up anyway, because they feel that this is what things have come to.

And it’s something that modern day governments, particularly those that obsess over media appearances, ought to be thinking about — if the climate change issue is met with platitudes in public and police on the ground, then the pictures that flow from that will become increasingly ugly.

Strongarming a dreadlocked protester dressed like a wombat might not be a particularly good look, but handing out the same treatment to the more conservative looking; the very old, the very young, doctors, plumbers, lawyers, teachers, nurses, WORKING FAMILIES the ‘ordinary’ folk — is infinitely worse.

Peter Fray

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