Bridge activist’s plea: ‘If you cut the rope, I’ll die’
TWO years ago, Sean Nolan was suiting up and showing up for his job selling prestige cars in Brisbane's CBD.
Last week, he was the Extinction Rebellion protester who brought traffic to a standstill on the city's William Jolly Bridge as he abseiled off the side of it.
Mr Nolan said he clipped on and did his safety checks before climbing over the bridge.
"Then as I was going over, someone ran up with a box cutter and cut the rope. I had people calling out 'don't go Sean!' so I climbed back over," he said.
Despite that, Mr Nolan said he did his checks again, and went back over the edge.
"All the chaos was going on and I went down. I could hear people yelling: 'there's someone on the rope, you can't cut it!'," he said.
But the threat wasn't over, with more people emerging with knives threatening to plunge him into the Brisbane River below.
"I got down into position and people were yelling from up on the bridge saying they were going to cut the rope if I didn't come up. I said 'if you cut the rope, I'll die - don't cut the rope'," he said.
"It was probably five people (out of 300) who interacted with me, and they were all men. I just kept explaining if they cut it, they'll kill me. I knew there were a bunch of bystanders on the road telling them there was someone on the line and not to tamper with it."
In the midst of the drama, Mr Nolan said he was able to take in the moment as he unfurled an Extinction Rebellion flag.
"I was hanging off the side of a bridge overlooking this beautiful morning-lit city that I love, and I was really certain in myself about why I was doing that," he said.
"I love this city and I love the people who are in it, and I just want to protect that and the kids coming through. I took a moment to enjoy that and then I started hearing sirens."
Mr Nolan said the men who had been threatening him got back in their cars before emergency services arrived.
"Even with all the hate and anger that was directed at me on the day, it just came back to the fact that I was doing it for them," he said.
"When bystanders are saying 'there's someone on the line, you will kill them if you cut this rope' and then they're ignoring that and needing to be pushed away... I'm trying to come from a place of understanding. At the end of the day, what I was there for was accomplished."
Mr Nolan - who studied biomedical science and now works as a massage therapist - only got involved with Extinction Rebellion two months ago.
"I'd seen everything that had happened with (Extinction Rebellion) in the UK and I really engaged with that. Our governments weren't doing anything about the science. They're being presented with all this factual information about what's going on in the world and they're completely ignoring it," he said.
"I know that in the past the only way to change a government's mind is through people power, and civil disobedience. The principle of nonviolent civil disobedience resonated with me so strongly - it just made complete sense to me to go down this path. If I had gone in and the people involved were violent, then I wouldn't have gotten involved," he said.
"They're all really peaceful people. They love this world and just want to protect it. That grabbed me and filled me with hope again because I'd had all this climate grief for so long. We are facing a catastrophe and no-one's doing anything about it. But there are people doing something about it - Extinction Rebellion's doing things about it."
Mr Nolan went to a meeting of the SEQ chapter of the organisation, then did some training in nonviolent direct action.
"Then I made a decision to get arrested and stop traffic," he said.
Along with another protester, Mr Nolan glued his hand to Countess St during a day of protests in July.
"I've previously been pretty straightedged. That's the way my family raised me - to respect the law - and I still do, but that's outweighed at the moment by my fear for humanity and our wildlife," he said.
"My family are supportive of my passion and what I'm trying to accomplish. They do have questions around the tactics, but everyone does."
Mr Nolan said he expected resistance to his action on the William Jolly last week, but not the extent of the hate.
"I expected anger. I didn't expect people trying to kill me," he said.
"Anger's a rational response to disruption in your life. People want to get to work and get home to feed their families or get to appointments. What we're trying to say is, these are all valid concerns but we are looking at societal collapse. You're not going to be able to get to work, you're not going to be able to feed your kids, to get water. There are no jobs on a dead planet."
Mr Nolan said he'd been swamped with support, but he thinks his next action might target politicians more directly.
"Because I'm a remedial therapist, after my court date, I'm thinking of setting up a tent with a massage table out the front of Parliament House and inviting the MPs to come down. If they're really stressed out in this time of climate crisis, they can come down and have a massage and we'll have a chat," he said.
There are now six Extinction Rebellion groups in Brisbane, which Mr Nolan said were non-hierarchical and autonomous.
The organisation has also promised more activism in the lead up to an 'International Rebellion' on October 7.
"We don't know who's doing what, but it's amazing to see how quickly it's growing," he said.
He said he didn't look forward to the thought of being jailed, but would do it if it came to that.
"It's terrifying, but if I can go to jail and save the next generation of children, I'm okay with that. I'm nothing compared to all of these lives," he said.
"There's a huge history of people being sent to jail for civil disobedience and having an effect on society because of that."
Mr Nolan said Extinction Rebellion had attracted doctors, nurses, midwives, labourers and engineers, and not everyone was willing to be arrested.
"Some people's situations don't allow them to be arrested. Even if people may not want to do actions, but they just want to come to meetings, and we fully encourage that," he said.
"There's no money, there's no hierarchy, we are just people as grassroots as anything just doing what we're trying to do."
He also admits that when he was selling cars, there's no way he would've anticipated becoming a climate activist who would one day be hanging off a bridge.
"I used to be very focused on making money and making sure that I was comfortable. It's been a really quick process to change my priorities," he said.
But it's the faces of two small children that propelled him to take such a high-profile action.
"My best friend has got a three-year-old and a one-year-old and it broke me to think they wouldn't have the joys that I've had in my life," he said.
"I've got the privilege to do this. The only pressures on me are from family and friends who are worried about me. They just don't want to see me get hurt."
A Queensland Police spokesman said police were aware of rumours that people had cut and threatened to cut Mr Nolan's ropes but never found any evidence to support that.