How painful and disheartening it was to watch the scenes at the Planning Authority this morning.
Like most depressing stories, it started with a glimmer of hope. A group of young people showed up at the PA’s headquarters, armed only with a few drums and their voices, to oppose the construction of yet another petrol station on Malta’s fast-disappearing agricultural land.
Another petrol station on land that is meant to be protected as Outside Development Zone (ODZ), though the term has lost all meaning except for irony.
Another petrol station on an island that was just last year tipped to become an electric car nation. (Exactly a year ago, the Prime Minister pledged a cut-off date for petrol and diesel cars and yet here we are planning to build a fuel station for cars soon to be outlawed.)
Another petrol station on an island being literally clogged by construction at every single corner.
It was cathartic to see these young people taking time out of their personal schedules to stand up for common sense, while the rest of us sat in our comfortable air-conditioned homes and offices complaining about the sparsity of trees.
Moviment Graffitti, unassuming and genuine people who have always been there to fight for what is right (especially when it is unpopular to do so), showed up once again to remind us there are still some people willing to sacrifice for the common good; still people among us who have not given up.
They weren’t burning or breaking things. They weren’t screaming profanities. They were simply making their voices heard, as loudly as possible, to remind the PA that even a mere discussion of building a fuel station on ODZ land is outrageous.
The Planning Authority could have turned the protest into a positive PR story. They could have postponed the meeting and told the protestors they would consider their objections more closely before moving forward. They could have explained what happened to the pledge to review the fuel station policy nine months ago. They could have treated Moviment Graffitti and Kamp Emerġenza Ambjent with respect. After all, they have rarely been on the wrong side of history.
The Planning Authority could have even ignored the protestors and let them tire themselves out. Eventually they would have had to return to their lives and their jobs and the whole thing would have blown over, until the next fuel station application was discussed.
Instead, somebody decided the best course of action would be to send in what are supposed to be Malta’s most highly-trained police officers, to drag the protestors out kicking and screaming. It was especially scary to see the viciousness demonstrated by some of the policemen, who looked as if they were dying to lay their hands on the protestors who were so arrogant as to stand up for something they believed in.
There was rage in their eyes. They even shoved those who were obeying orders and leaving the room. Some of the police looked like they were taking pleasure in hurting the protestors.
And the worst part was the reaction of some members of the public. "Ħaqqhom," some said. (They deserved it.)
And then this, in reference to one of the protestors, who was left with a gash on his head: “Jien rasi ħadd ma qasamili ax nobdi l’ordnijiet.” (I didn’t get a gash on my head, because I obey orders.)
We must obey orders, they say. We should be subservient. To the government, to the Planning Authority, to the police, to anybody in authority, even if they demonstrably abuse it.
Take more power, the people tell our authorities. And we’ll punish those who dare to question you.
The Planning Authority refused the petrol station application in the end. But that’s probably just another depressing story in the making that starts with a glimmer of hope. There will be more applications. Many more. And next time, there'll probably be fewer protestors.
Unless we too take a stand.