Taking Peace to
US President Bush

a report of the peace reception for the
Presidential Visit to Canberra 23 October 2003


Peacebus.com bAnneer array outside Parliament House Canberra for the visit of US President GW Bush, 23 October 2003

For four days Graeme worked at Fred Braat's Wedderburn bushland studio cutting and sculpting cardboard to make the Bush/Howard Janus-faced effigy seen below. On top of this was the effort of preparing lanterns for the Lantern Vigil of the evening of 22 October, the updating of www.peacebus.com, the writing and posting of media releases and the loading up and getting there.

For this mission of Peacebus.com, he had two companions. One was Anne Wittingham, a mother of two and a committed peace activist who drove down from Lismore, northern NSW, kindly bearing the Peacebus PA. The other was Kieran De Silva, a young independent scientist from Ambarvale, a Campbelltown suburb near to Wedderburn. Kieran had been a fellow Dharma farer in the Waking Up in the Bush retreat.

The Aboriginal Tent Embassy outside old Parliament House hosted the Peace Lantern Vigil, which Graeme had advertised. Anne had gone ahead to negotiate it and when Graeme and Kieran arrived on the afternoon of 22 October they were warmly welcomed by Darren Blomfield and Vinniatu, the two elders in residence there taking most responsibility for the maintaining the sacred fire and the peace there.

The Tent Embassy, more than 25 years old now, is the longest continuos Australian protest ever. In the splendour of Canberra parks and gardens it has the enduring appearance of shantytown of fringe dwellers and many folk believe this entirely appropriate. This day the transient community of committed activists, day visitors, pilgrims, drifters and homeless people who gather to the rebel call for justice and sovereignty for Aboriginal people numbered about 20.

No easy task to keep the peace here and even as Graeme and Kieran were rigging the banners and lanterns, a scuffle broke out, angry voices and punches as two men, one white, one black, wrestled and argued about a packet of crisps.

A former Peacebus companion now Tent Embassy resident, Johan Hendrick Van Den Hoorn, also greeted Graeme warmly. Out of respect for his valiant defence of the Peacebus banners during the Aston campaign of July 2001, Graeme had dubbed him Sir Johan. Sir Johan has also been Peacebus driver for the CHOGM campaign of March 2002.

Both committed activists and loner eccentrics, Graeme and Johan have an ongoing dialogue about who is the more crazy. Sir Johan's news was that a Canberra court was to rule on the matter. In response to protest a cannabis law reform action in which he presented a kilo bag of hemp seed to the desk at a Canberra police station, a magistrate had ordered Johan take a psychiatric examination.

It is either jail or a formal declaration of madness for Sir Johan now. Graeme urged the latter option as having more fun and freedom in it.

The diamond lanterns hanging in strings beside the koori banners looked elegant in a landscape already beautifully illuminated with lit up monuments and fountains in grand avenues and vistas. About 20 people were present and more were expected to arrive during the night. What grace to be standing free in such beauty! What generosity of spirit it demonstrated of Canberrians and Australians generally that this was a cop free zone!

But Graeme was too exhausted to create any focussed peace meditation under the lanterns. Instead he let it be a stand-alone installation for peace and retreated to Happy Wheels, cooked up some noodles from the Dana stash that the monks of Wat Buddhalavarn had given him for the mission, and went to sleep.

The Tent Embassy served as an assembly point for people coming from interstate to protest the Bush visit. Graeme's sleep was not only interrupted by people arriving and setting up camp in the night, but also by the sound of Australian Airforce F18As droning overhead, a precautionary measure that cost Australian taxpayers an estimated $4 million.

At dawn Graeme rose and took steel posts to the protest site before it was closed to traffic and then moved Happy Wheels up to picnic ground nearby. With the help of Anne and Kieran he readied the flags and bAnneers for carrying in position and then cooked up a leisurely breakfast and watched the red flag bearing phalanx of a 150 or so Socialist Alliance devotees who had come in busloads from Melbourne and Sydney move into position, chanting all the way.

Standing on Parliament Hill, Graeme was interviewed by ABC Radio Ballarat via cell phone (another Dana gift from the monks at Wat Buddhalavarn) and was able to assure breakfast listeners in Ballarat that the Eureka flag would be flying outside the Parliament that day.

A BBC newsman Graeme had watched being filmed had described the security for the Bush visit and Chinese premier the next day as 'unprecedented'. GW Bush had brought his War on Terror to town with him much to the irritation of peace loving Canberra residents. A protestor corral had been set up 100 metres back from the entrance to the Parliament, so that the US President would neither see nor be seen by the protesters.

No vehicle access within 200 meters of the forward boundary meant Graeme and friends had a long carry to bring the flags and effigy into position and no way to bring the Peacebus PA into action.

ACTNow had hired a PA, generator and a portable stage which was brought into position with trolley and wheel barrow and at 9.30 am they cranked it up.

First speaker was Senator Bob Brown of the Greens, a man who stands out amongst all those elected to the Australian Parliament for courage, vision and integrity. What did he want to say to President Bush? "You are a law breaker, Mr Bush." He referred to the two Australians illegally held as prisoners by the US in Guantanamo Bay. Indeed he had invited the family of one of the prisoners to be his guests in the public gallery, and sit alongside Mrs Bush and Mrs Howard during the Presidential address.

People were streaming up the Hill to join the protest when Graeme and helpers carried the flags, the 'Detach from Tyranny' banner and the effigy, and set them up near the police line facing the crowd attending the speakers on the stage further down the hill. The Bush motorcade arrived as Graeme was erecting the Eureka flag and he waved it high as the crowd of about 1000 surged forward to jeer.

The Eureka banner rig looked splendid against the skyline of the Parliament and the mass array of US flags that the Howard government had put out. The US flags were actually alternated with Australian ones but, just like foreign policy, the red and white stripes were visually dominant and seen from afar the Australian flags were indistinguishable.

The giant Australian flag at the masthead of the Parliament towered over all but from the perspective of the protest crowd, the Eureka flag on its 8 metre place seemed to match it.

Many photographs and video were taken of the effigy and people in the crowd expressed much admiration for its artfulness. Johan delighted in pulling the chord that made the head rotate and reveal the alternating faces of Howard and Bush, the same word balloons issuing from their mouths: "Lies and ... more lies".

Bush/Howard effigy outside parliament House during visit by US President Bush 23 October 2003

A temporary community of peace activists, it was an interesting and artful crowd, more carnival that protest if one could ignore the relentless stridency coming from the ACTNow stage and PA.

Many groups and individuals were represented there, many different causes and different ways of representing them: Women in Black from Canberra; a couple wearing Bush and Saddam masks strolling hand in hand; a papier mache sculpture of Howard as dog following behindBush and sniffing his backside. In association with the Peacebus.com installation, and using one of its bamboo poles, Graeme watched a mother help her 12 year old son set up a wire cage in which he was shackled to make his protest about the kidnapped held in cages at Guantanamo Bay.

No aggro at all in the crowd. No attempts to break police lines. There were lots of smiles and TV personalities moved easy amongst the protestors vox popping.

Bush/Howard effigy outside parliament House during visit by US President Bush 23 October 2003

When and how to burn the effigy with no PA and no poets? Graeme tried negotiating cooperation from the ACTNow Central Committee running the stage. But they had more pressing matters on their collective mind.

Seems no protest is complete in the Socialist Alliance/Resistance mind set without a confrontation with police and the ACTNow Central Committee was intent on taking the crowd off on a march to The Lodge (the Prime Minister's Canberra residence) where the PM Howard would be introducing Bush to his rich mates and media magnates. Permission to march had been refused. Now the Central Committee were threatening to order the crowd converge on The Lodge and breach security.

Federal Agent Steve Uhe whom Graeme had met when negotiating Peacebus.com participation came through the crowd looking flustered. As Graeme stood by, a deal was brokered for a march to the Lodge, which would pass the neighbouring US Embassy.

The last speaker was announced, a woman passionate about the injustice dealt to Palestinian by the Israelis and their US backers. While she was in mid rant, a smoky procession of Aboriginal flags approached the crowd from behind. Darren Blomfield led it carrying smouldering gum leaves lit from the sacred fire. Late in arriving they had been waiting for elders who did not show.

Graeme rushed to invite Darren to light the effigy from that fire. Darren agreed and moved up to the stage where is procession respectfully received by the crowd. The speaker glibly accommodated them as another example of an oppressed people and went on. The Central Committee eager to get the march happening, refused Darren speaking rights but invited him to lead the march.

Graeme had suggested burning the effigy before the crowd moved off. But the Central Committee would have none of that and ordered the crowd off in the opposite direction.

Darren however was more respectful and he led his small band to the effigy and lit it. It burned beautifully witnessed by about 20 people and four cameras. Then Darren, Kieran and crew went off to join the marchers.

Bush/Howard effigy burns outside parliament House during visit by US President Bush 23 October 2003 lit Darren Blomfield from the Aboriginal Tent Embassy

The sound man and the lines of police were all that was left of the crowd on Parliament Hill as Anne and Graeme packed up, the sounds of the chants and shouts of the marchers were heard away in the distance.

Graeme learned from Kieran later that Darren had nearly been arrested taking his fire to the Lodge and that their had been some security streaking and arrests at the police cordon at the US Embassy. He is what Kieran wrote after the event.

"Greetings and salutations Graeme,

"Thank you for the invite, It was an eventful and constructive exercise, i gained much

"Frustrated would best describe the majority of participants. Frustrated not only about bush's role in current events, but our own government's involvment in the "War against Terror", and the many indecisions/decisions our government has made, in the recent and distant past, over the sovereignty of land and hence the independence of a 'people' and their culture.

"I was personally concerned at the small number of participants as it indicates australias people do not yet understand the far reaching implications of our governments acions or even worse, do not care. .

"A nice little metaphor representing part of our plight occured on the day when police lines moved forward to push the protesters further away from the logde. Elders from the Tent Embassy had brought the flame of the sacred fire in procession with the protesters to the grassed medium strip outside the lodge.

"When the police line was told to move forward by the powers that be, they acted with total disregard for the presence of the elders showing no respect for the sacred fire, defiling it by forcing the elders away, as well as total disregard for those unable to move back due to crowd congestion. Not knowing how best to appease thier frustration, many vented it on the police, for they were the frontline between them, and the 'power hungry' men responsible for these heinous steps toward globalisation. 'Diverse' were the plights of the participants, and they wished to remain that way.

"Be well and happy!

Kieran W. De Silva"

Graeme happened to catch the ABC News report that night when he returned to Wedderburn. Most of it concerned the interjection by Senator Bob Brown to the Bush address (good on ya, Bob!) and the argy bargy of Liberals preventing Green Senator Kerry Nettle getting a Guantanamo Bay prisoner petition to Bush (good on ya, Kerry!). The only vision of the protest was of police tussling with protestors.

The clear message was that Bush was a divisive and unwelcome visitor to Australia despite PM Howard's fawning and the brown nosing of the ALP leadership.

Once again the SA/Resistance comrades had hijacked a gathering in the name of peace and turned it into a confrontation with police, so feeding the news media with the cliches they expect. Memories of M1 in Brisbane in 2001. One has to admire the effort they put into protest organising but be wary of their duplicity for while they talk of non violent protest actions, their actions and attitudes speak otherwise.

For Graeme the Peacebus.com mission to bear witness for peace during the Bush visit Canberra had been seven days of sustained effort. He had brought colour and burning cardboard to the event. Was it worth it?

Many friends constrained by distance and the demands of family and jobs, had sent him messages of encouragement and so he felt he representing a bigger presence than just himself. And even one witness for peace is better than none. Would Bob Brown and Kerry Nettle have been so courageously defiant without knowing there was crowd outside calling their courage forth?

"How can effort for peace be useless? For he who never gives up trying cannot be blamed by his friends and relatives here below or the gods above. So he has no regrets. Plans may succeed or fail only time will tell but the value is in the effort itself in the present moment."

That's a paraphrase from a teaching about right effort Graeme received from is friend Acharn Witij at the Waking Up in the Bush dharma retreat at the nearby Wat Buddhalavarn Forest Monastery 19-21 September 2003.

Friends of Peacebus.com will know that the art of Burning Bushes began as a protest in support of sniffer dog resistance hero Rusty Harris. While Peacebus.com was in Canberra on 23 October, Rusty was in court for Round 13 of his sniffer dog resistance trials, supported by a large, loving and peaceful rally in Railway Park, Byron Bay.

The outcome for Rusty was another adjournment (3 November) plus concussion and 4 stitches in his scalp due to a fall from his truck while packing up and tying down his load. Peacebus.com sends commiserations to a dear friend. Here is a photo of Rusty taken by Tao Jones on the day but before he fell on his head.  

Sniffer Dog resistance hero, Rusty Harris 23 October 2003

Rusty's was not the only protest in Byron Bay that day. A bunch of Byron blokes greeted the US President's Bush arrival under the Australian sun with a collective brown eye on Belongil Beach at dawn. Here is the postcard they sent out.

Byron blokes brown eye Bush on Belongil Beach, Byron Bay at dawn 23 October 2003

 

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