by Sarah Hathway
From Sunday 23rd to Thursday 27th of September, roughly 40 concerned citizens opposed to the ongoing conflict in Afghanistan, and Australia’s role in said conflict, gathered in Queenscliff on the Bellarine Peninsula (30km from Geelong) to blockade the only entrance to the Island.
“We believe that all troops, including the SAS troops trained here in Swan Island, need to come home now and allow Afghans to start rebuilding their own country” stated Reverend Simon Moyle, one of the organisers and a participant in the blockade.
Whilst a lot of the activities were planned and lead by Baptist Reverend Simon Moyle, those who gathered to help slow down the Australian/US war machine varied in their beliefs, age, occupation and area of residence. Participants haled from Darwin, Brisbane, Sydney, Melbourne, Geelong, and there were two participants who travelled directly from the Ecuadorian Embassy in London where they were supporting Julian Assange.
Occupationally wise, there were nurses, teachers, ex-police, and ex-military. With some having decades of experience with non-violent direct action and for others this was their first time participating in such an event.
To start off the week, participants got stuck into banner making and did a letter box drop around Queenscliff about why they were there and what they planned to do throughout the week. They also attached “WAR” stickers in red and white to STOP signs, so that each sign around the centre of Queenscliff read “STOP WAR”.
Sunday night participants watched a 14min documentary by Fairfax media titled ‘Australia’s Quiet War’ which detailed some of what the SAS training facility is being used for. This was followed by a discussion about the various groups using the training facility.
The groups mentioned were the Australian Secret Intelligence Service (ASIS), Special Air Service (SAS), Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO), and the Australian Federal Police (AFP). Additionally the facility is used as an intelligence communications hub, for debriefing SAS troops returning from Afghanistan and other countries, and for intelligence seminars for Foreign Affairs and other bureaucrats from Canberra.
Monday was a day for learning. Workshops were held at the Queenscliff Uniting Church on non-violent direction action, and the group explored ideas of what violence and non-violence entailed. Members of the group shared some of their experiences participating in non-violent direct action and together they discussed if such experiences were Principled or Pragmatic/Reformist or Revolutionary. Participants were introduced to the work of Gene Sharp, who has researched and catalogued 198 methods of non-violent action.
Later on in the afternoon participants returned to the church to plan the blockade of the bridge to Swan Island. Everyone introduced themselves and stated how they were feeling in regards to the planned blockade. The general feeling seemed to be mixed emotions of anxiety and excitement for the following morning. It was then demonstrated how to lock on to others, and the various formations, ie. In a line, back-to-back etc.
At 5.15am Tuesday morning, participants proceeded from their accommodation (which luckily was a 5min walk) to the gate to Swan Island. Candles in jars were placed across the road, forming the initial blockade, followed by some sitting down holding photos of Australia soldiers and Afghanistan civilians who have died so far in the 11 year “War on Terror”. Behind those sitting down were banners reading “KEEP THE SAS OUT OF ASSASSINATION”, “NO US WARS NO BLOOD FOR OIL”, “BLESSED ARE THE PEACEMAKERS”, “END THE AFGHANISTAN WAR” and “AFGHANISTAN WISHES TO LIVE WITHOUT WAR”. The last banner was created by the children of those who were participating in the blockade.
The police managed to clear bodies twice to make way for a few cars, with some being turned away and told to come back at 8am. At 8.15am the cars were backed up Bridge Street and around the corner on to Wharf Street. The sound of breaking glass echoed around the street as frustrated police began disposing of the candles laid across the road. They then attempted to once again clear bodies off the street. Those holding banners stepped to the sides willingly however roughly 25 protestors had to be physically dragged or carried off the street. Once dragged off, blockaders continued to come back and sit or lie in front of cars, again and again. Until one frustrated police officer was clearly heard saying “This isn’t working.”
It was then explained to each car that the road could not be cleared, as the police were unwilling to resort to harsher means of keeping bodies off the road, or arrest. All cars were turned around, and those who were determined to get to the base, were boated across from the main wharf. By 8.30am, it was time to celebrate and all participates loudly sang and danced along to ‘You’re the Voice’ by John Farnham until the police relayed a noise complaint.
The gate was declared theirs’ and they were told by police that they had won. Participants of the Swan Island Peace Convergence maintained a presence at the gate throughout the night, until they were joined by the majority to repeat the action on Wednesday. In a show of good will blockaders allowed 4 cars through, who were greens keepers of the Golf Course on Swan Island. The Golf Course had been closed for the duration of our stay at the say so of the Department of Defence (DoD).
It was believed that the Police were directed by the DoD to down play the situation as much as possible by not making arrests. Unlike the previous year, there were no mounted police, even though those blockading had doubled in number for the previous blockade.
The irony, as participants discovered that night, was that our efforts (despite those of the police to avoid media attention) made the Channel 10 news on Tuesday night, with the coverage of the day’s events being rather positive. “Not bad for a nonviolent protest with no arrests…” Reverend Simon Moyle posted on Facebook along with the Channel 10 coverage of the event.
All those who participated in the blockade, are to be commended for their resolve in being non-violent throughout the blockade. Even when sleep deprived, dehydrated and sun stroked by day two. The police also handled the situation well, apart from one officer who was over enthusiastic about moving blockaders off the road, who was put on other duties after complaints were made.
Jessica Morrison, the police liaison, was vital in keeping the communication going between police and those participating in the blockade. “Nonviolent discipline has been spectacular. First-timers especially impressive. Courageous and tenacious.” Was tweeted by Reverend Simon Moyle on Tuesday morning.
Participants finished the week’s activities with a march down the main street of Queenscliff to the old Fort, then back down the main street to their accommodation. The march was met with an equal measure of applause and frowns as participants were lead down Hesse Street by a Highway Patrol car.
To view footage from the week’s events please visit the Swan Island Peace Convergence channel on YouTube www.youtube.com/user/swanislandpeace
There are also photos as well as comments from those who participated in the event on the Swan Island Peace Facebook page www.facebook.com/SwanIslandPeace , and on the official page www.swanislandpeace.org