Saturday, March 26, 2005

This is What Democracy Looks Like Part 2

I won't bore you with details of the chants cried at ducks in the Adelaide Parks en route to Chez Vanstone - or Van-Heart-of-Stone as she became in our taunts.

Whenever I return to Sydney from a visit to the inlaws I always think "Oh My god, Sydney is such a country town". Well after Friday I realised that Adelaide is much more of a country town. When we pulled into the main drag at 6am local time, a couple of traffic cops showed up and escorted our buses to the nearest 24 hour pancake restaurant (the only place open) and gave them clear directions of how to get to our pick up point outside of Vanstones house.

Ahh! this was the Adelaide I remembered from student conferences - oh god how long ago was it now? those friendly plods, decriminalised maryjane and Haigs chocolate. Thanks to the jesus freaks, I could only gaze and salivate at the crystalised violets and other exquisite morsels as Norrie led some yoga practice on the footpath round the corner from the pancake place. Good coffee, crap pancakes, ambiance like vienna circa olden days what with fervent socialist discourse. I did drawings of other travellers too stupified to move.

After shouting at ducks, we met cops and played dodge the video spooks. I did some drawings and tried to get justin the queer goth boy and samadhi the ubercunt zine queen to meet other Queerupters outside of Vanstones. It was morning and they were sensibly slow on the uptake. Enough of shouting and we were back on the bus bound for Baxter. We found out mid way that a Sydney boy had been arrested already.

As we headed along a landscape that Anna described as "Belgium with sunshine" the delicious coalition of dykes, anarchists, vegans and trots, produced a cultural outpouring to warm the cockles of any die hard postmodern cynic. Detourne! Detourne! the new word is Jamming, but in this case it involves a fair amount of Karaoke experience as THE CHEESIEST SONGS IN THE WORLD are converted into protest anthems. The hit of the weekend was the Pogues "bound for south Australia", but lots of others were sampled amidst giggles and shouts. I guess Norrie had set the ball rolling down cheese alley with her rendition of Advance Australia Fair belted out infront of slyly smirking coppers back at Vanstone's. Other classic hits and memories included "smells like Free spirit" (after Nirvana), "gimme a home among the gum trees" , "Nevermind" (nirvana again - hard to resist coz youcan always moan along if you can't remember the words) and highlight of horrors: Bacharach on Baxter! Close to you!!!!! Which was capped off by the sight of dolphins diving in Port Pirie as we shalalahed the final strains.

It wasn't all giggles and songs. After the news about Chris's arrest came through, we had a bit a of a discussion about self preservation and safe protesting. And for me, this is where the real leadership of members of the RAC came through. In a discussion free of ideological grandstanding various people recounted their experiences of being arrested, watching others being arested, and discussed what tactics worked and didnt' work in dealing with violence from the thin blue line. Baxter Virgins such as myself felt OK about asking dumbarsed questions and getting clear answers. and I also felt OK about admitting that I had no intention or interest in being arrested but still wanted to know who I could support others. The mood on both sydney buses was one of caution, consideration and care. People repeatedly spoke of their desire to have a positive peaceful protest, and one in which we could all feel glad to have taken part, which would generate exposure of the atrocities of the camps and hopes for their closure.

As we rounded the hill, Mark pointed out the valley where the Detention Centre was located, and the inevitable silence ensued and breaths were drawn in and tears came to some (OK mine at least) eyes. the breathtaking scenery (irresistable cliche) of treeless red hills was marred by a massive concrete water pipe gashing across the valley. Horizontal glints in the distance appeared as massive metal fences and prefab huts complemented by what looked like a massive deployment of boys in blue, boys in black and boys in beige. Legs spread in warrior poses, arms folded, heads shielded in riot helmets, they were pretty full on demonstration of state power. and so here comes the bit where I disassociate into theory because my brain actually found this scene completely incomprehensible.

But a few more adjectives first. I saw it by night, I saw it by day, from afar and up close, by daylight, moonlight, searchlight, torchlight. the cops weren't all men, some slouched, some wore lipgloss, some had moustaches, some were fat, some were skinny.All the horses were white. Can someone tell me why this was?

In seeing something completely bewildering, people usually try to make a comparison wiht something familiar - so in my mind - Robocop (especiallly at night with all the darkness and metal and flashing lights and space age uniforms) Mad Max - because of the big wide deserts and the dirt encrusted feral attire of many people, Bring It On coz of the cooordinated action moves of the State police really begged for a cheerleading response and most often - recreations of waterloo, or descriptions of waterloo - bacause really waht we were heading towards was a type of battle. Actuallly there were shades of school sports carivals coz me the bespectacled uncoordinated wimp was sitting right on the boundary watcching al the action form afar........... and it was bloody hot. there were no nuns though.

Mostly, what struck me was the absolute absurdity of it all. Maybe the nuns were present in spirit. there is a curiously catholic streak to the type of gratuitous sadism that insists that people cann only camp 4kms away from the protest sight, and can only park a further 600metres away and so have to walk all that way - even if they have had 2 knee replacements or have little kids, or are old or tired! Getting our 30kgs of camping, eating and cooking gear set up was great fun. There were other little niggling privations, the balloon bursting and kite cconfiscation pretty much summed it up. Some girl with a kite had her face grabbed and gouged by some servant of the public. Great! Overall, without running down my estimable and courageous comrades we were ppathetic. Disorganised, flakey, fluffy, sleep deprived, dehydrated. Too scattered to march together or organise ourselves NOT to be marching 4kms in the middle of the day, Having consensus meetings in the heat (GROAN), not observing who was being arrested. Sydney was reasonably aware and refreshingly free of the crazed daredevil contingent of "extreme sports" tesosterone driven radicals. Or maybe we let out all our road rage on digging pit toilets. The "extreme sports" anarchists - and there must have been about 10 of them, maybe, did such crazy things as playing cricket infront of the detention centre gates, sitting down and eating tins of baked beans - pushing the boundaries of the ban on camping outside the designated area, and worst of all - playing dodgy arsed 1990's bush doof music back at camp. Now here they really were toying with their lives. Bloody Hell!

Seriously - I'm trying to paint an image of something that was a cross between Q7 or confest even, an average camping trip and a student conference. Hardly the stuff of serious threats to the state. And yet we had 3 massive Police forces lined up against us., including the private seurity force of the detention centre, the South Australian police and their special crack STAR squad. Someone said they reckoned there would have been one cop for every demonstrator - I reckon they outnumbered us. And each time the weird robocops on black slowly stalked towards us, they provoked a running retreat - most people were understandably shitscared of them.

This was the image that was plastered across the media. Smelly sweaty protesters being bewaten by police. All of us looking like some freaky masochistic marginal loons, or particulaury foolhardy martyrs to the cause. Mum said my aunts were looking for me on the TV footage, but I kept well back. Apart from a fear of confrontation, I was dressed in purple dungarees, a check shirt and AN UMBRELLA HAT and I didn't want my sartorial failures to be spread across national television. It sounds pathetic, and I guess it seems a bit odd to describe protestor chic when people I knew were being trampled by horses, but it still amuses me how important it is for people to garb ourselves in certain ways for certain situations. Some one wrote into the baxter chatsite spewing forth against protestors wearing PLO scarves and other terrorist garb. (fucking ragheads!) This is less a statement of fashion as contemporayr misfortune. Each day the police would arrest more people, and restricitons woudl get tighter and tighter. there were cameras everywhere, cops taking photos form barricades, buildings and the upbiquitous helicopter. Ususally the pereson who would push the envelope on one day or morning, and seemingly gt off scot free, would find themselves being rounded up, cahsed and arrested as they were walking alone a few days later. Rags on the head, face scarves and floppy hats are one way to resist the type of intimidation derived from constant surveillance.

And really this is where I come to the real theoretical lesson of the weekend. At least for me. The Baxter 05 protest was about resisting intimdation. the police response was designed primarily to scare us (the protestors) and scare all our friends, family, colleagues and political allies. At Baxter the thin blue line revealed itself as a massive steel fortress. Every single person in that valley knew there was no way in hell that we could have done what was done at Woomera in 2002. The perimeter fence was a symbolic little farm fence about a km out from the real border fence which was 9meters high, thick steel and electrified. Veterans from Baxter 03 said they had found the police actions incredibly demoralising, and this year they made us constantly aware that we were only conditionally allowed a certain limited number of concessions becasue they had the power to grant or deny them.

As an educated white skinned bespectacled australian my experience of police harrassment is thankfully minimal. I know I can do the crawly nerdy girl act and even the most hardened agents of state brutality will respect me (at least so far). If I was 10 years younger and male (especially with my hair colour), if my skin colour was chocolate rahter than beige, this would probably be different. I am still amazed at how many australian activists talk about trying to get arrested, like it is something cool, tough and heroic. People who grow up with police harrassment usualy do everything to avoid getting arrested. I see this as sane. anyway, entering into the Baxter protest, what we faced was not an external line off police or state control, what we faced at these margins of Australian society was to be enclosed within the net of state power. I'm going to sound like a complete wanker by citing Jacques Derrida here but fuck it. I am doing a PhD and I should be albe to toss on about Dead French Philosphers. Jacques Derrida wrote a lot of complicated and enigmentic things that have kept a lot of poeple arguing about him in language that few people can understand. ths bits that I think I like in his writing (as it has been read by femininsts) is his discussion of the margins. Derrida argued that power is enforced at the margins, society is defined at its margins. Michel Foucault probably wrote this too. I read discipline and punish last year and fell asleep repeatedly. forgive me.

What I'm trying to explore by the above theoretical dalliance is that the law isn't a black and white issue of who is an outlaw and who is a law abiding ccitizen. The nation state isn't a simple matter of citizens versus non citizens. Who is or isn't accepteable to society is something confused and contested. I'm assuming that most of my friends reading this would think off themselves as law abiding, respectable, decent, but all of us have probably broken the law at some time? even if we've never been caught. For people on the margins of society, it is almost impossible to break the law and not get caught. The law exist precisely to remind people on the margins of society that their very existence is a problem. Looka thte massive overpolicing of aboriginies? why does this happen? what the protesters unerwent at Baxter, was to enter this zone of marginality, to be constantly surveiiled, harrassed, threatened by the police. Most of us came no where near any violence, and saw less of it than people watching TV. all of us were aware however that we could have been arrested, or had our tents smashed in or been hit just for being in the wrong place at the wrong time, or for holding a kite, a pocket knife, a spray can or some other minor and arbitrary infraction.

I believe that what the Howard government is trying to do with mandatory detention is to establish the existance of "Non" citizens - of those who do not exist and who do not have rights. this type of weird extermination is horrifying and it is eerily redolent of the "extermination" policies of Nazi german, but what is more horrifying is what happens around the line drawn between the real citizens and the non citizens. For the Baxter protestors, we enter a littoral zone between the ordinary austrlaina tax payer and the excluded detainees. this is what the media does. It ignores the fact that most of the protestors ALSO pay taxes, and the fact that most tax payers oppose mandatory detention of asylum seekers.there is an attempt to separate us, to hive us off somehow from ordinary australians. that is why is was so important and funny to use banal auussie songs, like "Gum Trees" and John williamson's "true blue" as part of our protest.

The other scary and little reported fact is what happens when the net of law enforcement spreads. Baxter isn't very far from the largiht town of Port Augusta. guess what all those STAR squad coppers get up to on their time off? I'm not trying to accuse anyone, but draw a parallel between the massive increase in aboriginal deathes in custody, aboriginal arrests and aboriginal harrasssmnet in the Port augusta area, and the massive influx of South australian police into the Baxter area. Which left alll the road rage freaks get off scot free! I've added this section because local Aboriignies welcomed to the tradidiotnal country where the camp is, but also asked for our support in protesting against the intensified police harrassment and racist attacks that they are facing.

SO on the sunday afternoon, hot and bothered form another mid morning march, the Baxter camp headed into PArt August for a rally and march and swim. A local aborignal woman came up to Anna and screamed abuse at her for interfering, saying that the prrotest would only make matters worse for local aboriginies by fueling the resentment of the whites. since then some refugee advocates have said the same thing about the baxter protests. "you'll only stir up trouble and make it worse for everyone" a familiar catch cry isn't it?

So why bother? there are a few reasons. the first night, we wandered down to the detention centre for camp in the cool crisp full moon. the camp was even more surreal by night than by day, and as lead protesters crossed the water pipe and then the fence, the rest of us followed chanting all the way. down at the main gatess we all started singing and screaming as loud as we could. there was a minutes silence to see if the refugees heard us. then a roar of victory as it was discovered that they had. as the chopper circled and the riot squads advanced, we linked arms and faced the police as people blew bubbles into the night air and we screamed with all our might "this is what democracy looks like1 this is what democracy looks like!" It was a bleakly ironic accusation, and as my rage poured out from my stomach I found the earlier sobs whihc had caught in my throoat come pouring out as well - as clear strong loud words. "this is what democracy looks like!" and I realised with a certain joy, amongst friends, feeling our strength and courage as the police lines retreated, that this is what democracy does look like. Democracy is the right to dissent, to protest, to disagreement. this is not a right that can be guaranteed by cconsitutions alone but one that has to articulated, acted apon, used, repeated, and defended. democracy has to be felt and exercised like life itself.

Like I said I am one of the gutles protestors that always hangs back at any forward advance. But once a space is cleared I like to run forward and take my place, and enjoy the freedoms fought for by others braver and stronger than I am. for me, Baxter was absolutely about claiming such a space. It is possible and necessary to go to such protests in the badlands of a Mad Max setting in the expectation of a peaceful exercise of our democratic right and our humanitarian duty to oppose oppression. It might not always be so easy but it is now. If the camps are still here I hope to see you there next year!


armedpoet said...

Nice rant..

Seeyou there in 2006.

Or hopefully in the storming of parliament..


norrie mAy-welby said...

Hey mayhem, thanks for the credit and the inspiration.. I too now have a blogspot, with some observations post my kite-flying career cut short so cruelly (cry cry).

I might see you at the Villawood demo 10:30am Sunday 10 April.

or at the rally at Downing Centre on Tuesday 12 April to support the heroes who assisted refugees to escape futher detention.

Here's info on those events from a post at

Subject: [RACNSW] RACNSW follow-up actiions to Baxter protest


just wanted to let people know of the next actions we planned for Sydney after the success of our actions at Baxter last weekend.

(1) Protest at Villawood detention centre - for the release of all asylum seekers and to condemn the DIMIA raids on schools when they snatched kids and put them into Villawood. Meet at 10.30am Sunday 10 April at Villawood
station, then march to Warraweena Rd entrance of the detention centre.

We had already planned for this protest to involve kite-flying. After the famous "Operation Pop Balloons" by the cops at Baxter, why not bring
balloons as well as kites for this protest? If you don't have either, just bring yourself, placards, banners, noise-makers, etc.

(2) Rally to support the refugee activists. 9am Tues 12 April at Downing Centre Court, cnr Liverpool and Elizabeth Sts, City

On 1 December 2004, Australian Federal Police and DIMIA officers raided the homes of several refugee activists. They charged four of them with signing
false passport statements.Two of the charges have already been dropped as the police realised they had no case.
The charges relate to escaped asylum seekers who left Australia rather than spend more time in detention or be deported back to serious danger.
The real crime is what goes on in the detention centres, the insecurity and uncertainty of TPVs and the prospect of deportation.
To help refugees is not a crime. ALL the charges should be dropped.

(3) Anti-deportation public meeting, 6-8pm Thursday 21 April, Teachers Federation 23-33 Mary St, Surry Hills
Phil Glendenning (Edmund Rice Centre and co-author of recent report, Deported to Danger)
Sally McManus (Australian Services Union Executive President)
Fashid (Iranian ex-detainee)
Ian Rintoul (Refugee Action Coalition)
in solidarity,