Ben Hoh on Wed, 3 Apr 2002 10:52:02 +0200 (CEST)

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[Nettime-bold] woomera: post-rhetorical politics

A first impression of my experience of the protests at Woomera, an
Australian concentration camp for asylum seekers. Largely analysis-free.


------ Forwarded Message
From: Ben Hoh <>
Date: Wed, 03 Apr 2002 14:08:04 +1000
To: antiwar_thirdspace <>
Subject: [antiwar_thirdspace]
Re: woomera protest

Nadya wrote:

> been watching the TV news coverage of the protests.. every news network is
> reporting and focusing on the violence.  the ABC which i thought had the best
> coverage, reported that there  are  splits among the organising groups.
> can anyone who is there/ in touch with people there give us an account of
> what's gone on?

I'm back from Woomera, and will be writing a much fuller account when I get
time, as I suppose will others on this list who were there.

The Woomera 2002 action was one of the most inspiring and emotionally
wrenching events in which I've taken part. People from all over the country
came to work together in a remarkable spirit of goodwill -- often
practically full time as legal advisors, as medics, as cooks, roadies, etc.
This commitment often left me speechless. The basis of the event was that
many diverse groups with different approaches were going to come and act
together, in different ways. For some, there was some frustration in coming
to grips with a structure that didn't involve getting the numbers, but for
the most part there was a distinct lack of meaningless or disengaged
rhetoric -- the material situation was overriding, and the imperatives
involved meant that the flaccid demands that have for so long demobilised
radical action in this country basically evaporated, however briefly. It was
the politics of the concrete. It was refreshing. So there was diversity and
inevitable disagreement, but no "splits" within a fake or homogenised

Most of the media coverage has been of the activities of Friday afternoon,
so I'll give my perspective on that.

The only violence that we had to really think about that day was visited on
the asylum seekers inside the concentration camp during the night. As
attested by those in long-running contact with those inside, the asylum
seekers were beaten, handcuffed, locked in their rooms and canisters of tear
gas were thrown in. Contrary to many conservative commentaries, this was not
a consequence of our "irresponsible" actions, but "merely" the latest in a
long line of violent actions against the asylum seekers. Often it's
particularly in response to their protest actions, which was why we were
there that day -- to show solidarity with an already existing action -- to
have a positive repsonse rather than the endless negative ones.

So we marched to the centre to join an existing protest, to create some
solidarity, dialogue, freedom. Many of us climbed up the perimeter fence to
wave to the refugee protestors inside. After a few shakes it fell down. We
did the obvious thing: we took advantage of the situation to get closer to
the people who've been facing the most barbaric isolation and violence.
These fences are there to be broken down. They must be. Some people weren't
personally comfortable with breaching the perimeter in the immediate
situation, and they stayed clear, which is fine. Obviously it's not enough
to just break down this particular fence, but I think breaching the
perimeter in this case was a key part of a much bigger movement to dismantle
all of the camps.

When we got to the inner fence, we were greeted by asylum seekers who were
chanting "ACM: immigration mafia!" [Australian Correctional Management is
the private corporation that runs the camp], "Where is human rights?", and
"Freedom! Freedom!". We joined in. I shook hands with people who stretched
their hands through loops of razor wire. One man told me that they were
grateful to find that there were people in Australia who cared about their
situation. Another told me that he'd been there for two years, and was
desperate to get out, and that our government was rotten. I told them that I
was glad to meet them and that people all over the country supported them,
and would do all we could to help their cause. Most were from Afghanistan
and Iran. We were all crying.

Then the cops came. I suppose a bunch of protesters, advancing resolutely to
shake hands and speak with asylum seekers through the fence can be *made* to
appear violent when a bunch of cops are trying to disperse them with riot
gear and horses. When a horse came out of nowhere, pushing me aside, and the
mounted cop lightly kicked me in the head, smashing my glasses, I just said,
"What are you doing? I'm only trying to say hello!". This kind of stuff was
generally the extent of it as far as the visiting protestors were concerned
-- it was all quite mild, because we were largely Australian citizens who
were able to disperse, unlike the people inside (who live with the obverse
of our citizenship, whose relationship to authority, in the last instance, I
resolutely refuse to celebrate or attempt to extend to others -- the whole
relation needs to come tumbling down).

[Meanwhile, on the front page of the Canberra Times there was a photo of me
amongst a bunch of other people trying to avoid being trampled by horses,
under the headline "BLOOD AND URINE THROWN AT POLICE". It's the same kind of
bizarre fiction that has fueled so-called "moderate" groups to either
condemn the protest out of hand or to imply that in contrast to our
"violent" protest, any "real" movement to free refugees from the camps needs
to somehow be "peaceful". Such extremely leading distinctions are nonsense.
Those who participated in civil disobedience were simply resolute in our
challenge to the authority of the refugees' confinement. Objects were broken
in order to do this. Laws were broken. They need to be broken. Smearing this
as "violence" is to fall into waiting hands of the State.]

Anyway, in the middle of this confrontation, asylum seekers were suddenly
attempting to scale the fence. Banners were thrown to stop their hands being
cut by the razor wire. The bars were being wedged apart. I saw the fence
suddenly break, and people jumped through, disappearing into the crowd. I
won't say much more on this matter except to delcare that we all felt it was
our duty to help these people do whatever they had decided. Some said that
they would rather die than return. Others chose to simply enjoy what short
freedom they had, and to face the consequences after recapture. In any case,
away from any metropolitan resources, our options were limited. I have no
details of what went on next, except that many visiting protestors showed
remarkably fast thinking, respect and courage in helping these people do
what they wanted. We never expected any of these events, and coped as best
we could. I wish the best to those still at large.

+  +  +

I think Woomera 2002 was a watershed in the radical politics of solidarity
and resistance in Australia. I'm thankful to everyone involved, especially
the asylum seekers who gave the rest of us the example of resolute action,
for the opportunity to have participated in a small way.

More later.

In solidarity,


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