A group of climate activists has decided to hit the government where it hurts, blocking coal trains, shutting down machinery and bringing the world’s largest coal port, located in Newcastle, to a grinding halt.
In the 12 days they group has been at the Port of Newcastle they’ve cost Australia’s coal export industry an estimated $60 million, making Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce very, very cross with them.
So far some have been charged with trespassing, interfering with mining equipment and obstructing railway locomotives, but this week NSW Police Commissioner Mick Fuller escalated things, establishing a dedicated police taskforce and threatening additional railway offences that carry a maximum penalty of a 25 years imprisonment.
But the activists aren’t scared, and won’t back down.
“We want to put a stop to Australia [profiting from fossil fuels] and challenging that power where they’re actually going to feel it rather than just going unnoticed somewhere else,” activist and artist Rilka Laycock-Walsh, 30, told PEDESTRIAN.
Laycock-Walsh has been involved in climate activism for three years and said that while many climate actions target the places at risk in the natural environment, Blockade Australia is all about action targeting sites of significance to the government.
“We’re just walking off a cliff unless we actually take our political agency and use direct action.”
For their first eight days at the coal port the group focused on the railway, stopping coal trains from leaving. The train line is a bottleneck in the port’s operations.
Police have said activists have used their bodies, ropes, glue and parked cars to block trains.
Tim Neville, 26, was arrested and charged earlier this week for trespassing and railway obstruction after he tied a climb line to the train tracks and abseiled off the side of the courier bridge, stopping coal from leaving the port for three hours. He pleaded guilty
Neville said that the police response was a sign that what they’re doing is working.
“It’s a great yardstick of success,” he said.
“All of these things cumulatively are a really good indicator of how threatened the state is by the actions that’ve been taken and how much is at stake for them.”
From day nine, Blockade Australia’s action turned towards the port itself.
On Tuesday, activists scaled 30-metre-tall machinery and pressed the emergency safety button that brings the entire site to a stop.
“We walked into the coal port, which is a massive wasteland of coal stockpiles and there’s things called stacker-reclaimers, which are like big machines that are automated that scoop up the coal and load them onto the ship. With one push of the emergency stop button you can immobilise the whole port,” Zianna Fuad, 28, said.
Fuad has been involved in climate activism since she was 16, but was pushed to do more after her property was burnt during the Black Summer bushfires.
“It only made the rage more,” she said. “It showed the climate crisis to be very real and very here.”
She and Isabelle Harland, 25, pled guilty to trespassing and interfering with mining equipment after stopping the site’s operations for more than two hours. They have been sentenced to 24-month community corrections orders.
Harland said although she felt nervous about climbing the machines, she said she knew it was the most important thing she could be doing for the climate in that moment.
“Once I was tied on I felt really calm and clear and knew that that’s really what I should be doing at that point in time,” she said.
Barnaby Joyce has criticised the action, saying that the activists are costing the economy but don’t work themselves and are “living off” social security.
“It’s totally untruthful [and] I think it’s a ridiculous way to take attention away from the big issue that they can’t address,” activist Marco Bellemo, 20, said.
Bellemo said the movement has attracted people from all ages and backgrounds, some of whom are still working remotely from the site.
He said many young people have lost faith in governments, especially Australia’s, to implement policies in time to limit global heating to 1.5ºC.
“There’s not really much else at this point that we can hold on to.”