Seeing the few as many and the small as large
Report of the Stand Fast Speak Out at Gaza Ridge Barracks,
Bandiana, Victoria, 29 October 2010
Just nine of us anti war activists gathered under a bright noon sun and a brilliant banner rig outside the Gaza Ridge Barracks at Bandiana, Wodonga.
Plus a handful of media folk, photographers and journalists from the Border Mail and PrimeTv News Albury. That was it for the Gaza Ridge Barracks Speak Out.
Gaza Ridge is a training base for army logistics and it is said that about 6,000 soldiers pass through there each year. Together with Bonegilla base nearby huge tracts of land there abouts serve as a supply base, vast warehouses inside hollow hills, it is said.
So we had a few service people and contractors passing in vehicles though not as much base traffic as we had Enogerra or Holsworthy.
As i rigged the banners by the entrance road to the barracks, i recalled that my father, who was was a heavy transport driver for the Commonwealth from the beginning of WW2 to his retirement 35 years later, had carried many a load of munitions to Bandiana.
The former railway easement which lay before the barrack perimeter and the private security guarded gate had been artfully landscaped with billabongs, a picnic facility and a Vietnam War Memorial on a raised mound which one approached via a hedged path.
In negotiating the event Sergeant Dale Ferris, Section Commander, Domestic Policing Unit at Gaza Ridge, had pointed the Memorial out to me and asked that we repect it. Absolutely. My eyes are more open than ever to memorials dedicated to Vietnam War veterans since my Viet vet friend from VVF ACT, Laurie Drake, has imprinted on my mind this horror statistic: 500 Australia soliders killed in service, 2000 had killed themselves within 5 year of the wars end.
There also was a plaque to Royal Australian Electrical Mechanical Engineers (RAEME). This was the Army Corps and the base in which i would have served if i had completed my cadetship at Royal Military College, Duntroon, and graduated as a mechanical engineer. Sweet nostalgia.
Local FM broadcaster and former Greens candidate, Kieran Bennett, helped me rig the banners and i was most grateful for his companionship. I had met Kieran when i rigged a few flags to dress up a picnic AGM for the Albury Wodonga Environment Centre two years earlier.
Impressed, he had been following my activism via my blog. When he heard about the Stand Fast barracks gate Speak Out campaign he had interviewed me by phone live-to-air on his radio show and invited me to come to Wodonga, promising help with the publicity.
So it was that I arrived in Albury-Wodonga on Wednesday afternoon 27 October for a SpeakOut on the following Friday noon. Kieran had already Facebooked the event and when we met, he began emailing and calling on his networks. Next morning we had a photo shoot and interview set up with the Border Mail, the local Fairfax/Rural News daily tabloid on the Friday we had a pre-publicity photo story on page 23.
The media release for the event had been sent from Canberra before i left on Tuesday afternoon. I had emailed it to Giovanni Torre, Senator Scott Ludlam's media adviser, and asked him to distribute it to the boxes of the Parliamentary Press Gallery. "I would be happy to do that," he replied at once.
But for all the media effort it came down to just nine of us showing up and these were friends and family of Kieran and myself. Included were Kieran's mum and ex-psyche nurese, Kaye, and partner, Fiona, my friend from the Lake Cowal campaign, Charisse Venables, her 7 year old twin boys, Ollie and Chris, her partner and former soldier, Kim, and Dr Dennis Black, lecturer with Department of Environmental Management and Ecology on the Albury-Wodonga campus of La Trobe University.
Chris' anti war message
We had drawn one ex-soldier, family of veterans, but no veterans themselves. No one like Gerry Binder popping up as he had done in Canberra and to take on the media as a disgruntled vet. Drat!
We spruiked a bit and performed for the cameras. Beyond the barrack gates 100m away, i could see a line of uniformed men, likely MPs listening to what was being said.
Prime Tv news journalist interviewed the local people present asking: where was everyone? Where had the anti war movement had gone?
Good question. Kieran recalled that when the Afghan invasion began and later when Iraq too was invaded, he and his friends could call out 300 people in a protest action. And now in the face of PM Gillard's promise of another ten years at war in Afghanistan, a paralysing apathy prevailed.
Indeed our presence served to highlight the absence of an active anti war movement. This was the self evident truth and it became the theme of the media reports. "Nine turn up for border protest against the war" said the page 26 headline of the Border Mail on Saturday 30 October.
After the media folk had departed I moved Peacebus.com into the shade, put on the kettle and, sitting about at ease for the roadside, we shared some food and talked.
We waved to the passing drivers. As with previous Speak Outs there were a few abuse calls of the "Get a life!" variety but far and away the responses were supportive.
Out of it came a commitment by Kieran and Dennis to reactivate local peace movement with regular meetings to produce regular local events, regular artful occupations of public place and speak outs.
On the mike and to the media, Dennis and Kieran had thanked me for my visit to Albury-Wodonga and for the inspiration i had given for them to get active again.
The depression of the local activism was also a personal issue for Kieran. A 24 year old, articulate and well informed activist and campaigner, he works two 4 hour shifts a day stacking supermarket shelves to pay the rent. He was feeling physically exhausted, weary of his poverty and his directionless.
Doing menial work had been acceptable while he was active and mixing in the politics of power, attending conferences and meeting powerful others. But he had become disillusioned and had recently resigned his membership of The Greens even as the success of his work had manifested in local electoral gains.
The electoral success of the Greens, he said, had led to centralism in decision making and a deliberate divorce of the Greens Party from the environmental and social justice activist base that had given it birth. Urban lawyers with enviro-cred, he had observed, were now running the Greens as a party striving to give no offense to middle road Lib-Lab voters.
Kieran reckoned this augured ill for the Greens in that it would soon be a brand name, a corporately managed logo, rather than a political party which, in the same way the ALP was born out of working men's strikes, gave voice in the Parliament to a lively and evolving populist movement.
Graeme the grey nomad also serves as an on-the-road activist counsellor.
Follow your passion, i say. Organise, organise, organise.
Organise in cooperation with the Greens if you can, independently of them if you can't. Set the agenda by being engaged and helpful with campaigns around local issues.
Be helpful and humble and cultivate networks of activism like a community garden.
You may never get elected to parliament or be rich and famous, but you will be blessed with many friends.
And I also urged Kieran to cultivate a spiritual practice and by this i meant a practice that sustains and lifts the spirit in times of doubt and adversity.
My good medicine practice is the Three Refuges, the Triple Gem prayer of Buddhism, Buddha/Dharma/Sangha, which i took time to explain. Shortened the prayer is this:
"I go for refuge to the Buddha, here and now noticing things as they truly are, i go for refuge to Awakeness.
I go for refuge to the Dharma, the teachings of the Buddha, constant remembrance of impermanence, sorrowfulness and emptiness of self.
I go for refuge to the practice of the Teachings in the witness of the Awaken ones, to uplifting friendship."
Works for me and i sure do need the medicine. Such reflections sustain me in protest action in the face of the wall to wall corporate media barrage of deceit, deception, and distraction and the ignorance and complacency of a nation asleep in front of Tv while its politicians tell huge lies and corporate crooks pirate the "Commonwealth" and engage us into wars without end.
The aim of the Stand Fast barrack gate Speak Out campaign, i say when asked, is to draw forth veterans, ex -service people, family and friends of same, to be visible and speak out against war. The fruit of our collective efforts will be an advocacy group by and for Afghan and Iraq vets to represent their needs into the future.
In this regard i emphathise with John the Baptist; an old man crying out in the wilderness and preparing the way for the culture hero, The Messiah, the one he knew would come and accomplish the change if he just kept putting out the call.
Mine likewise the voice of prophesy and as such, never fashionable, never popular.
Better to be active than asleep and disheartened, i say. Better to be cultivating activism and in search of a movement and a movement leader than hiding away in despair. Better to have Stand Fast noticed a little in public place, a presence in garrison towns, than not at all.
So the campaign rolls on, a rolling stone with no sign of moss accumulating. Nor disgruntled vets becoming visible to me. Not yet.
I don't know what media attention Hamish Chitts got as the listed Stand Fast spokesperson on the media release or what hits the Stand Fast web site got as a result of the action. I got no calls from radio this time around, just the local media response described above.
But apart from renewing connections with my activist friends in Albury Wodonga, there are ways in which the Stand Fast got noticed that day.
The response to my email to the Wodonga Police giving notice of the action was prompt and positive and when i arrived in Wodonga, Sgt. Larry Goldsworthy drove me in a squad car to meet the Military Police at the barrack gate. The MPs, he told me, already knew of my intention and were unfussed.
indeed they were very respectful and helpful. Having taken into account our needs (one of the MPs had been on duty at Enogerra Speak Out), they had already decided on a place for the action, a site that worked for us in terms of visibility and them in terms of security. They also pointed out toilet facilities and the like.
The "coming avalanche of PTSD" theme of the Speak Out also makes us friends. There is much ignorance and denial about PTSD at some levels of the armed services but MPs and police know what we are talking about and they seemed to me to be pleased, indeed grateful, that someone is speaking out about it.
Just as I was about to take up the mike and spruik a call came in. I thought it might be a media call but no, it was a Det. Sgt. Peter Greaney of Victoria Police Security Intelligence, recommended to me by Larry Goldsworthy and pleased to be offering his services with police liaison for future Stand Fast Speak Outs in Victoria.
One might say that's his job but it felt to me from his tone and manner there was more to it than that. He was eager to help and it was as if i was being honored with a police escort on the road ahead.
We may few on the ground but be assured, we are being noticed.
31 October 2010
Kaye Bennett speaks from long professional experience of PTSD