By Melanie Vautier
I recently found myself in Dunedin for the first time in a decade. It was wonderful to rediscover the city- not for the usual touristy things, but as an anti-coal advocate; there to support, among other things, the blockade at the Minerals Forum. The Forum was a conference involving promoting the expansion of coal in NZ. A (wonderfully named) COALition of activist groups including Coal Action Network Aotearoa had gotten together to tell the delegates exactly how unwelcome they were in their city.
We headed down in the darkness, where already at 6am delegates were scurrying into the building- three hours early, just to avoid us! Woohoo. Security had been standing there all night- it was about time we broke up the monotony.
Groups of dozens stood arm in arm, blocking a rumoured thirty-something entryways. There was an almost constant flow of support people coming around offering apples, water, snacks; others stopped by with various musical instruments for some entertainment or a singalong, still more raced around with walkie talkies saying where more people were needed. There was a chill tent with beanbags, there was about four thousand signs and banners, there was an appointed chef for a vegan BBQ. Every now and then things got intense as the delegates, generally alongside police but not necessarily, tried to barge their way through. We’d link arms just as staunchly as we possibly could, stand our ground, frenetic chants would well up of “We’re non-violent, how about you?” and we made it really, really difficult for them to get in.
We had everyone from high school students to retirees- none of whom shied away from the frontline. All ages, genders and backgrounds, linking up and singing songs. Our diversity was a stark contrast to the huddle of delegates we blocked- a sea of grey hair. In movie war scenes I always wonder how you can tell amongst the chaos who is a goodie and who is a baddie. In a blockade, it’s easy: baddies wear suits, protesters wear puffer jackets or colourful leggings or penguin onesies. Some protesters did wear suits, but they also all wore beanies; so in any potential times of confusion you can just check heads for beanies and you could be fairly confident who you were dealing with. And if you find yourself not on the side of the colourful leggings and the penguin indiscriminately giving out free hugs, you really have to question some life decisions.
I have to acknowledge the fantastic group of people involved in the blockade. That must be one of the most universally compassionate and sensitive environments I have ever encountered. They manage to successfully have no hierarchy, which baffled some people who wanted to speak to our ‘leader.’ Everyone brought their own vibes and it became an amazing collaborative spectacle. From harmonicas to hula hoopers, from hands glued to doors to those who stood nearby with signs and moral support, from the videographers and live streamers to the mystery people who pulled off a spectacular banner drop; it felt like one big amazing diverse organism, the sum so much more than its parts.
We kept a lot of them out for most of the morning, and when the last ones got through we dropped our positions, picked up various implements, and had ourselves a little party making as much noise as we could!
Unbeknownst to us, the mayor inside was bravely telling a room full of miners that he was on our side: “the people outside those doors are expressing the overwhelming view of this community and my Council.” I don’t think they’ll be in a hurry to host a mining conference in Dunedin again anytime soon.
So I spent four days in Dunedin, saw very little of the city, but would not have it any other way. Standing there in the early morning darkness, linking arms with strangers, singing Te Aroha – I felt in my bones there was nowhere I’d rather be. *
*Of course, really, I’d rather there wasn’t a climate emergency and I could just go down and see the penguins; but given the state of things- confronting the mining industry was pretty satisfying too…!
**I have also just about recovered from my lingering instinct to block the path of any suited man I see; which has not been ideal in the streets of Wellington.