Vigil at BAe

Spent early January hanging out at the National Christian Youth Convention where they asked Jess and I to provide one of 32 practical activities for the young people to try (called ‘Submersion Day’). It was a day of social action, so other groups planted trees, helped out in people’s gardens, made slums on the steps of Parliament House, did flash mobbing for Stop the Traffik etc etc. We decided to stage a vigil outside the Melbourne offices of BAe Systems (formerly British Aerospace), the third largest weapons manufacturer in the world (after Lockheed Martin and Boeing).

We ended up with about 120 young people (!), most of whom had never so much as participated in a march or protest before. They were pretty apprehensive (that would be an understatement) but we offered a range of options for them to take up or they could do whatever they wanted so no one was forced to do something they weren’t comfortable doing.

BAe helped us out by parking elsewhere for the day so we had the entire carpark to ourselves (they barricaded themselves inside with the shutters drawn…scary Christian peace people). So we spent about 3 1/2 hours there, starting with a liturgy (attached) then encouraging people
to do their own thing…we covered the carpark with chalked messages, made banners, some went over the road to the shopping centre and leafletted people, wrote letters to the PM, chalked the bike path behind the building, held silent vigils outside the door, staged a die-in, and then finished by marching around the building seven times to the sounds of chanting and a conch shell being blown by the Pacific Islanders. Highlights included people in the office building next door putting up a sign in their window saying, “Make Love Not War”, a tourist from Queensland who was so inspired walking past that she stayed and vigilled with us for an hour, and an Islander elder who belted out the Beatitudes like I’ve never heard them before.

The joy and freedom was palpable – we were just gobsmacked by how the fear and apprehension of the day before gave way to excitement and exuberance (despite the three squad cars waiting for us outside the building). Going in I’d been concerned about tokenism and ‘protest tourism’ but I reckon all of that was blown away by the breaking down of barriers and the inspiration it provided for a really diverse and generally conservative crew. Jess used the parable of the sower to describe how it had affected people – probably some not at all, others it might take a while to sink in or bear fruit, and others who were just instantly changed and into it.

And having established relationships with BAe security, it might have good potential for a regular vigil, especially as they’re building a huge new office/factory over the road from their current one (Victoria St Abbotsford).

Who’s the clown up the tree?


Chalking the carpark

Speaks for itself

Finished the day with a big rally at Fed Square where all 1500 NCYCers (plus extras) gathered for music, etc. Here’s a couple of our crew on stage belting out one of our chants.

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hope, despair and Lions For Lambs

Here’s a letter I penned soon after our recent court appearance for disrupting the Talisman Sabre military exercises last year (reflections here), but never sent.

Dear friends,

I’m sitting here having just finished watching Meryl Streep, Tom Cruise, and Robert Redford in Lions For Lambs, and thinking about the despair that pervades the US and so many of us about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. And as I think about this in light of events in my own life in the past year, I thought it might be worth sharing these reflections with you about hope, resistance and Christian discipleship in the midst of despair.

Despair is far too easy; more than that, it’s a luxury for those of us in the First World, sitting comfortably in our homes lit by energy saving bulbs watching the horrors unfold in front of us. We can pontificate as to whether we believe this war is about oil, or about democracy; about ridding the world of an evil dictator, or weapons of mass destruction, or about establishing US bases in the Middle East…or maybe all of the above. Conversations about the arrogance of America, or about its greed, or even Australia’s complicity become nauseating. Putting our faith in democracy, or in policy, or in the law to be able to work it all out is futile; worse, it’s idolatry. In the end it all adds up to empire. And really it doesn’t matter which empire – it could be Rome, it could be the United States of America, or (who knows?) in a few years maybe China. It really doesn’t matter. What matters, for those of us who put our faith in Christ, is where we sit in such moments of time. How do we follow Jesus? Where was he found?

Hanging from a cross, it would seem, in the midst of empire, damned by all for the sake of maintaining the status quo. As happens so often in history, having sat with the victims of empire, he became one. And he calls us to do the same; to deny ourselves – our privilege, our position, our power – take up our cross, and follow him.

And so it comes down to this: discipleship is about where we sit. Or as Phil Berrigan once put it, somewhat more crudely (but I think more accurately), “Hope is where your ass is.” Do we sit with the victims of empire, or with its powerbrokers? Do we sit in the prisons, the courtrooms, the homeless shelters, amongst others whom our society have marginalised or rejected? Or do we sit in the imperial courtyards of power, and, like Peter, deny the suffering and tortured Christ because of our presence there?

I am left from our time in court last week with one question; not was this the right thing to do, but (like my good friend and co-defendant Sarah) why not more? How can I go about my daily business with the occasional nod to war resistance when people are being murdered in my name while I sleep? As Dan Berrigan says, “We have assumed the name of peacemakers, but we have been, by and large, unwilling to pay any significant price. And because we want the peace with half a heart and half a life and will, the war, of course, continues, because the waging of war, by its nature, is total–but the waging of peace, by our own cowardice, is partial.” If despair is cheap, resistance in the West is an absolute bargain. Six months’ good behaviour bond is an encouragement to go back for more.

I particularly want to thank those of you who supported us – whether you wrote letters or references, prayed, planted trees or played frisbee with a friend, stranger or enemy; your solidarity made this easier for us, particularly because as Wink says, “history belongs to the intercessors”. May those of us tempted by despair feel ourselves drawn to the invitation to audacious hope that is the good news of Jesus Christ.

Blessings of peace,
Simon

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.

More info can be found at http://samuelhill5.blogspot.com.

Raytheon 9 and other nonviolence news

Send these guys a note of encouragement if you can as they face court next Monday over their actions from almost 2 years ago (9th August 2006) in interfering with Raytheon’s death-dealing. Anzac Day this year saw some more local action at the Raytheon offices in Brisbane also as Jim Dowling, Lisa Bridle and Sean O’Reilly staged a sit-in.

And in related nonviolence news (it’s all happening at the moment), there’s been another ANZAC ploughshares action in New Zealand while we were away in Yeppoon. More info here.

for your (or my?) reference

So I’m not sure if anyone still reads this, but I thought I’d put a general request out to anyone to write a letter in support of me and the Samuel Hill 5’s actions as I front the Yeppoon Magistrates Court in a week and a bit.

We’d ideally like to plonk a whole bunch of letters down in front of the judge, from a wide cross section of the community, saying that they support us and the action we took to stop these games.

This is one way you can have a say to the court system and the government about your opposition to war and violence.

Send it to samuelhill4@gmail.com by Friday 18th April and we’ll make sure it reaches the trial judge. Many thanks.

Nelson

I love ambiguous statements by politicians. Especially this one by Opposition Leader Brendan Nelson, who is on a single digit approval rating at present.

Today’s Age headline: “Nelson: I’m going nowhere”

I think what he meant to say is “I’m not leaving the leadership of the party” but what he actually said is much more accurate.

With frank honesty like that, it’s no wonder he’s not doing so well.