Talisman Sabre 2009 –
the Resistance, in context with the Convergence and the Celebration.
I did a first draft of this story one week after I finished my civil disobedience trespass the Shoalwater Bay military exercise area in July 2009. My mind was full of tactical and strategic information about nonviolence intervention, and related things I’d seen that can be improved. I was also asking myself how to help further build a peace movement that encompasses and supports creative interventionary NVDA.
Since then I’ve had four weeks of rest, re-approaching “normality”, processing my thoughts and feelings, dealing with the legal consequences, and organising my future with the Department of Corrections. Time for a final draft to post for discussion. Aug 2009
Exercise Talisman Sabre is thousands and thousands of Australian and US troops studying and practicing war.
My 2009 was an experiment in faith-based affinity groups carrying out interventionary NVDA. Small groups of Christian and/or Gandhian activists started arriving in Yeppoon on July 1 to carry out acts of resistance against the war games, and against the wars Australia is now engaged in. As a support base we created the Martin Luther King Jr House of Christian Nonviolence at Yeppoon (try saying that quickly with a mouthfull of wheatbix).
During July 2009 there were two other major components of a “Peace Convergence” that mobilised both broad opposition to the war-games and community support for implementing a culture of peace. They were the Committed to Change Festival (C2C) at Byfield (July 4-6), and the Peace Convergence held in Rockhampton and Yeppoon (July 10-12).
There were support and solidarity actions in most capital cities in Australia.
This article is an attempt to analyse the strengths and weaknesses of what happened around Exercise Talisman Sabre in July 2009, and speculate upon how our actions might be made better in the future.
Some of the thinking will be critical (because there are areas of work and relationship in the peace movement that really need some attention). All I can ask is that if you see yourself as being subject to this critical attention, try not to take it personally.
The foundation judgement I make about this year’s convergence is the same conclusion I came to in 2007.
The good work and good intentions of hundreds of people went into opposing these war-games and raising the folly of our current wars for public attention. Every person who worked towards that goal – whether in Central Queensland, or in the cities and regions from which people came – deserves acknowledgment and respect.
The three major streams of action:
Committed to Change (C2C)
Peace Convergence (PC)
Martin Luther King house (MLK)
are very different from each other.
C2C is an expression of what Gandhi called “the positive program”.
Being the change you want to see in the world. As I understand it this festival attracted around 300 people to Byfield, and was a celebration of the new and old peace cultures which many in the “peace movement” feel provide the template for a peaceful society. An early message I got from organisers and attendees at this festival was a particular concern to avoid the “taint” of negativity and negatively focussed direct action. As a result I stayed away.
A key source of my information about this festival was Graham Dunstan, who runs the Peace Bus and took up support roles across all three streams of peace-making. Graham reports that the feeling at the festival was inspiring and nurturing for those who participated. As a by-product they produced artworks that were used in subsequent PC and MLK events. As an exercise in community building it was a major success. It lost money, and exhausted some key local supporters but every indication I have is that it was a worthwhile exercise.
Somewhat more critically, the change in focus for the Byfield people came in part out of some disappointment with the 2007 PC, which in turn appears to have emerged out of problems with money and accountability. As I understand the conflict the Yeppoon “Embassy” in 2007 was more expensive, and consumed more human resource than had been expected – and the out-of-town PC organisers were unable to find sufficient additional resource to satisfy local expectations. I don’t know enough about what happened back then to comment usefully, except to observe that these “old” issues were not dealt with sufficiently or effectively at the time. Nor did we have the kind of communication and strategising processes in place to deal with them better during the lead up to ’09.
For many reasons (including my own health) there was little clear space to engage between C2C organisers and MLK organisers about the reasons Gandhi promoted not only the positive program, but also the resistance. [The forces of exploitation and domination (state or private) will attack the embryo “good society” once they perceive it as a threat, and deny oxygen and resource for its development. The place of the resistance is to constrain those exploitative forces, and help provide space/pursue empowerment for those who would live peacefully and justly.]
Under all these circumstances the C2C festival must be counted as a sensible and successful strategy for Byfield locals, reaching out to their cultural confreres across Australia. Byfield locals remain an important constituent of any national organisation to address Talisman Sabre and it’s like. C2C must also count as a success in developing the national and global networks of counter culture.
PC is an expression of more traditional organising from the left – around the presentation of analysis about the politics of war, and the expression of opinion about the need to end our contemporary wars.
The turnout for PC ’09 was perhaps one fifth to one quarter of the turn-out in ’07, but it still succeeded in drawing 70 or more people from around Australia (mostly east coast) and garnering some media attention in Sydney, Brisbane, Melbourne and the other Capitals. The international (Judith LeBlanc) and national (Jake Lynch) guest speakers were high quality, and many of those attending were a prime audience in the sense that they are already committed peace-makers looking for next steps to take in the journey of becoming more powerful.
I’m a bit averse to the (for want of a better word) “left” orientation of much of the rhetoric, and I find it difficult to engage with concepts of “movement building” that don’t articulate a strategy and some tactics for getting to there from here. One of the reasons I left University was to escape words like “hegemony” and “problematise”, especially when they are used in the absence of meaningful action to create change.
Nevertheless it was mostly enjoyable to hear good minds analyse complex issues with a view to better understanding them.
The peace parade and concert in Yeppoon attracted a good number of Yeppoon and Byfield locals in support, and was where the PC and C2C met. The PC “actions” were a bit daggy and diffuse, but were very well stage dressed by Graham and the Peace Bus crew. Arrests were minimised and media effective.
On a purely pragmatic level from the point of view of MLK house, the PC collected 70 people for us to demonstrate our NVDA practice and strategy to for consideration. We started a discussion at the public meeting that made many of our own people very happy in terms of promoting further development, and we received much positive feedback from PC participants. I might be kidding myself, but I detected moves towards mutual accommodation and the easing of suspicion during this Peace Convergence.
Somewhat more critically I would point to a general failure to engage with Rockhampton locals (a failure that affected all groups to some extent), and I’m wondering why the PC made its decision to move back to Rockhampton from Yeppoon.
I’m also thinking that much went well this year, and there is room for closer cooperation in 2011.
One issue I’m thinking about is what resource would it take to conduct one or more large public meetings in Rockhampton, so that Judith LeBlanc is speaking to 800 locals she wouldn’t normally have access to?
I’m sure we could figure out how to do this. 2009 was the first time I’ve played with public relations in Rockhampton, and notice a great potential for engaging with the murris and the broader community. I’d like to organise a good old-fashioned debate with the RSL.
Number Two issue is how to build attendance at public rallies and other actions in the Capital Cities and Regional centres?
Find people who aren’t going to central Queensland, but who are well informed and able to help organise one or two creative rallies or events leading up to and during Talisman Sabre.
MLK House is an expression of committed direct action in both the Gandhian and Christian traditions.
In Gandhian terms, we are the resistance. Our first priority is to physically intervene into the war-game, changing its nature. Personal and political empowerment comes second, and media/public relations third.
In 2009 the main tactical direction was to trespass on the site during the live-firing phase of the exercise and force the military to change the nature of their exercise and stop the live-firing. Other actions were more symbolic, but all except one involved closing gates and blockading vehicles to have a small but direct impact on the conduct of the exercise. In 2009 MLK House saw 17 full participants (8 of whom trespassed, and 2 of whom were arrested in blockade actions), and 11 fringe participants (3 of whom trespassed, and 2 of whom took other arrestable action). Those not arrested played support roles.
We succeeded in our primary objective and brought live firing to a stop for eight days. We succeeded moderately in personal and network empowerment, but with major criticisms able to be made about our failures in communication, process, and interpersonal relations (see below for more detail). We got major attention from local media, and minor attention from national media. Indymedia was used for communicating with the convicted.
On a personal note I feel we enjoyed major success with police liaison, and to a lesser extent with military liaison. Queensland Police set up a four-member liaison group, composed of trained negotiators, whose job was to maximise public safety, and good order. Sometimes that translated into Police assisting us with protection from a certain “redneck” element, such as when we portrayed a dead family on Sunday 5 July at the public expo of war machinery in Rockhampton.
Sometimes it translated into Police surveillance of us as we prepared for entry into the site, and a fairly constant strand of intelligence gathering in both directions as we each tried to prevail in out-guessing and out-manouvering each other. Safety of protestors and public was the meeting ground from which we were able to forge a useful and respectful relationship. See the Security and Military sections below for the weaknesses and errors that WE contributed to this dynamic.
The nature of interventionary direct action can be confronting, and there’s a good deal of misunderstanding by general members of the public, media workers, and other elements of the “peace movement” – in addition to the efforts of our ideological opponents who deliberately seek to misrepresent us. Rather than complain about that lack of understanding I feel we have to do better outreach and explanation – and I feel we laid a pretty good base for this work during the 2009 exercise.
As far as I can see there is NO good reason why the three strands of approach can’t cooperate with each other and strengthen each other. Each group could easily make space for the others (feature speakers, cross-promote programs, enter discussions) and indeed use the cross-fertilisation to build and strengthen their own actions.
I know that some people in the leadership from each strand will say that there was some cooperation, and they’d be right. But from my perspective the cooperation was minimal, and it took place against a background of gossip, criticism and interpersonal sniping that is very unattractive and unhelpful.
No one person or group is solely responsible for this.
So instead of condemning anyone for their human foibles, we might hold them out instead as an example of the “difficult” personalities we must all learn to deal with. Not everyone can be as problem-free, flexible, cooperative and easy going as me.
If we are to build closer relations, and take advantage of the opportunities for synergy, we’ll have to do much better at certain things than we did in 2009.
1/ We have to stop limiting ourselves to individual rights and judgements about what “we” will or will not do. There is no individual action. There is no boundary that separates what I do from what you do. What each of us does affects the abilities and possibilities of action for all others. We have to build resolution and discussion processes that allow for greater understanding and responsibility to collective aims. We have to match individual rights to community responsibilities.
2/ This doesn’t mean we have to become “one big happy family” – which is any event a myth. I don’t know of a family (big or small) in which all the members are happy with each other all the time. It does mean we have to build processes which allow problems to be named and dealt with. Everyone has to school themselves to listen to constructive criticism without getting defensive or striking back.
3/ Likewise everyone has to school themselves to keep criticism constructive, and to stop negative gossip whenever it occurs. A simple “stop that!” when people embark on the third or fourth rehearsal about why someone who’s not there is “fucked” – would work to enormously improve the dynamics within and between groups.
4/ One resource we had some of at MLK House were the wise heads and hearts who set themselves up to keep the peace between our own members when conflicts occurred. NOT to avoid conflict, but to manage it so that it turned its attention to nurturing and productive outcomes. Further developing and employing these resources must be part of our long term movement building.
Again on a personal note I watched several key activists make some acknowledgement and movement towards resolution in the last week/few days of the exercise. I’m not naive enough to believe this automatically means an end to those particular conflicts, but it does make me hope for a better future. I noticed that having MLK House available until after the end of “action” and “the exercise” meant that we could then do some bridge-building and relationship repairing away from the hothouse time pressures of action every day.
One of our members made the suggestion that a weekend workshop on these and related issues ought occur between and among the leaderships of each stream some months BEFORE the next peace camp happens.
Oh yeah, some personal repentance would be alright too.
In the preceding story I used the expression “leadership” as if it has a meaning we all know and understand. How I wish it were so.
In nonviolence theory leadership is a role that anyone can play in appropriate circumstances. It consists of a person taking responsibility to ensure that the activities they are involved in go well. That might range from an expert (like myself) in Police liaison setting up the processes and understanding to allow good relations with Police to blossom – to a complete neophyte seeing an opportunity or process that someone more rigid might miss (let’s go down to that gate”, or “let’s use red cloth instead of paint”).
So the challenge is to build as much leadership as we can, by valuing the insights and responsibilities of every participant, and at the same time by paying due respect to, and sharing, knowledge that has been built through experience.
Leadership is also about service. Exercised in the interests of group purpose, and with accountability to the group served, leadership is vital.
A continuing dynamic within the peace movement is to confuse leadership with hierarchy and condemn it out of hand. “If you display more knowledge than I have, you’re oppressing me and trying to impose control” sort of thing. I bet you can tell that I’m well over trying to offer skill, knowledge, resource and support for the conduct of a month long course of direct action, only to be told over and over again that as an older white man I’m completely fucked and don’t understand nothing. Over it. Really over it.
Sorry about that. I don’t know what is to be done, except that the culture we build along with our movement has to recognise, value and build leadership with as much integrity as we can. The three youngest participants in MLK House (Emily Nielsen 19, Yulangi Bardon 21, and Culley Palmer 21) all displayed leadership of the highest quality. All three trespassed effectively with great courage, skill and determination, all for the longest times, and I would be happy to support and participate in any actions they organise in future.
Security, Police Liaison and Military Liaison
I’m personally involved in this issue, and may have trouble seeing it clearly, but I’d identify it as a heavily conflicted field in which major changes need to occur as we build our movement.
Three groups, a total of 11 people, trespassed on the exercise area and brought live-firing to a stop. 2 people ran a blockade on the Green route, and stopped five semi-trailers carrying equipment into the area, along with 7 or 8 4WDs carrying army personnel.
The thing I notice about this is that all actions and entry was carried out successfully despite advance notice to authorities. The security state in Australia is unable to prevent civil disobedience (within present political constraints). In the absence of violence and/or any violent intent, there are no powers of preventive or pre-emptive arrest. The Police and/or security resources don’t exist to follow us 24/7 and can’t be justified to prevent a little political dissent.
Now at the same time the Police threw a little low-level harassment at us. Following cars and doing license/identity checks. Surveilling houses where we were known to be staying. A few taunts, like the Frenchmen in Monty Python’s Holy Grail. They probably did background checks on us too.
What absolutely amazed me was the response by activists if they thought Police liaison was “compromising their security” and “threatening their chances of getting in”. I was attacked twice, and had plans changed on me once, by people I thought were in control of themselves but who turned out to be “desperately paranoid” (this is probably an exaggeration).
For me the worst case scenario was that Police action might delay one of our actions by a few hours or up to a day. The physical reality (90 kilometres of cattle fence and a maze of access roads) meant that entry could not be prevented. Police roadblocks were expensive, and only made things slightly more inconvenient. The trespass strategy is a perfect example (like the salt march) of one which is really difficult to frustrate just because it’s known. For any frustration to take place we had to collude with it and enable it – so I was amazed when we did just that.
For example the first group in – the Bonhoeffer 4 – did limited advance work with the military, the Police, and the media. They kept all entry details confidential until after they were in out of security fears. The support group they left behind constructed a neutral (and unbelievable) formula of declaring to the military that they had received a media release claiming the group had gone in, along with photos of the group next to a prohibition sign. The support group denied witnessing any entry, and made no specific reference to where entry might have been. A plan to prove entry by releasing balloons went wrong.
In response the military chose to disbelieve the support group – just as they had under identical circumstances in 2007.
Inside the area, the Bonhoeffer 4 became increasingly concerned to “prove” their presence by taking photos of troop movements, and got caught early as a result. Their trespass lasted 30 hours instead of a planned 4 days.
Now just to put things into perspective, this isn’t a catastrophic failure. It’s a minor error that can be avoided next time.
When the Bonhoeffer 4 were detected inside the area the military option of denial evaporated, and there were two more groups ready to go. I’ll claim some credit here in doing advance work with Police, military and media that made highly credible claims of intended entry which were believed and which the military could not deny. We went into the area on Thursday 16 July, and that was the day live-firing stopped. Members of the second two groups remained undetected in the exercise area for the next 10 days – so live firing never started up again.
What did happen was that the military claimed that live firing was scheduled to stop anyway, and that trespassers had no effect. This was a lie, but no-one in the support groups had sufficient military knowledge to call it, and local knowledge was not called upon either. This was a golden opportunity missed, and I can’t help but feel that a little less acquiescence to paranoia, and a little more faith in our clarity of purpose, might have aided us in claiming a substantial victory. Oh well. Maybe in 2011.
One reason Police is such a knotty issue relates to the historical dimension. In the 80s in Australia the “Church of Nonviolence” made a creditable attempt to break down paranoia and forge a new kind of relationship with Police. This attempt contained within it certain seeds of failure that poisoned the debate, and which resonate still today.
The Church made much of psychologising Police, and claimed that liaison was about “de-roleing” and “converting” serving Police officers. They also claimed that perfect open-ness and full disclosure was required to achieve these ends.
I want to put forward some either ideas.
Firstly the Police Service is an institution, and not amenable to individual psychological analysis. It is the job of Police to protect the social stability of systems of warfare and oppression. The phenomenon of conversion will be so rare as to be useless as a goal in any program of social change. Having said that, the potential for violence/abuse against activists can be markedly reduced by decent liaison and it should be used for this reason.
Secondly full disclosure serves to enable Police to frustrate an action. What I have found that works is full disclosure of intent. E.g. “we will trespass on the live fire zones and make live-firing unsafe, so as to force the military to stop it”. At the same time details critical to success (time, entry point, route) are kept confidential and electronic security is maintained. At Pine Gap in 2005, and at Shoalwater Bay in 2009 this technique has been shown to work.
Truth, Lies and Power
One feature of Talisman Sabre 2009 was the extent of lying by the military. They are accomplished and practiced liars who use disinformation as one of their tools. One thing I noticed is that the press statements about the cessation of live-firing were made by US military officers. (It might be thought poor form for Australian military officers to lie directly to the Australian public. That’s what politicians are for.)
Margaret came up with a class analysis of the three trespass groups which posited the Bonhoeffer 4 as middle class, and therefore prone to believing the lies. The Jaeganstaetter 3 and the Grana 4 were all working class and didn’t believe the lies at all, but were inside and out of communication when the worst lying about us and our presence was being done.
Since we came out there’s been some correction, but we lost the momentum in there somewhere and it’s never fully coming back. So we have to better prepare for TS11.
My final point in this long rave is that we all need to have much more confidence in our ability to detect and cling to truth – our truth, God’s truth, the truth of reality all around us. We need to be much less distracted by the lies and fabrications of those forces we oppose.
To do this we need to practice our truths, and build wider and deeper knowledge about the problems we seek to solve. To counter the military strategy we need to understand it. For this, and to communicate with the soldiers, we need to listen as well as preach.
There are so many stories from TS09 about personal encounters with the soldiers, and the power people felt in such personal contact. I haven’t said much about that here. What I’ve written is what’s “on top” for me after 4 weeks of pretty daunting effort, so I’m keen to read and hear the responses – particularly about what people think is a sensible and more effective strategy for next time.