This article first appeared in Malta Today
If there is one thing which is guaranteed to draw attention to your cause during a protest is for something to happen which will make the media sit up and take notice, which is the best kind of PR. Ironically, sometimes the publicity is unintentionally provided to you by the very same people who are trying to stifle your protest.
This is exactly what happened on Thursday during the sit-in at the Planning Authority by activists from Moviment Graffiti and Kamp Emergenza Ambjent. They were there to protest against the granting of the application to build yet another “petrol station” on ODZ land. The quotes are deliberate – because if you have your eyes open and are not in a coma, you should be aware that the monsters being build over large tracts of land are not merely somewhere to stop and fill up your tank, but commercial centres complete with a car wash, a cafe, small shops and possibly even a fast food drive through. Just look at that humongous thing being built in the fields of Burmarrad, merely a few hundred metres away from two other petrol stations down the road as you are about to enter St Paul’s Bay.
Now if you reading this and it does not bother you one bit, I will leave you to enjoy your complacency in peace. But the rest of us are very much bothered, in fact, we are furious; furious at how our sparse land is being gobbled up everywhere you look by those making money hand over fist who get permits to develop whatever they want under the guise of a petrol station or some other misnomer.
The young activists were there to make some noise, literally, by banging on drums and disrupting the PA meeting which was to vote on the application for the Zejtun ‘petrol station’ on ODZ land. Did they have to resort to these measures? Yes, of course they did. When you have been ignored over and over again, and when developers are being granted the go ahead by an ‘Authority’ which is there, laughing in our faces merely to rubber-stamp everything, then yes desperate times call for these desperate measures. I admire these young activists who have more gumption and guts than a lot of us, including me. Signing petitions and yes, even writing op-ed columns like I do, does not get you very far, when those in power are determined to steamroll over you anyway.
Here is some background in case you are not aware what this is all about. To quote from the Moviment Graffitti press release: “Nine months ago, the authorities promised to review the Fuel Service Station Policy, which allows the construction of massive so-called fuel stations (read: shopping complexes) on natural and agricultural land designated as Outside Development Zones (ODZ)… However, the Planning Authority (PA), instead of immediately taking steps to reform the policy, stalled the process… In the meantime, new applications for the development of fuel stations continue being submitted, in addition to the many that are already being processed…The size of pending and approved ODZ fuel stations is seven times that of the Floriana granaries. There are currently twelve pending applications for ODZ fuel stations having the total size of over 52,000m². Four ODZ fuel stations with a total size of 12,000m² have already been approved.”
Let those numbers sink in for a minute as you absorb the magnitude of how much land is being grabbed on this tiny speck of a rock to quench what seems like an insatiable thirst for more and more.
The activists had decided that enough was enough and the meeting to vote on the Zejtun application was the final straw. “The proposed 3,000m² fuel station on agricultural land in Żejtun has been recommended for refusal by the PA case officer himself, since it is not even in line with the current Fuel Service Station Policy. However, instead of refusing the application outright…the Board deferred the sitting to give the developer more time to justify his case,” the press release pointed out.
Time to justify his case? How sweet. How considerate. And when do we bystanders who have to put up with all this get to justify our case; the right which normal citizens have for wide open spaces, some greenery and hopefully a bit of agricultural fields to escape from our suffocating, built-up landscape?
This is why Thursday’s protest was so important, although there was the risk of it being completely ignored and the PA doing what it wanted anyway. And here is where the heavy-handed police reaction comes in. Instead of dealing with the situation calmly, trying to defuse it and removing the protestors firmly but non-aggressively, some of the Rapid Intervention Unit officers went completely Die Hard ballistic, acting as if they were tackling burly tough guys instead of ordinary young men and women, some of whom looked downright frail. It was a situation which called for extreme restraint. Instead what we got was something out of an episode of the American TV reality series, Cops.
Luckily the whole thing was caught on film by one of those present and it was probably this which prevented the police brutality from escalating. And yes, what I saw was police brutality by the RIU, and was completely unnecessary considering the circumstances. In contrast, Wayne Flask, who was there, has pointed out that “three uniformed officers on duty at the PA behaved in an exemplary manner, offering to take activists to a polyclinic and retrieving personal belongings lost in the fray caused by the goons in black.”
Those who bizarrely defended the RIU officers, (because, you know, these pesky protestors only want to bring down the government), were coming out with all sorts of outlandish statements to justify what happened until suddenly, whoops! The Prime Minister himself comes out with a statement, saying basically what those who are not blinded by partisan blinkers were already saying: “I have made it clear that I do not want to see similar mishandling and heavy handedness from police,” he said, adding that he defended civilians’ right to speak up.”
When I saw that statement my immediate thought was: cue those who were defending the police suddenly changing their tune.
I could almost feel the stunned, bewildered silence on Facebook by those who were quick to bash the protestors (who had already been literally bashed enough). “Now what do we do? What do we say, if Il-Prim disapproves of what the police did….issa sew!”
I had a vivid image of some people having to grapple with their internal, conflicted feelings, as they struggled to come out with something which would be in line with Muscat’s statement without having egg on their face. It occurred to me that it must be getting harder and harder to be a diehard supporter these days, when you never know what your leader might come up with next. There are some who claim that Muscat is only saying what people want to hear, however, in this particular instance, he took the best course possible: can you imagine if he had said nothing? With the PL’s unpleasant history he cannot afford to appear to be shutting one eye and condoning any type of police violence.
In any case, despite the thankfully slight injuries caused to two of the protestors, the sight of the RIU officers roughing them up has generated more awareness, and directed the eyes of the public and the media to the environmental cause in a way which no amount of press releases, petitions or placards could ever do. Except for a few people who seem to have a poor grasp of the right to protest, even loudly, and even disruptively, in a democracy, I think the majority have realized that unless we physically and actively demonstrate our disapproval of what is going on, there is not going to be any environment left to protect.
Best of all, the application for the Zejtun petrol station was turned down with 10 votes to 1.