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40 years of Australian blockading songs

This week marks the 40th anniversary of the beginning of the Terania Creek forest blockade – the birth of frontline forest activism in this country. The best way to celebrate is by locking on to a machine that’s destroying the planet for profits. But the second best way is by playing some great songs from Australia’s blockading history.

3CR recently put together a radio show celebrating the songs of the Terania blockade, and some of those same tracks were included on a rad historical compilation called Lock On! But like Australia’s frontline environmental protest history, our tradition of blockading songs is rich and varied. Here is a bit of a sample.

Terania Creek had plenty of songs sung around the campfire and on the picketlines. A more detailed collection can be found in the links above, and a couple of traits that would be replicated by future blockading songwriters are already present. One is the gentle ecospirituality of Brenda Liddiard‘s Forest Song, another is the raw humour of The Bulldozer AllstarsTonka Toys

The Franklin River blockade became one of the most iconic in Australian history, stopping the damming of the river and bringing footage of rugged forests and civil disobedience into loungerooms of the country on the news. Members of Goanna (playing as the Franklin Gordon River Ensemble) soundtracked the blockade with the singalong anthem Let The Franklin Flow

As forest blockades popped up all over the country, a subculture of “forest ferals” developed, roaming around the country disrupting logging and perfecting lock-on and treesit techniques. Many songs were written as in-jokes within that subculture, but the issue of logging native forests also entered the mainstream, as proved by legendary country singer John Williamson’s classic track Rip Rip Woodchip.

The North East Forest Alliance in NSW had some famous victories at Washpool and Chaelundi in the late 80’s and early 90’s. Mick Daley’s epic Ballad of Wild Cattle Creek is a less triumphant story, but a wonderful slice of the ups and downs of blockading life.

Paul Spencer is a folky in the old style – mixing humour and politics, reusing traditional tunes, and finding songwriting inspiration in everyday life. He has spent a lot of time on blockades and written a few songs that reference them in various ways. Make Some Music is a signature tune of Paul’s and a loving tribute to taking direct action. This version is recorded by Paul with the environmental a capella choir Ecopella.

Folk songs are well suited to the campfire at the forest blockade camp, but it is not the only genre able to write about the theme. Anarchist industrial band Insurge got in on the act with their tribute to the Lock On – the film clip features some rad footage from World Economic Forum protests too.

Electronic music also became strongly linked to environmental campaigns in the 90’s, partly due to the developing “bush doof” culture that took rave parties out into the forest, occasionally linking up with blockade camps. One of the most notable artists to consistently link politics and techno music was Peter Strong, who would infuse his songs with samples from protests. Plan It, recorded as Non Bossy Posse, is a great example of the style.

The Jabiluka campaign to stop a uranium mine in Kakadu national park re-energised blockading in Australia, with over 500 people arrested and an eventual victory for environmentalists and the Mirarr traditional owners. There were two compilation albums released as part of the campaign (neither are easy to find now); with bands like Midnight Oil, Regurgitator and Yothu Yindi playing on the frontlines. One song recorded for the campaign was from Painters and Dockers, with aboriginal sax player Jenny Pineapple taking the vocals to sing about Kakadu. This is a recording from an event to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the win, where Jenny dusted off the song once more.

In the early 2000’s, Ecowar were a folk-punk band led by activist James Brook. Their gigging tours took in blockades around the country, and this track Defending This Land is a good tune and an even better history reference since it begins with a list of blockade campaigns of the time.

Radical hip hop crew Combat Wombat brought a whole new element to music on the frontlines with solar powered sound systems and vege oil vans. Mixing sharp political rhymes and banging beats, they became synonymous with Australian radical political music. It all started with the band forming at the Jabiluka blockade and their first single Miraculous Activist

In some ways hardcore punk wouldn’t seem to go with forest activism – sonically the genre has more in common with chainsaws and clearfell machines than it does birdcalls and rustling leaves. But the Such Is Life punk festival for years took place at Goongerah in the heart of East Gippsland, and there were always plenty of fundraiser gigs and even albums. Punks Against The Gold Mine was a 2007 compilation raising cash and awareness for the blockade of Barrick Gold’s Lake Cowal gold mine on Wiradjuri country. From that album, here is femme crust band Scum System Kill with Water is More Precious Than Gold.

Australia’s longest running forest blockade was at Goolengook in East Gippsland, where for over five years activists braved the elements to keep a continuous presence. Eventually the site was included in the Errinundra National Park. Kate Grealy wrote this beautiful song about the forest there.

Protest songs can be a great way to inspire and educate, but also the drama and emotions of blockading life can make for fertile songwriting soil. From huddling with friends for warmth to getting that burst of adrenaline when you see headlights approaching; the most in-depth musical exploration of “locking on” is Madeline Hudson’s Monster Machine.

Folk-punk as a genre is a good match with blockading – like most forest ferals; it’s a bit rough around the edges, and mixes the sensitive and serious with the aggressive and fun. Acoustic instruments make it mobile and forest-ready too. Long-term blockade veteran Dan Easton and his band The Great Shame wrote this folk-punk forest anthem Old Growth.

It was at a “climate camp” at Helensburg just south of Sydney that The Lurkers penned their track Who’s Got a Padlock and Chain? The Metropolitan Mine where they set the song was hardly the site of repeated protests, and to be honest blockading is rarely done with a padlock and chain, but all the same the song is a banger and has become an Australian protest standard with lyrics adapted to different campaigns.

The Leard Forest campaign in North-Western NSW reflected the change in Australia’s main environmental concern from logging to climate change. For two and a half years, activists camped out attempting to stop the construction of the Maules Creek coal mine – unsuccessfully in the end but with plenty of spirit. Jonathan Moylan made national news early in the campaign with a hoax press release that sent the stock market into a spin. He also wrote the song Can’t See the Forest for the Coal, performed here by Adam Ryan.

For a few years from 2012, the campaign against Coal Seam Gas brought blockading back to where it all began in Northern NSW. Things were a bit different this time – what had once been a few “ferals” in the forest was this time a large camp on private property, with farmers and environmentalists joining forces. The region had changed too, decades of “alternative culture” in the area meant the Bentley blockade had a distinct hippy vibe. The song most associated with the campaign, Luke Vassella’s Gently Bentley, is the cheesiest song ever written about blockading in this country, but in that way it does kinda represent the blockade from which it came.

With the fortieth anniversary of Terania Creek arriving, it’s evident even from compiling this list that a lot has changed in the environmental movement in this country. It’s credit to those forest ferals and their tenacious efforts that conservation is now part of mainstream political dialogues. Climate change as an issue too has brought blockading techniques into the city as the frontline moves from logging coupes to our whole society. The movement against the Adani’s Carmichael coal mine in central Queensland has been bigger than any of the other campaigns mentioned, but maybe surprisingly it hasn’t produced any iconic songs. This track from popular rapper Allday and popstars The Veronicas; covering Joni Mitchell live on triple j; seems symbolic in a way of a transition in environmental thinking over four decades. That blockade of course is still going right now in central Queensland; and with a planet to save from a system intent on destroying it there is plenty of need for more bodies putting themselves in the way of the machines, and more songs to soundtrack the resistance.

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Johnny Clegg and the ethics of cross-cultural pop music

It didn’t quite gain the attention of some recent rockstar deaths, but many of us were sad to hear this Wednesday of the passing, from pancreatic cancer, of South African musician Johnny Clegg.

For many in Australia Clegg’s wouldn’t be a familiar name. But from the late 70’s to the early 90’s, Clegg and his bands Juluka and Savuka made wonderful cross-cultural pop music in the politically charged atmosphere of apartheid-era South Africa.

Clegg was born in England but migrated as a child to Zimbabwe and then to Johannesburg. There he encountered black musicians busking in the street. With one of these street musicians Sipho Mchunu, he formed the band Juluka. Their music features the rubbery rhythms and nimble guitarwork of the South African pop style known as mbaqanga, with lyrics in Zulu and English and an unmistakable love of Africa and its people. Clegg studied and integrated into Zulu culture; he was given the nickname “umZulu omhlope” or “the White Zulu”. One great video shows him doing a pretty adept job at the distinctive Zulu dance of high kicks.

While Clegg’s own music is not very well known among Western rock fans, he had a strong influence on one album that is – Paul Simon’s Graceland, in which the folk-rock superstar dipped his toe into the world of South African pop. In the liner notes of that album, Simon says it would not have been possible without the help of Clegg. Which I assume is because it was Clegg who connected him to the black musicians who feature on the album.

Graceland is a wonderful pop album, and one that introduced much of the world to the joys of mbaqanga music – a style which before then had been repressed by the anglophone-centredness of rock music and a system of government that violently oppressed black South African people and their culture.

Despite that, or partly because of that, Graceland was a controversial album when it came out. Few disputed its musical value – the controversy surrounded the way Simon interacted with that system of apartheid. Those liner notes in the album talk about South African music but make no mention of the legally enshrined discrimination that kept those who made it politically and economically oppressed. But more directly, it was the fact that Simon knowingly bypassed a cultural boycott that had been put in place to distance the rest of the world from that legal system and to put pressure towards is dismantling.

The boycotts against South Africa took many forms, from governments placing economic sanctions to sporting bodies refusing to allow South African teams to compete. In rock music, there was a group called Artists United Against Apartheid; led in the US by Stevie Van Zandt, guitarist in Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band.

The 80’s was the era of the star-studded charity concert and cheesy collaborative single. Think of Live Aid, We Are The World, Do They Know It’s Christmas. Artists United Against Apartheid had both, but there is a notable difference between those examples I just mentioned and AUAA’s Sun City. And not just that the featured artists are way cooler. While most charity singles saw their causes as removed economic issues in which the rockstar’s only role was to play music and encourage listeners to give money, Sun City saw music itself as linked to the injustice they were resisting. It recognised that by touring South African venues like the luxurious Sun City Resort in Bophuthatswana, artists were giving implicit support to the South African government and its policy of legally enforced racism. So beyond just singing the song, the artists also vowed not to play in South Africa until apartheid was ended.

The boycott had originally been called for by black South Africans, so there was an expectation that if you were going to violate it, you would at least approach the leaders of that movement first. Paul Simon though did not do that. He in fact refused to meet with them, saying “art transcends politics”. There is a famous story of an encounter between Paul Simon and Stevie Van Zandt. Simon confronted Van Zandt, saying “What are you doing defending this guy Mandela?! He’s obviously a communist. My friend Henry Kissinger told me about where all of the money’s coming from.” Van Zandt’s reply was “All due respect, Paulie, but not only does art not transcend politics… art is politics. And I’m telling you right now, you and Henry Kissinger, your buddy, go fuck yourselves.”

Issues like this are rarely simple. Paul Simon went to South Africa out of love for black music, and in making the brilliant album that he did, he brought that culture (and, even if inadvertently, the issues it faced) to the world’s attention. We might question his political allegiance to Henry Kissinger ahead of Nelson Mandela, but I think the fact his politics didn’t align with the standard left-wing approach to apartheid doesn’t make his actions completely unethical.

It is certainly interesting though to compare the approach to cross-cultural musical collaboration of Paul Simon to that of Johnny Clegg. In using black African musicians to record an album released under his own name, Paul Simon was in a way using the oppressed musicians for his own gain without contributing anything to their political situation or that of the people who developed the music he was playing.

Johnny Clegg, on the other hand, essentially set himself up as a race traitor to be vilified by other white South Africans. His music was censored by the government and received virtually no airplay in his home country. Simply by organising mixed-race gigs, or by being in the parts of town where the band played, he was actually breaking the law. He took the time to fully immerse himself in the culture that produced the music he loved, and his lyrics reflect the struggles of black Africans. There is a lovely video of Nelson Mandela making a surprise appearance on stage while Clegg is singing Asimbonanga, the song he wrote for Mandela while he was still in prison.

In the years since Juluka and Paul Simon were releasing their albums, plenty has been written about the issue of cultural appropriation and the ethics associated with it (including this one about Johnny Clegg written in the days since his death). I’m of the opinion that a world without cross-pollination between different cultures would be a very sad world to live in. We wouldn’t have the South African guitar pop of mbaqanga, let alone the white adaptations of it. But the parallel stories of Paul Simon and Johnny Clegg show us there are different ways to approach cross-cultural art – some of which are mutual exchanges intended to benefit all parties involved, and some which simply treat culture as an object to be picked up and used or discarded.

The life of “the White Zulu” Johnny Clegg stands as a powerful legacy for those seeking to make cross-cultural art that goes beyond just songs and pictures, into the creation of a better world. As the South African government tweeted on hearing the news of his death, “his music could unite people across the races and bring them together as a community”.

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One mine, two elections

At some point in the leadup to the Australian federal election, someone (no doubt in a moment of optimism) claimed it would be a “climate election”. Given recent dire warnings of the consequences if we don’t act to reduce fossil fuel consumption, it was probably fair enough to assume it would be on the election agenda. The media ran with it for a little while; and certainly Labor came to the party with a fairly robust plan to reduce emissions. They didn’t include any policies on Adani’s proposed Carmichael mine in central Queensland though, a contentious project which has become the main focus of public pressure for climate action.

The Liberal party meanwhile stayed very quiet on the issue, only stating (with a similar level of willful optimism) that we were on track to meet our global emissions reductions targets. The day before calling the election they announced federal approval for the Adani mine – theoretically purely a departmental decision but in this case almost certainly a campaigning strategy.

As we all know, the Liberal Party surprised the pundits by staying in power. “How good is Queensland?” asked Scott Morrison rhetorically in his victory speech; referring to the 4% swing in the state and the fact that all the state’s marginal seats fell to his party.

The media, scrambling now to recover from getting their predictions so wrong, sought to find reasons. The main one they took up was the Adani mine – apparently Queenslanders wanted it to go ahead and so voted the Coalition in. Guess it was a climate election after all.

Now undoubtedly many people, especially in central Queensland, do want the mine to go ahead. Rural areas struggle for employment, and the repeated message (with varying degrees of truth) from those for the Adani mine has been that it will provide jobs. Central Queensland seats all swung to the Coalition. But let’s look closer at even the biggest swings – in the previously marginal seats of Dawson and Capricornia. In both instances the swing was slightly over 10%, giving George Christensen and Michelle Landry counts of just over 60% after preferences.  On primary votes, they both received a swing of less than 1%, keeping their primary count in the low 40’s. Those swinging voters are our evidence that the Carmichael mine was the specific issue effecting the election rather than people just voting the way they normally do. But even presuming all those people changed their mind because of Adani (which, it should be remembered, was never one of the main issues either party campaigned on), that is still only a fairly small number of people in one small part of the country. Generally speaking the votes fell roughly as they had been last election – pretty much split down the middle, with 10% of people giving their first preference to the Greens’ radical climate plan.

This is not how the election result was responded to though. The Murdoch media, which has always been unashamedly pro-Adani, crowed that the result was Queensland fighting back against southern Greenies intent on condemning them to unemployment. Queensland Labor premier Anastacia Palaszczuk, terrified of losing power in next year’s election if they suffered a similar swing, within days was on the front page of the Courier Mail saying she was “fed up” with the delays regarding the mine’s approval and wanted an answer. The paper said, probably with more truth than we have come to expect from them, that it was her government’s endless procrastinating while they hoped the issue would go away that has slowed the whole thing down – as evidenced by the fact that within weeks of the election result they had given the mine’s groundwater plan its final approval.

Deputy premier Jackie Trad wrote on facebook that Labor had been wrong, and though they were still committed to climate action, would support the mine. When confronted by a protester asking how she felt approving the mine, indigenous Environment Minister Leeanne Enoch said she was “devastated”. Painfully poised on the fence and trying to wash their hands of responsibility, these moments summed up years of Labor’s approach to the mine.

In the wake of the election result and the mine approval, probably the biggest environmental movement in Australia’s history was left floundering as to what to do. Strategy had involved lobbying Labor and canvassing voters. Now they are running out of options and facing an inability to stop the mine and by extension any part of Australia’s immense fossil fuel export industry.

It was as if the nation had spoken its final word on climate change. And yet, the most recent poll showed 65% of people are against the Carmichael mine. A recent Lowy Institute poll found climate change listed as Australia’s biggest security threat.

The same week as Scott Morrison’s “miracle” win, the results of another election were announced. The world’s biggest in fact – a democratic bonanza that takes five weeks and has 900 million voters. The Bharatya Janata Party (BJP) of Narendra Modi were returned as Indian government, for the first time ever with a full majority.

The Carmichael mine was not an election issue in India, but the result certainly has some bearing on the project. To understand why requires a bit of context, especially regarding the relationship between Gautam Adani and Narendra Modi. Both are from Gujarat, a large province on India’s west coast. Their working relationship goes back to Gujarat’s moment of infamy – religious riots in 2002 by Hindu nationalists that killed over a thousand Muslims. Modi was chief minister of Gujarat at the time and his government was widely criticised for doing nothing to stop the riots, even accused of enabling them. An economic boycott of the province was launched, but Gautam Adani came to the governor’s aid by leading a campaign to encourage economic reinvestment in the province – beginning with a large amount of money from his own company.

Adani was rewarded with favourable project approvals, most famously the Mundra Port which destroyed 28km of mangroves and displaced local fishing villages. The land was effectively given to Adani, and the port was designated tax exempt status as a Special Economic Zone. When Modi ran for Prime Minister in 2014, Adani was the BJP’s biggest party donor. When he was victorious, the picture splashed across the nation’s news was his smiling face giving a press conference from the steps of a private jet emblazoned with Adani’s brand.

So the two have, let’s say, a working relationship. Indian politics is a process even more malleable by corporate donations than Australia’s. The implication this election result has on the mine in the Galilee Basin is this: the mine has struggled for financial viability. Adani have been unable to get banks to loan the billions of dollars capital required, and in the end were forced to reduce the size of the project in order to finance it themselves. The price of thermal coal fluctuates, and at times struggles to compete with renewable technologies. But with the BJP entrenched in government, Adani can expect favourable contracts to ensure steady demand for their Australian coal supply. The Indian government which has been bankrolled by Adani could now effectively bankroll Adani’s mine.

When the Carmichael mine was in its early stages of approval, Liberal politicians were fond of saying it would “lift millions of Indians out of grinding poverty”. They don’t say it much any more, and must be relieved that by purely talking about the mine in terms of Aussie jobs they can avoid awkward expectations they might stop cutting foreign aid or otherwise do anything about grinding poverty. When I was travelling around India a few years ago, I asked people when I could what they thought of this. Literally every single person laughed at the idea of Adani doing anything for the poor of India. No doubt fresh in their mind was the displacement of people from the construction of the Mundra port. A quick internet search will reveal plenty of Indian journalists writing about Adani’s environmental record and role in government corruption.

This week a study was published by the UN human rights special rapporteur Philip Alston. It did what most climate change papers do – repeated pretty much the same thing people have been saying for decades. In this case, that the people worst affected by climate change will be the world’s poorest – those who have done the least to cause it.

Though Adani and Modi are unlikely to be the most affected, India will see the impact of this as much as anyone. It is a country with a lot of poverty,  prone to natural disasters and food insecurity. With neighbouring Bangladesh projected to be one of the worst hit countries by climate change, India is likely to also receive an influx of climate refugees and the social complications that arise from that.

Like a store that specialises in minor variations of one product, elections only ever offer a limited range of options. In this case, an ideology that sees the earth’s resources as commodities to be sold for private profit was not up for debate at the ballot box. A few more or less mining jobs may have been on the agenda, but a system that forces us to work pillaging our own planet wasn’t. Those poorest millions affected the most by the consequences of our wealth got no say, nor did the infinite species of plants and animals under threat from climate change, or the future generations who will inherit the mess. 

But beyond any of that, we are being told that a small amount of swinging voters in a few electorates gives governments a mandate to willfully destroy the planet. For those of us whose conscience doesn’t allow us to sit by and watch that happen, we are left wondering what our options now are. Much as we may respect the principles of democracy, using government policy as a way to stop this mine and the climate chaos it represents is for now not an option. One other possibility is a tactic famously propounded by another of Gujarat’s most famous sons – Mohandas Gandhi. Fighting for Indian independence from British colonial rule, Gandhi said “Civil disobedience becomes a sacred duty when the state has become lawless or corrupt. And a citizen who barters with such a state shares in its corruption and lawlessness” 

This is not the democracy of the voting booth, but it’s worth remembering that the mining industry and its supporters hardly feel beholden to that either. Both Kevin Rudd and Malcolm Turnbull failed to get through their elected terms because of their attempts to take climate action. But civil disobedience is a different kind of democracy – using not money, nor political influence, but the simple fact of our presence to try to influence change. Where ordinary people of all backgrounds and skillsets can play an active role. Where people voluntarily sacrifice their time, money and liberty rather than work only for their own gain. Where the future society we want to live in is embodied in the way we organise for change.   

Plenty have already been arrested in the struggle to stop the Carmichael mine, and those actions have surely been a part of delaying and disrupting the project to this point. Right now there are people up at the frontline, working for one last shot at stopping this mine and protecting our climate. Time is not on our side, and it will take a lot of people. But ordinary people working together to rescue our future from the clutches of human greed; overcoming the government, media and business establishment? That would be a real miracle of democracy.

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US, Iran, and war without end

Those of us who have lived most of our lives against the backdrop of disastrous US wars in the Middle East and Central Asia maybe harboured some hope that the defeat of Islamic State in October would lead to a bit of a break on that front.

Experience has taught us not to hold too tightly to that kind of hope. And so it is mostly with resigned disappointment that we see updates every few days on the escalating threats of war from Iranian and US leaders.

Donald Trump’s weapon of choice is twitter. Last month he tweeted “if Iran wants to fight, that will be the official end of Iran”. This week he followed it up with “Any attack by Iran on anything American will be met with great and overwhelming force. In some areas, overwhelming will mean obliteration.” Iranian president Hassan Rouhani responded by calling Trump “mentally retarded”. The tweet was in response though to a more traditional firing of shots – the downing of a US drone worth $176 million which Iran said had invaded their airspace.

The buildup has been going on for some time though; with the last few months seeing the US deploying new troops to the middle east, designating Iran’s elite armed forces as a terrorist group and toughening trade sanctions. Iran meanwhile has been blamed for rocket attacks on oil tankers, and has announced its plan to violate a previously made international pact by increasing uranium enrichment.

The US and Iran have a history that goes back longer than that, with no shortage of trash talk. Decades before George W. Bush named Iran (along with Iraq and North Korea) as part of the “axis of evil” in 2002; Iran’s leader Ayatollah Ruholla Khomeini called the US “the Great Satan”, an epithet that has stuck in Iran ever since.

That was shortly after Khomeini had claimed his position as the theocratic ruler of Iran. This was the result of the 1979 revolution overthrowing the US-backed monarchy of Shah Mohammed Reza Pavlavi. As part of the revolution, the US embassy in Tehran was taken siege and 52 American diplomats were held hostage for over a year.

This led to long-lasting trade sanctions being placed on Iran by the US, and American support for Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi government in the Iran-Iraq war that began in the wake of the revolution.

US foreign policy of course doesn’t always follow simple narratives, and the US broke its own embargo to covertly sell weapons to Iran through the 1980’s, sending the profits to right-wing Contra guerrillas in Nicaragua (thus circumventing another government policy). There’s a lot to be learned about both the US’ vision of the “free world” in those cold war times and the religious rule of the Ayatollah by observing the public rhetoric of both (US lobbying Western governments to boycott the “terrorist supporting” Iran, and Khomeini railing against the evils of the West) while they were in secret doing weapons deals.

The Iran-Iraq war ended in stalemate, and Khomeini died in 1989 to be replaced by Ali Khameini. The hardline Islamist stance of Iran’s government softened somewhat over the years (the rise to power of another Islamist regime in neighbouring Afghanistan in the 90’s even made the Ayatollah seem liberal). Still religious and political dissenters have been suppressed by force; and elections are only contested by candidates approved by the Ayatollah and his council of religious leaders. Relations between Iran and the US have remained frosty (hence Bush’s famous “axis of evil” quote), and trade sanctions remained in place.

It was an extraordinary feat of diplomacy by Barack Obama’s government that led to those sanctions being lifted in 2015 on the condition of Iran discontinuing its nuclear research program. This was also presumably partly due to the fact that the revolution was a long time ago and the Ayatollah no longer holds the public support he once did. No amount of anti-Western raging can now deflect the attention of a nation demanding liberalisation. The military might of the US has also proven unable to successfully engineer politics in the region. Compromise was the tactic that made sense all round, and the momentary result was an end to sanctions-enforced poverty and development of nuclear weapons.

Compromise is not an ideal Donald Trump aspires to though. Speaking to the UN, Trump called the deal an “embarrassment” and “one of the worst and most one-sided transactions the United States has ever entered into.” He overturned it last May, and the result has been a steady escalation leading to our current state of teetering on the edge of another war.

Of course things are never quite that simple. Iran and the US have been on opposing sides of proxy civil wars in Syria and Yemen, while the standoff between Iran and US ally Saudi Arabia plays out in all kinds of ways.

The conflict between these two Muslim theocracies fits into that ancient schism of Shia vs Sunni. Can it all really be about the relative leadership credentials of Ali and Abu Bakr a millennium and a half ago? Religion can certainly make people blow things out of proportion at times, but to get to the roots of this we need to look past Allah to those other great gods of power and crude oil.

So far, the targets of attacks (blamed on Iran but for which they have not taken responsibility) have been oil infrastructure – international oil tankers and a Saudi pipeline. Much of the concern internationally surrounds the potential for Iran to block the Strait of Hormuz – a narrow body of water through which 30% of the world’s oil is transported.

The centrality of oil to the conflict was reinforced by former Australian army general and Liberal senator Jim Molan this week using the tensions as a reminder of his personal political hobby-horse – Australia’s fuel security. At least he’s honest. They may not like to admit it, but fuel security will almost certainly be the reason international governments will act on Iran. Oil is a constant subtext of conflicts from South America to South-East Asia and most famously the Middle East. Australia is currently fighting an oil war of our own – waged against one man, Witness K, who revealed how the Australian government spied on our war-ravaged neighbours Timor-Leste in order to take more of the oil from the Timor Sea.

If conflict begins in earnest in Iran, Australia will be involved too. This week the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade issued a statement saying “Australia has made clear that it shares the international community’s concerns over Iran’s destabilising behaviours.” Scott Morrison has said he will discuss the issue at the G20. But whether Australian troops are involved or not, we will play a part – US troops are currently in Australia for massive training exercises, and permanent bases in the Northern Territory would likely have some role. As academic Richard Tanter has observed, Australia is “hard-wired” into the US drone program through the Pine Gap intelligence facility near Alice Springs – that drone shot down last week was almost certainly using Pine Gap satellites for whatever its true mission was.

A war in Iran can not foreseeably have anything other than disastrous consequences. Already a country that had gone some way towards giving up its nuclear ambitions is ratcheting up its enrichment program seemingly out of spite. Open conflict will undeniably lead to the displacement of millions of people into a world already claiming a refugee “crisis”; it will probably lead to the development of new Islamic militia in a region still reeling from Islamic State. It will exacerbate cracks between world powers with at least Russia and Saudi Arabia certainly drawn in. It will mean environmental destruction and carbon emissions on a scale no amount of solar panels could ever dream of offsetting.

That’s all regardless of who “wins” the war. Recent history would suggest no one will win anyway, it will just be an endless conflict that drags on interminably (it’s already been simmering for four decades). And yet we seem to be drifting into this war like leaves in the current, resigned to accept that governments fight wars regardless of what people want or what is logical. Can there be a movement for peace capable of stopping the next war? Can there be a movement to reshape our world so that conflicts over oil supply don’t drag in the entire planet? What about a world where chest-thumping egos can’t start wars over twitter? Difficult as they seem, the answers to those questions remain up to us.

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Stopping the runaway climate train

Trains have for a long time been constant if unheralded presence in our culture. The development of the steam engine was a key point in the industrial revolution which transformed society. Passenger trains opened the world up for travel to ordinary people in a way that must have been previously unimaginable, not to mention how the goods transported by rail have changed our everyday lives.

It makes sense then that railways have for a long time been potent symbols for storytellers of all kinds. Endless books, movies and songs refer to trains somehow. They often depict loved ones leaving or returning, and can be powerful emotional images for that reason. They can be used to depict hopes for spiritual or social liberation (eg. This Train is Bound For Glory or People Get Ready There’s a Train A’coming in African-American culture). For Johnny Cash in Folsom Prison Blues the train is the symbol of freedom lost. They can symbolise the journey through life, or be the setting for tales of adventure and crime. Trains can also represent some of the most horrific events of our times, when the images become Jews being loaded into carriages and taken to Nazi gas chambers. Whole subcultures have developed around railways, from hobos hopping freight to trainspotters waiting on platforms.

Even in Australia, which has a less rail-dependent economy than Europe or the US, trains are still there in our national legends – Ned Kelly trying to ambush a trainload of cops, or Afghans with camels lugging railway sleepers through the desert to build “The Ghan”. Some of the most iconic landscape paintings in Australian art depict the railway, like Arthur Streeton’s Fire’s On and Redfern Station.

The rise of car and aeroplane travel has made the railway less of a potent symbol. These days trains are less likely to be linked with adventure than they are boredom and feeling stuck – peak hour carriages full of bored and tired commuters, platforms lined with people glued to their phone screens wishing they were somewhere else.

But some people are out there still trying to use the train as a symbol of the things that matter most. In 2009, a group of environmentalist Sydney folkies called The Lurkers wrote a song called Who’s Got A Padlock and Chain? (“we’re locking on tight to that coal train tonight”) after being part of a protest at Climate Camp in Helensburgh just south of Sydney.

The song might not be the most accurate depiction of “locking on” (which is very rarely actually done with a padlock and chain), but it has become a standard in the repertoire of Australian protest singers and blockade camp singalongs. And as fossil fuels drive us closer and closer to predicted extreme climate change; with coal exports one of Australia’s major contributions; the act of blocking freight trains loaded with coal has become an increasingly common form of environmental protest action.

These kinds of protests have taken place all over the country – at the world’s biggest coal port in Newcastle; at Willow Creek in western NSW where coal from the controversial Maules Creek coal mine is shipped; and especially in recent years in Queensland. A number of times trains have been halted on their way to the Port of Brisbane. They have been stopped west of Toowoomba near the Acland mine which is being expanded despite a ruling against it in the Land and Environment Court. And now quite a few times in central Queensland near Abbot Point, where the proposed Adani mine, which has become the main battleground of climate change politics, would be shipping out its coal.

As well as happening at different places, these protests have taken different forms. The mass walk-on like that climate camp at Wollongong has been used several times. Also people have climbed up into treesits attached to the rail line, or suspended themselves in tripods. Some have locked themselves to barrels full of concrete laid across the train line or the train itself. Some have just climbed on top of a carriage and refused to come down.

All of these people were arrested and charged for their actions. All of them, even if temporarily, have stopped coal from being transported and exported. But this kind of protest “direct action” is always partly about symbolism. Like those storytellers of old using the symbol of the rail to say something about life. And this story is a bit like the old cinema trope of a runaway train with a damsel in distress tied to the tracks. And ordinary people, seeing the danger, are trying to avert a catastrophe.

The runaway train is a good metaphor for climate change. For one, climate change is predicted to have an actual momentum of its own – once human-caused emissions have raised global temperatures enough to melt arctic icecaps, the emission of methane stored in the permafrost will set off its own chain of climate change. Other natural systems the planet has for balancing the amount of carbon in the atmosphere will shut off once disrupted, which will further exacerbate the process.

But also, the runaway train symbolises the crazed logic that is knowingly and willingly destroying the planet we all rely on for survival. Looked at objectively, our continuing increased carbon emissions makes absolutely no sense. Even business-wise – that coal has been there for millions of years. If there is going to be a continuing demand for coal, for things like coking steel, there is no reason it has to all be dug up and sold now.

Except it makes perfect sense in the logic of profit; where making as much money as fast as possible is the only law. Our society’s complete subservience to this ideology is demonstrated in our continuing use of fossil fuels and actual resistance to alternatives that are more environmentally sustainable.

This logic is the real runaway train activists are standing in front of when they symbolically halt those rolling tonnes of steel and coal. And the actions stopping those trains are trying to point to a different story – one where ordinary people don’t feel powerless in the face of the huge and relentless profit machine.

In the last few months there has been a real clampdown on climate activists stopping coal trains. There have been some big fines handed down,and hefty restitution orders claimed against activists by police for the cost to business of the actions. And there is currently a civil lawsuit being taken out by freight rail company Aurizon against the organisation Frontline Action on Coal and five people who on separate occasions stopped trains.

It hasn’t stopped people taking these kinds of actions. But it has meant those who do are facing pretty serious consequences. 21 year old Freya Nolin was fined $10,000 for stopping trains at Abbot Point. Restitution claims vary wildly, but have at times amounted to more than half a million dollars. Aurizon’s lawsuit is claiming a total of $750,000 (presumably plus costs) – $75,000 per activist.

There are some issues that should be raised about these figures – particularly the restitution numbers. For one, they are hard to take seriously when they vary so wildly. As an example, take the cases of two different actions which recently blocked access to the Port Of Brisbane. In November, Sadie Jones stopped trains for nine hours near the Port of Brisbane having a tea party on top of a train. The figure then was $25,000. Last month Jaxom Kerlin halted trains for 14 hours at the same spot and the cost quoted was $1.4 million.

But also, actions of this kind have never traditionally been ordered to pay restitution, which kinda makes sense – after all, those in question haven’t actually damaged or taken any property, which would be the usual reason courts would impose restitution orders. All they’ve done is delay its transportation for a while – it will presumably still be sold for roughly as much money as it would have otherwise. It does seem that it is police pursuing companies for these costs to pin them on as part of sentencing, and the fluctuating figures would indicate that possibly the companies don’t really have a very good idea of what the costs are.

It also goes against the traditional legal approach to dealing with acts of civil disobedience – a principle summarised by British judge Lord Hoffman who said “Civil disobedience on conscientious grounds has a long and honourable history in this country… But there are conventions which are generally accepted by the law-breakers on one side and the law-enforcers on the other. The protesters behave with a sense of proportion and do not cause excessive damage or inconvenience. And they vouch the sincerity of their beliefs by accepting the penalties imposed by the law. The police and prosecutors, on the other hand, behave with restraint and the magistrates impose sentences which take the conscientious motives of the protesters into account.”

The lawsuit meanwhile is part of a tradition of using civil courts to stop protest action. Famous examples include the McLibel case in London and the Gunns 20 in Tasmania, both of which famously backfired on the companies in question. Aurizon’s use of this tactic doesn’t seem very honourable in that the young idealists (four of them in their early 20’s) who they are suing clearly do not have the $75,000 being sought from them each (Aurizon’s profits last year before tax were $941 million); and also obviously did not take the actions out of malicious intent to the company. Some of the information Aurizon has circulated about the lawsuit is simply a lie, for instance claiming activists jump on moving trains.

The young people who have done them at risk of arrest, fines and worse should be recognised as artists and moral philosophers, which is what they are – trying to frame questions about the ethics of climate change in a creative way and pose them to the public.

And controversial as these actions may be, statistics would suggest they do actually speak for the majority of Australians in doing what they do, with several recent polls finding a majority of respondents critical about Adani and in favour of urgent climate action.

But in reality these five people are being hounded and demonised by the corporate media (“Hit them in the hippie pocket” read one headline), and have been all but abandoned by the big environmental organisations who are scared by government threats to charities out of supporting anybody doing civil disobedience. These groups talk about resistance, but they haven’t been very keen to support those who actually stand in front of the coal industry and are now facing pretty steep consequences.

With civil and criminal court cases coming up, these folks who have stopped trains to point out the future of us all is tied down on those tracks deserve our support. Financial support if needed, moral support by sharing the stories of their resistance and by showing up to court, and companionship on those tracks to turn the symbol of ordinary people stopping the runaway train of climate change into a reality.

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Seven years at Brisbane Food Not Bombs

When I first arrived in Brisbane in May 2011, I carried amongst my few possessions a scrap of paper. It had been ripped out of a defunct anarchist zine and it listed radical social spaces in various Australian cities. For Brisbane, the sole entry read: Food Not Bombs. Fridays 6:30pm. Across from the lizard on Boundary St, West End.

The lizard, as it turned out, was easy enough to find. In fact by the time that first Friday came around I had already been shown the community house around the corner where the food was prepared; so I could turn up and chop veggies in the tradition of so many travelers at Food Not Bombs before and since. I would have stayed and washed dishes too, except that sitting down to eat I met some political types who invited me to a party a few suburbs away. It was the first of many, many Friday nights I would spend at Brisbane Food Not Bombs.

Food Not Bombs wasn’t unfamiliar to me before that night. I had also helped out for a while in Melbourne’s various locations. But before that, a similar open meal in Sydney’s inner west called People’s Kitchen had been a transformative experience for me. It took me a long time of living in Sydney before I ever found People’s Kitchen, but when I did I loved it. There, in an improvised kitchen of electric woks and sink connected by hose to the nearest tap; the practice of preparing and eating food became a glimpse of another world – people off the street mingled with travelers from around the world. Everyone was welcome and everything was free. I learned how to cook dishes I’d never heard of; while I met people of all kinds of amazing lives. After that it was hard to go back to cooking dinner for one in the saucepan or buying takeaway.

Food Not Bombs, for those unfamiliar, is a decentralised worldwide organisation of public meals that began in the US in the 1980’s. It certainly didn’t invent the idea of sharing food with strangers, but it came to represent a philosophy of how to do that – food healthy for humans and planet, linking the action to broader movements for social change, breaking down the barrier of benefactor and recipient that defines much charity work. People who agreed with the values took on the name. Now there are hundreds of groups all around the world.

In Brisbane, Food Not Bombs had been running on and off for around a decade by that night I first came. The earliest I’ve ever heard anyone remember it existing was for a series of radical street parties in the early 2000’s. After that it would run sporadically as a weekly meal, taken up intermittently by different groups feeling inspired. I saw an old zine once advertising it happening in Fortitude Valley, though I think it has mostly ran in West End.

The house where it was cooked, and still is, is an innocuous looking Queenslander in Thomas St, West End. Once a maternity hospital, in the 70’s it had been a radical christian commune called House Of Freedom. Since then it has functioned as a community space, available for use by all kinds of groups and organisations. It is owned in a very hands-off manner by a handful of community-minded folks. Food Not Bombs has never paid more than occasional tokenistic rent at the house, but we have a permanent cupboard storing our stuff, and every Friday afternoon take over the kitchen and adjoining room for a few hours. That kitchen in those early days was crumbling, vermin-inhabitated and ill-equipped, with signs on the wall warning about asbestos. A few years on the house got a government grant for a new kitchen; and these days it is a much fancier, cleaner and roomier space we use. Occasionally an old-timer will turn up and be amazed at the new kitchen, though at this point I’m so used to it I can hardly remember what the old one looked like.

The spot on Boundary St where we serve the food each week is a park by name, though it possibly stretches the definition a bit. It’s essentially a vacant block that has been paved at the front with a few scattered trees. When I first came it was mostly dirt, though like our kitchen it was given a council facelift at one point which laid turf (some of which is still there), removed the picnic table  and added a fresh brightly coloured mural on one wall. It houses a filthy set of public toilets and a small kiosk which has for as long as anyone remembers advertised 98.9 Murri Country radio. The park is occasionally referred to by the station’s call sign – AAA Park. I’ve also seen it referred to as Little Musgrave Park, or most commonly People’s Park. All of this explains why “across from the lizard” is as good a description as any.

As far as parks go, this one is not especially beautiful. It is frequently used for drinking or sleeping in by local street folk, and is often attended by police. For this reason it’s not very well loved by the local business community. I’ve been told that once before my time Food Not Bombs was threatened that health inspectors would be called by a nearby trader, though in all my time there the only real issue we’ve had with businesses was once the owner of the bar next door complained to me that the streeties we were feeding were hanging around outside his front entry. When the council opened up a newer, much nicer park around the corner; it was suggested we move the meal there. But over the years I’ve become very attached to this spot of concrete and dirt plonked in the middle of the main street and I never really considered moving.

Cafes and bars come and go in West End with some frequency, and with each of our neighbours that changes I reflect with a smile that we obviously have the most sustainable business model. In recent years there have been a few elaborate outdoor dining setups which present a slight complication for us given our method of transporting food the two blocks from kitchen to park is to load it all on a flat trestle table and carry it by hand.

The responses we get to this are great. It certainly gains a bit of attention, which is a service we like to offer as a break to the mundanity of a Friday night at restaurants or shops. Often Trevor, one of our regular diners (though he needs a bit of encouragement at dinner to venture beyond his favourite dish of mashed potatoes) will march comically in front; directing traffic when we cross the road and holding aloft our plywood sign – which he “accidentally” crashes into as many hanging shop signs as he can. I will admit the setup looks a bit like a funeral procession, though it is rarely sombre. My favourite description came from a local poet named Fern, who told me she thought carrying the table was “the most romantic part of Food Not Bombs”. To be honest though, her enthusiasm has been well and truly outnumbered by the number of people who complain about carrying it or try to suggest other elaborate ways of transporting the food. Remarkably, there have been very few mishaps involving dropping the table or food – I can never remember any that led to a loss of a lot of food. There is frequent discussion about the best technique to carry it, including my (showing my rarely seen “safety regulation” side) scolding of people for not bending their knees when picking it up or putting it down. The whole thing is made possible by the fact we possess an amazing trestle table which is very large, very stable, but very light. We have used this table ever since my first night there. Where it came from I have no idea. But I love that procession down the street.

Even some nights in pouring rain we trek down there, either driving the food down or covering the table in a tarp for the walk. There’s only the tiniest amount of shelter in the park, and sometimes even I have needed convincing that it’s worthwhile on these nights. But I think any meal served on nights like that is worth at least two eaten on a balmy Queensland evening.

The last part I should describe I guess is the food. Sometimes we get donations from supportive businesses or organisations, but overwhelming the food we have served up over those last 8 years has been rescued from supermarket dumpsters. The quantity of food thrown out is immense, the quality enough to make you shake your head at disbelief at the insanity of our society. When you’re regularly diving through bins anyway, it’s nice to have something like a weekly community meal just so you can have something to do with all that food.

The meals cooked are traditionally vegan (for ethical and environmental reasons as well as food safety). The classic Food Not Bombs dish is what I affectionately call “vegan slop” – random ingredients thrown in a pot together with a few spices. A regular buffet would look something like: mashed/roasted potatoes, lentils, veggie stir fries or curries, fruit salad, apple crumble. Often there are only slight variations on this theme, though I have tried to vary it a bit. Sometimes we’re blessed with a person in the kitchen who is especially creative, either because they’re an experienced chef or they just have a natural flair for experimental dishes. Either way I’ve always encouraged it, because what is Food Not Bombs if not a different way if looking at food? It’s rare that I’ve ever refused to serve up a dish (I do draw the line at undercooked rice), but sometimes if there is a lot of chilli I have to label it with a warning!

We have had some support from businesses. One constant part of the Friday afternoon routine has been going to Solbread cafe and picking up their unsold fancy sourdough. Until it closed, another part was walking across the road from the park to The Forest vegan cafe and filling up a tub with hot water for washing up. This arrangement pre-dated both my time in Brisbane and the the owners of the cafe; but each new staff member that did the Friday shift would just shrug and let me in. It was only one week when the boss turned up to find me barefoot in their kitchen filling the tub that the routine changed and they would leave us out the front while they filled it. Friday nights there were hardly buzzing, in the end it closed down and we haven’t succeeded in getting another place to give us hot water. Occasional support came in other forms. I must have picked hundreds of sprigs of rosemary from the house across the road from our kitchen. One day the resident of the house arrived home as I was doing it, she smiled and told me she was glad.

All that is just setting the scene really. These are all things I love about Food Not Bombs, but they are only the beginning of my experience there. Over seven and a half years, what this Friday night ritual offered my life has gone way beyond food. I want to tell this story with its ups and downs; and why it has meant so much to me.

In those early days of my time in Brisbane, the Food Not Bombs collective was thriving. There were a number of people – good cooks, with enough people to rotate weeks off, a happy mixture of West End hippies and anarchist punks. There was a great energy on Friday nights.

I was in and out of Brisbane for a while, so I can’t really recall the details. But I do remember a special collective meeting. Ostensibly about dealing with a problematic person who had been coming, it was evident that those in the room had lost the spark. Before long that whole collective had faded out and the responsibility of Food Not Bombs had fallen to me and a couple of friends.

By December of that year, I was leaving too. I had my farewell party on the street at Food Not Bombs. My friend Bobby kept it alive for a little while, and I briefly reinvigorated it during a two week visit a few months later. Other than that brief visit I was away for six months. But as various circumstances led me to decide I was returning north, a couple of women named Maddy and Jess contacted the Brisbane Food Not Bombs facebook group (the group, which pre-dates my time, is the only public point of contact. It’s useful but I don’t like the way it has over a thousand members who never come. There are enough online groups in the world, Food Not Bombs is an IRL event). They had each come back from overseas where they had been to Food Not Bombs and wanted to know if it was happening in Brisbane. We started it up again.

That first night back is memorable to me because there was an exciting new energy in the air, and because Maddy made kale chips – a dish which, given I am a long way from the culinary cutting edge, I had never heard of before. For a while we tried Wednesdays, but before long we reverted to Friday nights, where it has remained ever since.

It was a thrill having a group of people all working together for the love of this idea. But one of the things that should be said about Food Not Bombs over the next few years was that I didn’t always have a lot of company. The initial support of Maddy and Jess didn’t fit with work schedules, and while an amazing number of people came through and helped at different times, they rarely committed to making it happen – a burden that rested solely on me. When I went away, as I have been known to do, Food Not Bombs would generally just not happen as there was no one else I could rely upon to do it.

A few times I remember cooking the whole thing on my own (after dumpstering the food too) and having to phone friends who lived nearby to get their help carrying the table down. Once I remember someone saying with a touch of derision that it wasn’t really a functional collective and I was brought to tears. Must have been having a bad day. I still loved it though, and mostly it kept going because even in a big city I couldn’t think of anything else I’d rather be doing on a Friday night. In putting this article together I flicked through the journal I kept through 2012, and though it sometimes mentions not many people being around, generally all it says for each Friday is “FNB was as always great” – as if no other explanation was needed.

There was help from others though. Often travellers would come by, maybe having experienced it in other cities or just looking for something to do and some people to connect with. A vast and random set of characters came through – some just once or twice, some more regularly. Some of them I’ll describe later in more depth. Hannaka, who in those very early days used to turn up and sing the whole way through the cooking process, kept it alive at one point by doing the dumpster diving and dropping off the food on a Friday morning, just as those late night dumpster runs were starting to get too much for me.

Mostly dumpster diving is a fun activity, certainly the randomness of it makes it more exciting than the actual supermarket shelves. There have been some great nights sharing the experience with others, including plenty of times taking people for their first time. Over the years the dumpster diving for Food Not Bombs has gotten a bit simpler as I’ve lived closer to fruitful dumpsters and even had housemates with cars we could load up. But for a long time the food was gathered on often solo bike trips from West End to whichever bin at the time was the most fruitful – always a few kilometres away. It’s the simple pleasures that keep you going, and I would derive some joy from seeing how much I could load up on my bike. There’s nothing like wobbling home in the middle of the night with fruit and veg loaded in a crate on the back of the bike, a backpack, a bag tied on each handlebar and often a box balanced on top of the handlebars. As well as all the people it fed, I think of it as providing entertainment for any fellow late night travellers I would pass by.

Some nights though could be tough. If a bin was empty, I would just ride to the next closest one and try again. I remember one night actually finding a bin full of food at Toowong only to have a carload of cops stop, threaten to arrest me, and force me to put it all back. Another time after a long Thursday night I remember getting back to my kitchen with the food just as my housemate was getting up to go to work at 4am. We sat down and had a cuppa together before she headed out and I went to bed.

I wasn’t totally alone though in doing Food Not Bombs, and it was richly rewarding meeting the different people who would come and help. Occasionally I was aided by the fact that we shared the Thomas St building with a disability support organisation that had people coming and going. One of those people was Sandon. Sandon went to the high school down the road but his mum worked at Thomas St. On Fridays he would come and wait for her to finish work. One week I asked him if he’d like to help in the kitchen. He chopped a few veggies, and the next week did the same. Before long his mum was heading home without him on a Friday while he was coming down the street to eat with us. Sandon was 14, but small even for his age and extremely shy. He grew more and more confident coming back to Food Not Bombs each week, especially coming out of his shell when the conversation turned to his great love of films. When he let slip to me one day that he had been rehearsing for his school production of Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night”, we surprised him by bringing a Food Not Bombs contingent to the performance. He still comes sometimes too, though he’s now an adult with a more full social schedule.

He wasn’t the only young one to come either – over the years we’ve had quite a few. Lily was in primary school but came with her mum a few times, sculpting the mashed potato into artistic shapes. Jesse came with his mum for a while too, coming up with dishes and asking me questions about girls and politics. Years later he turned up one Friday alone with his girlfriend to show her Food Not Bombs. He still wanted to talk politics.

Others were around the house because of the different programs ran there; and the fact I was there every week, mostly in need of help, gave me the opportunity to invite all kinds of people to join me. John was a man in his 40’s who lived in a local hostel. He rarely spoke but constantly smiled and would often be much appreciated company as I cooked, helpfully chopping vegetables. He died of cancer a few years later. The Greek Orthodox priest doing the funeral didn’t have a lot to say about about a man with a disability who barely spoke. I wished I could get up and share what a blessing he had been to me on those Friday afternoons.

A long lasting contributor to Food Not Bombs was Joan. She lived in a local hostel but didn’t like to go home, preferring to wander the streets of West End. She called Food Not Bombs “Ya The Bomb” and would turn up nearly every week for a long time. She would diligently chop fruit and vegetables, though her preference for piling everything in the one pot meant I often had to do a bit of separating before cooking. Joan also still makes occasional appearances.

The list of people I love and wonderful characters who have come through Food Not Bombs is too long to do justice to in this article, or even for me to remember. Literally nearly every week for most of a decade I would speak to someone there I’d never met before. But this is of course one of the great joys of doing it, so I will do my best to list some of them.

Paul first came way back in 2011. He is a bit of a loner, and also completely deaf, which made it hard at first to communicate with him. Back then Rhyll was part of the collective and would speak to him by finger spelling. When he came back in 2012,with Rhyll no longer coming, I memorised the AUSLAN alphabet to converse with him. I wasn’t the last person who would learn to sign from Paul on Friday nights. Over the years one after another person has learned how to have fingerspelled conversations with Paul, an extraordinary feat of teaching from someone who says he doesn’t like to go to deaf social events because they talk too much.

Delilah turned up late one night as we were about to pack up. She was excited by our presence. “Feed the people, free the land!” she exclaimed. She came regularly after that, and still does sometimes. She has a great heart for people, is an amazing singer and has other talents too. “I can see angels and demons,” she told me on that first night. “I see Tony Abbott – he’s a demon! That’s why he’s trying to kill the pensioners!” It was so nice to hear someone finally talking some sense when it came to politics.

There is a taxi rank out the front of People’s Park. We rarely have much to do with the drivers, though one notable exception was Geoff. Geoff would park his cab and come over for a plate of food, occasionally annoying other cabbies who got stuck behind his empty car. A remarkable guy, he was one of the first people I ever heard express a kind of “autism pride”. He would ask for recipes, and one day dropped off his labour of love – a weighty photocopied zine explaining in some detail his spiritual beliefs.

Greg is a lovely Fijian guy who would come always near the end when we were about to pack up. He lived on the streets and was a regular at a few soup kitchens. His dream, which he often talked about, was to one day organise a big hāngi in West End and feed a lot of people in his traditional style. For literally years he would talk about this, asking if we would provide the veggies. I was very happy to be a part of it when it finally happened in Musgrave Park; bizarrely enough mostly feeding a Greens Party christmas event.

One week a man in his 50’s wearing King Gee overalls came to help cook. His daughter had been to Food Not Bombs in Europe and told him he might like it. Ollie told me later that he had made sure to dress for all the expected workplace safety requirements, only to walk in and see me barefoot, bending over the stove with dreadlocks nearly dipping in the soup (I think he’s exaggerating!). The next week he came back with cups, saucers and a bottomless teapot – which he has brought ever since. In all the years he’s been coming, I think Ollie has hardly cooked a dish. But his joyful and encouraging presence has been such a blessing.

Our presence on the street opens up new possibilities in a street that is mostly full of the “hospitality industry” rather than gestures of hospitality. I love carrying that food past all those bars and restaurants with our sign saying “everything is free”. Years ago now, there was a Turkish woman who worked in one of those restaurants. Sadly as much as I try, I can’t remember her name. She spoke little English, but each week she would take a few minutes off work to bring us delicious home cooked food. We would return her dish on our way home. Besides the language barrier, she worked every Friday night so we hardly got to know her, though she did invite us to her farewell dinner before she went back to Turkey.

Another Turkish woman who I got to know much more but also met at Food Not Bombs was Yeliz. She was an 18 year old social work student when she first came, invited by a friend I had met. She had never done anything like it before, but had an amazing enthusiasm for the whole thing and for talking to strangers. At the end of the night, she raved about how great it was. I left town after that, but the next time I saw her she came to court supporting myself and a few others who’d been arrested doing an anti-war protest. Over the years that followed she was around for plenty of Food Not Bombs, plenty of protests too – even getting arrested herself. We lived together in crazy open hospitality houses. These days she is travelling around the world teaching shiatsu massage, but I saw her just before she left. “You introduced me to all this” she told me.

Plenty of others became long term friends after meeting at Food Not Bombs. More have just been cameos in my life. Josh stopped in one night. He was a bit crazy if seemingly harmless; but had an involuntary treatment order for anti-psychotics which he was refusing to comply with. He was so disgusted by the idea of us serving dumpstered food that he accosted random passers by to warn them the food they weren’t even intending to eat had come from the bin. We disagreed on other things too, mostly political. But he liked the company enough that he came back every week for a while, never once succumbing to the temptation of the bin food. Then one week he didn’t come. I contacted everyone I thought might know of his whereabouts, but no one knew. I have never seen him again.

Sadly, that’s the case for so many people who come through Food Not Bombs. They live transient lives – on the streets of West End one night, who knows where the next. We’ve had people just out of prison, going to rehab, searching for housing. One guy who came for a while was about 40. He’d spent most of his adult life in prison after killing someone in a drug-fuelled moment to regret. Out of jail now and on the methadone program; he would eat, chat and help wash up. I don’t know where he is now, but I hope he’s doing ok.

All kinds of memories come up when I start thinking about it. Judy is a Murri woman who lives on the street and has a gorgeous toothless smile and lovely nature. Over the years I’ve watched her cattle dog and faithful companion Sasha grow from a puppy. Gabriel was an old Ethiopian guy with not a single tooth. He would come regularly, asking how soft each dish was before he put it on his plate. Russell was from Zimbabwe, and would be sitting on the corner busking with his mbira (thumb piano) singing Shona songs. He would take a break to come eat with us. When I found out he had no recordings of his music I brought him into the radio studio to do some tracks. Our current city councillor Jonathan Sri once told me he included volunteering at Food Not Bombs in his CV (that was before his job application process involved public campaigning). He still comes down for a feed and chat pretty regularly too. Brendon is blind but is Brisbane’s fiercest disability advocate, a force to be feared by local politicians. He comes mostly to talk about his latest campaigns, though he can when needed help chop veggies. Alison and Jess, two young women with some challenges in life but plenty of gifts, lift the atmosphere in the kitchen from convivial to raucous.

Convivial, mind you, is not always the atmosphere at Food Not Bombs. The nature of it, taking place in a public space where people with various issues are often consuming a lot of alcohol, means it is unpredictable and not always a pleasant or safe place to be.

Dealing with threatening or obnoxious people is just a normal part of the routine. I’ve had to witness and often intervene in so many physical fights it seems pointless recalling any one particular incident. The two that do stick in my mind are the times our wooden sign was used as a weapon. The guy who tried to smack someone over the head with it as if it was a chair on WWF was never going to do much damage. I was more worried the time one guy held it flat and threw it straight at his opponent’s forehead. Fortunately it caught a bit of an updraft and sailed overhead.

Some memories, though not much fun at the time, are comical to look back on. We had a group of streeties living in the park for a while who weren’t very pleasant (though I hope giving them a decent meal helped a bit on that front). They took a particular dislike to one woman one night after asking her for a cigarette turned into an argument. Sensing what was coming, I packed up the table, grabbed our friend and headed off. We left to howls of abuse, and were actually showered in sticky passion pop from a bottle one guy was holding. Power-walking with a table full of pots and pans, trailed by loud abuse and smelling strongly of sugary alcohol; that night we didn’t provide the kind of spectacle to the patrons of Boundary St I aspire to.

Some nights though there will never be a funny side to. The worst ever night of Food Not Bombs was when a teenage volunteer was sexually assaulted in the back of the park. Much to my regret, I was trying to help up a drunk who had fallen over at our table and never saw the incident. It was in fact a worker at the bar next door who saw it and ran out to intervene. I will never forget facing that young person’s guardian that night, or going down to the police station to file a report.

The perpetrator in that case was a local disabled man who came regularly. I told him he could never come back. Generally though, it’s not a space that excludes people. I called a meeting of the collective when one volunteer tried to rape a regular when she was passed out at his house. I was the only man at that meeting and was surprised to hear all the women say they cared about safety but didn’t want to exclude him. As it turned out, when I confronted him about it he stopped coming anyway.

These occurrences though are not the norm. Food Not Bombs is normally a wonderful atmosphere that transforms the street from a strip of concrete into a place of welcome and fun. There are few spaces where people as diverse as this get together and talk over a meal.

One thing I planned to do for ages but never got around to (it was enough work doing the food) was Songs Not Bombs – combining two of my great loves. In the end it happened through the initiative of Tom Smith, a local musician and social worker who also used People’s Park for a local songwriting group. After that it became a semi-regular event; to various results. One gig, organised by feminist punk band Hannahkisst, turned into a shambles when a drunken streetie kept commandeering the microphone to rant at his captive audience. A happier memory was when Tasmanian folk punk legend Chris Burrows toured north and the park was completely packed.

A couple of times I found romance with people who randomly turned up at Food Not Bombs. Plenty of other times date night was spent over the pots, sink and on the street. Many friendships were forged there too, helped by the shared vision of the world that those Fridays were trying to live out. Actually right now, nearly 5000km away from Brisbane, I am crashing in the shed of a friend I first met there in People’s Park; when she turned up a scruffy traveler with a mongrel pup.

Food Not Bombs being a pretty unusual and interesting place, every now and then someone approaches asking to interview us. I always make time for uni students doing assignments; but the mass media are another story. Media stories about dumpster diving are usually painful and embarrassing – either wacky novelty stories or mock serious things that ruminate on the cost of living but totally miss the point. As such, we have actually refused a few interview requests, initially including one from an ABC reporter named Kym. Kym was persistent though, and I felt rude so invited her along. The glowing article and radio story she made of a night at Food Not Bombs was what you might call a puff piece, but the truth is that is just an honest account of what happened that night. I really do believe it’s a beautiful and utopian thing, and I was quite proud to read someone else write about it that way. It was also useful because a few from the collective had been involved in a protest action a few weeks earlier that had been slammed the media. “When I feed the poor they call me a saint, when I ask why they are poor they call me a communist” said Dom Helder Camara many years ago. Both parts of the one process of trying to change the world, but it was nice to get a bit of appreciation anyway.

The anarchist nature of Food Not Bombs was important to me. There are plenty of soup kitchens, this one should represent not just free food but a whole different way of seeing the world. As such we never sought a council permit or any kind of insurance; and we always maintained a serving with no discernible difference between those who cooked the food and those who come to eat. I’ve been part of other Food Not Bombs that felt like a service, but one of the things I’ve always loved about Brisbane’s is that it feels more like a big open picnic.

Over much of the time we’ve done Food Not Bombs I’ve also been a part of hospitality houses that welcomed people in need of a place to stay. The two have worked well together, and many many people have turned up at Food Not Bombs homeless and ended up staying at our house – from pregnant mums to street kids and travelers from all over. These haven’t always worked out perfectly in the end, but it can make a big difference in a person’s life at that time.

They weren’t homeless, but when Vicente and Catalina first came to Food Not Bombs they were newly arrived from Chile and spoke pretty much zero english – communicating only in smiles. Fortunately you can communicate a lot with smiles, and so we got on great and they kept coming back. We took them for their first ever dumpster dive, and they ended up living with us. When visa purposes dictated they get married, the party afterwards happened in our loungerooom (after a morning spent being prosecuted in court no less).

At first those houses and Food Not Bombs were only really linked by my presence at them both. But in late 2015, I went interstate for a while and my housemates, led by my long time comrade Bek, said they would keep it going. It was the first time in four years Food Not Bombs managed to survive me leaving town, and was possibly the nicest gift anyone has ever given to me. From that time on it has managed to keep a continuous presence and has become essentially one of the many projects of the Dorothy Day House.

Over the last couple of years my housemates Michael and Franz have become integral parts of it happening each week. Franz is the king of veggie stir fries and after finishing a dish will often retire to the next room to sing gentle folk songs on his guitar. Michael is a less placid presence in the kitchen, and there have been a few disputes between me and him – sometimes about food prep but more likely about whether or not we need to rush. Just a slight complication that comes from a more collective format after years as a nominal dictatorship. But attendance has remained pretty healthy, and those old days of cooking on my own and then calling around for help to carry the food seem like very distant memories.

It continues to be a wonderful place; even as I’ve now left Brisbane indefinitely (of course for the last couple of months I have been helping with Food Not Bombs in Perth). Reflecting on my time in that city, Food Not Bombs is notable as a constant presence in my life, a long lasting source of joy and inspiration, and an achievement I can be proud of. Of course the things I’ve recounted in this article are just random memories. Inevitably I’m forgetting things and can’t mention everything.

In the years I spent doing Food Not Bombs, we fed thousands of bellies; provided a welcoming place to all their owners too. Hundreds of kilos of food that would otherwise have been wasted was put to use. Just our presence on the street must have opened up some tiny crack of new possibility in the mind of those walking by; let alone the many who came, cooked, cleaned, chatted and chewed.

Mostly though, the thing I love about that time is that for once a week I got to be completely honest with the world about how I felt things should be. All our lives we are either subtly or overtly told a tale of private ownership, status hierarchies, “laws” of economics, codes of propriety. Every Friday night we would push back – plonk down our table and serve up a world not as we’re told it is, but as we believe it could be.

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Prisons, jobs, and big wins

Gross National Product counts air pollution and cigarette advertising, and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage. It counts special locks for our doors and the jails for the people who break them. It counts the destruction of the redwood and the loss of our natural wonder in chaotic sprawl.

It counts napalm and counts nuclear warheads and armoured cars for the police to fight the riots in our cities. It counts Whitman’s rifle and Speck’s knife, and the television programs which glorify violence in order to sell toys to our children.

Yet the gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials.

It measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country, it measures everything in short, except that which makes life worthwhile.”

 

The above quote came from Robert F. Kennedy, during his 1968 campaign for presidential nomination. The campaign didn’t end very well – Kennedy was assassinated within a few months of giving this speech, and ultimately the far less idealistic Richard Nixon was elected president that November. But I was reminded of this quote this week when I read another politician spruiking a different set of ideals to his electorate. This was a media release from Queensland Labor MP Mark Ryan, which I quote in full:

Minister for Police and Minister for Corrective Services Mark Ryan has updated the Queensland Parliament on the major economic stimulus being delivered to the Rockhampton economy.

The $241 million expansion of Capricornia Correctional Centre is progressing rapidly.

Minister Ryan revealed there have already been approximately 193,000 hours of work undertaken on the project.

More than 172,000 of those hours have been completed by Rockhampton workers.

That means nearly 90 per cent of the work has been contributed by local workers, which is a real boost for the Central Queensland economy.

A big win for the local community!

Importantly, the work being completed by local industry to expand the prison will further improve the safety of officers and prisoners.

Importantly, the project is expected to deliver 172 jobs to the region during construction.

And the opportunities will continue once the project is complete with another 130 full-time permanent jobs created at the prison.

There will also be flow-on opportunities for local businesses to help with keeping the centre running by providing necessary services.

The expansion is a jobs winner for Central Queensland.

Queensland Corrective Services is one of the region’s biggest employers – with 310 staff committed to keeping communities safe.

We are building the infrastructure in the regions, providing the training, and investing in Queenslanders,” Minister Ryan said.

 

It’s a bit odd, isn’t it? I almost feel like I’m reading satire. Presumably in the absence of any other “big wins” it can offer, the Queensland Labor government is claiming a new bigger prison as great news for the community.

For one, this is a good example of how the idea of “the community” is always selective – here, it presumably doesn’t include the (mostly poor and indigenous) people who either are or have their family and friends locked inside that prison.

It also is a bizarre attempt to spin what most would see as a loss for the community – prison expansion not only means more people being locked up; it also indicates that prison is not doing its job in preventing crime. Rates of recidivism are high, indigenous over-representation has still not been addressed, methamphetamine addiction has emerged as another social problem we can find no other way of dealing with.

Never mind the fact that our prisons are continually being criticised. Just looking at the prisons under Mark Ryan’s department in Queensland; there was a recent damning investigation into the Brisbane Youth Detention Centre, plus the Queensland government forced to cancel contracts for privately run prisons following a scathing report from the Crime and Corruption Commission. Far from being big wins, our prisons seem to be failures on several levels.

All of this funded by the taxpayer to an extraordinary extent. The $241 million spent on this project a fraction of the roughly $4 billion (over $100,000 per prisoner) governments in Australia annually spend on prison.

If the government wanted to get creative about actually delivering good news in the face of our overcrowded prisons, they could look into ideas like “Justice Reinvestment” – a program where communities are asked to look at the amount of money spent on imprisoning drug and other minor offences; and imagine better ways of investing that money in society – ways that could hopefully prevent anti-social behaviour.

The media release, of course, is not really in response to some wonderful news. It is political spin-doctoring, undoubtedly to do with the impending federal election and marginal seats in central Queensland. But the other thing that struck me about this is the way in which it was spun – anything can be turned into good news politically by using that magic word: “jobs”.

“Jobs” is the religious dogma of Australian politics, the unquestionable virtue. It’s heresy to raise the question of whether jobs really are always a good thing, or what the jobs will actually contribute to the world. Labor’s prison construction is one example, another is the federal government’s “good news” that they want to turn Australia into one of the top 10 weapons manufacturers in the world, even when in practice that means selling weapons to Saudi Arabia to be used on innocent Yemenis. The other persistent example is the debate over jobs in the fossil fuel industry. Note the timing of Federal Liberal’s approval of Adani’s groundwater plan with one eye on those same central Qld seats; remember Adani’s original claim, like religious tricksters of old, that their project would create 10,000 jobs when the actual number is around 1,500. To raise any of these questions though is frowned upon and unlikely to be listened to anyway.

I think these are questions worth being asked though. I can think of a few others too – do we actually enjoy our jobs? One use of taxpayers money I would like to see would be a statistical analysis of what percentage of conversation is dedicated to people complaining about their jobs. I think it would give the weather and sport a run for their money. The dominance of “jobs” in our psyche has run us dry of any other topics to talk about.

To what purpose do all these jobs go? Some, as we’ve already said, are hardly the most productive pursuits in a holistic sense. Of course most jobs go towards making a profit for employers, most of which trickles up to big corporations and the wealthiest portion of society. To them, “jobs” is always code for “profits”; which gives some idea of why our media corporations are all too happy to join in the “jobs” obsession.

“Jobs” is rarely about the question of what we can contribute to the world to make it better, or about how we can allow each person to fulfil their potential by using their unique abilities to get us there. “Jobs”, in fact, is never measured in qualitative terms – only ever in numbers.

Like a lot of politics, the rhetoric about “jobs” mostly seems to be about fear – the fear of not having a job and therefore not having financial security, status, or a sense of purpose. That fear grows larger as we fight a losing battle with the processes of automation and globalisation.

Who can blame people for fearing the loss of their job? Not only because the tide of casualisation is gradually pushing more and more people closer to that point, or because our social welfare system is being ignored or actively dismantled. But also because we have all grown up in a system that tells us a job is all we have. “Study hard or you won’t get a good job”, we were told as kids; and since then we have been continually told our livelihood, value to society and personal identity all come from this thing which produces money for someone else yet we are supposed to grovel for and be thankful for. Many people probably can’t even conceive of a way to spend our time without a job; or a world where anything gets done without the carrot/stick dynamic of a paid workforce.

I personally would like to see some politicians promising less paid work – let’s say a four or even three day work week. Less stress on our lives, less stress on the earth that comes from a planet full of constant producers and consumers. More jobs to go around though. More time to pursue our passions outside of profitable work, to raise our kids, to spend time with the people we love. More time to think about what we really want our lives or our world to look like. More chance to define our lives by what we choose, not by what we are forced to do to survive.

Mostly it seems we are going in the opposite direction. Unpaid overtime is rife, while many workers in the varied gig economy never really clock off. Many people though are living out what I’ve articulated right now, choosing to work less and live with less money in order to have more freedom in life. They are generally not starving as a result, or living without any sense of purpose.

But could it ever come from our politicians or figures of influence? It’s not easy to take on the power the “jobs” narrative holds over society; especially given the way that paradigm plays to the advantage of powerful lobbyists and media interests. It would take courage, creativity, and a holistic vision of a better life and world beyond the short term thinking of job numbers.

A tough ask in other words (though hopefully the fate of poor Bobby Kennedy is not always the way it ends). But surely not that much harder than trying to sell the construction of a new and bigger prison as a “big win”.

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