We are all leaders: learning from Climate Camp 2008

The following article was included in our December 2009 enews. For the full article including graphics, check out that version.

We are all leaders: Learning from the Climate Camp – In July 2008, several hundred climate change activists gathered in Newcastle for Australia’s first climate camp. Anth and James supported the camp’s training program and facilitation team. Anthony Kelly’s draft article focuses on the decision-making processes during the week-long camp and the action during which 1000 people stopped coal trains: particularly the spokescouncils and action teams. We welcome feedback and comments.
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“We need to develop a different understanding of power – where people work with each other rather than seeking to control and command. And we need to find ways of relating to each other without hierarchy and leaders.”
– Doing it without Leaders – Seeds of Change (*1)

Australia’s first national Climate Camp, held in sight of the massive coal ports of Newcastle in July this year was without doubt one the best of the many nationally organised action camps held in Australia in the past few decades. This and other Climate Camps in the UK, Europe and the United States over the past few years have developed new and unique organising models and tactical innovations that are worth examining here.

Organised by a nationally dispersed network of organisers from a spectrum of climate action groups and organisations led by Rising Tide in Newcastle, the Australia’s Climate Camp attracted over 500 people and served as the catalyst for the largest direct actions against the coal industry yet seen in this country. The camp structure and logistics worked well and functioned for the six days. There was always great food available, there was always paper in the loos, and seven or eight marquees were often full of people in workshops, plenaries and meetings in the four days leading up to the mass actions. The stretched but still functioning organising team, made up of many local activists as well as interstate organisers, had spent months developing plans for the Sunday mass action well before the camp, which meant that activists arriving in Newcastle could focus on building our resources, planning and coordinating the action teams to make the mass action as effective as possible.

The media reported one thousand of us on the Sunday 13th July, it seemed a lot less, but together we stopped a significant section of the world’s largest coal port from operating. Despite 160-odd NSW police, water canon, horses and dogs along the coal train tracks, Action teams were able to work together, disperse when needed, act with their own autonomy within the larger action structure and successfully occupy and lock-on to the coal train at multiple points.

The action on the Sunday took place over perhaps two kilometers of train line. Most arrestable teams could not be seen by others. Each had their own support and goals, but each team was able to fulfill its part in the overall action plan, and each incursion, occupation, banner drop, lock-on, and arrest was celebrated as a collective victory, a dynamic rarely seen in other dispersed affinity group actions. The NSW Police were brutal as usual, overreacting to incursions past their cordon. Pain compliance holds, grabs, punches and assaults occurred in many of the 50 or so arrests, but many more were calmed down and de-roled by experienced activists, used to nervous and over-hyped cops.

Horses were used to contain the initial march along the railway track to the Carrington coal terminal and later to try and clear the street. However, specialised Action teams, (zombies and clowns) were tasked to slow them down so they couldn’t compress the march or push us forward too fast. Spreading out the march meant spreading out the police line and thereby maximizing the opportunities for arrestable teams to get past the police and onto the train. These action teams withstood hours of slowly moving in front of police horses, with the horses literally breathing down their necks, resisting the constant threats and orders from the riders, so that others could find places between the cordons to slip through.

Each report back from the Action teams that night was met with a round of thunderous applause at the Spokescouncil. The following day, Monday, again saw several lock-ons on coal loaders, rallies through Newcastle and banner drops, each again celebrated as a shared victory. Most of the arrestees received a $400 traffic penalty for their efforts with a few copping malicious damage. Arrestees were proud as punch and as pleased as possible with the outcome. Action teams were already fundraising and the camp deliberating about legal support strategies later that night. It soon became very evident how important the action team structure was in supporting the individual arrestees. Very few, if any, of the people arrested would not have had a pretty tight crew of friends and comrades around them.

The day’s disruption of that particular coal shipment was reported as the equivalent of taking every car off Australia’s roads for a day. Bloomberg reported that coal exports from Newcastle fell by 18% in the week of the camp (*2). The 7.30 Report on ABC stated that the battle lines in Australia’s climate change debate had been re-drawn, as they showed footage of Climate Camp activists being removed from the train. One of the strategic goals of the camp was to build and empower the direct action components of the still emergent climate movement in Australia. By all accounts heard at camp and since it achieved that. Locals and coal communities in the Hunter region expressed overwhelming support for the camp and the actions, designs and plans for many more are already being discussed, national direct action e-lists being set up and hundreds of people left with a renewed vigor to organise actions against coal infrastructure or related targets.

What are people saying about us?

Nick Aberle

Nick Aberle, Environment Victoria

Learning the theory and engaging with such practical implementation in such depth will definitely make me a more effective and successful campaigner and organiser. I’m looking forward to practicing my new skills in being more rigorous, thinking more strategically, and communicating more effectively. The strength of the bonds formed within the group has already strengthened the climate movement in Australia.
2014-05-10T21:42:00+00:00
Nick Aberle
Learning the theory and engaging with such practical implementation in such depth will definitely make me a more effective and successful campaigner and organiser. I’m looking forward to practicing my new skills in being more rigorous, thinking more strategically, and communicating more effectively. The strength of the bonds formed within the group has already strengthened...
alexandra

Alexandra Soderlund, Solar Citizens

The fellowship has managed to achieve that elusive duo of being both a broadening and deepening experience - complete with delicious food. Learning as much from the incredible and diverse participants as the amazing facilitators, the ten days of the first workshop have flown by. I feel like I’ve come a long way as an organiser (and dare I say a person?!) already, I’m excited and a little bit scared to see where I end up. 
2015-03-17T20:59:30+00:00
alexandra
The fellowship has managed to achieve that elusive duo of being both a broadening and deepening experience – complete with delicious food. Learning as much from the incredible and diverse participants as the amazing facilitators, the ten days of the first workshop have flown by. I feel like I’ve come a long way as an...
cherry

Cherry Muddle, Australian Marine Conservation Society

The Community Organising Fellowship has rooted in me a deeper sense of belonging to an intentional, international movement to create the positive changes we wish to see in society, environment, culture and climate. The program delivery is varied, fluid and always interesting. The strengths and highlights for me include learning through shared experience and critical analysis. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed forging strong connections and bonds between fellow organisers, facilitators and guest speakers.
2015-03-17T21:02:16+00:00
cherry
The Community Organising Fellowship has rooted in me a deeper sense of belonging to an intentional, international movement to create the positive changes we wish to see in society, environment, culture and climate. The program delivery is varied, fluid and always interesting. The strengths and highlights for me include learning through shared experience and critical...
John Edye

John Edye, March 2017

James and Fee... Thank you for your inspiring leadership, commitment and engagement. You are epic facilitators, and the first workshop was one of the best training experiences I have ever attended. I feel very privileged to be a participant and am looking forward to the next three. Experiencing such a high level of training and working with so many young, intelligent and professional organisers left me feeling a bit overwhelmed by my lack of experience but very optimistic about the future challenges we face, instead of the rather bleak and jaundiced view I came with. Thank you for your compassion and thoughtfulness and the incredible resources that were on our seats on the first day. It was and will be an incredible learning experience.
2017-03-28T12:18:24+00:00
John Edye
James and Fee… Thank you for your inspiring leadership, commitment and engagement. You are epic facilitators, and the first workshop was one of the best training experiences I have ever attended. I feel very privileged to be a participant and am looking forward to the next three. Experiencing such a high level of training and...
Jane Stabb

Jane Stabb, Community Organiser, Environment Victoria

The Community Organising Fellowship workshop was extraordinarily impactful for me. I had a chance to investigate the theory behind effective organising and campaigning tools that I can use in my practice every day but very rarely interrogate or reflect on.  I found new frameworks and structures that will improve my practice so much. I had the space and place to interrogate my campaign with the assistance of masters!  And I was given the opportunity to build relationships with leaders in my field, to be supported in my thinking by them and to support them by sharing our practice and experiences... 100% pure gold.
2014-05-23T16:45:53+00:00
Jane Stabb
The Community Organising Fellowship workshop was extraordinarily impactful for me. I had a chance to investigate the theory behind effective organising and campaigning tools that I can use in my practice every day but very rarely interrogate or reflect on.  I found new frameworks and structures that will improve my practice so much. I had...
isaac

Isaac Astill, Divestment Campaigner, 350.org Australia

It would take years of fumbling along for me to learn what the Fellowship has taught me in a few short months. I feel more powerful for it, and I’ve walked away with the ongoing skills and relationships I need to build a more powerful movement.
2015-03-17T19:37:41+00:00
isaac
It would take years of fumbling along for me to learn what the Fellowship has taught me in a few short months. I feel more powerful for it, and I’ve walked away with the ongoing skills and relationships I need to build a more powerful movement.
Six Degrees

Sam Robb, Six Degrees

When I’m amongst passionate and talented people, I always feel like our movement can be powerful. But after the last 10 days, I not only feel we can be powerful, I know we can. I know how we can be and that is a unique and invaluable gift. The quality and consideration of the facilitation and subject matter was astonishing, and there was a group wide acknowledgement of both an immense privilege of being a part of the cohort and a resounding responsibility to use and share what we felt and learnt.
2014-05-23T17:11:47+00:00
Six Degrees
When I’m amongst passionate and talented people, I always feel like our movement can be powerful. But after the last 10 days, I not only feel we can be powerful, I know we can. I know how we can be and that is a unique and invaluable gift. The quality and consideration of the facilitation...
clairevh

Claire Van Herpen, Environment Victoria

The Community Organising fellowship provides a positive and nurturing environment in which to learn and apply the practical skills required to effectively mobilise communities to create change. It's a great opportunity to learn from others in the environmental movement and provides space for collaboration and reflection.
2015-03-17T19:26:27+00:00
clairevh
The Community Organising fellowship provides a positive and nurturing environment in which to learn and apply the practical skills required to effectively mobilise communities to create change. It’s a great opportunity to learn from others in the environmental movement and provides space for collaboration and reflection.
kate

Kate Lardner, Doctors for the Environment Australia

During the Fellowship, I have embarked on an enormous learning curve that has resulted not only in exposure to concepts and skills, but knowledge of these things, through application of the teachings with leaders in their fields and the opportunity to be integrated into a real time campaign. I have been challenged creatively and analytically and been given the chance to create the openings and space to make my own opportunities arise.  
2015-03-17T20:53:26+00:00
kate
During the Fellowship, I have embarked on an enormous learning curve that has resulted not only in exposure to concepts and skills, but knowledge of these things, through application of the teachings with leaders in their fields and the opportunity to be integrated into a real time campaign. I have been challenged creatively and analytically and...
Emilie Carey

Emilie Carey, Solar Citizens


I really admired your facilitation skills. I learnt lots watching you guide us through the evening. I'll definitely be using lessons from last night. You're a total pro and I'm really grateful you're generous enough to share your knowledge.

2016-03-25T10:35:26+00:00
Emilie Carey
I really admired your facilitation skills. I learnt lots watching you guide us through the evening. I’ll definitely be using lessons from last night. You’re a total pro and I’m really grateful you’re generous enough to share your knowledge.