Break Free is the legacy of decades of nonviolent resistance.
Protests against ANZ
Over the past fortnight, some exciting events took place in the name of climate justice. All over the world, people peacefully protested and blockaded coal, oil and gas projects. As part of the global Break Free 2016 campaign, New Zealand took part in actions to keep fossil fuels in the ground – in our case, this involved pressuring the Pacific’s largest bank to stop funding fossil fuel projects. In Christchurch, Wellington, Dunedin, Hamilton, and Auckland, protesters set up blockades outside branches of ANZ bank, non-violently stopping their business for the day.
ANZ Blockade in Auckland.
The decision to blockade ANZ came after years of trying multiple different angles to put pressure on the bank to withdraw their billions of dollars in fossil fuel investments (ANZ has invested $13.5 billion in fossil fuel projects in Australia since 2008). Through petitions, letters from customers, smaller protests, and face-to-face conversations, 350 Aotearoa and 350 Australia have tried to convince the ANZ Group to divest. Nothing was swaying them, and more visible action needed to be taken.
Why nonviolent direct action?
Nonviolent direct action (or NVDA) is a powerful strategy for protest. It involves people directly stopping something bad from happening – a train shipment of coal or the operation of a mine, for example. It works in two ways: first, it sends a strong message to the people behind the destructive activity, and second, it actually stops the activity from taking place and causing further harm, however temporarily. This frequently leads to large costs for the company involved, and shows the power of regular, everyday people to halt the operations of an entity deemed more powerful than them.
NVDA frequently uses a blockade as a tactic. A blockade stops the flow of materials and people. Most forms of protest – NVDA included – end up impeding some people’s everyday activities. The questions that always must be asked are, “how will this inconvenience people, and how will it change things? Is the action justified?” The decision to go forward with NVDA is never made lightly.
Blockades in history
Blockades can be found throughout the history of activism and social change. A famous one in recent New Zealand memory would be during the Springbok Tour: In 1981, protesters “invaded” a Hamilton rugby pitch and linked arms en masse, effectively stopping the game. Rugby fans were outraged, and some attacked the protesters – the action inconvenienced thousands of people.
At the time, the protesters were harassed, criticised, and abused by the public and the media for getting in the way of such a sacred pastime. However, as years went by and South African apartheid was slowly dismantled, many New Zealanders began to see the bigger picture and realise that the protesters’ actions were just. Impeding the activities of the South African rugby team was part of a larger BDS campaign (which included divestment!) against Apartheid, which turned out to be successful.
The Civil Rights Movement in the United States wouldn’t have been as powerful without NVDA. In 1964, protesters blocked the entrances to the Sheraton-Palace Hotel in San Francisco and staged a sit-in in the lobby. Their grievance was against the hotel’s discriminatory hiring practices. Hundreds were arrested as they stopped the flow of hotel customers, effectively disrupting the hotel’s business.
These are only two of the hundreds of examples of effective blockades in the name of social change. As always, these protests go down in history as being just and necessary, despite the complaints of people at the time.
Break Free: Civil disobedience’s legacy
Internationally, Break Free 2016 has been deemed the largest global civil disobedience that has ever occurred against fossil fuels. Each action contributed to this global success, and each action was informed by the decades of prior civil disobedience that shaped the history of social justice. Break Free represents one of the many successful legacies of historical civil disobedience campaigns.
Drawing from the Civil Rights movement and other justice movements, the climate justice movement focuses on people-powered, grassroots protest organised by those most affected by injustice. This was one of the things that made Break Free so powerful – communities taking control over their own futures.
In Australia, kayaks blockaded the largest coal port in the world – Newcastle Port.
In Wales, protesters shut down the UK’s largest open-cast coal mine.
In Brazil, protesters blocked highway access to the Pecém coal-fired power plant.