The poetics of protest: Beeliar and beyond

by Patricia Harris

Over the past three decades, scientists have documented the major and irreversible damage that a major freeway will inflict on the woodlands and wetlands of Beeliar Regional Park. The Barnett Government’s refusal to listen has been obdurate and staggering. By the end of January 2017, bulldozers had destroyed large swathes of natural habit, crushed the endangered Banksia woodlands, and reduced century-old eucalypts to mounds of mulch on desecrated ground.

On World Wetlands Day (2nd February), a long-time campaigner voiced her grief:

On this special day, it is hard to find reasons to celebrate these crucial and life giving places here in the Beeliar Wetlands. Yesterday ancient paperbarks and Swamp Banksias fell to bulldozers and chain saws while turtles, frogs and other creatures were crushed under the weight of brutal machines.[1]

Some three weeks before these words were spoken, Bob Brown sent a strong message of support to the Beeliar campaigners. Describing Colin Barnett’s determination to push ahead with Roe 8 as “a needless act of ugly destruction”, he claimed that people “all over the world” were with the protestors. “Hats off to you,” he concluded, “I hope you win!”[2] But what might it mean to “win” a protest such as this and where does the future of the movement lie?[a] As the Perth protestors mass in opposition to Roe 8, thousands of Americans take to the streets in anti-Trump protests. Clive Hamilton observes that since these campaigners are unlikely to succeed in removing Trump from office, they may either go home and spend the next four or even eight years “stewing and posting angry comments on line” or, alternatively, the protest “could morph into a sustained and powerful movement that sees Trump defeated and more progressive forces returned to Congress and the Presidency”.[3]

The campaign to save Beeliar’s woodlands and wetlands is, I suggest, already a social movement, spurred by a deep attachment to the earth as it is experienced in all of its familiarity and vulnerability. To put these reflections in a broader context: the sociological literature on the “new social movements” (NSM) argues that contemporary movements, such as those represented by anti-war, civil rights, feminist, gay and environmental issues, are radically different from the older labor movements centred on class-based inequality. They are more likely to be the preserve of educated groups than of blue collar workers, and more likely to voice ethical claims about the nature of society than to seek economic redress for their members. Illustrating this, Rethink the Link (RTL) describes itself as “an alliance of community groups and organisations who oppose the Perth Freight Link project and any destruction of the Beeliar wetlands and who promote alternative sustainable transport solutions”.[4] Similarly, Save Beeliar Wetlands (SBW) depicts itself as a “rapidly growing group of dedicated campaigners” that has “fought to preserve Bibra Lake and North Lake from Roe Highway Stage 8 development for decades”.[5]

The falling apart of the democratic fabric of our society is made startlingly apparent by the events leading to the Roe 8 protests. But something else is also involved, with this centred on the devastation of Beeliar’s endangered habitats. Unlike anti-war protests or campaigns for civil rights, which generally operate at a (physical) distance from the abuses they challenge, those campaigning to save Beeliar’s wetlands and woodlands are directly confronted by the destruction they seek to prevent. The impact is immediate, visceral and traumatic. Consequently, attention comes to rest on the here and the now: on this very eucalypt as it falls to the ground, on this very quenda as it flees its shattered home. This attachment to the earth as experienced and known signifies a new, grounded form of social movement, where the material and the spiritual, the political and the poetic, unite. It is also a movement where failure serves to deepen the knowledge of what is at stake.[b]

At the mass action of January 12th there was an air of confidence, even optimism. With their numbers approaching a thousand, the protestors dared to hope that they might force the bulldozers back, delay the destruction, and hold out until the election when, please God, Labor would achieve office and tear up the contracts. Early on in the day, the fences went down; crowds streamed into the forbidden site; police reinforcements hastened through the bush, busy in their yellow squad jackets; tall horses looked warily at the massed action below. The protestors smiled, held their arms high, and waved banners proclaiming who they were and what they stood for.

Roe8 protestors
Roe8 protestors

Over the next few weeks, optimism waned and together with an ever-growing anger, grief came to pervade the movement. At one event, I joined an elderly woman at the back of the crowd. She was leaning on a stick, just watching. “Well”, she said, “that’s my childhood gone.” As the bulldozers destroyed the habitats of birds, bandicoots, lizards, turtles, tortoises and frogs, there was a deepening, a saddening for:

Underneath the once shady and beautiful trees were live turtle eggs, artefacts from Whadjuk Noongar culture and shelter for the thousands of local people who pass by on their walks or rides around Lake Walliabup or Bibra Lake as it is widely known.[6]

Let me conclude with the notion of accountability: accountability of our accounts and to and for the environment. Against the un/accountable nature of government, science presses its patient case; front-line protestors urge their moral causes; and poets, musicians and artists give sound and shape to developments. In his discussion of each of James Quinton’s, John Kinsella’s and Tracy Ryan’s contributions to the movement, Tony Hughes-D’Aeth says:

It may seem that poetry is but a small sideshow to a protest that is being fought in the mainstream and social media, the High Court, and the highest echelons of state and federal politics. But poetry draws its power from its ability to thrust language out of the gridlock of everyday discourse… This reminds us that radical protest poetry — whether it be from the Vietnam War, Apartheid South Africa, or from dissident writers behind the Iron Curtain — is not simply a mantra to be chanted at picket lines, but an invocation of the power of language to speak to a higher law, to a judgement that has no official courts, but nevertheless holds each of us accountable.[7]

Accountability is closely related to responsibility, in this context, response/ability. The fact that we are able to—compelled to—make a response to the ‘Other’ raises fundamental ethical questions about the nature of our responses. Such is the central concern of Emmanuel Levinas, for whom the Other is not knowable in terms of our own self-knowledge and cannot be made into an object of the self, but is an irreducible relationship in which the other person’s contiguity and difference are both strongly felt.[8]  In line with his times, Levinas was only interested in human-to-human encounters. Drawing on the work of deep ecologists such as Arne Næss, his insights can be extended to all forms of life, with each living being seen to be physically, emotionally and spiritually dependent on all others in a complex web of bio-diverse relationships.

I visited the corner of Hope and Progress Roads the day after the devastation to the woodlands had taken place. At the junction of the two roads, I saw a “Tortoise Crossing” sign, urging drivers to watch out for the small creatures making their patient way across the road. Save Beeliar’s Wetland’s small patch of blue material fluttered in the wind.

Tortoise Crossing signage
Tortoise Crossing signage

Some yards further down, there was a similar “Duck Crossing” sign, also with its small patch of blue. Symbols of sorrow, those road signs seemed to symbolize a promise that the protestors would continue to stand on guard, take care of the regeneration, and endeavour to ensure that such desecration would never occur again.

______________________________________________________________________

[a] In her analysis of the ingredients of a successful protest, and with specific reference to the Roe 8 campaign, Andrea Gaynor nominates the imminence of an election, union support, and the voicing of viable alternatives (The Conversation, 03/02/17).

[b] As Andrea Gaynor points out, this proximity is shared with many environmental protesters’ experiences—as, for example in the case of the Tasmanian forests or the south-west of WA. Gaynor suggests, though, that more of the Beeliar protesters may have first-hand experience of the devastation occasioned by Roe 8 due to its highly accessible urban location (personal communication, 06/01/17).

[1] https://www.facebook.com/Save-Beeliar-Wetlands

[2]https://www.facebook.com/Save-Beeliar-Wetlands

[3] Hamilton, C. What next for anti-Trump protestors? The Conversation, 25/02/17

[4] http://rethinkpfl.org

[5] http://www.savebeeliarwetlands.com

[6] https://www.facebook.com/Save-Beeliar-Wetlands

[7] Hughes-D’Aeth, T. Can poetry stop a highway? The Conversation, 11/01/2017

[8] Levinas, E. (1969) Totality and Infinity, (A. Lingis, Trans.), Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press.

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