This year I’ve met a number of young people in politically active spaces who have spent time at Camp Nudja near Bowen – the camp set up to try, through various means, to stop the construction of Adani’s Carmichael coal mine and the rail and port infrastructure associated with it. They all have found it an empowering experience and come away keen to be more involved in that and other social and environmental campaigns.
It reminded of time spent at the Maules Creek blockade in Western NSW, as person after person would come out there and talk about how inspiring they found it. Hundreds of people were arrested out there blocking the clearing of the forest and the construction of a coal mine. Many of them have gone on to be heavily involved in different causes around the country, including some for whom it was their first ever political action.
I don’t think this is limited to those two campaigns either. I think about the random people I have met over the years who have told me they were among the 500 arrested at the Jabiluka uranium blockade in the late 90’s. Or how after years of rallies, petitions, etc about Australia’s treatment of refugees, the most exciting and empowering moment for so many was a few days spent camped outside Lady Cilento children’s hospital in 2016 pledging to blockade the removal of the infant known as Asha. Or how campaigns like those at Terania Creek or the Franklin River have passed into Australian political folklore.
After years of being around political campaigns of various kinds, I still think there is something especially enticing and empowering about blockade camps and other forms of direct action.
Not that I think that kind of political action is necessarily the most effective at attaining particular objectives. Sometimes it is, and it can certainly be a vital part of a campaign for various reasons. But the thing I think camps are really effective at is getting people who have not done much political action before and nurturing within them the belief and desire to be active in the struggle for a better world.
I think there are a few reasons for this. One is the feeling of actively doing something. So many of us spend so long angrily reading the news but feeling powerless to do anything about it. Politics seems removed from our everyday life. The ritual of going to the polling booth every few years seems so far from actually having our say about how society should be run.
When all you have ever known is political disempowerment, a blockade camp is an amazing experience. You can lock yourself to some infrastructure and watch the trucks grind to a halt while they wait for you to be cut off. You can stop focusing on the power you don’t have and acknowledge instead the power that everyone has – the ability to put their body in the way of activities you never gave your consent to. You know that even if you can’t permanently stop things, you can at least make your disapproval a tangible thing that must be dealt with. In saying a defiant no, you are saying yes to active involvement in what’s going on.
Another element of the power of blockading is the connection you develop to the issue. In a forest blockade, you are trying to save the forest, but at the same time you are living in the forest – building a personal connection to the issue. You come to love the trees and animals that surround you, feel personally invested in their survival. Same with fragile but beautiful desert ecosystems. Once you have been immersed in the issue it is harder to dissociate and keep going about your normal life.
There’s another way you are immersed in a blockade camp. Living at the camp; the campaign becomes your work, your play, your community. A bit overwhelming at times and not always healthy; but a powerful experience in a lot of ways. It builds skills very quickly, as you are constantly in close proximity with people of different abilities who are happy to share knowledge. The constant on-the-go nature of the camp means you have the opportunity to step up to tasks you never would otherwise. You can go in with no experience and in a short time come out a seasoned activist with a new level of self-confidence.
But it also leads you to a new understanding of living in community. In a camp you cook and eat together, work and relax together, at times go through extremely intense experiences together (and then also act as emotional support to each other afterwards). You form bonds of the type that are so rare in our atomised and comfortable urban lives, bonds that will last a long time even if you rarely see one another in other contexts.
For all these reasons, blockade camps and other forms of direct action work as “peak experiences” – something that can potentially change your worldview radically. Even people for whom the experience is a one-off that doesn’t lead to a life involved in activism; it is a dramatic step to move through the norms of social respectability, of our conditioned apathy, to be active and even willing to be arrested for a cause that doesn’t affect you directly. That is never an insignificant thing, and can influence someone in a variety of ways. For many though, an experience of direct action can be a catalyst that leads to years or even a lifetime of involvement in causes for a better world.
For that reason, I think anyone interested in building movements capable of creating social change should take seriously what direct action campaigns and intentional communities offer. There is a tendency to, for the sake of pursuing widespread appeal, reject that kind of action as too “radical”, likely to deter people from getting involved or put them offside. Or it can be dismissed as not strategic; too far removed from corridors of power where men and women in suits make the big decisions.
I’m not a fan of chasing some mythical middle ground that will suddenly make everyone embrace your cause; and I think that dramatic, creative and confrontational actions can actually be more likely to inspire awareness, sympathy and support. Plus my experience is that in terms of inspiring people to get and stay involved, blockades can work better than more conservative forms of organising.
But I will acknowledge a few limitations of direct action – despite the idea inherent in the name, it can very rarely change an issue long-term without being combined with other tactics to change corporate or government policy. Blockading doesn’t really helped develop a very nuanced understanding or tack of action to social issues either. Also, the simple fact is that while it may work for forests (and more recently mining infrastructure), not every social issue you might want to change can physically be blockaded. It is a tactic of limited effectiveness.
Still, for the reasons I’ve already mentioned, I don’t think blockading should be dismissed. And more than that, I think it is worth different causes thinking seriously about the good elements of blockading I have outlined, and asking how can they be incorporated into any campaign.
How can we make political movements spaces where participants get a sense that their actions have a direct impact on the issue? Where people feel a personal connection to the cause that will motivate them to stay involved beyond the glimmer of recognition from reading a headline? Where people’s involvement leads to them developing new skills, new sides to themselves, new understandings of what is possible? And where we are building connections with each other that nourish, encourage, inspire, challenge, sustain us? Connections that mean more than merely passing the time with small talk; connections that demonstrate on a micro scale the kind of society we would like to live in.
These are the virtues that blockading at its best offers to those who get involved in it – as many of us who have will testify. They can also be lessons offered to broader movements for change that can hopefully make our efforts more vibrant, inspiring, and hopefully successful.