Swan Island Peace Convergence

Simon Moyle

The Queenscliff police officer walked along a row of cars that had banked up while attempting to access the Swan Island military base. "It's not workin'", he said apologetically, leaning in each drivers' side window.

What "wasn't working" was police attempts to keep activists from placing themselves on the road in front of the base, thus preventing base staff from entering. Eventually the police had to concede activists' control of the space, and the cars were forced to turn around.

The activists were there as part of the Swan Island Peace Convergence, an event designed to hinder Australia's contribution to the war in Afghanistan by targeting the secretive base just off Queenscliff. Swan Island is a training base for SAS soldiers, the elite units playing the bulk of the combat role in Afghanistan, and the Australian Secret Intelligence Service (ASIS), Australia's overseas spy agency.

This was the fourth time activists had returned to the Swan Island military base. In 2010, four activists gained access to the island, two blocking the entrance and two entering the base where they switched off military equipment. Immediately after pleading guilty (and having charges dismissed) at their court hearing, 30 people returned to the base, this time with nine people blocking the gate. In July 2011 activists returned again, this time attempting four consecutive days of blockading. There were 10 arrests over the week, with varying penalties imposed.

This time the convergence included preparation as well as action. Day 1 was devoted to getting to know one another, as well as educating ourselves on the war in Afghanistan and how Swan Island contributes to it. Day 2 included nonviolence training, blockading training, and an arrest workshop, before the children led us in a lantern walk to the gates after dark.

Day 3 saw the first attempt at blockading. With land access via only one gate, blockading is the obvious tactic to disrupt business as usual. At 5:15am the group of 40 gathered at the gates, with police standing off to the side. At the first line of cars, the formation assembled and after a considerable struggle by police to remove activists some cars made it through. This happened once more, before police made the decision to hold up all traffic until 8am, when they would attempt to let them all through.

This time activists persistently returned to the road whenever they were removed. It quickly became apparent that police were not prepared to arrest the kind of numbers that were refusing to comply, and after 10 minutes of continual attempts to remove them, police gave up. All that was left was to inform each of dozens of drivers that they would not be going to work through this gate today. The cars turned, forced to organise water transport to the island later that day.

From there, the blockade held all day, as the arrival of children turned the space into a place for blowing bubbles, playing handball, and dancing to music.

Day 4 saw a similar but shorter attempt by police to remove the blockade, again unsuccessfully. This time there were far fewer cars, and none at the docks, indicating that base staff had simply decided not to come at all.

A speakout in solidarity with Julian Assange and Bradley Manning was held later in the morning, as well as a tree planting beside the base, before finishing the day with a spirited march through the town of Queenscliff, holding banners and singing freedom songs.

Two days of successful blockading and no arrests meant a significant disruption to the war machine at very low cost.

More information, including photos, can be found at the Swan Island Peace Convergence website: swanislandpeace.org

Simon Moyle is a Baptist minister with the GraceTree community in Coburg, a nonviolence trainer with Pace e Bene Australia, and an antiwar activist.