The PA horns on the top of Peacebus.com sent our words booming in the glass tower canyons and over the busy intersections of the Sydney CBD afternoon commuter rush of home going of office workers.
It was Thursday 3 March 2006 and we were on our way to support a uptown counter celebration of Prime Minister John Howard's 10 years in office and as we cruised along we took the opportunity let the city folk know of our intention and our dissent.
"Ten years of racist rule and fear mongering. Ten years of lies and division. Ten years of war and deceit. Ten years of US imperialism. Ten years of white supremacist rule. Ten years too long!"
Most people walked on as if blinkered or comatosed by the nopise of traffic and the drench of urban advertising messages, quite unable to hear or associate words with the presence of Happy Wheels, its rooftop flags, its PA horns and its bold signage. The Cyanide Watch boards had been temporarily removed for the occasion, to reveal: "Detach from Tyranny/End the US Alliance/Peacebus.com".
But a few saw, heard and came alive. We passed groups of young Caucasian people who flashed peace signs, one stood at attention and gave us a bold salute. We saw dark skinned faces, south Asian and Middle Eastern, break into broad grins and we saw inscrutable Chinese/Vietnamese offering restrained but approving smiles. But all were mystified when they heard the Yirrkala tongue.
I was driver and Happy Wheels was carrying four passengers: Bob Cooney dressed as PM Howard in a latex mask borrowed from Greenpeace, Joey Nipperess dressed as Ned Kelly in a Drizabone and the cardboard armour which I made for him last August; Peacebus companion John Peace acting as sound man and wearing his Cyanide Watch cap; and a mysterious Yirrkala (East Arnhemland) women, a stranger to me, an elegant black scare crow in a mission skirt and sleeveless top who, chance met, arrived at Bob's door just before departing and had jumped aboard. Janet Munyarryun was her name.
Bob and Joey, 30A comrades from Newtown (see www.peacebus.com/30A) had invited the Peacebuses to support their street theatre outside the $10K a head Liberal Party fund raising dinner taking place at a hotel in Martin Place. We are always eager to help our friends and agreed to hang about Newtown another day and help dress the protest with some colour, namely bright coloured flags on 4.2 metre bamboo poles, signature pieces of the Peacebuses.
Bob Cooney (Howard) and Joey Nipperess (Ned) in costume in Newtown before setting out for the Ten Years of Howard counter celebration 4 pm Thursday 3 March 2006
The plan was first to go support a Refugee Action Coalition action outside the Prime Ministerial offices at 74 Phillip Street, just around the corner from Chifley Square, and then go on to Martin Place.
Peacebus.com swung into Phillip Street to find a group of about 20 good souls gathered on the street outside the glass doors and about 10 police from The Rocks police station guarding the door against entry. A speaker on a small megaphone was addressing the crowd, which displayed a few placards. The police stood about relaxed and bored, the words on the tiny megaphone as inaudible to them as our protest was incomphrensible
At that end of Phillip Street and at that time of day, pedestrians are few but the traffic is heavy with many empty buses heading to and from The Quay terminus, making a lot of noise and delivering scant audience. Our presence was dwarfed by the high rises and obliterated by the noise. It was an ill conceived place to protest and doomed to be a disheartening affair.
But when Peacebus.com rolled past, did a U turn and dropped off Howard, Ned Kelly and black Janet, and the pulse of the event began to quicken. Bob and Ned quickly got into role and the police commander quickly got on her radio and announced our arrival to some command centre somewhere or other.
Parking Peacebus around the corner outside Chifley Square with its signage visible to the home going, Harbour Bridge crossing, North Shore middle management motorists, John Peace and I unload and carried the bundles of pre rigged flags around the corner to the protest, ten of them in a mix of four Eureka, four Anarchist, and two Socialist.
It took a little time to get all the flags displayed. Few in the dispirit crowd had hands that were free or hearts that were willing to be a flag bearer. With rubber ties cut from inner tubes, I tied the surplus flags to the nearby poles of parking signs and the scattered array gave some coherence and significance to our presence.
No sooner finished than a squad of maybe 15 Operations Special Group police arrived. These police wear navy blue fatigues, a blue baseball cap with chequered band, black boots with the trouser legs tucked in, black leather gloves and a black utility belt bearing cuffs and a black holstered Glock.
Anyone with Army training would know by the way they strut and by their knuckle headed attitudes that they do a lot drill, physical training and marching about. Instant obediance to command is their credo. They are in fact an army of sorts, a paramilitia within the NSW Police Service created by the Carr-Macquarie Bank-Iemma government and endowed with anti-terrorist responsibilities and powers.
The NSW War on Terror being ninety nine parts media illusion, they see little action on that front and have now taken to deploying themselves as protest-busting goons, not unlike the Brown shirts of Nazi Germany, a terror in their own right.
It was an open mike/megaphone and I was speaking when the word came that the OSG would not permit us to carry the poles in our move to Martin Place. Deja vu - see www.peacebus.com/30A
The logic of the OSG objection, such as logo exists in their bony heads, is that the poles might be used as a weapon against the police. On St Patrick's Day the Irish can carry flags and banners on poles, on Anzac day old diggers do too and for the Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras parade, queers likewise. But Peacebus.com and its friends may not. I addressed the crowd and asked: "Was anyone planning to attack the police with poles?" Making eye contact I scanned them each and all; heads solemnly shook.
In truth the fear of the flags and poles was a wild projection of the OSG mindset. It was they who had attack on their collective mind, not us. Their fear was that the poles might used in defence against a police attack such as the horse charge that took place, unprovoked and without warning, to disperse the crowd of 50 or so citizens protesting the Packer Memorial at the Opera House the week previous.
Who are the cops to say one cannot fly a Eureka flag in a public street? Time to defend our rights and liberties, I reckoned. If not now, when? If not us, who?
Using the megaphone I spoke of the significance of the symbolism in the flags, explained the significance of the Eureka Oath and led in a pavement swearing of it: "We swear by the Southern Cross to stand truly by each other and fight to defend our rights and liberties."
Soon a small knot of flag bearers was face to face with a thuggery of OSG police lined up across the pavement.
"Take him out!" I heard the OSG commander say and they pounced with maybe six OSG grabbing at my pole and my person. I was soon off my feet, suspended somehow and borne up by the tugging. I offered neither resistance nor aggression, but clung to the pole with single pointed attention and Gandhi's idea of Satyagraha ( "holding firmly to the truth") fixed deeply in my heart-mind.
Who knows what dilation of time happens in such moments? Angels were watching and it seemed that some seconds of sublime stasis was held in this silent struggle of wills before overwhelming force unrolled my grasp from the bamboo.
With the pole flag taken I found myself unhanded and back to Earth, sitting without dignity on the pavement in fact. Out of respect for my age one of the OSG officers offered a hand to help me up. "I am I under arrest?" I demanded crossly. If so they were going to have to carry me away. But no, they shook their heads and so I brushed away his offer and regained my feet unaided.
I turned to walk away but coming past was an OSG officer with another confiscated Eureka flag and pole. I fell upon it bending my right elbow around it and the contest was on again. This time the pole snapped under the stress and soon I found myself standing but restrained by wristlocks applied by OSG cops on either side.
"Cry out your helplessness," says Rumi. And so I did. Like a cow separated from her calf, I let out a loud and grief stricken bellow of distress. The sound of my suffering filled the street canyon, overcoming the city roar and giving pause to all with heart and ears to hear. In response the OSG officer at my left wrist increased the pressure such that I could feel tendons burning. I bellowed some more: "You are torturing me!"
That stopped him and I was soon unhanded again. One of the more feisty young women amongst the RAC protesters, Donna by name, was moved to demand of the OSG if they were not ashamed to be brutalising an old man like me, they being boys in their 20s to early 30s. They didn't answer but from the downcast of eyes, one could see the question of shame had struck deep.
The OSG commander, a Sgt Patrick Macgregor as I recall, responded indirectly by reiterating that he had been ordered to confiscate the flags. The logic implied that shame was not an issue; he was simply carrying out orders and that, in the natural order of things there was hierarchy and protestors were at the bottom of it. His orders, he was suggesting, were our orders too.
When all the flags had been wrested from hands and poles, they were impounded in the fire stairwell of the building that serves as Howard's Sydney office. When the now pathetic looking procession of 20 straggled off along Phillip Street, there was only a hand held banner and a couple of placards to identify our cause and us.
Defeated, sore wristed, bruised and a bit bloody for scratches on my arms, I tagged along and was soon joined by Janet who came to my side and took my arm saying: "You are very strong and very brave."
Her quiet voice, her easy gait (I later learned she was a founding dancer of the Bangara Dance Theatre and in Sydney briefly to do some dance teaching), her very presence at my side, calmed me. "And frail!" I said to remind myself. We walked like this together for 50 metres or more, me in post adrenalin clarity and lost in the beauty and symmetry of the moment, Sydney town, its traffic and aggression on some other galaxy.
But Eureka spirit never dies and back to Earth I came "Let's go back and get the flags," I suggested.
We wheeled about together, John Peace too, and walked back and through the ranks of the OSG cops who were following us. No movement was made to obstruct us, no eye contact made either. It was as if a black, black woman with a passionate grey haired old man on her arm was an overwhelming force too, a sight and a presence not to be messed with. Janet sailed us on through.
Back at the site of our struggle, there were no longer any police or security guards. We entered through the automatic front doors of the building and into the stairwell. There were the flags still attached to their bamboo poles, two of which had been broken. While fire alarms rang and the late arriving house security blustered, Janet, John and I made quick to bundle the poles and flags out into the street.
With the poles back on the roof rack of Happy Wheels, we headed back to Newtown, convinced we had done enough, happily spruiking to the crowds as we went. "Do you have $10K. If not you are not rich enough and unqualified to celebrate 10 years of Howard governing for the rich. And if you did have $10K would you spend it on Howard's company? Racist and a war criminal? Hardly ..."
After about four blocks of crawling traffic and many an amplified conversation with pedestrians passing by , two bemused motorcycle cops stopped us and re-arrested the flags. This time they were taken to The Rocks Police Station where they were kept on display behind the front desk all night. From where I was unable to retrieve them the next morning.
I didn't see any of the protest outside Howard's dinner in Martin Place. Lot's of unionists were there I was told and a couple of roaming trucks with PAs spruiking. The crowd grew as the night went on. See reports on sydney.indymedia.org. There my street performing comrades Bob and Joey aquitted themselves magnificently in our witness-bearing cause.
Their script: it's pay back time and Ned Kelly had come as the people's debt collector. Howard was draped in a US flag and Ned carried a noose. Ned arrested and hanged Howard many times that night. All richly deserved!
Bob Cooney (Howard) and Joey Nipperess (Ned) in action outside the offices of the Prime Minister and Cabinet 74 Phillip Street Sydney for the Ten Years of Howard counter celebration 5 pm Thursday 3 March 2006
The photo of the pair in action got page 2 in the Daily Telegraph and all the morning news reports of Howard's triumphal dinner mentioned that it had been dogged with protests. The figure of 750 protestors was given. Another small tactical victory in the battle of ideas.
This was gratifying because Bob, the friend behind the Howard mask, had also been slammed about by the OSG and his wrists like mine tortured. The Howard mask, appropriately enough, had limited vision and so for Bob the OSG attack had come as a surprise. But he had stayed in role, with mask on and mouth blathering.
Working the street inviting homeward office workers to come celebrate, he had wandered off from the protest group and was alone when the OSG attacked. After I saw two OSG cops, one either side, half walking, half dragging Howard back along Phillip Street, handling him as if he were a lump of errant dog shit - and it looked just perfect.
Bob and I celebrated success and soreness together the next morning with a deep sense of camaraderie and good humour. Bob speculated on how many of his bruises and sprains had been due to the cops and how many from Joey in the full flight of his Ned Kelly vengeance. Such are the perils of over acting.
Those Sydney OSG cops are a worry. But ah! How good to be standing up alive in such times and beside such friends.
Yorro! Yorro! Everyone standing up alive!
For peace. For justice. For the Earth!
Old man, Peacebus.com/
5 March 2006
Peacebus.com flags impounded by Operations Special Group Police in the fire escape stairwell of 70 Phillip Street Sydney for the Ten Years of Howard counter celebration 6 pm Thursday 3 March 2006