June Norman was a good girl who always did what she was told. But all that changed when she hit her 60s. Now the 76-year-old great-grandmother is a convicted criminal who is using her age as a weapon to influence environmental and social change, Selise McLaggan writes.
‘It’s usually not a good idea to plead guilty,’ says June Norman. The 77-year-old ‘grey activist’, mother, grandmother and great-grandmother should know. She’s been arrested four times and convicted once. She’s willingly put herself in the range of live fire, walked over 8000 kilometres in protest throughout Australia and Europe, and been honoured by the UN.
But June wasn’t always an activist. ‘I got divorced when I was 50,’ she explains. ‘That was a very, very big step because I was married extremely young. I didn’t have an education. I had been brought up by my grandmother who said women were not to be educated, they were to get married and have children.’
June effectively ‘did as she was told’; married, had five children and stayed home to look after them. Though she waitressed at night and ran a family daycare from her home, she didn’t enter the workplace until her late 40s. June says her divorce was pretty devastating but she found a job and her childhood dream of working in a third world country was rekindled. In her early 60s, June went to East Timor as a volunteer with Palms Australia. She was there for three and a half years.
‘I started learning the history of East Timor and the part our government played in what happened to them. I was just devastated. It really woke me up because I was always told, ‘the government knows what they’re doing. You’re uneducated. You’re a female. You don’t know. You don’t need to get involved.’ And I believed it.’ At the end of her time in Timor, June was a changed person.
Her first arrest came at the Talisman Sabre War Games (a major Australian and United States military training exercise) in Rockhampton. ‘I was so incensed that they’d even consider calling war a game,’ remarks June.
‘In 2005 [American President George] Bush and [Prime Minister John] Howard made an agreement to bring 20,000 US military out here to train our military to be the aggressors in the war, whereas we had always been the peacekeepers,’ she explains.
‘I’ve never seen a war but I was there picking up the pieces later and all I could think is, this is bringing us into a war, these type of things, and I didn’t want my grandchildren to ever go through what the Timorese children went through.’
The games were also illegally bringing depleted uranium into Australia, so June joined the Friends of the Earth, an organisation she still volunteers for, in the anti-nuclear and peace movement. At a demonstration, she was charged by Police with refusing a direction to move and given a three-month good behaviour bond.
At the next games, two years later, June and three male protestors broke into the grounds at 6am. Under the Australian Constitution, it’s illegal for live firing to occur while civilians are in the area. The plan was to stay on site as long as they could, while someone in the Greens Party brought it up in parliament.
Once the government knew there were civilians present, they would have to stop the live firing. It took two days for the firing to cease. The protestors thought they would have been ‘hauled out by the scruff of the neck in under 24 hours.’
Instead, four days later, the military still hadn’t located them. By that point June and her companions were running out of food – ‘It was wet. It was freezing cold. And we hadn’t expected to be there so long,’ she says. ‘So we walked out onto their airstrip and they found us.’
June was charged with trespassing on military grounds by a ‘very angry judge, with nobody representing us and none of us experienced enough to fight it.’ This time however, the arrest did lead to a conviction.
June’s next arrest earned her the honour of being the first person to be arrested for protesting against Coal Seam Gas in Australia. In 2011, she was in Tara, Queensland, with Friends of the Earth, running non-violent, direct action workshops for Lock The Gate. While blocking the gate of the coal seam gas company, media helicopters arrived, just as a semi-trailer pulled up with big earth moving equipment on the back.
Of the 20 protestors present, Lock the Gate president Drew Hutton approached June. ‘He came to me and said, ‘the TV crews are here, there’s a big truck there, we feel this is the time to get somebody arrested. We only want one person, and we think it should be you,’ June laughs. ‘He knew me, that I wouldn’t be freaked out by it. And it was a tactical response. Most of the young ones there, if they’ve got dreadlocks or tattoos or pierced ears, they’re wiped out. They’re just seen as no good dole bludgers, [that] type of thing.’
But 70-year-old June Norman commanded respect. She was again charged by Police with refusing a direction to move.
Her most recent arrest was for disobeying a direct order and resisting arrest, as part of the Climate Change Angels protesting in Pilliga. She was issued a 12-month good behaviour bond and had to pay costs of about $250.
While she has no intention of stopping, June says she’s become selective these days. ‘I don’t intend to get arrested all the time for just anything.’ And recently her arrests have been tempered with recognition for her acts. In addition to receiving a United Nations Association Queensland Community Award in 2014, June was also awarded the Roy Boylan Award for Long-Term Commitment to Justice and Peace at Home and Abroad, by Palms in 2015. Last year she received the WILPF Queensland Peacewomen award.
On the benefits of ageing, June says along with the respect it commands, it’s the freedom. ‘I have the freedom to go and do whatever I want, whenever I want,’ she says. ‘I’ve never ever had a lot of money. We’ve always lived on a very low income and I had to weigh up everything I did, because of the children. Their education and everything came first. I find now I’m on the aged pension, I’ve got a lot of freedom in that aspect. Because I don’t need a lot of money to live – I’m vegetarian, I buy all my clothes and everything from op shops or garage sales.’
June says she wants to empower other women to use that freedom.
‘When you get to where your kids are off your hands and especially if you don’t have to work anymore, you’ve got all of this time. Be productive. Stretch yourself. See how far you can go. Find something that you’re really passionate about and get out there and do something. It’s so rewarding. If you just want to sit on the street corner and pour out cups of tea for other people doing something, do that. Or bring cake to a function. Or hold up a banner. Or whatever. Be passionate about something. It just enlivens your life.’
The reason June believes it’s usually not a good idea to plead guilty or to be represented by someone, is because ‘then you don’t get a chance to talk in court.’ Before she became an activist, June was very introverted. ‘I couldn’t speak out. I didn’t believe I ever had anything worthwhile to say. I wasn’t educated. And I used that as a big excuse for a long time,’ she says.
‘We’ve got so much to offer. You don’t have to get arrested but even if you get arrested, there’s no harm done. A young person might have to forgo their career; they might not get a job if they’ve got a conviction. It could go against them in so many ways, whereas there’s nothing they could do to us grey activists,’ she laughs.
‘When you don’t know the full story, you make decisions a certain way. But once you know the story, and you choose to sit on the fence and do nothing, then you become part of the problem. I usually say, ‘You don’t have to walk 1000kms but you can walk to visit your MP. You can talk to your family. You can go as far or as little as you want to. You just have to do something.
If you would like to know more about the type of climate and social justice campaigns June is involved in, you can visit Friends of the Earth, Palms Australia, Free the Reef, Lock the Gate, or Greenpeace Australia, or simply be inspired by June’s commitment to Walk the Reef back in 2013, here.