Adani has started transporting coal from its infamous Carmichael mine. However, this has not stopped the resistance to the Adani Group’s climate-wrecking projects in Queensland. On the contrary, over the past week, protests have stepped up. News reports have brought images of these daring actions to the general public but often don’t communicate how it feels to be there on the ground. To look at the human side of one of these protests, AdaniWatch spoke to Georgie Toner, a 27-year-old post-graduate student from Brisbane who helped stop a huge Adani coal train on 30 November 2021.
Georgie was woken at 4 am by loud clanging noises.
‘There’s a train! There’s a train!’
She scrambled in the back of her van to gather the things she needed to ‘lock on’. She and her friends were about to confront a locomotive towing at least 30 carriages from Adani’s Carmichael mine to the coast. The cargo was coal and this was one of several test-runs for trains travelling on a brand new railway.
The protest crew had been on alert for a train for some time but this one had somehow escaped the attention of their monitors. It was spotted almost by chance by one of the veterans of Camp Binbee. The loud noise that had awoken Georgie was the warning gong, used in situations of extreme urgency.
Georgie drove as part of a group of vehicles attempting to intercept the train. There was some frantic back and forth in the dark until the train’s location was determined. Fortuitously, given the train’s intended journey of hundreds of kilometres, it was intercepted only about 10 minutes’ drive from the camp.
‘Divine intervention’, laughed Georgie.
Two protesters attached themselves to the train tracks well ahead of the train. Meanwhile, the rail-transport company, Aurizon, had been alerted.
By the time Georgie arrived on the scene, the train had stopped, other protesters had attached themselves to the back carriage of the train, and police were in attendance. They stopped the car she was in and searched it for ‘dangerous attachment devices’ – the equipment used by protesters for locking on to coal-industry infrastructure. In Queensland, special legislation has deemed that the use of such tools is a criminal offence. No devices were found so Georgie’s car was turned away.
She tried to find another way to access the train. It was not long after sunrise but the temperature was already pushing 30 degrees Celsius. The country through which she travelled was typical of central Queensland – flat and arid with scattered trees. Recent rain had added a thin greenery to the ground but the creek beds were dry. Eventually, Georgie parked near one of these creeks which she and her companion were able to follow back towards the still stationary train. The creek bed was deep enough for them to scurry below the eye-line of police and train workers.
Eventually they had to make a mad dash in the open across fallen trees to the rail corridor. Police and an Aurizon employee were in view so the two campaigners took cover and waited until the coast was clear before sprinting across two vacant railway tracks to the train.
‘Obviously the adrenaline is just pumping,’ Georgie said. ‘Definitely a high-pressure situation and not pleasant on the nervous system.’
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She attached herself to the back of a carriage while her companion climbed and entered it from the top, lowering himself on to a pile of coal. This was just one of at least 30 carriages, many of which were full of coal. Being a test run, there were also many that were empty. The train was too long to be able to see either its front or back from the carriage to which Georgie was attached.
She was well prepared for a long wait, with a water container, sunscreen, aspirin and gastro-salts. These are essential items for people undertaking potentially drawn-out protests under the hot Queensland sun. They know that once they’re locked on, they’re on their own.
The first police officer to arrive happened to be the one who had searched the vehicle she had travelled in for a lock-on device. He was not pleased to now find her locked on to the train. Others arrived and some none-too-subtle verbal means were used to persuade Georgie to withdraw.
‘This is going to be really unpleasant,’ said an officer, referring to the process of cutting through the metal attaching her to the train. ‘The guys coming to cut you off aren’t as nice as we are.’
Georgie had undertaken training in ‘non-violent action’, an essential prerequisite in all major organised direct-action protests since the Franklin Blockade of 1982-83. The objective is to prepare protesters for the tense situations that they will encounter. The focus is on staying calm and disciplined. Role-plays allow participants to rehearse for the ways in which police, workers and media will react to a protest. In Georgie’s case, she knew to be wary of things the police said.
‘There’s a lot of truth-telling about what people have faced in the past and what we can expect’, she said later. ‘Basically, the message is not to trust anything the police say.’ Police will offer all sorts of assurances when they attempt to negotiate a speedy conclusion to a protest and these are not always honoured. Georgie stood her ground.
Eventually, the ‘cut crew’ arrived. They were well-practised in the art of detaching people from machines. First they placed a thick, fire-proof blanket over most of Georgie’s body. A protective sheath covered part of her arm. A fire-retardant chemical was applied to some of her clothing. The officers then set to work with a battery-operated angle-grinder. The sparks literally flew.
‘It’s pretty intense, knowing that they’re cutting right next to your arm,’ she said. The process took about 10 minutes.
Later, Georgie estimated that she had been in place on the back of the coal carriage for about an hour. A much longer wait was in store for her in police custody. First, there was an hour and half in the back of a paddy wagon parked near the train. Then there was the long drive to Bowen. Finally, she was kept for six and a half hours in the watchhouse, a period of confinement she regarded as completely unnecessary. Other participants in the protest were held there even longer. Meanwhile, the train remained stationary, as the other people who had been part of the action were dealt with one by one.
The cell where Georgie was kept had a speaker from which radio broadcasts could be heard. Three buttons gave inmates a choice of program.
‘After a while, I turned the music up and had my own little dance party,’ she said.
Georgie was charged with four offences, including ‘use of a dangerous attachment device’ and ‘obstructing a railway’. If found guilty, she faces a sentence of up to two years in prison. They took her photo, fingerprints and DNA. Her hearing comes up in mid-December. In the meantime, she is prohibited from approaching infrastructure owned by Adani or Aurizon and cannot return to Camp Binbee. The hearing will occur in Bowen. Georgie has her van for transport but other arrestees have found themselves virtually stranded in central Queensland, reliant on the few dedicated supporters there might be in the local area.
‘When we got out of the watchhouse, there’s a guy in the street yelling GO ADANI at us,’ Georgie said, in reference to the general attitude of Bowen locals to protesters.
Meanwhile, the coal train had resumed its journey to the Adani port on the coast, symbolising the system of which it is a part – a juggernaut speeding its way to a climate disaster. For many people, this might be an abstraction. But there was nothing abstract about the fast-moving mass of metal confronted by Georgie and her friends in the middle of the arid expanse of central Queensland.
‘Somehow you come into your centre and, I guess, for me it’s about holding a really strong vision for the future, and really holding that in my heart the whole time I’m there,’ she said.