People power can save the Beeliar Wetlands

The campaign against Roe 8 and to save the Beeliar Wetlands is reaching a crescendo. Photo: Alex Bainbridge
Friday, February 3, 2017

People across the world are rising up, angry at the failure of governments to listen to their concerns or prioritize their lives over the profits of big business.

On January 12, Perth joined this movement when more than 1000 “protectors”, as they have dubbed themselves, descended on the Roe 8 construction site to protest the state government’s efforts to build a freeway through the Beeliar Wetlands. Roe 8, which is part of greater freeway known as Perth Freight Link has ignited some of the most sustained community opposition Perth has ever seen.

As well as being environmentally destructive, the freeway would go over the top of sites that are historically important and culturally significant to the Noongar people. The state government de-listed these sites from its own heritage register to pave the way for the project.

I was one of those protectors and got to experience being a part of real people power in action.

People started arriving at dawn, greeted by two activists who had already chained themselves to bulldozers. The noise grew as people joined the ranks at the fence and recognised friends and neighbours, family and work colleagues. Strangers struck up conversations about why they were there and a feeling of solidarity grew at finding others like themselves, determined to make a difference.

There was no tension. Ewan Buckley, a seasoned campaigner and musician, welcomed everyone, passing on directions, starting up chants and songs and reminding everyone to stay calm and keep things peaceful.

Police were spaced in a line on the other side of the fence, impassive as their senior officers rearranged them to cover more space.

The mood shifted as the crowd began to sing the campaign’s anthem, Say no to Roe, written by Buckley, with its simple chorus “Say no, no, no to Roe, Roe, Roe”. Then, as the singing reached a determined crescendo, people simply pushed an entire stretch of fence over.

There was no plan for this to happen. At first no-one, including the police, moved, as people paused, unsure whether to cross the fallen fence. But then a few ran across and then a few more, until hundreds poured over the fence and into the bush, clapping and cheering.

The crowd was jubilant and those emboldened by what they had achieved linked arms and surrounded the bulldozers where police were trying to detach the two women who were locked on. Police reinforcements soon arrived and released the women. The crowd gave them a hero’s send-off as they were bundled into the waiting paddy wagons.

Police started shouting at people to get behind the fence, which sparked chants of “Where’s the fence?”. At first we laughed but the police brought in horses and started pushing them back. Someone was trampled. One mounted police officer deliberately rode her horse into the crowd.

People grew angry but Buckley played on, encouraging people to stay calm and peaceful, until he too was arrested outside the fence line and charged with “incitement”, his guitar still around his neck.

People started to leave; to go to work, or to protect themselves and their children from the sight of the bulldozers starting work; or to regroup in support of a woman who had climbed a tree.

There was some disappointment that we only stopped the bulldozers for half a day. But there was also euphoria for those who had never experienced such a mass show of solidarity and for a brief moment, experienced having the power to defy a government backed up by a massive police presence.

Supporters of the freeway, including the West Australian, whose owner Kerry Stokes also owns the enormous Westrac Caterpillar dealership, has traded on tired stereotypes, jobless tree-hugging hippies and professional protestors.

I have met many diverse people in this campaign, all with genuine concerns about what this project will do to our environment, our health and the very landscape of Perth. I have met families whose children are kept safe, entertained and away from the frontline action in community creches run by volunteers.

There are lawyers, teachers, nurses, scientists and accountants; many of whom turn up early to put in a few hours before starting work. There are students and young people, schooled in climate change and inspired by other movements. There are the truckies who all supposedly support the project that give us a blast on their horn and a wave as they go by.

There are senior citizens like Val, who lives on the edge of the wetlands and is determined to continue to walk there despite receiving a move-on notice, because “I live here and it is my right”.

There are the seasoned campaigners who, having exhausted all legal avenues see no other way of making the government listen than through civil disobedience. There are Aboriginal activists who see nothing new in having to defend their cultural sites. Local Noongar people have camped at Bibra Lake for thousands of years and for them, as it should be for non-Indigenous Australia, the Beeliar Wetlands holds great cultural significance.

There is “Fox”, a hero to the community, who was recently removed from a tree he lived in for eight days, refusing to come down even after being repeatedly stung when wasps were disturbed by further clearing. Police refused any medical aid, saying if he wanted help he would have to come down and get it.

Another tree sitter stripped naked to delay police trying to remove her and has prompted a “naked for nature” campaign where supporters are photographed naked with signs.

Lynn McClaren from the Greens has been a regular presence as have the Socialist Alliance’s election candidates Corina Abraham, Sam Wainwright, Chris Jenkins and myself. Sam, Chris and about 20 others had already been arrested by the time of the mass walk-on.

I have since received my first Move On notice and about another 200 people have been arrested for locking-on, picketing or just being in the vicinity. The creativity, determination and courage of all these community members is truly inspiring.

Clearing the wetlands has not ceased, but it has been delayed, which is all that we can hope for until the election. Premier Colin Barnett has ignored the courts, his own EPA report, the discovery of asbestos and the voices of thousands of his constituents in his determination to build the freeway. It will be up to the people, with their bodies and their vote, to put an end to it.

Through this campaign I have seen that “people power” is not just a slogan but the reality that we need to create. “The People United, Will Never Be Defeated”.

[Petrina Harley is a Socialist Alliance candidate for the WA Legislative Council.]

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