During the recent federal election campaign, Pam Menzies organised her first protest at the age of 70. This is her account of the process.
When we arrive in Sydney’s Martin Place it’s sunny but windy. We’re here to prepare for a rally. Truckloads of men are jackhammering in the space we’ve booked and we haven’t a clue what to do next. It’s a whole new experience. I’m 70 and it’s the first protest I’ve ever organised.
Three weeks earlier, I’d said to my seasoned campaigner friend, Jan: ‘The issue that makes me cranky is the lack of political action on climate change. It’s the one thing I’m prepared to take a stand on.’
A week later she phones. ‘If we are going to do anything, we have to do it before the July election. After that no one will be listening. What do you say to 22 June?’
We decide to target grandparents and older people, as we think it’s time our age group got active about climate. If older people are willing to protest, politicians on both sides can’t say it’s a young person’s issue.
Jan fills in the rally permission form at her local police station and is surprised how easy it is. Neither of us has much idea about modern day protest strategies, so I ask for advice from young family members and their friends. They tell us we need to design a slogan, set up an online petition, email our friends, start a Facebook page, and above all have a photograph of ourselves taken. Apparently no one will be interested unless there’s a photo. We start with the photo as we find the rest challenging, though who knows why a photo of two grey-haired women is necessary.
As we only have two weeks, we need to move fast. John, my hobby-artist husband, finds an old painting canvas in the shed and whitewashes it. It’s a bit rough, but it will have to do. He paints our slogan: ‘THERE IS NO PLAN(ET) B’ which my daughter’s friend Margo who works in advertising has thought up. On the way back to Sydney we call into Jan’s, find a colouring maple as backdrop and Jan’s husband Robert photographs us with the sign. No time for attention to hair, makeup or clothes – we’re running a ‘what you see is what you get’ campaign.
The young, technically savvy set has directed us to start a petition and we see the point. But when I log on to change.org. I quail. This is going global; what if I mess it up? We’ve thought of a heading – ‘Grandparents For Action On Climate’ – and Robert has set up a Gmail account for us. I follow the instructions and am pleased when I manage to upload our maple tree picture and write a brief explanation about what we want from protesters and politicians. This online stuff is not too hard, I think. However, I realise I’ve only half done the job when an online-active friend emails and asks ‘Where’s the accompanying letter to send to politicians with petition names?’
Persuading friends and acquaintances to join us in Martin Place is next. We send emails to everyone we know and some respond positively. The Knitting Nanas group from the Southern Highlands are coming; Ali, from Robert’s choir, has agreed to lead us in the singing, and a small core group of friends have agreed to be there. Some friends who support us can’t come for a variety of reasons, but send positive messages and help us in other ways. However, there is a lot of silence in response to our barrage of emails. Have our age group lost the energy and hope for protesting?
Maybe I’m seeking answers for the lack of support when I venture into the Men’s Shed near my gym a week before the protest. Four men are working. One is using a ruler to carefully measure a piece of wood. There are chairs waiting for repair and a busy, convivial, under-control feel about the space.
‘What have you got there?’
‘A flyer. We’re holding a protest.’
‘Grandparents; we want immediate action on climate.’
‘I’m more interested in what’s going to happen to my super.’
‘But, you must care about the climate especially for your grandchildren.’
‘What can I do about it?’
‘Tim Flannery has positive ideas in his new book and lists alternative energy sources.’
‘Oh, him. What would he know about it?’
‘Oh well. I’d better get out of your way and let you get on with your work.’
‘Give it to me, I’ll put it up.’
Why did I go in there? ‘When older men don’t know the answer they stonewall to close down discussion,’ suggests my husband.
Jan and I continue, with anxiety rising. We need a speaker with credentials and we’re relieved when Michael Mobbs agrees. He is known as ‘the off-grid guy’ and has written books on sustainable housing.
With media, though, on the whole, there’s a big fat silence. I write to ABC TV, Seven, Nine and ABC Radio – nothing, though Lauren Strode from Southern Highlands News is interested and Elizabeth Farrelly, a journalist with Fairfax Press, writes a supportive email. One day, just before the rally, I walk past Sydney’s Supreme Court and see vans humming. They’re from all the major television channels. Men are busy with cables, satellite dishes are swishing this way and that picking up signals and I almost dare to hand out my protest flyer, though know it would be pointless. I find out later the story they’re covering is Roger Rogerson’s sentencing.
It’s the appointed day and we need to work out how to begin. Michael Mobbs suggests I ask the jackhammering workers if they will take their lunch break at 12. They’re quite happy about that and amble to the footpath to watch the taxi drivers who are driving past and blowing their horns along Macquarie Street. This is happening to support the protest for better conditions for cabbies which is going on outside NSW State Parliament House across the road. We realise we’re in the middle of protest central: groups of police are there, the taxi drive-past is slowing traffic and we decide to use the mood to get going. Before we do, two policemen come to check our credentials and little do they know it, they’ve made our day. We can call ourselves a bone fide protest now! With Bill McKibben’s American campaign against the Keystone XL pipeline in mind I’m hoping for drama; however, these men are young and benign, saying they wished all protesters were like us.
There are fifty of us by now and we shelter next to the Reserve Bank in the sun and mostly out of the wind. We check out each other’s posters. Anna’s ‘No Coal Mining’ – created by husband John Bell – has a theatrical flair to it. We’re impressed by Lyn’s large banner which calls on us to be ‘Custodians’ and ‘Protect Our Land, Water and Future’.
Using the microphone I welcome supporters reminding them of Elizabeth Farrelly’s words, ‘You can’t say survival is a left-wing issue when the Queen, Pope and John Hewson all warn of climate change catastrophe.’ Jan speaks brilliantly on exactly what’s facing us if we don’t act now. It’s time for Ali to lead us in the singing along to the tune of Bob Dylan’s ‘Blowing in the Wind’ with words altered by Jan for our purpose:
How many seas must a seagull sail
Before she sleeps in clean sand
How many plastic bags will be sold
Before they’re forever banned
We are in the middle of the lunch-munching crowd by now singing about what we strongly believe – it’s exhilarating. Many see the singing as the highlight of the protest. We’re on a roll and after another of song borrowed from Dylan, ‘The Times They are a-Changin’, Jill suggests we bus down to Canberra and sing to our federal politicians. Our protest is gaining momentum; we know why we’re here. Michael Mobbs congratulates us on our courage, many having never done anything like this before. In his speech he draws an analogy between sending our children to World War I and sending them into the future of climate change catastrophe.
The police are hovering. One wants to know how long we’ll be protesting and asks for my details: date of birth, phone number, etc. I say she’ll have to wait as I need to listen because as the MC I need to respond. ‘Of course’, she says. ‘I’ll come back later.’
Another day at protest central is finished. Barristers spill out of the courts for their lunch break and over the road, the cabbies disperse with their placards. A friend arrives sorry to have missed the singing. We pack up our placards, activated now. There’s a huge climate change rally on Sunday and we’ll be there, never too old to protest.
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