So-Called Australia: ‘Break Away From Break Free’ – A Critique of the Environmental NGO Model of Organizing Direct Action (PDF)



Two minutes after getting on a minibus headed for Newcastle, the person seated next to me tugged at their friend’s arm in mild distress.

“Noo, I forgot the selfie stick!”

Without putting any blame on this individual, this brief interaction had already captured the essence of this protest for me. Truthfully, I already had an idea of what it was going to be like – from past involvement in actions run by groups such as Direct Action Melbourne and, as well as from the communications hype in the lead-up. But I had gone on this trip to find out if my suspicions were warranted.

We were going to take part in a mass flotilla of kayaks which would block a shipping channel in Newcastle, home to the world’s largest coal port, preventing coal ships from leaving and entering. Signups happened online when the invitation was initially shared through’s email list and facebook promotions. Since then we had been kept in constant contact about logistics, shown inspirational videos and excitedly told about the well-known musicians and politicians who would be there on the day.

As we headed towards the Hume, the driver tried to break the ice by gauging everyone’s spirits onboard. “How are we all feeling this morning?”

“So happy!”, “Excited!”, came the replies.

“Yes… We’re creating history in a lot of ways this weekend, this is a world-wide movement…”

For many who went, Break Free was their first exposure to non-violent direct action (NVDA), and from what I gained, they came away with overwhelmingly positive impressions, keen to do it again. There was an incredible response. TOO many people wanted to be a part. There weren’t nearly enough kayaks to go around, even with extra reinforcements! It’s clear that there is a lot of energy, particularly amongst young people, for environmental protest beyond your average city rally. To illustrate this: it would have taken only a handful of people to block a train line; 70 people got arrested and charged anyway to make a point.

And what an incredible logistical feat it was. I want to highlight the amount of hard work that went into this, much of it unpaid. There is so much to organise, and those who did so should be proud. Just think about it: Transport. Insurance. Catering. Equipment. Media. Marquees. Accommodation. Press releases. Role co-ordinating. Local and international communication. Slideshows. Videography. Sourcing hundreds of kayaks. Legal consultation. Water safety. Artist bookings. Stage setup. Police liaisons. The list goes on.

But I still went away with a bad taste in my mouth. Now, I am not criticising what went on, per se. I am critiquing the movement from a structural point of view, attempting to illuminate a culture that revealed itself in various symptomatic phenomena and encounters I had over the weekend. Because we haven’t done enough of that self-critique, and organisations like are fast running away with the ball, becoming seen as the only vehicle through which to protest rampant environmental destruction. I want to challenge this notion, while pointing out many of the worrying trends I observed that weekend.

DOWNLOAD PDF: Break-Away-from-Break-Free1