Protesters in Kayaks Shut Down the World's Largest Coal Port This Weekend

The Sunday protest planned to block Newcastle harbor with a flotilla of around 100 kayaks and a few hundred people, but they got around 200 kayaks and 2,000 people.
May 9, 2016, 12:00am

Newcastle, on Australia's east coast, is home to the world's largest coal port. Despite a steady decline in prices over the last five years, record quantities of thermal and coking coal are still dug out of the Hunter Valley and exported to India, Korea, and China, via Newcastle.

While the Australian government claims to be making bold moves in the fight against climate change, this mass exportation of carbon dwarfs the country's domestic emissions output, making Newcastle a fairly obvious target for climate activism. Anti-coal protests happen here every year, but on Sunday May 8—Mother's Day—350.org arranged what turned out to be the port's largest protest ever.

While protesters in kayaks filled the port, the beach filled with families and BBQs. All photos by the author

Dubbed Break Free from Fossil Fuels, Sunday's anti-coal protesters planned to block the port with a flotilla of 100 kayaks, but the turnout was much larger.

I arrived Sunday morning to find some bored-looking port employees in high-vis milling around, waiting for the cops to arrive. I stood on a railway overpass, from where I could see three activists who had locked themselves to a coal loader. I waved to the closest one, a girl named Mandy, who smiled back. From below, she explained why she was protesting.

"It's Mother's Day, and I'm terrified to have kids, because in twenty-six years time—when they are my age—I don't know what the world is going to be like. If we keep going the way we're going now, spewing fossil fuels into the atmosphere, I don't think I will be able to protect my kid from that."

Mandy had been sitting there for a few hours and seemed grateful to see someone who would talk. We chatted about what she had for breakfast (fruit salad and toast) and how she'd taken Gastro-Stop, so she wouldn't need a toilet break.

Not long after, some police officers arrived, removing Mandy's lock-on equipment with angle grinders before arresting her. Since she and another girl had also turned off the coal loaders, they were each charged with malicious damage as well trespassing.

Afterward, I headed to Newcastle harbor, where around 2,000 people were bobbing around in kayaks on the shipping lane. There were around 200 kayaks in the water, and the beach was packed. The vibe was much lighter, with a huge barbecue, live music, and a range of chants all themed around the evils of coal. The port authorities had already decided to ban ships from the port during the protest, so the blockade had become more a symbol of dispute rather than an act.

Around lunchtime, Greens leader Richard Di Natale appeared and held a press conference on the beach. He was in the middle of talking about the election, which had just been announced for July 2, when Ash Grunwald and Rob Hirst started jamming on a yacht just off the beach.

It was awkward to watch his speech be drowned by the music, but Di Natale kept talking unperturbed. Local Greens supporters smiled politely as the reporters turned from the speech to Grunwald.

While all this was happening, I got a message from someone at another protest happening nearby on the Hunter River railway bridge, which usually brings block coal loaders into the port. Around 60 people had occupied the bridge, jamming up the railway network.

Kate Gunningham, a protester who'd been lying on the tracks, told me she was a bit nervous about heights and needed to pee, so she got down. Among the protesters were mothers and children, a 94-year-old war veteran who was later arrested, and some women dressed as climate angels.

"We're the average citizens, not some rat-bag group of people," Gunningham said. "We represent society at large."

Over the course of the day, 66 people were arrested, most of them from the railway bridge. At Mayfield, a woman was arrested for climbing the mooring lines to a bulk carrier coal ship, while another guy was arrested for attaching himself to a ship loader. At Kooragang Island another man was arrested for operating a drone. The Newcastle Herald dutifully circulated this info online.

Toward the end of the day, I went back to the harbor to catch the final speeches. One of the organizers deemed the day a success, acknowledging that the protesters had successfully blocked coal ships from leaving the port. On the theme of Mother's Day, she told the crowd how her mom had been arrested at the railway bridge. She said she was really proud of her and everyone cheered.

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