By Joe Montero
They began to arrive at the Swanston Street-Flinders Street intersection, out the front of Melbourne’s iconic Flinders Street Station, at midday on Saturday (14 September). More were congregating at the edge of Princess Bridge, on the other side of the station. A third group was forming at the other end of the same bridge, near the Melbourne concert Hall.
This was Extinction Rebellion using its swarm tactic, to get its people to appear at point from all directions. In this case, it was to several points at once.
The intent was to block Princess Bridge and cause significant disruption to the city.
A group of women dressed in red robes and with faces painted in Japanese theatre style performed at the top of the steps leading into the station. They attracted a lot of attention and questions. This gave other rebels an opportunity to engage in personal discussions with bystanders.
As more rebels arrived chants began, and pockets of the little colourful signature hourglass flags began to appear. Songs were sung. Many others watched from the sidelines. People in buildings came to the windows to have a look and many stayed there to watch the events as they unfolded.
The one thing that stood out among the young and older participants was the passion. Each had their own story that brought them there. Moving around, exchanging a few words here and there, brought home that this is a serious battle. The are reflective of a growing section of our society calling for change.
Some are prepared to put themselves on the line for the cause. . They see this as a necessary, to prevent a serious climate disaster from happening.
One could not help but feel that this passion for a change, to not be content with talk and insisting of decisive action, is what gives hope for the future.
Clearly uncomfortable with the situation, the police did not really know how to handle it. This became increasingly obvious as the day progressed. perhaps their problem is that organisation and training do not easily lend themselves to the unfamiliar.
The police force is also an institution that carries out the wishes of the corporate power connected political elite, tied into ongoing support for the fossil fuel industry and an economy that is far too geared to what is, to make the changes that are needed.
It carries out a political directive. Otherwise, the police force would take on the polluters, who are clearly causing a great deal of harm. It doesn’t do this becuae it serves the politcal establishment.
The bulk of the police on the scene belonged to the paramilitary Public Order Response Team (PORT), made up of hard heads, trained to control the civilian population, rather than going around stopping regular crimes.
Lines of helmeted mounted police were stationed near both ends of the bridge, ready to be used if called on.
On this sunny spring day, Extinction Rebellion and the police faced off for hours.
Although the scene was set for a violent confrontation, it was not going to happen, – from one side at least. The ethos of Extinction rebellion is non-violent civil disobedience, and using this to disrupt business as usual, and the Rebels were disciplined enough to hold onto this.
About an hour later, a ranking police officer with megaphone in hand, called out that people were illegally blocked the road, that they would be arrested if they did not leave and that the police would use “necessary force.”
A perimeter had been set up with police tape, which also blocked footpaths and access through Federation Square and the Yarra River path. Anyone on the wrong side of this barrier were told they were fair game. No one left.
Estimates of the number within the enclosure varied from 300 to 500. It was hard to tell. Many others had been prevented from joining by the police barrier. They clustered on the other sides. The numbers here were even harder to tell.
Eventually, those sitting down at the front, at the station end of the blockade, began to be arrested one by one. They had volunteered to make this sacrifice, in the hope that it will help to draw attention to the urgency of the climate crisis.
Photographers clustered around to get good shots and Journalists began to pen down their motes. More police were sent in in what looked like an attempt to block the media’s view.
It was at this point that the most sinister act of the day took place. Certain police approached the media and ordered them, collectively and then one by one, to leave the area or face the prospect of being arrested themselves. Most left.
I was one of the few who stayed on. I asked the officer who spoke to me, “so you’re now in the business of censoring media?” He glared at me.
This is important. The right to report is being increasingly squeezed. It’s not just the dramatic raids on media outlets and journalists. Journalists have a responsibility to make their own stand, and genuinely uncovering the truth, and this sometimes leads one out of one’s comfort zone. If we don’t do this, we contribute to the censorship.
This may be a hard ask for journalists, who like everyone else, need a livelihood. Although this event got quite a bit of media coverage, what did come across was a generic view, created by someone else and lacking in a close-up view of what went on. Most published stories came from the same script.
blocking the media at Princes Bridge is an example of the methods being applied with increasing frequency. Together with the growing restriction of what major media outlets will allow to be published and the growing list of coercive laws, what passes of as a free press in Australia, is being progressively strangled.
It reminds me of a recent conversation with another journalist. He insisted, “these days its either you write what they tell you to or have someone write something else and put your name to it or have integrity and become a blogger with little income.”
As important as the right to report is, this day was mostly about why people were there and the resounding resounding victory for Extinction Rebellion that it represents.
The bridge blockade lasted for just over three hours, until the rebels decided that the point had been made and called it a day, and marched off chanting “we’ll be back.”
This chant gave notice of other actions leading up to the Spring Rebellion, which will begin around Australia on 7 October and last for a week, and is part of a similar rebellion taking place in a list of other countries.