The Samuel Hill 5 experiment (or, Reflections of a Newbie)

I find Gandhi’s reference to nonviolent action as “experiments with truth” very useful. This has been very much an experiment for me, one that has undoubtedly confirmed my inklings towards nonviolence as the way of discipleship of Jesus, and also as a powerful force for love and truth in the world. What follows are some reflections on the Samuel Hill 5 action as an experiment. It is not a critique of nor reflections on the Peace Convergence as a whole, nor on overall strategy for resistance to Operation Talisman Sabre 07, but are focussed particularly on our action itself. I trust they will be useful in the ongoing conversation in nonviolence and faith circles.

* Choosing stories and storying choices: Perhaps the first and most important point to come out of this action is (to borrow Ched Myers’ phrase) the importance of choosing our stories and storying our choices. We in the West suffer from a crippling lack of imagination, mostly as a result of a dearth of alternative stories to that of the empire in whose shadow we sit. Those who sit in the dominant story mostly find themselves with little room within it to make changes, little room to act or be empowered or see alternatives. I, however, have chosen the Christian gospel as my formative story (or perhaps more accurately it has chosen me) and as a result I will spend the rest of my life immersing myself in it and being shaped by it. It is a story that is deeply subversive and antithetical to the story of empire, despite the ways it has been abused throughout history, and as such it forms the perfect counter to it.

At all stages it was the gospel story that gave us the overarching metanarrative from which to make sense of our actions and others’ reactions to them. This gave us an energy, a courage and a stability that would not have otherwise been possible. Stories such as the temple cleansing and the Gerasene demoniac suddenly leapt off the page and into animated real life. No longer were they mere stories; they were our stories, not merely in some modernist abstract sense of being factual, but in the sense that we had known them, and they had known us, in the biblical sense.

There often seems to be an uncanny connection between current events and the lectionary readings, and the time of our trial was no different. With John 14:16 declaring, “And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate [defence counsel] to be with you forever…” and 1 Peter 3:11’s “seek peace and pursue it,” it was clear that we were in the right place. In fact, the whole 1 Peter 3 section was appropriate – from “do not repay evil for evil, but on the contrary, repay evil with a blessing” [the heart of the Sermon on the Mount] to verses 13-17: “Now who will harm you if you are eager to do what is good? But even if you do suffer for doing what is right, you are blessed. Do not fear what they fear, and do not be intimidated, but in your hearts sanctify Christ as Lord. Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and reverence. Keep your conscience clear, so that, when you are maligned, those who abuse you for your good conduct in Christ may be put to shame. For it is better to suffer for doing good, if suffering should be God’s will, than to suffer for doing evil.”

As we prayed the Lord’s Prayer together, phrases like “your Kingdom come” took on new meaning. “Forgive us our trespasses,” also took on a new and amusing meaning.

At the same time, the gospel equipped us to tell our story, particularly as an alternative to the dominant story, in a way that engaged people, made sense of what happened, and extended an invitation to join in.

* Humour as subversion: Our action has also highlighted for me the importance of fun and humour in gaining wider public understanding and bridging the gap between the mainstream punter and the hardened activist. While at no stage did we want to be flippant or deny the seriousness of that which we were resisting, there was something undeniably engaging about playing frisbee with military personnel. The ridiculousness of the image seemed to crack wide open the stereotype of the overearnest, angry, dour faced protestor that pervades much of society. There is something both safely harmless and engaging and yet simultaneously deeply and dangerously subversive about humour (as frequently demonstrated by The Chaser team and Jesus Christ).

* Strategy:
What we did was successful on several levels:

a. We stopped the war games, albeit temporarily, as evidenced by tanks and other equipment at a standstill, the total shutdown of Samuel Hill Air Base, and the signage indicating the deliberate cessation of live firing (rather than its absence).
b. We gained entry to the base with minimal effort, minimal risk of danger to ourselves or others, and using minimal resources. In fact, it was ridiculously easy.
c. We engaged the troops in respectful face-to-face dialogue on a personal level, had some significant conversations and gained valuable insights.
d. Our action strategically bolstered that of other groups, specifically by drawing attention to the presence of civilians on the base in a way that could no longer be denied by defence personnel.

What we could have done better:

a. Primarily I think research in general would have helped – knowing the terrain is important, more orienteering training would help, know more about the exercises, the equipment used, etc.
b. Strategic legals: Next time I would give much more strategic thought to the legal aspects of the action to maximise the ongoing effects. While I think we did the best we could with what we had (namely a very very inexperienced and naïve bunch of self-represented young people!), had we thought more strategically about the laws around it we may have been able to further our impact on the system. In this case our original intention was to do the action the way we wanted and then plead guilty; we changed our minds on a guilty plea only sometimes afterwards when we realised there was no way we could conscienably call ourselves guilty for what we did (under any definition, legal or otherwise). We were then able to subequently put together a pretty solid case. However in future, where possible, I would ideally tailor the action to suit legals in a similar way to the Pine Gap 4. Priority should still always go towards faithful action over legal issues, but where possible maximising strategic impact in the court process should be important, particularly to ensuring integrity when pleading not guilty.

* Empowerment: As a privileged, educated, middle class person (a group who generally have the most to lose from civil disobedience, and therefore rarely engage in it) this has given me a sense of empowerment beyond my expectations. Crossing the line unafraid and without any real consequences has opened a whole new realm of possibilities for creative action that is both effective and affective. It’s a signal to those who attempt to hold power over me that I will not comply, I will not remain silent even when others do. Phil Berrigan has said of voting, “If it made any difference, it’d be illegal,” and I’d have to agree – voting is at the very least a blunt instrument for social change. It also indicates, I think, that actions that do make a difference tend to be illegal because that’s the way empire stacks the deck (as Ciaron O’Reilly often says, “Good lawmaking comes from good lawbreaking”). Which is not to say that an action’s being illegal is sufficient for it to change anything (let alone for the positive), but it’s potentially indicative.

* Importance of small, independent affinity groups
The action has confirmed for me the strength of small affinity groups, particularly when they are supported by strong intentional communities or solidarity networks. The ability to organise quickly and independently, with minimal resources and to do so sustainably with the long haul in mind, has clearly given us a strength of resolve that would not have been possible in its absence. The Christian Activist Network has functioned effectively in this regard for solidarity, training, and support, as have our respective faith communities.

* Stepping stone
Finally, after court proceedings have finished, I am left with a sense of humility and proportion, particularly in the sense that these particular actions didn’t risk very much. Probably for our first action, particularly as people who have emerged from Australia’s middle class and are (in Simon Reeves’ words, I think borrowed from Jarrod McKenna) “in rehab from consumerism” we needed to begin at this level. I remain, however, acutely aware that, as Sarah said to the judge in her closing statements, “I won’t regret having done this, but rather I regret that am not doing more to resist war and oppression.” In that sense, I think we can see this as a stepping stone to further action.

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