PHOTOS & STORY: When students protested for ‘Books not Bombs’

Books not Bombs protest, Sydney. Photo: Peter Boyle.

Simon Butler was a 25-year-old activist who helped organise the mass mobilisations in Sydney in February and March 2003 against the invasion of Iraq. He was also a leader of the socialist youth group Resistance and the student anti-war movement Books Not Bombs, which Resistance initiated.

Books Not Bombs organised Australia's largest-ever highschool student strikes and marches in that period despite heavy suppression from police and school authorities. Current Australian foreign affairs minister Bob Carr, then Labor premier of NSW, even attempted to ban a Books Not Bombs protest.

Green Left Weekly’s Peter Boyle spoke to Butler about what the protests have meant 10 years on. You can watch the full interview at www.youtube.com/greenlefttv.

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When young people walked out of school to join the Books Not Bombs protests there was a very strong attack from the mainstream media and Labor and Liberal politicians. Resistance was accused of “manipulating” young people who allegedly weren't really aware of what they were protesting about and just wanted to wag school.

Any students who just wanted to wag school wouldn't have shown up to the rallies. They came to a political rally and spent all day there. They were very conscious about why they were protesting. They saw that this war was not about democracy, this war was a grab for Iraq's resources.

The main lines of attack from the political elite were either, “these were young people who don't know what they are talking about, they are just not mature enough to understand why we need to invade Iraq.” Or, “these protests are ‘violent’”.

These were peaceful protests against one of the most violent wars ever seen in the 21st century, so it was turning reality on its head.

Our second Books Not Bombs rally in Sydney, where the attacks were most intense, was on March 23, 2003. We were victims of a savage attack by the police, who in my view had instructions that the previous successful and peaceful Books Not Bombs rally on March 5 would not be repeated. It had to be turned into something that could be demonised.

They tried to demonise the first Books Not Bombs protest but they couldn't. The worst thing they could point to was school kids climbing on the fountain in Hyde Park at the end of the rally. As if that compared to the real violence of the bombing of a whole country.

I understand that one mainstream media team was caught out trying to provoke “violence” at one of the rallies?

It was Channel Ten. A reporter from Channel Ten asked a student to throw a piece of paper at him. The student was wise enough to say “no” and ask why. This so-called journalist wanted to film a student being violent.

A lot of the students who attended were of Arabic background. All morning, the Bankstown and Punchbowl train lines were full with students coming in to the rally. And there was a racist undercurrent to all the coverage about these “violent protests” and the way the police attacked them.

They were arresting 14 and 15-year-old kids, dragging them off and hurling them into paddy wagons. That happened. There was one case I saw of a young woman in a hijab who had her hijab ripped off her head, which provoked a predictable response from other teenagers around her.

The way the media covered that March 26 demonstration, the way they would show just the response of protesters and not the police attacks that provoked them (even though they had their cameras on the whole time), did show the way the media turns the oppressors into the “victims” and the victims into the “oppressors”. This was a classic case of media manipulation.

The furore that erupted after that March 26 demonstration was used by then NSW Labor Premier Bob Carr [now Australian foreign affairs minister] as justification for becoming the only government in the Western world to ban an Iraq war protest.

Carr said there will be no more high school student protests, that there was a ban on any more Books Not Bombs demonstrations. So, naturally, we called another protest.

Were there attempts to intimidate the organisers of the Books Not Bombs protests?

Yes. We had called a protest for a week later and certain talk-back radio hosts had got hold of the Books Not Bombs organisers' phone numbers, including mine. They encouraged people who were outraged at the Books Not Bombs protests to call us.

So for a week my phone never stopped ringing, either with media asking for interviews or with death threats. That went on continuously for a whole week.

There were people calling me up threatening to kill me, to attack me, saying they knew where I lived. These were not kids, they were adults who had been whipped up into a kind of frenzy.

But the main intimidation came from the police who said we would not be allowed to protest.

In the end we continued with our call for a protest on April 2 and we also put out a call for support. We reiterated that we wanted a peaceful protest, that we had every right to protest against the violence that was being prepared by our government against Iraq.

On the day of this protest the numbers were much smaller. There were about 1000, including many adults who had come to support us and monitor the police.

The whole protest was “kettled” by large numbers of police. There were as many police there as there were students. They surrounded the protest at Sydney Town Hall square for the entire afternoon and they prevented us from marching. But it was a victory to have held that protest at all.

There were media crews running around desperately looking for opportunities to paint this protest as “violent”, for “proof” that Resistance was planning violence and “manipulating school kids”. But they could not show that. So this was another success for us.

It was a success in that despite the enormous pressures that were on them from parents, teachers and police not to attend this protest, nevertheless many students still turned up.

You don't get this sort of response in normal times. This was a time when a lot more people were prepared to reject what the authorities told them.




Books Not Bombs action Sydney, March 26, 2003. Photo by Peter Boyle.



Books Not Bombs action Sydney, March 26, 2003. Photo by Peter Boyle.



Books Not Bombs action Sydney, March 26, 2003. Photo by Peter Boyle.



Books Not Bombs action Sydney, March 26, 2003. Photo by Peter Boyle.



Books Not Bombs action Sydney, March 26, 2003. Photo by Peter Boyle.



Books Not Bombs action Sydney, March 26, 2003. Photo by Peter Boyle.



Books Not Bombs action Sydney, March 26, 2003. Photo by Peter Boyle.



Books Not Bombs action Sydney, March 26, 2003. Photo by Peter Boyle.



Books Not Bombs action Sydney, March 26, 2003. Photo by Peter Boyle.



Books Not Bombs action Sydney, March 26, 2003. Photo by Peter Boyle.



Books Not Bombs action Sydney, March 26, 2003. Photo by Peter Boyle.



Books Not Bombs action Sydney, March 26, 2003. Photo by Peter Boyle.



Books Not Bombs action Sydney, March 26, 2003. Photo by Peter Boyle.



Books Not Bombs action Sydney, March 26, 2003. Photo by Peter Boyle.



Books Not Bombs action Sydney, March 26, 2003. Photo by Peter Boyle.



Books Not Bombs action Sydney, March 26, 2003. Photo by Peter Boyle.



Media conference before the Books Not Bombs action Sydney, April, 2003, which had been banned by the then Premier Bob Carr's NSW Labor government. Photo by Peter Boyle.



'Peace monitor' Pip Hinman at the Books Not Bombs action Sydney, April, 2003. Photo by Peter Boyle.



Police 'kettled' protesters at the Books Not Bombs action Sydney, April, 2003, preventing them from marching out of Sydney Town Hall. Photo by Peter Boyle.



Police superintendent threatens protesters at Books Not Bombs action Sydney, April, 2003, with arrest if they attempt to march. Photo by Peter Boyle.




'Peace monitor' Doris Owens at Books Not Bombs action Sydney, April, 2003.


Simon Butler addressing Books Not Bombs action Sydney, April, 2003, with arrest if they attempt to march. Photo by Peter Boyle.



A Channel Nine reporter desperate for some footage 'violent' Books Not Bombs demonstrators. Photo by Peter Boyle.



Books Not Bombs protesters ready to march but prevented from doing so by police in Sydney, April. Photo by Peter Boyle.



Books Not Bombs protesters ready to march but prevented from doing so by police in Sydney, April. Photo by Peter Boyle.