Bearing witness to spooks and assassins
Report of the Swan Island Peace Convergence
22-26 September 2013 at Queenscliff, Victoria
When the cops brought the twelve trespassers over the bridge and back to the gate of the Swan Island Special Air Service (SAS) base, they did so, not in paddy wagons full, but in ones and twos in a base admin car.
This was the second day of the Peace Convergence blockade, you see, and neither the military nor the cops could get vehicles in or out without dragging folk away and maybe making arrests. This they were manifestly unwilling to do.
Like bats flying from light, the SAS flee to secrecy and deniability. They seemed to expect that, if kept low key, our witness at their gate would be ignored or covered up in the corporate media. This was not to be.
Seven and Ten news crews were there by the time the triumphant and handcuffed trespassers came back through the gate two hours later. Not having the means to process the arrestees, the genial cops took names and addresses and released the tresspassers, warning each to expect court summonses for tresspass charges.
Difficult for the crown sergeant to make himself heard for we supporters were all about celebrating with applause, song and hugs once the cuffs were off. My fellow Peace Pilgrim mate from Talisman Saber 2013, Greg Rolles, was the first released. He showed not a wrinkle of remorse. To the contrary his smile and face were radiant with joy.
A variation of the Alison Krauss classic was top of the pops that bright day: "As i went down to Swan Island to pray / Studying about that good old way / And who shall end these dirty wars? / Oh Lord show me the way!" / Oh Greg let's go down. / Let's go down. Come on down. / Oh Greg let's go down ,/ down to Swan Island to pray. And so with all the tresspassers, each named and praised.
And Oh Lord, how our hearts sang and our spirits soared. Here was courage, joy and strength. Here were uplifting friends and here was community wrought deep and strong amongst peace makers in this time of perpetual war. Tears of joy and gratitide in my eyes, great love in my heart, let me tell you.
Swan Island is adjacent to Queenscliff in Victoria and it is the home of 4 Squadron SAS, the Australian military's top secret abductors, torturers and assassins. There they train in the dark arts of dirty wars with Australian Secret Intelligence Service (ASIS), Australia's spy equivalent of the CIA.
As soldiers go, the SAS proclaims itself as the elite and millions of dollars are spent to train and keep them dangerous, safe and secret. In excess of $1 million per trooper per year is spent to keep them operating in Afghanistan where the successive Rudd-Gillard-Rudd-Abbott governments have committed to keeping 80 of them doing dirty deeds indefinitely.
A strange beast it is though. Whereas the taxes of the Australian people pay for them, in their ceremonials they swear loyalty to the British Queen and in their operations they take their orders from US Special Operations Command and effectively act as death squads in foreign lands at behest of the US military.
Last year The Age in Melbourne published a report, possibly leaked by an alarmed ASIS, which revealed that troopers of 4 Squadron SAS had mounted dozens of independent secret operations over the previous year in African nations including Zimbabwe, Nigeria and Kenya. We may suppose that Libya, Syria, Somalia and Yemen are on that list too. None of these are countries with which Australia is at war.
For four years now this secrecy, and the dirty wars it hides, has been challenged by the non violent witness of a growing and determined band of Melbourne and Geelong peace activists with the support of fellows from Brisbane, Sydney ... and Peacebus too.
Queenscliff is a 19th century guesthouse town and Peace Convergence is a four day residential event in one or two of them. While not exclusively Christian, it is certainly faith based in flavour and ordained Baptist Minister, Simon Moyle of the GraceTree Community Church in Coburg, plays a major role. Also the folk of "Christian tradition" from Gembrook Retreat.
Meals and accommodation are shared and children and family are at the centre of it.
Consensus decision making prevails. A group-building training in the theory and practice of non violence led by Melbourne based peace activist, Jessica Morrison, and the Rev Moyle takes up the first day.
On the first evening this year a lantern procession led us through sleepy old Queenscliff to the police-guarded Swan Island gates singing "This little light of mine..." Here a video.
Nightly we Skyped the Afghan Peace Volunteers in Kabul who are grateful and in awe of our courage. At the gate the children read out a testimony they had sent. "We do not want war. We want to live in peace. We want all the foreign soldiers to leave..."
The enchantment of lantern light and the harmony of song was so sweet in that still night, every heart was softened. It drew in and drew out both police and security guards and it sure augured well for our non violent struggle to come next day.
The first blockade at Swan Island took place in March 2010. With seix in support , four calling themselves the Boenhoffer Four swam to the island. While Simon Reeves and Jacob Bolton blockaded the inner gate holding up a banner "Closed. War out of order", Jessica Morrsion and Simon Moyle entered the base. All four were charged with tresspass on Commonwealth land.
Their tresspass later charges were dismissed in the Geelong Magistrates court in October 2010, where upon the offenders went straight back to the Swan Island gates with supporters and another nine people were arrested blockading.
The first actual Swan Island Peace Convergence as such was in 2011 - timed to coincide with the resistance to the Talisman Sabre military exercises. About 30 showed, but in the bitter cold of July, there were never more than 20 at the gate. These were met by a containment force of approximately 180 police including water police, the dog squad and mounted police.
Twelve arrests were made. The arrestees were later to earn light sentences and the expressed admiration of a Geelong court magistrate. More importantly the practice of Gandhian transparency and respectful negotiation won the trust of the police. Like most of the Australian population, most police members also want Australian troops out of the US war on Afghanistan.
In 2012 forty people came to Peace Convergence blockade and were met by just 12 local police who made a token effort to drag activists clear from the gate without making arrests. But the activists immediately returned to blockading. The cops soon gave up and declared the road closed for the two days. I was there and a witness to the turning moment in that determined but respectful struggle. I counted 25 cars turned away.
This year even fewer police were on duty and the SAS/ASIS had planned for a two day shut down.
As negotiated, at 7 am on the morning of Thursday 28 July, forty peace activists assembled at the gate with banners and song. They had done this on the previous day too. Our blockade was uncontested by the cops. No vehicles entered, or attempted to enter. the base.
Some SAS types in civvies tried to get to their dirty work aboard boats but these were challenged with a brief tussle at the jetties. The police arrived and negotiated a peace which saw the SAS types depart, their intentions thwarted.
Decoying a photo opportunity we gathered close in front of the gate with banners. Through the grid a tent peg turned the bolt and from underneath a hand lifted it. With a divine CLANG! the gate swung open. Without doubt or hesitation and still singing, a valiant 17 strode onto the bridge.
The cops, caught by surprise, ran after and managed to restrain and return two almost immediately. Three more were caught at the second security gate at the far side of the bridge. By wading around this gate, the other 12 entered the base itself ... and sat down to plant a vine and fig tree.
Back at the first gate, we 'non arrestibles' were also caught by surprise and wonder. How could it be so easy to breach security of the toppest of secret bases?
This is what i have learned from these faith based, non violent actions for peace: expect miracles. The hand of God at work - seas part and gates open.
Amazing! Such was the power of our love that, even in this time of rampant militarism and the systemic infiltration and subordination of the our armed forces by the US military, the most vicious of our spooks and assassins could neither defend their base nor hide their murder from the light of truth.
Our witness concluded with the planting of the vine and fig tree, returned from inside the base courtesy of the cops, by the Swan Island gate. A symbolic act, the trees might not long survive the mowers. But the image now embedded in our hearts.
An inner circle of children dug the hole, planted and watered the saplings while an outer circle of adults sang over and over in sweet harmony the traditional "Everyone neath the vine and fig tree / Shall live in peace and unafraid / And into ploughshares beat their swords / Nations shall learn war no more."
More tears in eyes as the wind raised waves on the bay.
So dear to me is that song. Awash i was with memories of the recent Rockhampton Ploughshare trial. So dear to me that communion of peace makers, breaking bread by the bay.
And it's a happening thing and growing, friends. Accommodation for 75 has been booked for the September school holidays 2014.
27 September 2012
And at this action, what brought the greatest joy to this old man's heart? The love and respect accorded to him as an elder by both young and old. Here portraits of eight of the participating young woman recorded by photographer, Jon Osborne. What grace and strength.