People and Places
29/10/2019
Rebel with a cause

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Lara Williamson is a 21-year-old Mornington student going into the final year of a Bachelor of Environmental Science (Wildlife and Conservation Biology) at Deakin University. Earlier this year she helped establish the Mornington Peninsula group of Extinction Rebellion, the global environmental movement urging government action to avoid a climate breakdown. She speaks to Mornington Peninsula Magazine.

How and when did you first hear about Extinction Rebellion? What were your initial impressions of the movement?

I first became aware of Extinction Rebellion through social media, notably their activism in London, where XR was born. XR fully came into my life when I attended an introduction talk — Heading for Extinction and What to Do About It — in Mornington earlier this year. I was welcomed with warmth and kindness by those already involved with the movement (Rebels), and those who were there to learn about XR were ready and raring to go. There was a sense of anticipation and a keen willingness to get going, but before this talk I and many others didn’t know how. Once the talk had concluded, we were given time to discuss what we had just heard — the current climate science, the philosophies of XR — and that is when I instantly knew I wanted to be a Rebel. I was frustrated, confused, confronted, but optimistic, and I knew that XR was the perfect opportunity to turn those emotions into action.

What made you decide to establish the Mornington Peninsula group, and what ages and occupations are represented by its members?

Post-introduction talk, I volunteered to reach out to all those who attended and from there worked with a handful of existing Rebels to establish the Mornington Peninsula group. With the majority of XR action occurring up in the Melbourne area, there was always an intention to create a more local affinity group, but the youth of XR in Australia meant that it wasn’t a very well-known movement. We also knew the deep connection Peninsula residents have to the environment; we are all close to beautiful beaches and vast expanses of bushland and so we recognised the need for the movement to extend south. We had regular meetings as co-ordinators in the early stages starting around June/July this year, worked on the (successful) declaration of a climate emergency with the Mornington Peninsula Shire, and from there organised weekly meetings and planning workshops in Rosebud. Our group is ever-expanding by the day, but we have a constant group of around 20 or so with around 10 of us heavily involved and 140 followers on our Facebook page. From early 20s to 60s, our members range from engineers to musicians to celebrants and teachers. We all bring different skillsets due to our diverse backgrounds, and we contribute what we can.

Who can join? What are they expected to do once they join? What do you do at your meetings?

Anyone and everyone is welcome to join provided they support our three demands: 1. Tell the Truth — the government must tell the truth by declaring a climate and ecological emergency; 2. Act Now — the government must act now to halt biodiversity loss and reduce greenhouse emissions to net zero by 2025; and 3. Beyond Politics — the government must create and be led by the decisions of a Citizens’ Assembly on climate and ecological justice.

You can either get in contact with our Facebook page (@XRMornPen) or our email, which is available at www.ausrebellion.earth/localgroups. We encourage members to dedicate one night a week to our meetings, as these are vital to keeping up to date with our actions, to express any concerns/ideas they may have and to strengthen their relationships with other Rebels. Our meetings are facilitated by a different Rebel every week, where we have a pre-prepared agenda to address, with a time-keeper and note-taker. Other than the more formal elements, we regularly make art including banners, T-shirts, badges, flyers, posters etc. to ensure our actions are engaging, vibrant and informative. We also use the meetings as opportunities to check in with one another as activism is intense and demanding. We cannot lead a Rebellion if we don’t take care of ourselves first.   

Is this the first such group you’ve been a member of?

This is the first activist group I have been a part of. I have been volunteering for my whole life, with my parents being a part of the Rotary Club of Frankston, and started volunteering in conservation when I was 14 at a wildlife shelter, but I have never been a part of any group that is involved in direct action.  

What was your first protest like, and how did the public react?

My first XR protest was in Melbourne during the Spring Rebellion, a worldwide movement across the whole week that started on October 7. I was there during the Monday, Tuesday and Sunday where I camped out in Carlton Gardens with our Mornington Peninsula group and around 100 others and contributed to actions in various parts of the city. The experience was overwhelmingly positive, from the people I met to the conversations I had to the friendships that flourished. Contrary to popular belief, the public reaction was supportive. I personally did not encounter aggressive reactions, but I know that there were some negative reactions experienced by others as per some footage posted online. Our local group has taken part in some smaller actions, but I have never been a part of anything at this scale before.

 Were you arrested?

I was arrested on the second day of the Spring Rebellion and was released on bail later that day under the condition that I must not engage in protest activities that block and/or impede vehicle roadway and/or pedestrian access within Melbourne CBD. I was charged with obstructing an emergency worker and obstructing a roadway, and those of us who didn’t initially refuse bail conditions — which were overturned — are currently working to overturn them with the assistance of well-accredited lawyers.  

What has been the response from friends/family/workmates to your decision to start an XR group here?

I have been mostly supported; completely by my friends, workmates and boyfriend but it has taken my family a lot longer to accept my decision to join XR. The mostly positive reception is what matters to me though, and it keeps me going and achieving bigger and better things for the movement. I would obviously love the support of everyone, but I know that is not realistic and I would rather focus my energy on working with those who are with us, not against us. We only need 3.5 per cent of the population mobilised to cause major social change. The climate emergency is not going to wait for us to convince everyone. 

How do you feel when you read or hear comments such as: “Use (protesters) as a speed bump; put them in jail and forget to feed them” (Kerri-Anne Kennerley); “a cattle prod … would act as a bloody good ‘move-along stick’ for these unwashed idiots” (Pauline Hanson); “They should be jailed until their behaviour changes because they are putting lives at risk” (Peter Dutton); “The sinister tactics some protesters are using are dangerous and designed to harm” (Annastacia Palaszczuk)?  

I believe that inciting violence against a non-violent group is incredibly irrational. We are very clear as a movement to only participate in non-violent direct action. We do not act in hate. We act with the immense love we have for our beautiful planet and all its life. We are amid the sixth mass extinction, with the threat of human extinction imminent. Peaceful protest, in addition, is a democratic right, and we are not endangering the livelihood of anyone by causing traffic disruptions. We always let ambulances pass through our demonstrations and we have a regenerative culture amongst ourselves and others as well as having constant communication and respectful relationships with police.  

When you hear/read these attacks not just from politicians and commentators but “ordinary Australians” who are “inconvenienced” by a blocked road, how do you not feel like you’re banging your head against a wall?

It is obviously difficult to see that we have opposition, but public opinion is changing. This can be seen in an online survey by The Age that saw an overwhelming 85 per cent of participants support the XR protests. We are sincerely apologetic for the inconveniences experienced, but until someone poses an alternative, we will continue until we achieve our demands, and we have significant evidence civil disobedience will be successful for us — see the Suffragette movement, civil rights movement etc.

In The Conversation recently, criminal justice lecturer Piero Moraro argued that these responses are actually an encouraging sign that XR has got the government’s attention (theconversation.com/cattle-prods-and-welfare-cuts-mounting-threats-to-extinction-rebellion-show-demands-are-being-heard-but-ignored-124990).  Do you feel like the message is getting through?

I do agree that our actions have received the attention of the government, but we are yet to see the message get through — seen in the lack of action. There is still a lot of work to be done to further our message so we will not be stopping any time soon. We are clearly being silenced by scare tactics and legislation to prevent protesting, but in the words of Greta Thunberg: “If standing up against climate and ecological breakdown and for humanity is against the rules, then the rules must be broken.”

If there was one message you could give anyone who is critical about what you’re doing and how you’re going about it, what would it be?

Think of your present and future children, your grandchildren, your nieces and nephews. In 10 years’ time, could you look them in the eye and honestly say to them you did everything you could to prevent the worst of climate change? This is not about politics; this is about humanity. We are all in this together.

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