We recently returned to the area that the community defended as part of the campaign to defend the Beeliar Wetlands from the Roe Highway extension.
Here are some personal reflections from Nicola. Her time supporting the community at the Beeliar wetlands was partly voluntary, partly community funded.
One year ago, one of the largest acts of civil disobedience in the history of this continent took place. Many hundreds of people pushed down a fence and walked into urban bushland near Fremantle, Western Australia — on Wadjuk, Noongar country, to reclaim the land that was to be bulldozed out of spite and malice.
This was one of the most significant days in the short and bitterly fought non-violent direct action phase of the campaign to protect the Beeliar wetlands and urban bushland that went from December 2016 to the landslide election that saw Premier Barnett thrashed and humiliated in March 2017.
Here are some scattered reflections from when I recently returned.
Driving along south street towards the site, I feel adrenalin rising… the tightening of my stomach, a quickened heartbeat, the taste of dust in the back of my throat… my body recalls the pattern of a year before… early mornings, driving to site on not enough sleep, muscle memory guiding the way through exhaustion.
I pull up and walk over to the fence. A little gateway welcomes a thoroughfare — the gaudy tinsel that is wrapped around it, offering cheeky mockery and counterpoint to the memories of wailing, trees heaving and cracking, and police horses kicking up dust.
New growth is rampant, defiant. Mother nature has got this.
I sit in the scar, and cry.
As I wander through to some of the other sites, the memories flood… Here was that time you gathered…. There is the park we tried to hold the broken pieces together in… there is the corner where you watched people re-gathering and determined… There was the camp. Gatherings and music and confusion.
Here are the twin stumps. Sitting there, visible open wounds on the corner of hope and progress. A monument to arrogance. Such wry delight in the absurdity of it all.
There is the pale dirt track. You recall traipsing back after a big day, tired to the bone, crumpled into someone else’s loan jacket, the soft wool unfamiliar, enfolding, leaning into the unseasonal cold.
Someone put food in front of you. You ate small mouthfuls in between debriefing and conversations and looking through gear and law and scrolling, and a thousand messages.
You return to sit in the shade of mama moodja… whispering questions into the bark, squinting up at the sunlight patterns through the orange blooms, scars and limbs scattered.
It was the best and worst day. People found their power and voice, and in that, absolute elation. That fence, the symbol of so much came crashing down, the community reclaimed the space taken from them… but after that came the razor wire and the dogs and the assaults.
On the day you could feel the crowd temperature, the tempo rising. And then it was all happening. The fence was down, as if by all and none, many hands at once. All joyful and dancing, and tentative at first. Who is going first? Will others? What will happen? And then a few brave souls dart forward, and then there is the trickle here — and then a trickle further along down the fence line… and then it is a flood… people pour in, surrounding the compound, the police caught off guard; all nervous energy and bravado… STAY BACK — they shout — WE MUST PROTECT THE MACHINES FROM THE PEOPLE — they think. Whatever we do, we must protect the machines.
And it all unfolds quickly and not quickly. Leaders picked off, arrested. There they come, new recruits, all fresh-red and angry, itching for it, gloves on. They had been called to a ‘riot’ we were later told. And there she goes, stepping into her power, the crowd relieved. Someone knows what is happening. We love you, they shout, as they link arms, sitting proud.
And then the horses come. Pushing people. Teenagers trip into the bushes. People are shouting, holding phones like talismans. Reflecting their image back to them will protect us they think. But it doesn’t. The arrests keep coming. People re-form and sit, determined to try till the end. Confusion reigns, and scattered acts of defiance can’t hold back the tide. The crowd has been broken up.
But they will remember that day for the rest of their lives. When they pushed back.
And then you turn the corner and remember when you were in the car when the early morning crew got dropped off… hoping desperately that they had the number right and they were going through a friendly house, and not one of the handful of people that were out and proud road lovers. You remember these people all nervous and brave, getting ready to rocket-launch out of their comfort zones. Hands trembling, chains softly clatter. Visceral love of place and country overcomes the internal dialogue, and they walk into the dark to face dogs and fears.
And the place where folks tried desperately and failed to corale people to access the site from different locations. That day was a failure.
And there is the park. Where R and I gathered folk in an attempt to hold pieces together, to stop the seething cauldron from bubbling over into messy arrests and despair.
And the moodja action, the proud women, so many women, the nervousness of swollen thumbs, the giggles and pride, debriefing.
And you remember that day you talked to them in the trees. Laughter pealing down, bad music and booty dancing.
All those meetings. All those meetings. All those meetings. People tired, stretched over-taut rubber bands waiting to break. And yet they still held on.
That morning shivering with cold, but elated because a plan had worked. People had successfully delayed by spreading thin resources. Smarter, learning as they went.
The stomach churning crack of watching trees bulldozed in front of you. Something every forest activist who has ever lost their temper knows in full bodied force.
And the birds flying from the trees. A family of tawny owls. Their homes literally destroyed from under them. The thinning crowd screams. There is actual howling. People hurl themselves against fences. You remember hugging A, as she cried, looked to you, desperate for someone to have an answer. You have nothing, it would be a fools errand — glancing at ten police within ten metres — solid man meat protecting the machines from the grief of the community.
For many people this is a battle that they will gratefully never repeat. They defended their home and common ground, they saw a sense of connection. People talked of finding community for the first time in 60 years of living, as they watched people defending the trees. Trying to find sense in the chaos as they watched, videotaped, recorded another instance of police hurting people, aggressive and coming in hard.
Barnett was intent on fully wrought destruction. There was malice in the choices he defended. There is a piece of me that will always believe there was a personal element to his decision — he had been pushed back by determined communities… on the shark cull, on his dreams of a despoiled and industrialised Kimberley… and this time he was having his way dammit, and so he leaves us his legacy — the nausea following a sugar laced birthday party… tired and spoilt children arguing, a state that has gobbled up the spoils of the mining boom and left nothing behind but grubby fingerprints and a sickly sweet sheen over the surface of a little infrastructure and a lot of people feeling very ill. Instead there is debt, and broken FIFO families, all the minerals wrenched from the earth. Scars through suburbs and sacred country destroyed.
The Beeliar Wetlands and surrounding area is Wadjuk, Noongar country. Respect to all custodians.