Wherefore the Peace Movement — recollections of Talisman Sabre 07, and speculation about the state of the “peace” “movement”.
by Brian Law
Editor’s Note: This article takes up where “Peace Convergence” left off. In part this is in response to a request from Ciaron O’Reilly [Please note that the comments thread for “Peace Convergence” has been closed and any further comment can been placed here].
The Pine Gap 4 were sentenced in Alice Springs on 14 June 2007, and I’d been expecting to spend some months in prison. Instead we got fines, and time to pay, so I travelled down to Rockhampton and Yeppoon for the Peace Convergence just to observe what happened and offer limited support to Adele, Jessica and June – and their friends.
Jessica and June had been at our trial, and were planning to enter the exercise area and try to curtail parts of the exercise through their presence on site.
By the time I arrived there were perhaps 80 activists at Yeppoon, and 8 of them had entered the site on the morning of the day I arrived. The mass activities were planned for the weekend in four days time, and each day more people were arriving. Busloads were coming on Friday. Maybe 700 had arrived for the Saturday.
PART A – THE “MASS” PROGRAM
1/ I’d only followed the organising process vaguely, because I was caught up in the PG4 trial preparations, but I recall the dates of the convergence were chosen to fit in with University holidays – and thereby boost the numbers of students who could catch the buses from Sydney and Brisbane.
I was shocked when I arrived at the Rockhampton Airport, and checked out the temporary Australian Army base on Western Road near the airport, that all of the materiel needed for the exercise (tanks, trucks, artillery, personel) had already been moved from the temporary base to the exercise area – leaving no easy and visible targets for blockade action during preparation for the wargames. Given that the convergence would be ending three weeks before the wargames, this severely limited the availability of direct actions in which significant numbers of people could participate.
This was the first weakness that I spotted. A focus on “mass” participation had been allowed to set a timetable which didn’t incorporate opportunities for strong direct action.
2/ I also noticed when I arrived that there were plenty of US servicemen at the Rockhampton Airport hanging out at the cafes and shops ‘cos it was close to the Western Road camp, within walking distance. The only other US personnel I saw during the week were officers staying at the Capricornia Resort (where I also stayed). There was no discussion about talking with/leafleting service personnel during the exercise, I think because the focus was on the Shoalwater Bay Training Area – and this was reinforced by the strong attention on environmental issues rather than peace issues.
While I understand this emphasis – and it is appropriate to a certain degree (both inherently and because local support in Yeppoon, Bifield and Rockhampton is itself strongly environmental) it meant that valuable opportunities were passed up. (Rockhampton Airport, Capricornia Resort, and Gladstone Port where US ships docked and off-loaded).
3/ There was no analysis of the goals of the mass action, apart from a vague notion of media coverage and winning general community approval for peace actions. The organising centrepiece in Yeppoon was an “embassy” set up in a local shopping centre which was meant to become an organising hub and meeting place for action, education and public relations.
Local activists spent enormous energy and funds to get this centre up and running, but it wasn’t very effective for reasons both within and without their control.
A central failing was the lack of telephone lines, because Telstra was just unable to provide them in time. So media work and internet work was hobbled somewhat.
Another was the noisy nature of the space which made conversation and organising very trying, and led to lots of hairy people milling about in the corridors, which brought serial rebukes from the shopping centre operators.
The embassy was a central place to meet people, but having met them I did all my business elsewhere. I had some money so I shouted the media team a hotel room with a dial-up internet connection so they had somewhere quiet to work.
It has to be said that a small core of local organisers did outstanding work arranging venues and facilities for the public meetings and rallies conducted in Yeppoon.
4/ A central ongoing weakness lay in piss-poor organising and facilitation processes for those who travelled to the Convergence. Organisers from Brisbane facilitated everything in one big group so that there were meetings of more than 100 people trying to discuss crowded and complex agendas with insufficient time and attention.
Undisciplined egos threw many spanners in the works at these meetings, and facilitators would delay starting times to allow stragglers to attend without missing anything. Twice I witnessed groups of 100 being asked to wait one or two hours while a “busload” was on its way. It amounted to an abuse of many folks time and energy.
The ideas of task groups, small groups, and spokes and wheel decision-making has been around for more than 30 years, but it’s clear that peace organisers in Brisbane have never learned them or skilled up in using them.
5/ There were two set-piece “mass” “actions” – a gathering at the green gate on Saturday, and a march through town to a concert/speak-out on Sunday.
The gathering at Green gate was affected by advance notice which allowed Police to establish a road-block some 8 kilometres from the actual gate, and there were no convoys of war machinery to address. Nevertheless some 100 folk made the long walk against Police direction to the gate where they attacked the wire until calmed down by police liaison and nonviolent activists. The Police allowed them to be bussed back because of exhaustion, and participants felt good to have defied the police and made the journey, but there was little real intervention.
The march and concert on Sunday was carnivalesque and a successful feel-good action. Very colourful, with some excellent speakers, and the first warm sunny day of the whole affair.
As well there was a public meeting which I missed, filled with academic and movement speakers along with indigenous speakers from Guam and Hawaii who addressed the impact of US militarisation on their home Islands. There was also participation from local indigenous representatives.
Finally there was a concert on the Saturday night which I also missed because I was picking up and driving home some of the direct activists who’d trespassed in the exercise area and been arrested.
The mass program dominated proceedings, and made for a busy time for both the local organisers/supporters, and anyone who came for the convergence.
The timing of the Convergence ensured that most attendees would not have a chance to experiment with direct action. There was no place established for training in or discussion of direct action, and I take some responsibility for that and intend to correct it somewhat in 2009.
I suspect that the mass program attracted so much organising energy because it was assumed by key leaders to be central to social change, although it didn’t feel very purposive or powerful to me. The Mass program had significant direct impact on Yeppoon and Bifield in that it created a presence and a talking point across the community.
Given travel costs and other expenses for out-of-town participants, I have questions about how cost-effective the mass program was. I think that public meetings and rallies in the Capital cities and regional centres people came from, along with affinity group actions, could have been more effective in spreading the word and building resistance nationally – and some of that was done in Brisbane and Sydney in advance of the Convergence.
PART B – THE SMALL GROUPS PROGRAM
There were a half dozen or so affinity groups that took autonomous action during the Convergence.
Two of these were support groups that enabled better functioning of the Convergence as a whole:
The street theatre/Chai tent that provided colourful banners, costumes and set-dressings as a part of every action/public event. Bennie Zable was instrumental in this group, and;
Food Not Bombs which provided cheap nutritious hot meals for Convergees.
Four were direct action affinity groups. Two groups of four medium term trespassers, One group of five short-term trespassers, and a group associated with the cultural group Combat Wombats that locked onto a US truck at a major intersection in Rockhampton.
The first three groups were either explicitly Christian or heavily influenced by Christian values. The Samuel Hill 5 designed an action to re-inforce the two medium term groups. The fourth was independent and, so far as I guess, secular.
In terms of media attention the action groups commanded the lion’s share, for considerably less expense than any of the mass actions. Personal costs were higher.
There was room for improvement in the medium term trespass actions. One group got wet in 1 degree temperatures. There was no prior liaison with ADF or Defence, and the Army’s first reaction was to label the actions a hoax and proceed regardless. A senior bureaucrat in Defence Brisbane was contacted a day later, and began inquiries to determine risk to activists. He asked for evidence that anyone was in the exercise area and was supplied with video from David Bradbury and the actual undeniable presence of the Samuel Hill 5. Which, along with a missing person’s report to Police, changed the dynamic of trespass and got the Army as well as Police actively involved in a search.
All offenders have now been tried. Four of the Samuel Hill 5 were convicted on 24 April 2008, had many nice things said about them by the Magistrate, and were given 6 month good behaviour bonds, in default $500.
PART 3 – THE THIRD WAY
Call me prejudiced, ‘cos I only saw them in meetings, but there were 120 or so semi-feral Convergees who organised pickets and other symbolic protests, including symbolic trespass, around nearby fences and gates attended by Police, and generally with the Army well out of sight.
These people have a resistance to Capitalism and oppression built in to lifestyle. They also have an impulse to “one big organism”, so that everyone joins in one big action. It does however have to be one big action which is convenient to them. Not too early in the morning, not too strenuous, low risk, and with lots of counter cultural elements. Lots of Chai and heroism. Like I said, I didn’t get too close to these people. None of them stayed at the Capricornia Resort.
WHY THE PRESENT FAILINGS?
I think Ciaron’s criticisms of David Bradbury and the culture of celebrity are partly valid, but drawn too harshly. In part Ciaron has a distracting emotional involvement that leads him to condemn David Bradbury in particular, and makes him unavailable for problem solving.
Rather than condemning celebrity in particular, I think the key problem is mired in how “leadership” is seen and articulated in the peace movement, and how diversity and conflict is handled.
Because so much of the “mass” movement is composed of white middle class folk there’s an unquestioning acceptance of white middle class leadership. So that David Bradbury’s call for marchers to wear their “Sunday Best” in an attempt to structure media coverage is actually taken seriously instead of being simply disregarded.
The social system we have is by and large successful for the white middle class. They are well housed, fed, educated and included in mainstream political processes, and so it looks straightforward to them that the simple expression of political opinion will be effective if it is substantial and widely publicised.
Moreover the role of the middle class is to police and regulate the social norms, so that working class and underclass folk are held to behaviours which will not threaten social stability.
So my experience in Cairns in 2003 was that Margaret and I and friends and colleagues ran an 18 month preparation program building knowledge and tactical analysis of the coming war, and preparing for direct action and resistance when, as we predicted, majority public opinion was disregarded as the state went to war.
We encouraged those folk who wanted symbolic only action to organise independently, and in late 2002 a group emerged calling itself the Cairns Peace Coalition. That group took it on itself to condemn and interfere with our program because it was “too radical”, and didn’t show sufficient “respect for the troops” (although we had a dialogue with service-men and women and they didn’t). Apart from attacking and splitting us, nothing that group did achieved more than an isolated newspaper story, and six months after the state went to war they ceased to exist or operate. They served the Labor Party well.
I see the same kind of people active in Brisbane and Sydney Peace Groups, and certainly among the academic institutions of “Peace Studies”. These people assume they ought be in charge of a “movement” and tend to monopolise microphones wherever they are found. (alright, I’m still pissed off at being attacked by gormless fools).
I’ve learned that direct confrontation with these people is counter-productive. Similarly, but for different reasons, with the “one big happy family” lifestyle resisters. In a space like the convergence these people will organise the activities they’re happy with, and there’s no real need to challenge or criticise them for it. The “make love not war” debacle was at worst a minor blip.
The challenge is to carry out actions beyond the symbolic so as to inspire more and more people to stretch in their peace-making work. Successful nonviolence creates a tension which engages people in their spirit and emotions, not simply in their intellect.
The Pine Gap 6, the Samuel Hill 5, and the future groups at Adelaide this year, and Talisman Sabre next year, are operating with a drive and integrity that is spreading in Australia and winning more acceptance and converts. The Christian Activist Network is the most exciting nonviolence group in Australia.
It’s important to operate in some way in relation to events like the Peace Convergence. It’s essential to avoid being attacked by the middle class leadership because the resultant tension splits rather than builds a movement. We need to extend tolerance for lower order activities while continuing to demonstrate the kind of nonviolent actions that work better, and to reach out to those who are interested in becoming more powerful.
It’s a slow process. We’re starting from a position of weakness, but we are growing in numbers, sophistication, and effect.
WHAT DOES IT ALL MEAN?
On a tactical level the Convergence functioned more or less effectively across all levels.
There is much room for improvement in organising. There is much room for improvement in movement building. I’d suggest that we could easily make a four-fold increase in “productivity” in 2009 for the same kind of investment, and without asking anyone to change their plans or analysis.
My thinking is to establish a nonviolence presence at Yeppoon a fortnight or so before the exercise begins:
Create a training/discussion/action centre at a Holiday House or retreat centre or other facility close to transport. Encourage affinity groups to take some supported actions as targets become available. Assist with organising intelligence, networking, media, legal, training, accommodation, and follow through.
Hold regular information and video sessions for Convergees who’d like to learn more about nonviolence. Conduct panel discussions on organising and strategic issues featuring in the Convergence.