Peace activist arrested in Canberra

Issue 

By Kristian Whittaker

CANBERRA — "When I used to live in the USA, I was an activist against the war in Vietnam. Now I'm living in Australia, I find myself compelled to be an activist against 'Australia's Vietnam', Bougainville." Barbara ("Bobbi") Meyer describes herself as "an ANU student and grandmother, a peace activist, a solidarity and environmental activist, as well as a singer-songwriter and poet".

Whether it's major peace demonstrations nationally or local progressive campaigns, there are very few which Meyer hasn't participated in or helped to organise. "The progressive issues are all interconnected, and you can't look seriously at issues like militarism without also becoming aware about environmental ones, for example."

On July 17, Meyer was arrested after being escorted by the Australian Federal Police (AFP) from an information stall, part of the Bougainville National Day of Action, in Canberra's Civic Centre. While the warrant cited unpaid fines for an arrest in October 1988 at a Sydney protest against visiting US warships, the timing meant that she was disqualified from attending that Saturday morning's bail hearings and so had to spend the weekend in custody.

Many youth, indigenous people, unemployed, street people and others whom the AFP appears to consider as "undesirable" have also been subject to such tactics.

Another woman at the information stall was later taken into custody and threatened with arrest under a 1900 law making it illegal to draw on the pavement with chalk.

As a long-time peace activist, Meyer took this recent arrest very much in her stride. "I'm quite inured to going to jail for a just cause. The arrest, and my being jailed for that weekend, probably created a lot more publicity for the Bougainville information stall

than would have occurred with me outside jail."

However, other peace activists and friends are concerned by possible links to the harassment of human rights lawyer Rosemarie Gillespie, who was arrested near the end of May by NSW police and charged with 50 counts of having in her possession illicit drugs: donations of medicines for Bougainville. All the charges were later dropped.

Says Meyer, "The Australian government is feeling so tetchy about their role in Bougainville that it's possible they're willing to harass activists who are exposing Australia's role in contributing to four years of genocide. This Saturday is the fourth anniversary of the decision to allow Australian Air Force pilots to be used by the Papua New Guinea Defence Forces."

Meyer emphasises that Bougainvilleans do not see themselves as "seceding" from PNG. "Before 1975, Bougainvilleans had stated that they wanted to be independent.

"At the same time that the PNG government claims popular support on Bougainville for their own political agenda, they haven't allowed international observers onto Bougainville. The International Red Cross, the Pacific Council of Churches, Amnesty International, UN observers and independent international journalists have all been denied access to Bougainville.

"The fact that the PNG government is maintaining their blockade while excluding these observer groups strongly suggests that the situation on Bougainville is not as the PNG government has been attempting to portray it."

Meyer returns to the ACT Magistrate's Court on July 26. She intends not to pay the $308 fine arising from the 1988 incident.

"My arrest occurred at the time the US was saying, 'We don't want any spreading of the Kiwi disease', referring to the New Zealand government's refusal to allow harbourage to US warships which neither confirmed nor denied the presence of nuclear weapons.

Several of us from the peace vigil put some children's washable paint into 40 eggshells to throw at the warship. At the time, there was no-one between us and the warship.

"As the police approached and grabbed us, I saw a man shouting angrily at us. He later accused me of throwing an egg, left-handed, at him."

Meyer is right-handed. She pleaded innocent to that assault charge, but lost the case and her following appeal. The man was awarded $308 compensation, and Meyer asked for time to pay it. "At that time my daughter was nine years old, so I was concerned about her welfare if I was sent to prison."

The irony is that throughout her activist years Meyer has shown and expressed a deep commitment to non-violent action, "where the means are compatible with the ends. I was genuinely upset by the allegations, and by the court's not accepting the fact that the 'victim' had misidentified another person at the scene of the 'crime'."

Meyer says she'll refuse to pay. "If there's a community service option, then I'll accept that, although I'll argue that protesting itself is a community service. If jailed, however, I'll unfortunately be obliged to miss the protest planned for July 28, when the next US warship will visit Sydney."