Thoughts of a Quaker activist

by | 6 Sep, 2020

Greg Rolles, Victoria Regional Meeting

I always get anxious before presenting or talking to any group. I’m nervous about what people will think. What makes me most anxious though, when I present on war and the climate crisis, is whether I can communicate the urgency of the calamity in a way that leaves the audience empowered to act.

The pressing need for action, the deaths of thousands of species, the likelihood of economic and social collapse in the coming decades, ?. But I also know the power small groups of people can have if they come together, are prepared to sacrifice and stick by their values, no matter the cost or distractions.

Amongst Friends and other social groups we fail to grasp the power we have. I could write a whole article outlining the reasons why we fail to use this power – because we’re distracted by money and making far more money than we need. Instead, I’d like to tell you about my recent court case and one small thing I learnt along the way. I hope this is of some help to the wider cause of First Nations and climate justice.

As F/friends, and an extended society of people interested in justice, if our efforts were concentrated on the climate crisis, not just with the extra time in our lives, but with our whole lives, I know that even a small percentage of us who cared could have a powerful impact on the policy of so-called Australia. This is actually a core of non-violence; you have to live your whole life with non-violence, not just parts of it. I mean when we live in a system where we are the richest 1 percent of the world’s population because of severe violence committed in our names, then non-violence is rejecting and working against that system. But I am being distracted now.

Up the rope, over the train lines.

In November 2018, I stopped a few coal trains on Juru country, practising non-violent direct action. I had gone up the rope with the intention of pleading not guilty in court later. Importantly to note at this time, is that I felt a mixture of excitement for my action, but also anger and sadness that no one else had tried the not guilty case. I felt embittered that so few people in Australia seemed to be willing to take direct action, risking their wealth, freedom and privilege to protect our global future.

In May 2019, I finally went to court in Bowen Magistrates Court. I had to represent myself as I could never afford a lawyer and any lawyers who showed an interest from Brisbane were not willing to travel to Juru country to represent me (it is a long way). I ran the necessity defence. I had Professor Brendan Mackey, a world renowned climate scientist give evidence that climate change is an “extraordinary emergency”, Dr. Nicole Rogers, a legal expert gave evidence that all legal avenues for stopping Adani had been exhausted. This gave me my launching pad to argue that I was therefore protected under Queensland law from prosecution.

After a full day of hearing and a week of deliberations, the Magistrate found me guilty and fined me $7,000 and awarded $2,290 in damages against me to Aurizon the rail company profiteering from running coal into the Great Barrier Reef. It was a much higher penalty than if I had just plead guilty and I again found myself at times wallowing in feelings of self-pity and anger that no one else was doing this. Environmental organisations with millions of dollars a year in donations who knew about the climate crisis for decades had not put any resources into challenging the law on this important angle. I, scrambling along on the dole (and a donation from NSW Friends for media) had to do this on my own. All my older friends, with their living situations and lives sorted had not taken this on. Why did I have to do this on my own in 2018? I wallowed to myself.

After months (almost years) of paperwork and process, I finally had my appeal heard on the 24th of July 2020 at the Brisbane District Court. Benedict Coyne had taken my case on almost pro bono (with my lack of income, assets and stable housing, I was given legal aid for my lawyers). Benedict managed to get a barrister to lead the case and Kylie Hillard spoke in court for just over three hours. She showed video of my action from police camera footage. I felt embarrassed at seeing my mug and voice on the large screen with police. To say Kylie was tremendous would be the understatement of the century.

In her 3-hour presentation to the Court of Appeal, the Barrister pulled apart the Bowen Magistrates findings. She spoke decisively and eloquently about the climate crisis. I felt distraught that her comments such as “my client was trying to protect the thousands of species going extinct; to save the wet rainforests of the area that had never burnt before but which burnt down 3 months after his actions. To stop us going over tipping points which some science is saying we have already gone over.” How could these comments in this legal argument not cause the court, the city of Brisbane and the state of Queensland to just stop, everything they were doing until these problems were corrected? I teared up at the normalisation of the vast violence our love of money was reaping on the world.

The prosecutor spoke for less than an hour against my appeal to have the conviction quashed and trial reheard. He argued that I was a protestor seeking to use the courts time to gain infamy. I felt exposed and vulnerable, would the judge believe this? Is this how I come across? What is the Courier Mail journalist going to say about this? (Turns out, nothing, such is my infamy.)

The barrister met with me briefly after to say that she was pleased and felt confident we might have a win (but not too confident). I felt sad and tired though, so I went out for dinner with a friend, to a world that felt drenched with consumerism and business that had no place in the reality of species being wiped out in neighbouring forests from our suburbs and out of control methane fires tens of thousands of kilometres away in the Arctic tundra. Forces that were shaping a terrible future for my friends and the people in my life. For days after the phrase ”thousands of species going extinct” stuck in my heart and soul. How could this be so normal?

The outcome of the appeal isn’t yet known. If we win, I will likely have to go back to Bowen to re-run the trial. Hopefully, my lawyers will continue to help. What I’ve realised is that though I matter and my feelings matter, they are not the centre of the work I do. One of the outcomes of our modern world view is that we are too focused on our feelings and our own importance. What is important is that I have more wealth and power compared to almost everyone else in the world, and that I have felt led to lead a life based on the testimonies of simplicity, integrity, peace, community, equality and earthcare. Living these testimonies helps me to see my true self, beyond my immediate desires and feelings. I am one cell in the whole community, the entire ecosphere.

Outside the Bowen courthouse

Living in simplicity is difficult when, by winning the birth lotto, my life will be highly damaging and consuming. Or I could damage the ecosphere more in making enough money to buy land a house, water tanks and solar panels. My integrity is daily challenged by eating food shipped from thousands of kilometres away, using fossil fuels that destroy the environment. No matter how local or vegan I eat I am damaging my eco-community from my station in life (unless I work for lots of money to buy the land). Whenever I buy something, I pay taxes, 13percent of which goes directly to war or research and development for war that kills people who get in the way of my empire’s quest for more money and capital.

A big answer to these problems is community, sharing what we have. As I write this, I am in the home of a Friend who has opened her house to me for 3 months of free living. Having a quiet secure place to sleep has energised me to do more work at a refugee blockade and help with an antiwar campaign. How much good could we do if we sought to share what we have rather than to profiteer off of each other, how much good can we do for our whole eco-community when we embrace generosity and sharing, rather than hoarding and wealth accumulation?

My feelings of sadness, embitterment, anger, even joy and excitement at my work and life is unimportant next to the more crucial job of living out the concern I have felt upon my life, to live by the Friend’s testimonies. The testimonies help me to identify with who I truly am, not Greg Rolles, a person trying to make it in the modern economy, but a child of Creation, a cell in the web of the eco-community. Did I make a difference? Did I inspire you? Did I make the word limit? Will my labours under court cases and fines be worth it? At the end of my life and in the now, these are irrelevant questions.

Did I live out the testimonies with all of my heart, body and soul? Did I use justice as a sword on an unjust system and as comforting blanket on my enemies, troubled friends and my aching heart? When I saw where I was failing to live my testimonies, did I make integrity my priority rather than shrug and let distraction take over? Did I honestly confront my own position and use what I could for the benefit of all others in my community, or did I shirk because it meant discomfort and fear of what others thought?

This is the heart of injustice, be it the climate crisis or otherwise. Our failure to see beyond the bank accounts of ourselves and our immediate families. If we are called to the testimonies, let us use our resources for justice, let us share what we have so as many of us can work for peace full time as possible, let us be merciful and unflinching as we daily examine our lives in a time of climate crisis. Let us prioritise our calling and our place in eco-community above our distractions and our wealth, let us truly be Friends, to each other and to the wider friendship of our world. Let us loose our wings and fly as we were truly meant to.

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