This 97-year-old veteran activist has some advice for Extinction Rebellion


Bill Ryan is 97 years old, legally blind, and still heads out every week to protest the government's inaction on climate change.

Bill Ryan is 97 years old, legally blind, and a World War II veteran. He's also currently on a court-ordered good behaviour bond, after chaining himself to a railway line to block a coal train last year.

Technically, that good behaviour bond means that Bill shouldn't be attending any more environmental protests any time soon.

Bill, however, has other ideas.

"That won't stop me," he says, laughing. "If I think it's needed, I'll be there to take the same sort of action again."

True to his word, Bill has been taking a lot of non-violent direct action over the past decade. When The Feed first spoke to him in 2017, he was a sprightly 95 years old, and had been arrested six times. Protesting the government's inaction on climate change is so important to him that he's more than willing to go to jail for it.

"At this stage of life, I think I'd be wasting my time if I didn't take action against this," he says.

Bill Ryan says he'll keep protesting
Bill Ryan says he's not afraid to be arrested again
The Feed

“You’ve gotta break the law in these sorts of situations, to try and solve a problem.”

At 97, Bill has built up a wealth of wisdom about holding effective protests. "Protest is part of democracy, in my mind," he says.

Over the past few months, he's watched Extinction Rebellion make headlines for their disruptive, controversial methods, which have seen protesters glue themselves to roads, lock themselves to railway lines, and shut down entire city streets in a non-violent uprising against government inaction on climate change.

"I think they're very effective," is Bill's verdict. "Well, we wouldn't be having this discussion if they'd just been sitting there gently and doing nothing."

You've got to almost set yourself on fire to get a couple of lines in the media

One of the most common complaints made about Extinction Rebellion is that their protests are inconvenient for ordinary people trying to get to work, or go about their day. Bill has very little patience for that kind of criticism, in part because he believes it's been exaggerated by the media.

He also thinks that sometimes, protest simply has to be inconvenient in order to make a difference.

"Inconvenience? It was inconvenient for me to be in the army for four years of my youth."

"What's the worry about inconvenience if we don't have a future?"

"We don't want any hotheads, because we're non-violent."

Bill does have a few words of wisdom he'd like to share with Extinction Rebellion. Most importantly, he urges anyone looking to get involved in non-violent direct action to get some training first.

"As far as young people and Extinction Rebellion, I feel that firstly they've got to join a group or go along and be trained in the legalities of things and what to expect, because sometimes it's pretty rough," he says.

"The police following directions can make it friendly business, or they can make it hard."

Bill has experienced firsthand just how hard the cops can make it. In 2009, he remembers a police officer roughly dragging him away from a protest and telling him "I don't care if you die".

Bill Ryan locked himself to a railway line to block a coal train in environmental protest
Bill Ryan

After he chained himself to the railway line in September 2018, he was charged with four offences, including being armed with intent to commit an indictable offence. The weapon the police identified was the heavy chain connecting Bill and another elderly protester to the railway tracks.

"That's ridiculous business, it's only a chain around our ankle," Bill says, pointing out that he's 97 years old and needs a walking frame to get around.

"I'm legally blind, so I wouldn't be able to hit anyone."

After that same protest, Bill was also charged with intentionally or recklessly hindering the workings of mining equipment, despite the fact that the mine in question was over 100 kilometres away. He wants young activists to understand that similar charges could be laid against them, and to know their legal rights and where to get help.

Bill's other advice for activists is straightforward: keep it non-violent.

"No way do you put your hands up as if you want to fight someone. You're just there to take the action."

"We don't want any hotheads, because we're non-violent."

"If they were alive today, these people who made the supreme sacrifice, what would they think about our democracy?

"To me, the only way forward is non-violent direct action," Bill says.

"We've tried all the other ways -- you know, petitions and so forth -- and they ignore them."

Bill is particularly disappointed with the way governments have responded to environmental activists over recent years. He points to the Queensland government's recent push to ban protesters from using lock-on devices to block roads as one example of a government no longer interested in listening to the people.

"I think it's appalling," he says. "They're political careerists, they're not concerned with the interests of the people. They're not listening to them, they only listen to the money."

Bill Ryan is arrested at an environmental protest
Bill Ryan is arrested at an environmental protest
Bill Ryan

Telling protesters to have their say without blocking roads or disrupting cities is, in Bill's mind, similar to telling people not to protest at all.

"They say 'oh, you can go down to the park' -- well there's nobody in the park, so there's no bloody purpose. Get out where the people are, and explain what's taking place, and that's when the politicians have got to listen to you," he says.

Mostly, Bill is disappointed with the government's refusal to make sacrifices to combat the threat of climate change. As World War 2 veteran, he remembers what it was like to have a government calling on every sector of society to play its part.

"In the Second World War, I was involved with tens of thousands of other young men," he said. "Just about everyone was involved in it, because the government of the day was asking the citizens to play a part."

Today, the real danger is global warming, and we've got no calls, no action, there's no plan.

"I went into action a number of times, and on one occasion the people on either side of me were killed. I just often think, if they were alive today -- these people who made the supreme sacrifice -- what would they think about our democracy?"

Still, at the end of the day Bill has hope. "It's wonderful to see the young people, the student strike -- I was there to see them coming out in their thousands from the trains at Martin Place station."

"There's the future. They're better educated than we were, and they realise they've got no future unless they protest."

"When people become involved and realise that even though they're one, one becomes thousands, and then becomes tens of thousands, we can win."

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