Citizens blockade Swan Island SAS training base

Anti-war protesters at the Swan Island military base, Queenscliff. Photo: Sarah Hathway

About 40 concerned citizens opposed to the ongoing conflict in Afghanistan and Australia’s role in the conflict, gathered in Queenscliff on the Bellarine Peninsula, 30 kilometres from Geelong, to blockade the entrance to the Swan Island military base over September 23 to 27.

“We believe that all troops, including the SAS troops trained here in Swan Island, need to come home now and allow Afghans to start rebuilding their own country,” Reverend Simon Moyle, an organiser and participant in the Swan Island Peace Convergence blockade, said.

Moyle, a Baptist minister, led and planned many of the actions, but those who gathered to help slow down the Australia/US war machine varied in their beliefs, ages and occupations. They hailed from Darwin, Brisbane, Sydney, Melbourne and Geelong. Two participants had travelled directly from protests outside the Ecuadorian embassy in London in support of WikiLeaks editor Julian Assange.

The protesters included nurses, teachers and former members of the police and military. Some came with decades of experience of non-violent direct action protesting, while for others this was their first protest action.

To begin the week, participants got stuck into banner making and organised a letterbox drop in Queenscliff, explaining why they were there and what they planned to do. They also attached “War” stickers in red and white to Stop signs, so that each sign in the centre of Queenscliff read: “STOP WAR.”

On the first night, participants watched a short documentary by Fairfax media titled “Australia’s Quiet War”, which detailed some of what the SAS training facility is being used for. This was followed by a discussion about the various groups that use the Swan Island facility.

The groups mentioned were the Australian Secret Intelligence Service (ASIS), Special Air Service (SAS), Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) and the Australian Federal Police (AFP). The facility is also used as an intelligence communications hub, for debriefing SAS troops returning from Afghanistan and other countries, and for intelligence seminars for department of foreign affairs and other bureaucrats from Canberra.

September 24 was a day for learning. Workshops were held at the Queenscliff Uniting Church on non-violent direct action and the group explored ideas of what violence and non-violence entailed.

Members of the group shared some of their experiences taking part in non-violent direct action protests and together they discussed if such experiences were principled or pragmatic, reformist or revolutionary. Participants were introduced to the work of Gene Sharp, who has researched and catalogued 198 methods of non-violent action.

Later that afternoon, participants returned to the church to plan the blockade of the bridge to Swan Island. The general feeling seemed to be mixed emotions of anxiety and excitement about the following morning’s protest. Organisers showed others how to lock on and the various lock on formations.

Early on September 25, participants proceeded to the Swan Island gate. Candles in jars were placed across the road, forming the initial blockade. Later, some protesters sat down holding photos of Australian soldiers and Afghanistan civilians that have died in the 11-year “war on terror”.

Behind those sitting down were banners reading “Keep the SAS out of assassination,” “No US wars, no blood for oil,” “Blessed are the peacemakers” and “End the Afghanistan war”. Children of those who were taking part in the blockade created a banner that read: “Afghanistan wishes to live without war.”

Twice, the police managed to clear protesters from the road to make way for cars. But some cars were turned away and told to come back at 8am.

By 8.15am, the cars were backed up around the corner. The sound of breaking glass echoed around the street as frustrated police began disposing of the candles laid across the road.

They then tried to again clear people off the street. Those holding banners stepped to the sides willingly, however about 25 protesters were physically dragged or carried off the street. Once dragged off, blockaders continued to come back and sit or lie in front of cars, again and again. One frustrated police officer was heard to say: “This isn’t working.”

Police explained to drivers that the road could not be cleared, as they were unwilling to resort to harsher means of keeping people off the road. All cars were turned around, although those who were determined to get to the base were boated across from the main wharf.

By 8.30am, it was time to celebrate and all protesters loudly sang and danced along to You’re the Voice by John Farnham until a nearby resident made a noise complaint to the police.

Police declared the gate “won” by the protesters. Some participants of the Swan Island Peace Convergence maintained a presence at the gate throughout the night, until they were joined by the others to repeat the blockade action on September 26. In a show of good will, blockaders allowed four cars through carrying the green-keepers of the Swan Island golf course.

Unlike the previous year, there were no mounted police, even though those blockading this year had doubled in number.

All those who took part in the blockade were non-violent throughout. Police also handled the situation well, apart from one officer who was over enthusiastic about moving blockaders off the road and was put on other duties after complaints were made.

Police liaison Jessica Morrison was vital in keeping the communication going between police and blockaders. “Nonviolent discipline has been spectacular. First-timers especially impressive. Courageous and tenacious,” Moyle tweeted on September 25.

Participants finished the week’s activities with a march down the main street of Queenscliff to the old Fort, then back up the main street.

[To view footage from the week’s events click here. Visit the Swan Island Peace website here.]