Peaceful dissent and a lizard’s revenge
Peter D. Burdon ABC Environment 10 Jul 2012
uranium protestors

Protesters at the Beverley uranium mine were treated in a “degrading, humiliating and frightening” manner in 2000, according to a later judgement. Credit: ABC News
See also

Related Story: What if trees could sue? Peter Burdon 17 May 2011
Related Story: Payout for protesters locked in shipping container News Online 9 Apr 2010

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THE ANTI-NUCLEAR MOVEMENT in Australia can be characterised by several key themes – colour, lentils, solidarity and a commitment to nonviolent acts of resistance.

Another pervasive theme that characterises the past forty years of activism is power imbalance. On one side of the struggle you have poor and sometimes dislocated indigenous people, students and concerned community members (greenies). On the other side there are billion dollar companies, the Government, State police and the media.

Such is this power imbalance that many campaigners will spend decades resisting without reward. Those who are fortunate to be involved in a campaign victory (or even a slight concession) have also seen promises betrayed and decisions reversed.

Yet, despite many crushing defeats, antinuclear activists continue to resist. They do so, not because they have nothing better to do, or because they are violent delinquents (the images commonly portrayed in the media), but because they are acting in accordance with their conscience. They are resisting environmental degradation, corporate dominance, and the continued dispossession of Aboriginal communities. They are also promoting things such as appropriate technology, de-growth economics, solidarity and antiquated notions such a citizen’s right to participate in a democracy. Whatever one’s political persuasion, these are all pressing moral and social issues and they deserve our most earnest engagement.

Instead, the most significant upcoming anti-nuclear protest, ‘Lizard’s Revenge 14-18 July’ (north of Roxby Downs at Alberrie Creek Station) will be greeted by over two hundred police officers “including including STAR Group [Special Tasks and Rescue], mounted police and others on dirt bikes”.

The stated reason for this deployment of SA State power is “to ensure a peaceful protest” and to “manage the situation”. The antinuclear movement has good reason to be suspicious of these seemingly benign statements. Still fresh for many campaigners are the memories and scars of an anti-nuclear protest at the Beverley Uranium Mine in May 2000.

The protest was organised by anti-nuclear groups in South Australia and Victoria. An undercover police informant successfully infiltrated the Victorian group and fed false and provocative information to the mining officials. The public aim of the protest was to commit trespass onto the mining lease and host a peaceful march in solidarity with Aboriginal elders and children. However, at the mine site the protestors (including a Chanel 7 cameraman) were herded into metal crates and welded inside. Prominent Human Rights advocate Brian Walters SC, represented 10 of the protestors in a compensation claim against the South Australian Government. He describes the scenes as follows:

This case is a nasty example of police violence that was premeditated, consistent and paid no heed to legal requirements. Police used capsicum spray like it was fly spray and used their vehicles like weapons. They placed protesters, as if they were cattle, into shipping containers in the middle of the desert and conducted welding while they were inside.

One of the most horrific consequences of this police action was the assault committed against an 11-year-old Adnyamathana girl who was suffered injuries when capsicum spray was used against her. Another young man was targeted by police and beaten with batons by eight officers. Many in Government and civil society failed to engage with the important moral considerations that lay behind the protest. A common bias and perception was articulated by then deputy premier, Kevin Foley: “The Government will not negotiate a wholsesale settlement with a bunch of feral protesters who put the safety of our police officers in peril…the Government sends a clear message to any anarchist group of protesters that we will not be a soft touch.”

Yet, at the end of the trial, Supreme Court Judge Timothy Anderson was left with little doubt over which parties had behaved as uncivilized “ferals”. Judge Anderson awarded $700,000 in damages to the plaintiffs. He described their imprisonment in shipping crates, as “degrading, humiliating and frightening” and noted that the action constituted an “affront to the civil liberties of the protestors”. He added, “The conditions were oppressive, degrading and dirty, there was a lack of air, there was the smell from capsicum spray and up to 30 persons were crammed into a very small space.”

Following from these comments, Judge Anderson found instances of police force to be unnecessary: “Some of those arrested, some being plaintiffs, were mere passive observers, several of whom were taking video footage.” Judge Anderson also criticised Kevin Foley and then Police Minister Michael Wright for their “unreasonable” and “antagonistic” withdrawal from attempts to resolve the case through mediation. In plain language, Judge Anderson said: “It is my view that both ministers, in making these statements, have acted with a high-handed and contumelious disregard of the plaintiffs as citizens of the state with a right to protest, and with the right to be treated according to law if they did protest.”

As the protest camp at Lizard’s Revenge is erected and the hundreds of citizens converge, we would do well to recall this event and the words of Judge Anderson. Certainly, the right to free speech and political protest is a basic human right and a hallmark of a functioning democracy. Political protest is also an important part of ensuring the accountability of those in power.

As we navigate our way through sensational media headlines such as “Protesters vow to shut down Olympic Dam” we should also try to engage genuinely with the important moral issues that the protestors are highlighting.

Their agenda is quite public, which is more than could be said for the private sector interests they are protesting. We might also question why the police are deploying over 200 personnel to “manage” a peaceful protest and what violence police have instigated during similar events in the recent past.

Finally, we might ponder the opportunity that is being lost by failing to engage seriously with the issues that are being presented and responding to dissent with heavy-handed tactics. Certainly, if free speech means anything, it means the right to express a view that another may disagree with. Even a view that another might think is childish or fanciful. Former High Court Judge, Justice Lionel Murphy said it best twenty years ago when commenting on Queensland Aboriginal activist, Percy Neal. Murphy Commented:

If he is an agitator, he is in good company. Many of the great religious and political figures of history have been agitators, and human progress owes much to the efforts of these and the many who are unknown…[Murphy went on to quote Oscar Wilde] Agitators are a set of interfering, meddling people, who come down to some perfectly contented class of the community and sow the seeds of discontent among them. That is the reason why agitators are so absolutely necessary. Without them … there would be no advance towards civilisation.

Peter Burdon is a lecturer in law at the University of Adelaide.


3 Responses to “LIZARD’S REVENGE”

  1. CaptD Says:

    GREAT Article!
    Salute to Mr. Foley…

    Liked and Tweeted…

    • nuclearhistory Says:

      CaptD mean un – salute to Mr Foley. Especially on Sunday when he hogs page 2 of the Sunday Mail. He was the Minister who gave the orders and who refused to settle out of court with the protestors. He cost the state a bit of dough.

      Go the Ferals.

  2. CaptD Says:

    Er Sorry the salute was for Supreme Court Judge Timothy Anderson, with Foley getting the “other” kind of salute…

    Why must a simple quiet protest be “handled” in such a way, whose side are the authorities ON anyway?

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