They ‘hide the poor, and kill the prophets’

The poor tell us who we are,
The prophets tell us who we could be,
So we hide the poor,
And kill the prophets
Phil Berrigan

On Good Friday (15 April 2022), 4ZZZ’s Andy Paine interviewed well-known political activist Ciaron O’Reilly. During the interview Ciaron claimed that the authorities in the US wouldn’t pick on political activists in prison whom they thought had political ‘reach on the outside‘. Where does that leave Julian Assange when he is extradicted to the US by the British legal system.

At a time when climate change activists are being sent to jail, Ciaron O’Reilly said “And so even writing a letter sending a postcard is very important because it gives a signal to the prison staff that you’re connected, and that you should not be bullied or, you know, because they basically cowardly prison staff … so they won’t pick on anyone who they think has reach on the outside. So I think for even the safety of a prisoner, that kind of small acts of solidarity and protests outside of jail, always spreads like wildfire inside a jail. So I know this is the case at Belmarsh, and when we were in prison and Darwin for Jabiluka. Whenever there was a protest and supporting us outside it would spread. Boggo Road they (the guards) always overestimated the solidarity we had outside and found that very significant.

Not my experience in Queensland prisons, Ciaron.

In 1980 I was accused of anti-government activity in the pages of the Townsville Daily Bulletin (the print media had more ‘reach’ in those days). Various articles singled me out as a political activist on criminal charges during the Bjelke-Petersen era. I had been planted with drugs by police and ‘verballed’ with the assistance of the Qld Special Branch. On the same day as the newspaper court report, I was imprisoned in Stuart Creek prison for contempt of court. My brother, a lawyer with a respected local firm of solicitors, could not nothing to help me.

There were active political groups in Townsville at the time, and even the later celebrated historian, Henry Reynolds, the husband of Labor Senator, Margaret Reynolds, picketed the watchouse where I was locked up before being sent to Stuart Creek.

Contrary to Ciaron’s assertions the Prison Superintendent, the prisoners and the guards all picked on me. I was assaulted, nearly shot by a guard and put in solitary.

The Prison Superintendent called me out in the assembly yard and tried to get me to break a prison hunger strike that prisoners had started before I entered the prison … the Superintendent ostracized me in front of the hundred or so prisoners assembled, ordering me to eat the porridge laid out on a table saying: “Common’ Mr Civil Liberties, come and eat your breakfast.” or words to that effect. I think this may have led to my being assaulted by one of the prisoners.

Stuart Creek 1901 – it looked much the same in 1980. You were forced to carry your own shit in a can and to dump it in a hole.

I counsel against activists thinking that they can organise from prison and from thinking anything much can be achieved by going to prison.

No one in their right mind could argue that Julian Assange rotting in Belmarsh does any good. But in a repressive states like ours, political activists are put in prison against their will. It is for this reason, that people should support political activist defence like the campaign to have Julian Assange released from prison.

Ian Curr
16 April 2022

Stuart Creek Prison (pictured)
TDB Articles
Protests outside T’vlle Courts

3 thoughts on “They ‘hide the poor, and kill the prophets’

  1. Ciaron O'Reilly says:

    It’s not an exact science, but my experience was the more proactive solidarity (not necessarily media coverage) I experienced the safer my prison environment became. The first month in Pecos/Texas I experienced constant harassment, threats & low level assault by both staff & some prisoners (I was the only white prisoner). My environment got safer with the arrival of solidarity mail, playing soccer, going to mass (prisoners were largely Mexican) & eventually writing letters to fellow prisoners girlfriends & lawyers in English.

    There’s a one hour video interview with me from Pecos jail at the time on YouTube. You should be able to google it if interested.

    1. I couldn’t find the interview from Pecos prison but I did find this one by Andrew Denton (whom I think was pretty insulting and superficial in his interview on the serious issue of violence in war):

  2. Thanks Ciaron for your comments.

    Readers, here is the sound and transcript of the interview Ciaron had with Andy Paine from the Paradigm Shift (4ZZZ fm 102.1 Fridays at Noon). As Phil Berrigan said: They ‘hide the poor, And kill the prophets.” [Apologies for any typos and mistakes, you can listen to the interview which will help].

    Andy Paine
    We are talking about political prisoners today on the Paradigm Shift (4ZZZ fm 102.1 Fridays at Noon). And I spoke to Ciaron O’Reilly this morning from COVID isolation, actually, Ciaron has plenty of experience, both being in prison and supporting other people in prison. For over recent decades and in all parts of the world, I started off by asking him a bit about his experiences as a prison and a prisoner supporter.

    Ciaron O’Reilly
    I grew up here in Brisbane, and (in) my last year of high schools when they suspended civil rights for about four or five years and banned demonstrations, street marches, gatherings, etc. And then I helped at the Catholic Worker Movement here in Brisbane. We were involved in anti war resistance throughout the 80s which also included us going into Boggo Road jail for refusing to pay fines as prisoners, and getting involved in Prisoner solidarity which led to the closure of Boggo Road.

    And then I went to the States and late 80s and was involved in a Ploughshares action on a B52. Bomber, we grounded a B52 That was ready to be used in the bombing of Iraq. And I spent 13 months in prison in the States before being deported back to Australia.

    And then later, I was very involved in the East Timor campaign and the 90s and then later on 2003 in Ireland (I was) arrested with four other people and charged with two and a half million dollars criminal damage to us for plane that was enroute to Iraq, I was sent back to Texas. So that included three jury trials in Dublin two trials and a mis-trial, a third one were acquitted. And then more recently, I was based in London, doing solidarity around Julian Assange, who remains in prison in London now for the past three years. And prior to that he has seven years surrounded in the Ecuadorian Embassy.

    So you have quite a bit of experience there. I mean, your own stints in prison, but also doing solidarity with people on the inside. I mean, Queensland in the 80s and the Ploughshares movement across the world, a lot of people have been in prison, I guess, to start off with, what are some of the things that you think can keep people stay sane and healthy when they are in prison?

    Ciaron O’Reilly
    Well, I think that what’s needed is movement that appreciates prisoners. And I have a background, I guess, very similar to Chris Bailey, who just died recently. And that has been part of the Irish diaspora, I grew up in an Irish republican family and being my age, a lot of people being interned, and arrested in Ireland, in the north of Ireland, in the 70s. So we often would go to Ceilidh (is Irish/Gaelic for dance) to raise money for prisoners, families and stuff that was very much brought up in a culture that supported political prisoners. And so any serious movement will end up with people being arrested and prosecuted and imprisoned and if a movement is serious, it will take care of its prisoners as one of its priorities. And so you know, when you’re in jail, the whole system is there to convince you that you’ve forgotten that you’re isolated, etc. And the only counter venom to that is the solidarity of others, people continuing to struggle on the outside, but also reaching into assure you that that, you know, obviously, I think, in my own life and my own journey, political prisoners have been very significant to me. And I think when you’re in prison, you’ve got to be convinced that you’re very significant to others on the outside are continually the same struggle for the environment and for peace or whatever.

    And so even writing a letter sending a postcard is very important because it gives a signal to the prison staff that you’re connected, and that you should not be bullied or, you know, because they basically cowardly prison staff … so they won’t pick on anyone who they think has reach on the outside. So I think for even the safety of a prisoner, that kind of small acts of solidarity and protests outside of jail, always spreads like wildfire inside a jail. So I know this is the case at Belmarsh, and when we were in prison and Darwin for Jabiluka. Whenever there was a protest and supporting us outside it would spread. Boggo Road they (the guards) always overestimated the solidarity we had outside and found that very significant.

    Were there like personal routines or ways of thinking that helped you, Ciaron, I mean, you did a very long stint in the US as well as other stints. Were there things that helped you get through that or that you know, of other people that helped people get through that, that time inside?

    Yeah, we were doing a very serious intervention. And we knew from precedent that we would be dealt with pretty fiercely like some of our people already received 18 years for Ploughshares actions, a number of received eight years in prison. And our estimate was that we were looking at three to five. So in the end, we got off quite lightly with just 13 I did 13 months. But leading up to that, we had a lot of serious preparation.

    And I was also living with Phil Berrigan had already done probably eight years in prison for his resistance to the Vietnam War and to nuclear weapons. So it was good to meet and reflect with older people who had been to prison. And to give you a few tips, and we prepared seriously, for entrance into prison, we also prayed seriously for trial. So that was all very helpful. That was I was part of a movement that was quite familiar with having prisoners, the Catholic Worker Movement and the Ploughshares movement.

    I know at the time, some people from ‘Hearst First’ were infiltrated by the FBI in late 80s. And they weren’t doing well in. One is they thought they’d never be caught where, you know, we always get caught we, we damaged military equipment or disable it. And then we stay and pray, we don’t hit and split. So groups who are like, you know, more like hit and split their assumption like any any anyone who ends up in jail is that is that they won’t get caught, you know, so they haven’t really prepared for that consequence. And I’m quite convinced by the prison witness, the contribution of political prisoners and, you know, it’s a shame to me, it’s quite demoralizing to me the abandonment of Julian Assange by the British anti war movement, when you consider the 2 million people marched in the streets of London, against the war that Chelsea Manning and Julian Assange exposed and there was very little follow-up by by the bureaucrats, the professional, well-paid bureaucrats of Stop the War and Amnesty International. And those groups who should have been looking after Julian and Chelsea just abandoned them.

    Ciaron O’Reilly
    They’ve lifted their game a bit more recently, but you’ll have that division and the environmental movement now. You’ll have people whose careers are tied up as NGOs and well paid bureaucrats of different environmental conservation groups and they’ll be denouncing militant nonviolent action is counterproductive and alienating ordinary people, etc, etc. Instead of kind of mobilizing around, around those who’ve moved on from protests and resistance, and you know, it’s obviously the environmental situation is gonna get worse, and the war situation is gonna get worse. And, and the government’s and those in power and the churches, they’re just incapable of leading us out of it. Because they’re addicted to profit and power. They take us off a cliff, you know, and they’ve played to people who, who are putting their bodies on the line, and whether it’s blocking coal shipments, or resisting over the wara that abound.

    So, I mean, you mentioned there, how important solidarity is from the people on the outside? What are the practical things that people can do to show solidarity with people inside that will make a difference?

    Well, I think just keeping people by say for Julian Assange, unless you’re very emotionally connected to it, which I’ve been for 10 or 12 years, he’s really disappeared from the radar. You know, I think a lot of people 25 And under don’t know who he is. So because the media is such a monopoly, they’ve just managed to, to kind of evaporate him really, so to keep, you know, whenever there’s an anti war, protest, his name should be raised. And the same with environmental people, and there’s an environmental protest, the prisoners of our movement should be should be mentioned and raised and celebrated. And also, you know, just simple things like writing a letter to those who are in jail, that doesn’t that shouldn’t be a hero worship thing. It should be a mutual solidarity thing of reassuring them that the struggle continues outside and we appreciate their presence inside, you know, and there’s a lot of good work you can do in jail as well. You know, I think a lot of us who refuse to pay fines and went to Boggo Road, in the 80s played our part in bringing that bringing down that jail, you know, by having the prisoners program on 4ZZZ, organizing demonstrations outside the wall, and the prisoners went on the roof and Ada, etc, that led to the Kennedy Inquiry in closure of the jail.

    And in my short time in Darwin prison for about four or five months, I just, they used to bring in an official visitor once a month, and literally no one would go to those things, you know, and we were about 90% indigenous. I remember I put my name down, they called (me) out and the staff (were) just panicking. They had never had anyone talk to the official visitor! It was just someone from civil society that would come in once a month. And I just made a list of demands, and they were met, you know, within a few months, they installed air conditioning into the remand section, gave us TVs, you know, it was a it’s got a history of an organizer and activist and it can analyze the situation, you can help make it, you know, contribution in the jail. And obviously, when you’re when you go to jail you have a lot to learn from people who are doing well, I’ve been there a lot longer than you have, and it’ll still be in there when you leave, but, but there’s also skills that you can bring into the prison environment that can improve the situation. So yeah, I think a big problem, often we struggle is at the more moderate forces trying to isolate the militant nonviolent militants, and they’re really got to learn that we’re all part of one movement, and we all play different roles and to appreciate that.

    All right, thanks very much, Ciaron.

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