Undimmed by arrests, anger and claims of counterproductive tactics, the Wellington-based climate activists are determined to keep disrupting roads. Toby Manhire joins an introductory meeting.
‘Welcome, everyone. Would you like to put your cameras on, if you’re able to? It’s nice to see everyone’s faces.” Those faces hardly reveal a rogue’s gallery. It could be a bridge club, a pottery enthusiasts’ AGM. They range from 20-somethings to grandparents, 13 all up. “Acknowledging all of your courage for turning up to face the difficulties of the climate crisis,” says the Restore Passenger Rail organiser. “And acknowledging and welcoming diversity here. Some people who are longtime activists, some people who are dipping their toes in the water for the first time. It’s really wonderful.”
We’re at “Climate Crisis & Civil Resistance”, an introductory meeting run by the group that has mounted a series of protests obstructing Wellington roads, halting traffic and making a lot of people really, really furious. The session description on the Zoom call: “REFUSE TO BE A BYSTANDER AND TAKE ACTION!”
I’ve joined as an observer, having undertaken not to name any of the participants involved. Some I recognise from photographs of the protest action. At least a couple have been arrested for their roles in the disruption, signature characteristics of which include banners emblazoned with “Restore Passenger Rail” and the gluing of hands to roads.
In two bursts of activity in October and again across the last fortnight, RPR supporters have attached themselves – literally – to state highway on-ramps, to Vivian Street and Transmission Gully, to Adelaide Road and the Terrace; they’ve scaled motorway gantries and the mouth of Mt Victoria tunnel. Yesterday, the target was Glenmore Street, by the Karori tunnel.
On almost every occasion, traffic has been halted for hours, prompting waves of indignation and raw fury. Police have mobilised in response, warning that the activists’ approach carries the risk of serious injury or death. A number of protesters have charges before the courts. Some could face prison sentences.
I’m curious about who is willing to go to such lengths in the cause of passenger rail, about the tactical rationale. I’m hoping to get a sense of how they feel about the political and public response, especially the rejoinder that the approach is counterproductive to the cause. And to hear the pitch: what is being said to recruit new people to stick themselves to tarmac?
Following the opening remarks we’re divided into three breakout groups. Ours includes a pair who have been involved in the actions over recent weeks. One, a retiree, says: “It’s been really busy. Quite full on. But also very valuable.” Another is “semi-involved”; he’s been following the actions but hasn’t taken part directly.
Then there’s a young woman who recently moved to New Zealand. “Sorry if you can hear some noise in the background, I’m babysitting for my cousins. They’re a bit enthusiastic.” She’s been involved in the Extinction Rebellion movement overseas. “I was really, really inspired by how successful the tactics of nonviolent direct action have been. In the UK, it’s been enormously, enormously successful in increasing awareness of the climate crisis as a major issue … It’s amazing. You see activists getting interviewed by Piers Morgan and stuff now. It just would never have happened even five years ago.”
Extinction Rebellion – or XR – made an impact in many parts of the world, New Zealand included, when it burst into public view at the end of the last decade. It was a forerunner and inspiration to groups such as Restore Passenger Rail, “shock tactics” born of exasperation. A mindset voiced by one RPR protester, Rachael Andrews, after she was arrested in October: “We’re the alarm that wakes you from sleep because your house is on fire.”
RPR is a member of the “A22 Network”, an international group of “connected projects engaged in a mad dash to try and save humanity”. In a manifesto-of-sorts, A22 describes itself as “the Last Generation of the old world.” On tactics: “We commit to mass civil disobedience … We are open and nonviolent. We are Care and we are Freedom. We will accept the consequences of our actions and look our destiny directly in the eye.”
While the overarching mission is shared, the targets are as varied as the degree of bombast. The German A22 climate activists Letzte Generation, for example, went so far as to sabotage fuel pipelines across the country. It ultimately abandoned that approach, owing to a lack of media coverage, opting to revert to road-blocking tactics similar to RPR. To their most fervid determined supporters, there is a near-religious zeal, embodied in the A22 mantra, “While there remains breath in our bodies we will not stop. This is our life now.” To their most committed disparagers, they are “climate cultists”, “hypocrites inflicting carnage” and “eco-loons”.
The emergence of “supercharged climate activism” has spurred academic studies and inspired a new, controversial British bill, branded draconian and undemocratic by critics, cracking down on disruptive protests. A UK-based New Zealander, Morgan Trowland, was last week sentenced to prison for three years under the law. Trowland had been one of a pair of activists from Just Stop Oil, a member of the A22 network, who scaled the Queen Elizabeth II bridge east of London, shutting it to traffic for around 36 hours.
A form of legislative crackdown is favoured in New Zealand, too, by National transport spokesperson Simeon Brown. He has placed in the ballot a member’s bill that would create a new criminal offence of obstructing State Highways and other major roads, tunnels and bridges.
Back in the main room at the RPR meeting, we’re introduced to the lead speaker. “She has been active in the peace and climate justice movements. She’s a mum. She’s a nana. She’s a community builder dedicated to non-violence and radical imagination.”
She begins: “I want to acknowledge the people of Pōneke who have been disrupted these past two weeks. I personally really don’t enjoy doing this. I feel somewhat dismayed that it’s come to this type of tactic, to be honest. But after all the petitions and the submissions and the marches that I’ve been on, emissions are still going up, and the window that we have to turn things around is pretty rapidly closing.”
The RPR demands are set out. “Pretty simple, really. Restoring a nationwide passenger rail system between Northland and Invercargill and lots of places in between. Our second demand is that the government makes the current half price [initiative] on public transport totally free and permanently free. But this campaign is actually also about something much bigger than rail and public transport … We sit on the road because we’re in a climate emergency.”
IPCC reports, peer-reviewed research and climate scientists’ warnings are all cited. It points overwhelmingly to the need for more profound and urgent action, she says. “But life is carrying on around us pretty much as normal, and it feels like no one’s panicking.” She says: “Organised collective action works. Organised, peaceful civil resistance can change history.” She points to women’s suffrage and New Zealand’s nuclear-free movement, to 1960s civil rights activism in the US.
The current cause, she argues, is one that could draw inspiration from the Freedom Riders, who “broke the world”. “Those 18 students inspired thousands of people and changed the course of history. Thirteen people, we have power. Don’t believe that we don’t. Facing the endgame for humanity, the climate crisis isn’t the same as what the Freedom Riders faced – they endured daily overt racial violence. But like them we can’t afford not to act.”
To RPR’s detractors, such comparisons are absurd, deluded, self-aggrandising; slogans from a group that takes extreme steps in the absence of mass participation. Simeon Brown has condemned “reckless idiots” who “put their cause back a long way”. The minister for transport, Michael Wood, agrees. He has condemned their tactics as “deplorable” and “idiotic”. Though he agreed to a meeting with the group after protest action subsided in December, that came to nothing. RPR spokesperson Rosemary Penwarden called it “congenial” but “unproductive”.
Last week, the prime minister, Chris Hipkins, told media: “I just think whatever point they’re trying to make, they’re not making it. All they are doing is causing massive disruption to people [and] that comes with a financial cost often for people that can’t actually afford it. It’s just simply irresponsible and idiotic.”
Another critic is Tory Whanau, Wellington’s Green-endorsed mayor, elected with a strong climate-focused mandate. Following the Adelaide Road disruption on April 20, Whanau ruled out meeting with the group. “They have not moved forward in good faith, they have disrupted Wellingtonians, they have disrupted the lives of normal people instead of the government’s,” she told Newstalk ZB. “I need to emphasise, I support peaceful protest, but this is not the way to do it. I will not meet with them.” She, too, has called for tougher consequences for those who take part.
More piercing than any politician’s censure, however, are those from the public. One bus passenger was reported to have remonstrated yesterday morning with protesters glued to the road on Glenmore Street, saying they were preventing him from visiting a daughter in hospital who was undergoing chemotherapy treatment.
If such sentiments risk tipping RPR, like similar groups around the world, into pariah status, they are not indifferent to perception. It underpins, for example, the choice of cause. Whether or not it might be a most practical game-changer on emissions, the restoration of passenger rail has an accommodating, nostalgic, folksy quality; a clarion call much less intimidating label than, say, “Extinction Rebellion”. “It’s important that our demands are popular,” the lead speaker says. “We know from polls that restoring passenger rail and free public transport are both extremely popular and people want this to happen.”
At root, however, the answer to all the objections above is a resolve that other options have been exhausted. The rallying cry to the virtual meeting is this: “We’re done with things like creating nice, polite petitions. We’ve tried that, and it doesn’t work fast enough. We’ve also done things like protest marches and occupations. We’ve learned that you can do it for a day and the government and the media might notice [then] the next day they just go right back to business as usual and forget about the thing you were asking. To win we need to be impossible to ignore.”
RPR counted the October experience, she says, a roaring success. “By blocking motorways in Wellington six times over three weeks, we got more media coverage than any climate or environmental campaign has managed to get over a three-week period.” Sure, she says, “lots of people hate Restore Passenger Rail. But actually that doesn’t matter. We don’t need everybody to sit on the road. We just need a few people. We need you. We don’t need everyone to like us. All we need is to get our highly popular demands to be impossible to ignore.”
Rounding out the pitch, she says: “We really hate doing it. We hate inconveniencing people. I’d personally rather be playing with my grandchildren or digging around in my garden or pretty much doing anything else. But I’m going to ask you now to think about the disruption caused to those hundreds of people that were late for work or appointments. Just think of the inconvenience to their lives and the stress they felt. That’s real. That matters. It really matters to me. Now think about the inconvenience of those hit by Cyclone Gabrielle … streets washed away, whole farms washed away, houses hit by landslides. Eleven people died.”
She invokes other climate-accelerated or exacerbated weather events in New Zealand and around the world. “Let’s remember the people of Pakistan who lost everything last year, nearly 33 million displaced by climate induced flooding. Over 1,000 people died. So many others around the world have been suffering and dying due to the breakdown of our climate systems. Our disruption on the motorways really is nothing in comparison. But it’s just enough to show the seriousness of the crisis to be impossible to ignore.”
She says: “People will hate our methods that will agree with our message. And that’s the most important thing, right? It’s not to be liked. It’s to be effective. Because right now, everything we love is on the line. In 10 years’ time, maybe we’ll know whether we’ve gone past the climate tipping point. If we’ve failed, we’ll be living through the collapse of human civilisation. And we’ll know what part we played.
“And I’ll leave you with one question. In 10 years, do you want to be one of those who will look back on this moment, wishing that they’d taken action? Or do you want to join us today?”
As the clock ticks past the hour, the floor is opened to others in the group. A handful explain how they ended up curious enough to join the meeting. A woman from Christchurch describes how she’d joined climate groups, “made the submissions and signed the hundreds of petitions, did the climate marches and went to rallies at parliament and drastically cut my own kind of emissions in terms of all the personal changes”.
She says: “I’ve been doing this stuff for 20 years. Twenty years. And it just blows my mind that we’re not doing anything. This is the most well researched, well predicted, you know, absolute clusterfuck that humanity’s ever faced and we’re not listening to the people telling the truth.” She was a “rule follower” by nature. She worried about “the disruption we cause”.
But, she said, her voice cracking, “I feel like I’ve tried everything else. So that’s why I’m desperate enough to support this. I didn’t mean to get this emotional. But, yeah, I, my partner and I, decided not to have children because of the world that we’re bringing them in. But now we both feel like we have to do everything that we possibly can.”
After 10 seconds or so of silence, she adds: “Just for the record, I haven’t yet had the courage to actually sit on the road and get arrested. But I might just get desperate enough to, so thank you to all of those who have got that courage, because it’s not something that anyone takes lightly.”
Towards the end of the meeting, participants are invited to “come to Wellington and join in some action”, beginning with training for nonviolent direct action training. “Everyone who takes part in an action with Restore Passenger Rail has training to be safe,” she says, “And we keep each other safe. And we are 100% nonviolent, and present in what we’re doing.” There are other roles for people who aren’t up for that, she says.
A few days later an RPR volunteer telephones to follow up. She’s a supporter but her line of work means she’s “not arrestable”, so she helps in ways that don’t involve roads and glue. How does she feel about the backlash, especially from those who say they support the cause but consider the tactics counterproductive? “I’ve been grappling with that,” she says. “I’m not someone who likes pissing people off. But it’s got to the point, for me, where we have to piss people off. You know, these are gentle people. And I just so admire that they’re literally putting their bodies on the line.”