It would be fair to say the anti-war movement in Australia has been struggling, particularly since the invasion of Iraq in 2003. When governments decided to go to war despite the largest demonstrations the world has ever seen, many people declared the situation hopeless and simply gave up. Coupled with the rise of online activism, getting people to actively resist war in an embodied way has been a great challenge. At the end of September, however, a group of just 40 people demonstrated that small numbers are no barrier to successful nonviolent action by blockading the entrance of one of the most significant military bases in Australia over two days.
Organizers had planned a five-day convergence at the Swan Island military base in southern Victoria from September 23 to 27. The first day was spent making banners for visual impact, getting to know one another and learning about the latest developments in the war in Afghanistan — as well as how this particular base contributes to the war there.
The entire next day was spent in trainings, from theory in the morning to blockading tactics in the afternoon. An arrest workshop was also run to answer questions people might have about the process or about legal implications. All of this combined provided the tools to reduce people’s fears, particularly for first-timers. After dark, the children led us on a lantern walk to the gates of the base, where they read the words of the Afghan Peace Volunteers: “We wish to live without wars” and “Love is how we ask for peace.”
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On the third day we rose early and took up position at the gate. Police emerged from the shadows, but only 10 to 15 in number. With 40 of us, about 15 of whom were prepared to risk arrest, we thought we stood a good chance of holding the space for longer than we had in previous years.
The first round of cars appeared around 6 a.m. Springing into the star formations we had practiced the day before, we felt strong and ready for arrest. Police gave the formal direction to move; some moved, but most didn’t. Police then waded in, extracting us one by one from the line and tossing us to the side of the road. In the struggle, a few cars made it through.
Round two went much the same, though this time we had found a way to make it more difficult to pull us apart. By this time it was becoming obvious that they were not arresting us, despite our refusing to comply with police directions to vacate the road, and despite making them pull us away from the entrance. Ordinarily one warning would be sufficient to arrest, but we’d had several.
At about 7 a.m. police decided to hold all cars until 8 a.m. to save them from continually pulling us off the road each time a car came. Within an hour cars were lined up all the way down the street and around the corner. Finally, at 8 a.m., police again moved in to remove us from the road.
One by one they extracted each person from the line; one by one we returned to the road. It was physically demanding, but no one panicked, and no one ran or pushed; it was simply a calm but determined walk back to the road wherever a gap appeared in the police line. It was reminiscent of the films of civil rights sit-ins in which, as one activist was arrested, another would calmly take their place. Each time the police looked up from pulling us apart, they found the person they had just removed locked back on to someone on the line. After about 15 minutes of struggle, the officer in charge called it quits.
“It’s not working,” he was overheard telling each car in the line to access the base. The cars were forced to turn around and drive away. We later learned they had been forced to hire boats to ferry people across to the island, but by this time a significant period of time had elapsed. Meanwhile, we held the gate.
It remained that way for almost two days — despite another attempt to remove us on Wednesday morning, we persevered for long enough that no cars made it through. Knowing we would be there again, only a fraction of the usual cars even attempted access that day, and there was no one to be seen at the docks either.
This was the first successful small group blockade of a facility that I have seen where mechanical locking devices were not used. Large blockades, such as were held at the World Economic Forum in Melbourne in 2000 had successfully held, as have smaller ones which used devices such as D-Locks, chains or handcuffs, but small ones using only bodies and willpower are usually dismantled fairly quickly.
We have targeted the Swan Island military base and its contribution to the war in Afghanistan four times since March 2010, when four activists gained entry to the base, two blocking the gate and two moving inside to disrupt its workings by switching off equipment. After the subsequent trial in October 2010 we returned with 30 people, nine of whom blockaded the gate. We then returned in July 2011 to attempt a four-day blockade. The movement has now grown from the original four to around 70 people, including a growing number of locals.
Swan Island is a secretive base that houses the Australian Secret Intelligence Service (ASIS) Australia’s international spies, and a clandestine Special Forces regiment known as Special Air Service Regiment 4 (SASR 4). This regiment was top secret until earlier this year when a special investigation uncovered its existence, and the fact that as well as operating in Afghanistan, it operates in countries with which Australia is not at war, including Nigeria, Kenya and Zimbabwe.
In July 2011, the police responded to our presence with what they called “Operation Swan 2,” involving 180 police present 24 hours a day for six days. The contingent included water police, the mounted branch and the dog squad. Somewhat embarrassed by this overreaction to what was rarely more than 20 nonviolent activists at the gate at any one time, the local police took charge of the operation this time.
So why did this succeed where others had not? A number of factors played a part:
- More people were willing to risk arrest than usual. By concentrating those prepared to risk arrest on one day rather than spreading them over four days as we did last year, we raised the stakes for police, who would have to arrest, transport and process more people than they were prepared for.
- Activists were well prepared, having had a whole day of training and role-plays beforehand. This raised confidence, which in turn enabled a more determined effort to return to the road and a more disciplined, calm approach.
- Another factor with this base is there is only one land entrance — a single gate. This makes blockading considerably easier as all efforts can be concentrated in one place.
- The operational decision by police not to arrest was a curious one. Our assumption is that the Defence Department ordered the no-arrest policy in order to keep the event quiet in the media. If that was the case, it backfired spectacularly, as more media than ever took up the story of this successful anti-war blockade. Other possibilities are that they underestimated our determination or numbers, and simply didn’t have the numbers to arrest and process this many people. Or perhaps this was a way the police could be supportive of our actions without appearing to be so. After all, if 72 percent of Australians want the troops home, as polls indicate, there are bound to be a number of police included in that figure. Regardless, it enabled us to be at full strength for the entire time, which in turn enabled the blockade to remain.
Building communities of nonviolent praxis like this demonstrate that it is possible to have significant tactical wins with small groups. We don’t need to wait for mass movements to emerge, we can take actions that make the most of small numbers. Such groups can apply active, determined and persistent disruptive tactics, while remaining disciplined and calm, and be effective. Not only that, but the sense of camaraderie and fun that was built over the week made it an attractive place to be, an essential part of sustaining this kind of action. Indeed, it is communities that embody the kind of cooperative relationships that make such radical action attractive, and which are effective enough to demonstrate the creative potential of people power.