Peacebus captain Graeme Dunstan in full flight at the Troops Out Rally in Sydney 8 October 2011


Making Protest Art
and Reflecting on Futility

A report on the Sydney Rally to protest 10 years
of US war in Afghanistan, 8 October 2011

The Peacebus boomed out across Martin Place and i was at the mike, looking up at the anonymous tower that housed on its top floor the US Consulate. Nothing marked the offices of the Empire except a line of banners and behind them the cluster of cops and security preventing protesters entering its courtyard.

It was the 10th anniversary of the US invasion of Afghanistan and the protest rally had been organised by the Sydney Stop the War Coalition. Less than 50 people had turned out. The only media crew to show was a team of Cambodian trainees from Resistance Art! (Here their beautifully cut vimeo)

Now their camera followed me from a metre away weaving with me as i spoke, gestured and moved about.

I had been preceded by a raft of knowledgeable speakers including NSW Greens MP Jamie Parker, visiting Pakistani human rights lawyer, Sonia Qadir, lawyer and journalist Kellie Tranter and was followed by former aid worker in Afghanistan, Martin Reusch.

Jamie Parker, Sonia Qadir, Kelly Tranter and Martin Reusch speak.

There was something special about my voice on the PA and my presence at the microphone that day, for like no other speaker, i had single pointed attention; all eyes were on me, protesters, cops, security and happenstance tourists.

As i spoke i scanned the crowd, my eyes coming to rest on the clear blue eyes on my younger grandson, Baxter Valentine Price, aged 4. He looked at me with open-mouthed wonder; "grokking" we hippies used to call it, truly seeing his grand father. Truly listening. Good for the heart of this old man to note that!

"Friends," I began. "How few we are but how huge our influence! Public opinion is running at between 60-70% against the war and yet nothing the US military and the vast disinformation services of the CIA, nothing the professional media hacks of the government nor nothing the thousands of gallons of printers ink employed by the Murdoch media, nothing they do or say is able to shift it. "

Or words to that effect. I speak to no script, and carry no notes. I get a lot of public speaking practice on the road as Peacebus captain but the power of my oratory is more than technique. I aim for authentic voice, to invoke the voice of the ancestors. When i take up the mike, i try to empty my head, open my heart to the truth and power of the moment and let the words find themselves.

On this occasion from my mouth words tumbled about the terrible cost of war. Later an affirming email: "It brought tears to my eyes, especially the thought of all those returned soldiers/service personnel committing suicide and those who are unable to live normal lives due to the trauma they’ve experienced and the untold difficulties this causes for themselves and their family and friends.... such a terrible, untold legacy of war and military service."

Beside me as i spruiked was a cardboard wreath which i had made in the days previous. It was proposed to take it to the Sydney Cenotaph on behalf of Stand Fast and lay it there in sacred memory of ALL the dead, invaders and invaded of the Afghan war.

It was not to be. The plan was twice torpedoed. First by the RSL office of the Custodian of the Sydney Cenotaph, which after two affirming phone conversations in which i was given verbal permission, sent an email denying approval thus:

"After consultation with the Custodian of the Cenotaph, it has been decided that permission is not given for your organization to conduct a wreath laying ceremony at the Cenotaph on Saturday 8 October 2011. The very nature of the organisation that you represent is not conducive to maintaining the dignity or sanctity of the Cenotaph and what it represents."

The second stopper was my colleagues in the Stop the War Coalition. I was for playing the theatre anyway. Stand Fast being turned away from laying the wreath would be, in my vision, as powerfully symbolic as laying it.

But my fellow organisers got wet feet and fearing a Murdoch media backlash, rushed to put out a media release pooh-poohing the RSL so undoing any wreath laying, even as i was head down cutting cardboard to make the wreath.

But who was i to argue. My media release announcing the Stand Fast wreath laying got not one response.

So it was that the wreath was carried at the head of the parade but not to the Cenotaph. Rather further it went east up Martin Place to stand outside the no logo, no ID tower of the US Consulate.

A splendid wreath, it attracted many compliments. The design was based on an image found googling for memorial wreaths, a blogging tourist's photo of a wreath laid at the Welsh Guards Memorial in London. I liked the arc of flowers. I chose blue roses in acknowledgement of the Afghan PeaceMovement.

To conclude my speech, I referred to it and called for a minute's silence, a remembrance of all the dead and all the suffering created by ten years of the US War on Afghanistan. No sound from the Peacebus PA and Martin Place suddenly seemed very quiet.

I drew people out of that private reflection of grief with the traditional Kipling invocation: "Lest we forget." And added: "Lest we forget our duty as citizens to make peace for these times. And for future generations."

Pack up and go home time. Many were the hands helping with the de-rig and stow the flags and banners. Much gratitude was expressed for my speech and for my banner and flag work.

For the event i had made up a new banner honoring Malalai Joya, 2.4m wide by 3 m high. It had taken 5 full day's work to sew, mark out and paint. I had also sewn up a set of eight peace flags (4 days work) to dress the so called March from Town Hall to Martin Place. Plus i had flags and banners on board Peacebus from Stand Fast campaigns past.

All agreed that my "spectacular banners" had made the event memorable. The lovely Pip Hinman urged "show casing" them.

What sets my banners apart is their design and for that i have my daughter the designer, Softly Price, to thank. The combination of her design and my skill at transferring a emailed pdf onto cloth make us the best banner makers in the land.

Softly and her husband Darren attended the rally with their children, my grand children. It was in their backyard shed in Marrickville that i laboured for three weeks with sewing machine, knife and paint brush preparing for the Rally. How proud i was to have them standing beside me that day.

Son in law Darren Price, my daughter the designer, Softly Price, and grand daughter, Pepper Clementine Price at Town Hall with my activist nomad friend, Ross Parry

We had assembled, heard fine speeches, paraded and chanted through the city streets to Martin place bearing flags and banners, heard more speeches and ... dispersed. All over in 2 hours. No intention of civil disobedience and so no arrests. The police were few, courteous and helpful.

The best i can say about the 8 October Rally is that the effort had created a beautiful and affirming event for those participating. But when Peacebus drove away, eager to be on the road and out of Sydney, i carried a sense of futility: that it all added up to nothing much, that our protest was a demonstration of atrophied imagination and powerlessness, too easily ignored.

What are we organisers doing wrong?

Most Australians against the war and successive governments are ignoring them, why then the lack of interest in anti war rallies in public place?

Four hundred attended the meeting addressed by Malalai Joya in Marrickville Town Hall three weeks earlier but only 50 showing in the streets.

And it is not that Sydney people won't come out an occupy the streets. They will if the cause and the style appeals.

For example my friend Chris Leggo's recent Reclaim the Lanes events in Newtown draw up 4000 mostly young and stylish people to bop about in public place, free of public liability insurance and Council permits. Chris gets in excess of 1000 people RSVPing on Facebook, which makes police liaison very respectful and cooperative.

Obviously we anti war movement builders have got to rethink our public protest approach.

Here is what my Rockhampton Tiger Ploughshare mate, Bryan Law, had to observe:
"The small turn-out is always disappointing, and I figure it's a reflection of (how do I say this politely?) elements of self-righteousness that creep into whitefella politics and alienate the great unwashed. The majority of people are against war. The majority see and understand the war in Afghanistan is failing and making everything worse. How might they be persuaded that they CAN (as well as should) take action against it?"

Meanwhile #Occupy Wall Street has created a diaspora in the form of #Occupy Everything. We will see how the plays out at Occupy Sydney, Melbourne and elsewhere.

Graeme Dunstan
12 October 2011

PS Here is a YouTube from an anti war action at Enoggera Barracks in Brisbane. Prayer plus civil disobedience. Protest as liturgy rather than pedagogy. Still the same valiant few.


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