On Wednesday 7th and Thursday 8th October, the two days that represented the 8th anniversary of the invasion of Afghanistan (it was the 7th in Afghanistan and the early hours of the 8th here in Australia), a group of concerned people gathered at Flinders St Station in Melbourne to remember, mourn and be inspired towards further action against the war. We held a striking banner which read ‘End the Afghanistan War’ and maintained a presence for 10 hours each day, from 8am until 6pm. At least 25 people joined us throughout the two days, including a war veteran from Stand Fast and the head of the Victorian Council of Churches Theo Mackay.
We began by reading out loud the names of some of those who had been killed in the course of this conflict, Afghani civilians, as well as US and Australian soldiers. We handed out flyers with 8 reasons to end the war, as well as promotional material for the antiwar rally on Saturday (12pm City Square). There was a petition people were encouraged to sign to end the war. We also wrote the names of those on both sides who had been killed in the letters on the banner.
Perhaps the most significant part for me was the sense of vigilling (watching/ vigilance) at a place where around 10-15,000 Melbournians pass every day (a prime piece of real estate for advertising!). Both people’s reactions or lack of reactions to our banner message were a good indication of the Australian public’s general disengagement with the war. Many of those we talked with, whether they were supportive of us or not, had a very shallow understanding of what was happening over there or why we might be involved. I had only one conversation in the whole 20 hours we were there with someone who confidently had a grasp on what was happening. I don’t say these things pessimistically or despairingly, but in order to give a realistic appraisal of where we are at the moment, so we can better define the tasks ahead of us.
Some significant conversations:
· An Afghani guy who had his throat slashed from ear to ear by the Taliban. He had been here for two days and couldn’t talk due to his injuries, but the Air Force officer he was with who had helped him escape the country was adamant that the war be escalated to kill all of the Taliban.
· A woman who despaired of social justice but when I mentioned I was a Baptist Minister asked the usual question (“do you know Tim Costello?”) and when I said I did, her response was “Well, thank God that the Baptists are doing something for the world instead of just preaching and getting fat!”
· A long and constructive conversation with a foreign policy student where we managed to work out we agreed on everything except the efficacy of violence in creating stability. It was the most helpful conversation I had because he understood the complexities and we got through a number of layers of assumptions to our real differences quickly, effectively and respectfully.
On Thursday afternoon we walked the 1km down the road to Victoria Barracks, historically the most significant symbol of militarism in Melbourne as it was the site of much of Australian military strategy in WW2 (it also happened to be my grandfather’s workplace for 35 years, as a career soldier). Three friends (Jacob Grech, Liz Turner and James Brennan) whitewashed the bluestone wall at the entrance to symbolise the whitewashing of the AfPak war. They wrote “White wash,” “troops out” and “8 years is too long” several times across the bluestone wall before police arrived 20 minutes later. Looking bemused, they determined the whitewash would come off and let them go without charge or arrest after taking their names (I think the police even told Vic Barracks to wash it off!). The rest of us stood with the banner for the few media who gathered to record the whitewashing action. All three did a great job of speaking to the media about why they were doing it.
To me it worked really well having the balance between the long presence of the vigil and the short but edgier direct action of the whitewash. Raising tension seems to be important, but so does having a legitimate, regular, visible presence.
Suggestions for improvement:
· I think we could have made more effort to connect with the Afghani community.
· Reading the names of the dead in that space didn’t work very well. Or it worked well for us, but it made engaging with people difficult.
· Having interactive elements worked really well – people came and signed the banner, and the petition, and even handing out flyers gave us direct engagement. It’s a busy space but very dynamic with thousands of people seeing the message every day.
· Having a visible, clear, antiwar presence was really important on an issue that is mostly “out of sight, out of mind.” I think we need to do this more often in a way that we can sustain going forward.
· Having suggestions for how people can get involved is difficult. But enough people asked to think harder about it in future.
· There is such a lack of tension that I think part of going forward should be about building a movement that can escalate the tension by regular, sustained direct actions.
I want to thank all of those who participated in the vigil and whitewashing action, and encourage us to make this a new beginning which will spur us forward to deeper anti-war engagement.