Over the past couple of weeks, Green Left Weekly has been collecting recollections, images, impressions and analyses of the biggest-ever globally coordinated anti-war protest in history: the 30 million-strong February 14-16, 2003, marches against the launching of the US-led invasion of Iraq.
It was such a tremendous explosion of popular protest that it prompted New York Times columnist Patrick Tyler to write at the time there were perhaps “two superpowers on the planet — the United States, and worldwide public opinion”.
However, the failure of these protests to deter the US from launching an invasion with a “shock and awe” pulverisation of Iraq and the relatively quick decline of the protests convinced many people that perhaps people's power wasn't that powerful after all. Some concluded that mass demonstrations don't work.
However, last week, we were given evidence that people's power does work and that it is worth protesting and organising popular resistance, even to the most powerful corporations and the governments that they count on to do their bidding.
The Coalition government in NSW was forced to make a significant concession over coal seam gas (CSG) mining in the face of one of the broadest and most sustained campaigns in Australia today.
The Barry O'Farrell government announced:
• A two-kilometre exclusion zone will be imposed around residential areas to prevent new CSG exploration, assessment and production activities covering both surface and underground works;
• Exclusion zones will apply to identified critical industry clusters, such as the wine and horse industries;
• The Environment Protection Authority (EPA) will be the lead regulator of environmental and health impacts of CSG activities in NSW and be responsible for compliance and enforcement;
• All exploration, assessment and production titles and activities will be required to hold an Environment Protection Licence;
• The Chief Scientist and Engineer will conduct a review of all CSG activities in NSW, including the impact on water catchments;
• An Office of Coal Seam Gas Regulation will be established within the Department of Trade and Investment, Regional Infrastructure and Services.
Of course, this is far from a full victory for the movement. As a Stop CSG Illawarra statement pointed out, it still does not protect the land and water of NSW communities and the new rules will not apply to existing approvals.
The Apex Energy project ― in and around the Woronora and Upper Nepean drinking water catchments ― can still be approved.
Farmers in some of the most productive food-producing areas of the state remain threatened by the CSG mining companies, and powerful community civil disobedience actions continue around the state.
The lesson here is that people's power does work ― but not in the way that some people, including the above mentioned NYT columnist, imagine.
The power of a mass protest movement lies not in simply demonstrating to governments that this what the majority, or at least large numbers of people, want on an issue, and then expecting governments will respect majority opinion.
If that was the case, governments would not be waging wars, banning equal marriage rights or spending money subsidising big polluters and weapons companies instead of funding renewable energy, public transport, hospitals and schools.
People's power is unleashed through building a broad and sustained movement that is capable of inflicting a real political cost on these governments and the powerful corporations they serve.
There is a huge challenge in sustaining a people's power movement. But every successful people's power movement teaches those involved that it is possible to build a movement strong enough to one day put an end the domination of the rich and powerful elite.
Until then, we will win some and we will lose some.
Green Left Weekly consistently helps to build these people power movements. You can count on us for this.
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