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My take on Swan Island Peace Convergence 2014

October 16, 2014

Visit swanislandpeace.org for more info:

Two weeks ago this morning (Melbourne time) 7 friends and myself were sitting in the back of a police van on one of Australia’s most secretive military spaces. 4 a Catholic Worker, a Baptist Minister, a potential fellow CPTer and one of the quietest guys I know (walk into a bar) are in good spirits. They had gotten onto Swan Island military base in the early hours of the morning, they had seen much of the secretive island, had taken many good photos and had planted seeds on the bases gardens, to represent in the Baptist Minister Simon Moyle’s words “the mustard seed of change”. In 5 years of attending the Swan Island peace convergence, this was the third successful entering of one of Australia’s most secretive bases. Another four of us, myself included, had had a slightly different experience. We had all been hooded, stripped naked and assaulted as we discovered first-hand the training techniques of the people on the island.

Swan Island first came to public attention, when in a sleepy little town on the Victorian Coast, 4 Special Air Services soldiers had died in a car crash on the way from Queenscliff, the nearest town, over the only bridge to Swan Island. Alcohol was later stated as the reason the car had driven off the narrow bridge and the men had all died.

The island is a training centre of Special Air Services (SAS) 4 Squadron. 4 Squadron was raised following the 2001 September 11 attacks. One role of 4 Squadron is to work in so called capture and kill intelligence missions. This is, finding a person reportedly linked to terrorist or insurgent activities in places like Afghanistan, Iraq and other places that Australia is secretly waging war, kidnapping them, interrogating and possibly executing them. Other groups train on the island such as Australian Security Intelligence Services (ASIS) our equivalent of the CIA. What actually happens on the island, and what the results of this training are kept very secret by the Australian government. A good reason to expose this island and Australia’s role in US led wars of aggression on poor people. The first protest took place in 2010. All actions at Queenscliff and on the island have been conducted in a spirit of non-violence, inspired in the tradition of Jesus, Gandhi, Dorothy Day and Martin Luther King Jr.

In 2010, four peace activists, distressed at Australia’s ongoing role in Afghanistan, managed to get onto the island. Two of them (Simon Moyle and Jessica Morrison) managed to get deep onto the base and shut a satellite communications system. Using all of their technical know-how, they pressed a red, clearly marked “Emergency Stop” button. They were taken to Geelong Court house where the Magistrate dismissed their charges of trespass. The group plus their supporters then returned to Queenscliff and blockaded the gate.

In 2011, the group returned. The weather was bitter according to those who were there and many activities in Melbourne and Queenscliff were planned. This year there was a large police presence including horses. Police were willing to arrest and a dozen or so protestors were arrested trying to blockade the gate. The blockade did not hold that year, but community of peace and resistance to war making were starting to build, strategies for non-violently blockading a narrow gate honed.

In 2012 (my first peace convergence) I arrived from Brisbane in a car load on the Sunday before the convergence started. I had had a long road trip from Brisbane in a crowded Urvan. The 1880 km trip with 8 other people, including navigating the alien roads of Melbourne had prepared my patience well, pushing my personal commitment to non-violence to a level I had not known previously (but would have a chance to push again soon).

Monday saw us spend a day in non-violence training. We studied, as a group of over 40, what non-violence meant to us. In the afternoon we specifically studied blockading tactics. Sitting in a line, sitting in groups arms and legs interlocked. Everyone worked together and looked after each other. All skills that served us well the next day.

We (about 35-45 protestors) arrived at the only road gate onto the base at 530 am the next day. About a dozen of us were willing to be arrested, but the police had a surprise for us. Lower police numbers and clearly orders given not to arrest, police engaged in a game of no-ball rugby. We were dragged off of the road and able to walk (or attempt to walk) back onto the road once we’d been removed. Three or so lots of cars managed to get on, but at about 830, our energy charged with not being arrested as expected and police energy waning at the sheer numbers of us and constant physical exertion, they gave up. The police declared the gates would stay closed and no more cars would get on that day. Video footage of that day and other convergences can be found on the Swan Island channel.

In 2013, the Australian Defence Force effectively shut the base down. The base, I was told later, had gone into “Stand Down” for the week of our convergence. It ran on a skeleton crew with major training weeks scheduled around our peace convergence. No cars tried to get on. Some people got on via ferry, we attempted blockades of those points, but it was clear the base had effectively closed down on the week of our convergence in order to avoid the media attention we received last year. On the last day of the blockade, 15 of us got onto the island by opening the gate and walking over the bridge. The 3 police officers were taken by surprise and tried to wrestle us back, but with 15 of us and 3 of them, there was never a doubt. 12 of us managed to get around a second gate. We walked to the main administration building of the base and planted a grape vine and a fig tree, symbolising peace and sustainability.

In 2014, the base was again closed for business on our arrival. We spent Monday in various forms of training, I did two hours of media training run by Jessica (time well spent considering what was about to happen) followed by a few hours of blockade training in the afternoon. Whilst the blockade training was good team building and great for the people who had not been before to find their way into the group, the overwhelming feeling of those of us who had been before was that we probably would not need the blockading skills this time.

I myself was feeling anticipation that Monday arvo. The Friday before, with another group, I had been detained blockading Lockheed Martin in Melbourne. For about 4 hours, a group of us had stopped people in one of the world’s largest arms manufacturers from getting to work. I was the only one detained, I spent just under an hour in the back of a police van whilst the chains were cut off of the gates. I, at that time felt good about myself. The police had seemed a little rough, but the Australian government was talking tough in bombing Iraq in support of the United States, Lockheed made planes and missiles were profiting from the death and destruction of people in Iraq because of Australian Government policies in the last 13 years and a new spike in profits was anticipated. We had made a small dent and I had done all I could that day to slow down their industry of death and ecocide.

Now here I was, a few days later with a larger group, preparing to disrupt Australian war making on a people’s who have already suffered far more than any Just God could ask from them (the Sunni Iraqi’s who were about to pay for ISIS with having their homes bombed again and special forces, some trained on Swan Island, operating in their neighbourhoods). I knew that the gates would most likely be given to us again and I was keen to escalate the disruption we caused by getting as many people onto the island as possible.

The next day, at the gates where no cars tried to get on, I started talking up crossing the small channel (20 meters or so) of ocean water and getting on the island to try and slow down whatever activity was taking place on the island. We made plans and after a few late night discussions and changes due to bad weather, 8 of agreed to go over in two groups of four on Thursday morning.

On Thursday morning, two weeks ago, before sunrise, four of us found ourselves on the (Swan) island. It was dark. I was with Dave, Sam (who had walked on with us last year) and Tim from New Zealand. We had a quick prayer to centre and organised ourselves. We had about 3km to get to the main buildings, walking up a beach. “Let’s run until sunrise” someone said. Another shook his head and said “No, it’s dark, let’s take our time and walk as best we can, slow and steady wins the race”. With that, I took two steps north and nearly fell over hard. A series of thick metallic water pipes were there, but unseeable in the pre-dawn dark.

Steadily we walked north. We thought we heard a boat a few times, and took cover but by daylight, we found ourselves outside of what appeared to be accommodation blocks. The island was nearly deserted- or so we thought. We continued walking until we came to a body of water. Looking across, we could see a large building. I tried to take several photos, but the light was not good enough yet. So we sat in the bush and tried to go over our strategy. It was agreed that we would stay as a group of four until we got to the northern end of the island. Then, we would split up into pairs to cause as much disruption as possible. We moved north through the bush. We came across a complex of buildings that indicated that we were at the northern end of the island. We got some photos of the base, posed for a banner shot and then I rang a live talk back show in Melbourne. 3AW is a conservative show and they gave me 5 minutes of air time, where I got to talk about real security and the secrecy of our government and how our actions were creating terrorism.

After that we were overcome with a bit of indecision. Most of us had not done anything like this before and there was a tension of fear in not wanting to mess up our opportunity mixed with wanting to be as effective as possible. In the end, we decided to break cover, take another couple of photos, than split up. One group heading north, the other south. As soon as the photo was taken, a car came out of one of the buildings and stopped about 30 meters away. I sent the photos out, and we split up.

A very fateful decision I now feel, had we stuck together, what happened next would have been much harder for the two men to do.

30 seconds or so after we split up, we heard another car come screeching around the corner, see us and screech to a halt. Two men in plain clothes jumped out and sprinted towards us. I turned, with my hands in the air saying “We’re non-violent peace protestors…” the man, with about a 30 meter sprint head start crash tackled me into the ground. My friend reported that I was thrown 2 meters into a fence, though I do not recall that detail. I was than on my face being cuffed one on each hand and one on each ankle. A hessian sack was placed on my head and the man declared “Welcome to the bag mother fuckers!” (the language of this process was quite sexist and homophobic, we were called faggots and girls quite often). The men were angry and throughout the next few minutes, I had my pants ripped down so I was naked, rolled onto my back and he tried to rip my tshirt off. When he couldn’t do that quickly enough he pulled the bottom of my shirt over my head. I was then lying face down, naked, hooded. The man than said “tell me how many of you there are, or I’m going to choke you out”, at this point I attempted to communicate with him.

One of my big regrets of this assault was that I fell back into violence myself. My attitude, realising that what was happening to me with white privilege must have happened to many, many people throughout the world without such privilege. I immediately had a sense of what it might feel like to have a group of strangers burst into your home and have total control over your body. Utter and total powerlessness. I had the knowledge (not always without a doubt) that what was happening to me could not last long and these people would be accountable. I can imagine now what it must feel like to not have that knowledge, the sheer terror and horror, absolute darkness in your mind. What might be happening to your family? What’s going to happen to me? These people could kill you, and there is absolutely nothing that can be done about it. It’s all in their power. What must the impact of these operations be in war zones? All of this made me determined to be tougher than the system of torture and interrogation I found myself a part of.

I went into a “you won’t win” mode. I had been taught one small lesson on interrogation and secrecy in my short time in the army. The punchline was to not talk under torture, for as long as you can. In my head, instead of trying to appeal to the human of the man who had stood on my head and tried to cause me as much pain as possible without leaving marks, I had tried to be tougher than him instead.

I said to the man after a few minutes however: “This is torture” to which he replied “I don’t give a fuck.” He then picked me up by my throat and started walking. I choked for a moment (in writing this, I became distracted and looked up choking out on Wikipedia. Scarily, it normally only takes a few seconds, the Man just wasn’t able to do it on me effectively it sounds), but didn’t feel any real threat of blacking out. I couldn’t breathe for a second or two. But as we were walking, he dropped me onto my front. I was naked, he picked me up by my wrists and dragged me about 5-10 meters to a pile of wood chips. Two weeks later, I still have pain in my right shoulder from that. I could hear what sounded like Sam being thrown around. I decided; that nothing was worth what was happening and decided I would comply. I had tried to be tougher than the guy and he was tougher than me.

My head was down on my left shoulder, I had clear vision for about 3 meters through the hood and I saw him walk towards me with a 20-25cm stick. I said “I’ll tell you whatever you need to know”. He replied “Oh, will you. How many?” (people are on the island) He accompanied each question or comment with a slap on face or head. This caused me to stumble, even though I genuinely wanted to answer. “Four of us came second” he slapped me again “Don’t try and talk, just tell me how many” I struggled to actually think for a moment, so he slapped me again “how many!?” I don’t remember the exact conversation after this, I was distressed. I know it ended with “Tell me how many or I’ll shove this stick up your arse!” I then answered “Six, no eight, there’s eight of us”. He then said “thanks” dropped the stick and walked away. I regret that, because I know now that those two probably left and went and found the other two who then underwent similar treatment.

A few minutes later I heard another voice, which I assumed from the demeanour to be police. He tapped me on the back and said “are you alright?” I told him I was naked and my right hand was hurting quite a bit. He said “I’m Scotty with Victorian Police”. I felt safe immediately. With my help, he found a blue scarf that I had on me (our connection to the Afghan Peace Volunteers) and covered my bottom up. He then went and found something to cut my right cuff off with. He told me that it had turned purple, he then removed my hood. After a few more minutes, I asked to sit up, I was still naked in a pile of wood chips. Looking back, I wish I was angrier, I wish I’d laid into the police about our treatment and demanded to be uncuffed totally (I had been recuffed in a much less painful way). Instead I was totally compliant, when Scotty said he couldn’t pull my pants up because my underwear was in the way, I told him I understood. I might have laughed with him about it.

I was helped to sit up, and sorry for the detail, but I need to get out how compliant I was, after a minute of being naked, sitting up I asked politely “Can someone help cover up my cock, I feel a little exposed here.” Scotty came back and rearranged the blue scarf so I was covered up. I asked Sam if he was ok, and I think I might have been in a bit of shock. The police asked us how we got onto the island, I didn’t respond. This was not Scotty, but the other officer he laughed and said “whatever, just passing the time guys.”

After about 5 minutes of sitting on the ground, Scotty came over and offered to stand me up (I was still cuffed at the ankles) and cut my cuffs off me so I could pull my pants and underpants up. I was thankful and when he could not find other cuffs to retie me with, I said I was happy to stand with my hands behind my back. I was then hopped over to Sam and we sat in silence together for a while under police supervision.

A van then came up and my ankle cuffs were cut. I was told to get in. As I approached the van, I heard familiar voices and saw inside were the other group of four. We were pleased to see each other and they were shocked to see our condition and hear of the treatment we had undergone.

Sam was squashed into the van with us and we were driven to another part of the island. At this point, they took Jasmine, the only woman, out and stated they wanted to get the female off of the island first. I raised an objection, stating that she shouldn’t be allowed on her own with police. One officer said “A female police officer is coming.” I’d like to think were I not in such a state of shock, I would have jumped out of the van and demanded to accompany her. Instead I did nothing as she was led away. A few minutes later, I was let out and put in another van. There was Dave and Tim. Dave looked terrible. He had a bloody nose, was white and shaking. I told the police he needed medical attention and blankets, there was a risk he might go into serious shock. The police begrudgingly agreed and returned later to say an ambulance was on the way and with some thick blankets.

I was in the van for forty minutes or more before they took the other two, one at a time to be processed. I learnt that in that time, Jasmine was not processed by a female police officer, instead, she was placed in a room and offered stringent bail conditions. To Jasmine’s massive credit, she refused, despite being on her own in the presence of four male police officers. They also threatened to take each of the 8 of us, one by one by boat to Geelong which would have taken all day. In spite of this intimidation, Jasmine held out, demanding medical treatment for us and not signing any tyrannical bail conditions that would stop us from returning to Queenscliff.

The irony of this chapter is they picked Jasmine, a young woman as they calculated she would have been the easiest to intimidate, with my state of mind, I would have signed anything to get off of that island and out of custody as quickly as possible. I’ll probably never say this again in my life, but patriarchy was good for all of us in that moment.
Eventually we were driven off of the island to our community who waited with anticipation and I have had two weeks to digest what happened to us.

Earlier in the week, a passer-by of our blockade told us he was sympathetic, but we were not realistic. ‘When you have groups like ISIS running around’ he said ‘you have to have an army- you have to be realistic.’

It’s this statement, for some reason that has come back into my mind more and more the last few days. People online have asked what we thought 8 of us could accomplish, many have said we got what we deserved or that we got off lightly, we should have been shot or locked up in prison for what we do. What is truly realistic is that the tactics taught on Swan Island, the tactics used on the four of us are designed to instil fear and compliance within dominated people. People have been tortured and murdered using these strategies to intimidate and control. If this happened to someone in your family or regularly occurred in your local community, especially to people you know are innocent, or at least have not had much to do with armed resistance to US led occupying forces- then you’re not going to willingly accept any foreign ruler. You’re not going to comply with that system. If it was your family it happened to, many of us would realistically decide, either I fight back, or it might happen to someone else, or to me.

Under these conditions of desperation, shock and anger groups LIKE ISIS might come along. Hey, they might be fundamentalist nutbags in some ways, but at least they’re getting back at the people who did this to you, or to your uncle or your father or who incidentally killed someone else you know.

The reality is the fear based interrogation strategies I suffered under creates armed resistance, creates people who see no alternative but to take arms against those who so inhumanely treat other people like intelligence assets rather than, well, people.

These on the ground tactics, combined with drone strikes that kill innocent civilians, aerial bombing campaigns, decades of war and subjugation of lands that have oil and strategic economic interest create terrorism. Poverty, global warming, social destruction are side-effects of creating this fear in our perceived enemies. Scared and angry, they seek to strike back.

There is a terrorist threat. The much larger one comes from US led attacks in the Iraqi/ Syria region. By responding to ISIS or Al-Qaeda or any group with slick, effective marketing that can play US led powers like a violin and drag us into another bloody war that will create more war. I’ll finish with what I wrote on the afternoon of my release:

“This experience makes me question the training of SAS and specialist soldiers. They could not differentiate between so-called terrorist threats and those who have, for weeks in the media, put out their intention to non-violently disrupt the base. If they beat us up, knowing there were consequences, how do they deal with people for whom there are no legal protections? What is life like in Iraq, Afghanistan and other place where these forces operate without scrutiny or accountability? How many people have our SAS troops humiliated, tortured or killed without thinking, on my behalf and because they are of a different colour, had no reports in the media? Just a broken home full of family who tell their neighbours and communities what the Australian ‘soldiers’ have done to them. In 2001, militant Muslim extremists were in Afghanistan, Somalia and other small enclaves.
Today, we have a growing fundamentalist movement in South-East Asia, the so-called Islamic State and a burgeoning destabilisation from resource conflicts and other factors globally. Today, one of the SAS folk accused us of being the reason for terrorists being in Australia. Yet the peace movement has been practically dead in the USA and the West since 2003, but guys like my friends today have seen a perpetual increase in funding and a free reign. Violence has created violence and more war will create more war.
We need more people working for peace and throwing their bodies and souls into healing our global relationships, not killing people…”

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2 Comments
  1. thanks for sharing. I read all the media reports but this is worse than I gathered from them. I’m so sorry, but also grateful, that you went through this. I really enjoy your intimate writing style, makes it easy to imagine myself in your position.

    Please do not underestimate the significance of not only what you did for us all, but also what you suffered: make sure to take time to rejuvenate, replenish and reward yourself. Don’t sweep your suffering under the carpet, or it will come back to hurt. Please encourage your companions to seek support and time out to get a solid grip on this horrible experience and keep it in perspective.

    thankyou for confronting warriorism and standing strong for peace. love yous.

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