From 'good girl' to serial felon: The radicalising of Friends of the Earth veteran June Norman

Liz Conor

From Chain Reaction #126, April 2016, national magazine of Friends of the Earth, Australia

When a young bride swaps her grandmother's bed for her husband's you could be forgiven for thinking she lived a life enfolded in tenderness. Not so for June Norman. She shared her grandmother's bed from nine months having lost her mother to a backyard abortion.

June was arrested in February 2016 for blocking Santos' entrance to its Leewood facility in the NSW Pilliga State forest. By now she's a veteran felon. She was the first to be arrested protesting coal seam gas – 'only in Australia', she quibbles. She has clocked up over 8000 kms in protest walks in Europe and Australia. She once encroached on a US military training ground outside Rockhampton and camped for four days during live fire.

She's won an U.N. award for her work in peace and the environment. She drew international attention in December 2015 when National Geographic photographed her as a Climate Guardian Angel, defying the protest ban in Paris at the COP21 climate talks. Her other-worldly incarnation of guardianship of the earth reached over 40 million followers and was liked over 200,000 times. She has become one of Australia's best-known dissenters.

'Don't make a big deal of it', June insists as we settle in. I've 'angeled' with June many times now, first at the G20 in Brisbane when we orbited its perspex periphery in 40 degree heat until we chanced upon a 'caterer's entrance' – in fact the delegates' entrance – and staged a sit-in.

I can vouch for her unassuming, quiet resolve. Together with her slight frame, crescent cheek bones and bluefire eyes, June's 75 years lend her an uncultivated gravitas. As an Angel she carries a rare kind of moral authority that has landed front pages around the world.

But by putting herself forward she defies decades of ingrained humility. For 50 years, she explains, 'I was a good little girl. I did exactly as I was told'. It was drummed into June to 'know your place and don't get high and mighty'.

Early years

Born in a small country town in New England, June grew up knowing very little about her mother's death. It was off limits in family conversation yet whenever she walked into a room she was pointed out as 'Betty's little girl' before everyone was shooshed. Little and confused June felt she must have been 'the cause of her death'.

It wasn't until June was 15 that she was told how her mother had died. Yet she didn't think of her as a victim of an unjust law. Where was a married woman, with three sons already and pregnant again when June was only six months old, to turn? 'The circumstances were so bad she didn't have a choice.'

In a small country town in the 1940s a mere visit to the chemist raised suspicions, let alone purchasing condoms. June remembers it wasn't men's responsibility yet they also had to agree 'and I don't think my father would have'. Four decades after Marie Stopes' Married Love on birth control was published, girls like June were kept so in the dark about their bodies she thought she was 'dying' and had 'done something wrong' when she started her periods.

Her grandmother raised her on a widow's pension during the war, withstanding the strain of four missing sons. Three were imprisoned in Changi, where one lost his life. Another died soon after his return. June recalls 'his organs were found to be those of an old man', the war had aged him so. June's older sister had already died of diptheria at only two years and her grandmother was also caring for frail elderly parents. Within this whorl of loss the death of her 27-year-old daughter was 'such a stress to her'. And because June's mother had died aborting her pregnancy, police appeared at the funeral, interviewing people who may have assisted her.

So it is with pride that June recounts her grandmother 'working her guts out' to provide her with enough clothes and food. 'She was a beautiful woman but she was just worn out. I was kind of put in the corner, I don't think there was any energy left for me emotionally and physically.'

At seventeen June found affection from a fitter and turner, a 'good hard worker', who did his best, but also struggled. June waitressed to subsidise their yearly bills but as soon as they were paid 'I had to stop, he didn't want me out in the world, he'd say, "I'm the provider"'.

June had little recourse to the elucidations of feminism. These were 'strange women who didn't like men, that's how it was portrayed'. Feminists 'looked high and mighty'. She ran away at first but went back to him. 'I couldn't understand how I could survive without him. I was married at 19. I had no career. You didn't educate girls because they got married and had children.'

Her grandmother had counselled, 'the way to keep your husband, stop him from straying - have sex with him.' They had five kids and when the littlies went to school June studied childcare. 'That's when it started to change'. At college all day and the only mature-age student in her cohort June was coming home 'talking about worldly things'. When June started 'bucking the system' and standing up to him he hit her. She finally told him to leave as he wavered between June and his mistress.

After the marriage dissolved June started working at Barnardos in Canberra, realising that she 'would never have been allowed to if I'd stayed married to him because going out and picking up kids from the police station at 2am would've interfered in his life'.

East Timor

She moved north and read John Martinkus' A Dirty Little War, and felt she owed the Timorese people, after our government's treatment of them. 'I made a vow. That's the place I need to go.'

In an orphanage June learnt first-hand of atrocities during war. Of a boy seeing his father's throat slit before his eyes. Of a girl whose heavily pregnant mother fell fleeing the Indonesians, gave birth and died in the dirt. The grandmother plucked up the newborn and ran with the girl. She'd spit on her finger and put it in the baby's mouth to quieten it so they wouldn't be found.

'How do you live through that? They were starving, turning family against family.' Shaking her head June raises her hands and turns away.

On her return the US military were training Australian soldiers outside Rockhampton, at a base they nicknamed War Games. June was 'incensed'. She'd spent over three years 'picking up the pieces after a war and I did not want my grandchildren to ever go through what those children went through. How dare they call war a game!'

It was then that June joined Friends of the Earth and headed up to the base. They broke into the grounds and blockaded the road with a list of all the civilians including children who'd been killed in the Iraq troop surge of 2007. June was arrested.

Undeterred they soon returned 'upping the anti'. They camped on the grounds for four days during live fire but were not found. Running out of food they had to walk into their camp. June quipped to the press, 'how do they expect to find Bin Laden when they can't find four activists'.

Soon after June cycled from Rockhampton to Lismore holding meetings in the towns earmarked for nuclear reactors, but she decided walking was more her thing and got involved in Footprints for Peace. She walked from London to Geneva, zig-zagging through French and German nuclear reactors. 'When you walk into that town and you've come 400 or 1000kms you get people's interest. It inspires them. It's walking the talk.'

Lock the Gate and Climate Guardians

June joined Lock the Gate at its inception in 2010 and was the first person arrested protesting coal seam gas. She organised the Reef Walk, and over 10 weeks broke down the resignation she was hearing in little towns: 'yeah we know what's happening, but this is government, this is big business, there's nothing we can do'.

Elders were involved in all of June's walks. She was given a message stick that was hand carved and painted with ancestors' footsteps and her walkers, to deliver to the Prime Minister. 'Along with the Timorese people they are people who have been so abused and disempowered and they are the First Nation people here and they've looked after their country for millennia and knew how to survive.' There are lessons in this, June feels, 'we could all be learning.'

When the Climate Guardians arrived in Brisbane for the G20, June heard through Friends of the Earth that they were a few Angels down and soon found herself being strapped into the wing harness in the YHA. From the Brisbane G20 sit-in to the protest bans in December in Paris, to the Pilliga blockade, June has stood on the front line of international protest.

In Paris on the first day of COP21 June stood amongst the shoes of the people who had been denied the right to march sensing 'a person was there, I was very careful not to tread on them'. Feeling the terrorist attacks were bad enough, without punishing Parisians by taking away their right to have their say on climate, June 'was proud to be there showing solidarity'.

But being invited to lead the D12 march at the end of the COP21 talks was both 'frightening and elating'. Breaking through the police blockade and leading tens of thousands out on to the street, 'that was just something unbelievable'.

Images of a grandmother in furiosa makeup and angel wings blockading the bridge before the Eiffel Tower circled the globe and came back to her nephews and nieces. Their friends described her as 'the idol of their families'. It's not a comfortable fit for June. She cringed when, at the U.N. award ceremony, Queensland Governor General – ex-military – read out the careful wording that honoured her protest at the Talisman Saber war games. 'It was hilarious!'

She is embarrassed when people tell her she's inspired and empowered them to stand up and act – mostly women she notes.

'All my life until now I felt helpless to do anything, whether it was how I was treated as a child, or following my dreams. Those negative things we say to girls, pride comes before a fall, don't be vain … When my marriage was struggling I fantasised that if I was famous my husband would see that I was a good person, that I was someone special. Now I'm through all that, but it's happened! But I don't need it now!'

If there is one lesson for us in the indefatigable elder stateswoman of Direct Action that is June Norman it comes in the saying by the philosopher Henri Frederic Amiel, 'There is no respect for others without humility in one's self'. But when that humility is disproportionately levied on women, obstructing their participation in civil society, it needs to be balanced with defiance. It is more than long distances June has walked in her lifetime. She has crossed the barriers erected across women's guardianship of our earth. For June her resistance started when she stood up to her husband. It continues unabated.

Liz Conor is an ARC Future Fellow at La Trobe University and the founder of the Climate Guardians.

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