My organisation, Artists and Writers For Peace and Justice, is starting a campaign to get the Warringah council to stop its plans to demolish the protesters’ camp at Newcastle’s “People’s Park”.
This park has been a place where people from all over the world, including Britain, gathered for street plays and musical demonstrations since 1946. This peaceful demonstration made the council responsible for it reflect on why its primary job is to serve the people of New South Wales. That process, launched in 2005 with over 30,000 public submissions, led to a plan that balanced the needs of pedestrians and cyclists with the traditional needs of public recreation.
A camp was set up by the Greens and others three years ago, holding space for performances and numerous meetings, workshops and stalls. They did their work in the park’s grass, on benches, inside its pagoda, on hospital bays, on underpasses and by fences. The council ignored their requests and dealt with them under the restrictive “safe” area regulations. At their first meeting, in 2012, the council sent an office manager for the police to explain that the makeshift “police station” allowed them to eject the protesters and they also caught the protesters committing “deliberate use of flammable materials and petrol”.
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We moved in at the end of 2016 and despite some clashes, our practices have been respectful of the park’s diverse ecosystem. We believe in talking to the council and we build alliances with local community groups.
Before an annual “use it or lose it” notice, we cleaned up rubbish and placed litter bins and bollards in the park. We perform a communal arts event throughout the year, which seeks to involve the public in the park and encourage them to engage with the history of the area. And during the colder months we call the park “Free Spring” and support a clothes line for the homeless there.
Activists have reported a rise in feral dogs and council police have been stationed in front of our camp entrance every time a bus or ambulance leaves.
Now, just before Christmas, the Warringah council plans to move people’s park and evict hundreds of people, some of whom are not able to leave anyway. If anything, they have improved the atmosphere in the park and the longer we have been there, the more they appreciate our value.
The council says it intends to demolish the makeshift police station, the underpasses to unlock the park from the underpass network, and a section of ground to make way for a supermarket. What we believe could be transformed into low-cost housing or businesses.
We believe the park can be used as a commemoration and space for the beating heart of Newcastle’s economic and social history. It is time for the council to stop playing games with “safe” areas and examine the whole park.
People’s Park is a space of active, therapeutic, public discourse, storytelling and arts that can be a catalyst for better conditions, a beacon for better corporate, public and community behaviour.
But before they demolish it, the council needs to make the people’s park as safe as possible. It does that by talking with the community groups, minimising the risk to protestors and removing the strictest legislation designed to curtail free speech.