Flashmob protests keep chainsaws at bay

November 12, 2011
83 year old Norm Barnwell, inside two layers of security fencing, Occupying the (in)secure zone in Laman St, Newcastle. Photo: D

Not many things would get the Returned and Services League and died-in-the-wool greenies climbing into bed together; have a mother-and-daughter being frisked by police on the same day, nor cause the arrest of an 83-year-old retired high school English teacher.

But the 14 Ficusmicrocarpa var. Hillii, commonly known as Hill Figs, planted in memory of World War I soldiers in Newcastle have.

Similar to the fig trees found in Sydney’s Hyde Park, the trees form a magnificent canopy gracing Newcastle’s Laman Street. For more than two years they have been at the centre of a furious battle between Newcastle City Council and community group Save Our Figs (SOF).

The campaign has so far cost about $1.5 million. More than 20 people have been arrested, many cut free after being chained to posts near the trees. On October 7, now known as “Fig Friday”, protesters were injured in clashes with the police.

The rationale from the council for the plan is that the trees are a danger to the public, and insurers may no longer cover Laman Street. SOF says the danger is unproven and council reports are deeply flawed. They are demanding an independent assessment of the 14 trees.

The council’s general manager, Phil Pearce, refused to seek independent assessment, despite community wishes, and has twice ordered the chainsaws to start felling the trees.

So far only three branches have been lopped and mulched. But the situation sits on a knife edge. A court injunction is due to lapse shortly, and the council is determined to fell the trees as soon as possible.

Locals have been treated to Monty Pythonesque scenes of government-gone-mad. The matter seems to be endlessly raised in council, voted on and stalled due to technicalities of supposed council protocol.

Motions to protect the figs are blocked while council lawyers consider whether they can be “lawfully” introduced. Liberal council members have even refused the offer made by Premier Barry O’Farrell to supply a NSW government arborist “if asked”, an offer SOF supporters lobbied for intensely.

Tuesday night rallies on the Town Hall steps have regularly drawn noisy, chanting crowds of more than 200 people. Signs ask passersby to honk for the figs and buses, police and ambulances often join in the cacophony to be clearly heard in council chambers. The latest rally exhorted the general manager to “Pick up the Phone, Phil” and make the call to the premier.

Protest sites abound. On Tuesdays, it is council steps. On potential chainsaw days, it is one of the two ends of Laman Street. Many protesters have their “adopted end” of either Darby or Dawson streets.

There are two layers of security fencing around the Figs. The outer fence is regularly adorned with signs, banners and children’s’ paintings. When the council closed access to the Art Gallery, which is on Laman Street, the fence was dubbed the outdoor art gallery and paintings sprang up on it day after day.

Some choose to occupy Civic Park, which runs between the two “ends” underneath Laman Street and the figs, where Police Command has been established behind the first of two security fences.

On one chainsaw day, a group of more than 50 protesters also occupied council offices, taking numbers to be served and chanting in the resonating acoustics of the waiting room.

Fig supporters have developed sophisticated methods of flash mobbing to rally people at short notice: 400 supporters gathered at less than four hours notice for one rally.

For weeks there has been uncertainty about whether the chainsaws would arrive on any particular day. Laman Street is monitored from before daybreak, and if the call goes out that people are needed they arrive in droves: parents, students, doctors, lawyers, nurses, teachers, tradespeople, small business owners and many retirees.

In yet another bizarre twist, one of the most passionate protesters is Newcastle City Council Lord Mayor John Tate, who often exhorts the crowd through the now renowned “Little Red Megaphone” to keep up the pressure on his own council.

Those who have breached the security fences on the chainsaw days and been arrested for their efforts to hold up the felling process, have become the new heroes of the Newcastle protest community.

[Visit the Save Our Figs website.]

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