n ik on Thu, 4 Apr 2002 05:42:01 +0200 (CEST)

[Date Prev] [Date Next] [Thread Prev] [Thread Next] [Date Index] [Thread Index]

[Nettime-bold] personal account from the Woomera 2002 protests in Australia

Title: personal account from the Woomera 2002 protests in Aus
[for more details of the actions, photos, audio reports and interviews with escaped detainees, see http://melbourne.indymedia.org. Also check out the protest website, http://www.womera2002.com]
I'm not sure where to start - if this had just been a matter of filing reports each night, it might have been easier. But for some reason my box was inaccessible from Woomera (amongst other things I was part of the desert.indymedia crew), and so I'm writing this two days after the end of a protest that will mark Australia for a long time to come. I'll compile some of the best indymedia story links to send out, and write up something on  desert.indymedia later. For now I just want to tell the story of the first two days of the protest.

Well before we set up the blockade of  the Asia-pacific meeting of the World Economic Forum (see http://www.s11.org) back in 2000, there had been talk of doing a massive protest action at the Woomera Detention Centre in 2002 (the detention centre is a centre for holding people who are waiting for determination on their refugee status, or are deemed 'illegal immigrants'. Its also in the middle of a desert 8 hours drive from the closest city). In march last year we began to organise for the protestsŠ.we didn't really know what to expect. I thought that there would be perhaps 300 people who would make the journey out to Woomera - in the end it was more like 1500 people who travel from all around Australia to make the connectionsŠ

I'm not sure how much people know of what has happened - I got email from a friend in Germany who had been watching it on CNN, and saw us help some 50 detainees break-out of the detention centreŠ.but I will try to recount the Thursday and Friday of the protest (it went from Thursday till Monday afternoon).

About 30 of us met up at 9am on Thursday 28 March at the Pimba roadhouse, about 6km down the road from Woomera. We were going to go and set up the basics of the camp for everyone else, many of whom where due to arrive on Friday. We had been negotiating with the Woomera Area Manager for a day or twoŠWoomera is in a 'prohibited area' - you used to have to have a permit to go there, and it is in the area of Australia's atomic testing grounds, uranium mines, rocket ranges, etcŠand the area manager had a proposal for us. He wanted us to camp in a disused (and decrepit) old sports ground , about 2km from where we wanted to camp.
We decided to play for time, because there were so few of us. We were determined to camp where we had decided too though. By lunch time, we had started to set up the camp site just across the road from the new fence that surrounded the detention centre (about 1-1.5km from the centre itself). We had also had two meetings with the area manager by now, and had managed to negotiate some portable toilets out of him for our site (under the pretense that it would be nothing more than facilities for protests during the day   ;-)   ). We heard from the APS at 2pm though, who had been staying out of our way all morning. The APS are the Australian Protective Services - the federal police who have jurisdiction in that area. The APS told us that we had to move the camp, and the deadline was 2pm. We told them that we had a meeting with the area manager at 2.30, and that they would have to wait until this had happenedŠand they agreed. The meeting didn't amount to much more than him saying that we had to move, and us saying no, but it did buy us another hour.

At about 3.30pm, 15 APS officers came into the camp and told us that we had to leave, as we were breaking the law and camping illegally. We lined up in front of our (meager) campsite, waiting to see what would happen. In the end it was completely farcical - they moved in and pulled down several tents. They even stacked them neatly for us. Then they went back to the centre. Oh yeh, a real display of powerŠ

We had been expecting at the very least the confiscation of our gear, and arrest at the worst. We had been making plans for resisting pre-emptive arrests and massive disruption, but we didn't plan on the incompetence of the APS and the division between the APS and State police - two things that would help determine the course of the weekend in no small way.

After the tents had come down, we quickly meet up and decided that we would stay at the campsite we had chosen, and if the situation got too bad, move back to the road house meeting spot and wait for reinforcements. We decided that if we started to cede to their demands early on in the protest, it would put us in a weaker position through out the protest. We also decided that we couldn't make such a huge decision on behalf of everyone else who hadn't turned up yet.

Nothing more happened during the day and well into the night. At around 12am, when most people had gone to bed for the night, people on watch started yelling that the APS were coming. We all got up quickly and got ready for the feared attack on the camp (our numbers had grown to about 50 by then). 15 APS officers came into the camp and started moving from group to group and tent to tent to deliver the 'warning of arrest' to people before they arrested them. Here our organising structure helped us - we had no set representatives or leaders, only temporary ones (like the people we delegated to go and talk to the area manager). And after a long day trying to find such people, the APS had realised this. So if they wanted to move us, they would have to warn each and everyone of us, rather than just a leader of representative. A crowd quickly gathered around the APS officers, and soon enough they decided to try and arrest some people. They grabbed some one to arrest, and people jumped in to free him - the APS were overwhelmed and the person set freeŠ.this happened two more times, with our confidence growing each time. The APS officers became scattered throughout the camp, and started to argue with us. In the end, the APS retreated to chants of 'you've lost control, you've lost control'Š

We quickly met up again and decided to stay put - again we decided that we needed to hold our ground. We drew the cars around in  a 'wagon-circle', set up sentries, and settled down for the night.

Come morning we couldn't believe that we hadn't been raided during the night. Buses started to arrive at the camp and we all started to set up the site (again). More and more people arrived during the day, and by around 5pm our numbers had swelled to around 1000. Most of the day was spend having meetings and setting upŠone of the only things I can clearly remember from the day from receiving news of a letter that had been smuggled out of the centre from 183 of the detainees saying how much they appreciated the protests, and thanking us. The only other thing was the cries of 'freedom' that came from the windows of the bus carrying children from Woomera back to the centreŠ

We received another message from the detainees early on in the day asking us to come to the fence surrounding the centre at 6pm to protest with them - they had already done one action during the day, waving flags, etc.  The word was spread around the camp, and we marched off into the desert to towards the fenceŠ

There are three fences surrounding the centre - a temporary fence (the one we camped next too), a cyclone fence 3m high topped with razor wire, and a fence of steel bars topped with razor wire. We marched around the first fence, which didn't completely surround the centre, and into the desert. We then came up to the second fenceŠ

There was no plan to take down the second fence - the idea was to come to the fence (as close as was possible to the centre) and try to communicate with the detaineesŠwe climbed on the fence to make ourselves visible, and so we could seem them. But soon people on the fence started to shake it, to rock back and forth. Then everyone was on the fence, trying to bend the bars, to tear it down. It only took a few minutes, and then it was down. We quickly grabbed sandbags that were lying around on the other side and threw them on the razor wireŠand two-thirds of us ran through what must be old basketball courts to the last fence. There were only about 10 APS guards there in riot gearŠthe South Australian cops were coming in the distance, but they weren't many on the ground in front of us. We easily pushed through to the final fence were we came face to face with those trapped on the other side of the wire.

(all weekend, the APS and SA police didn't really work together very well - they don't like each other, and the SA Premier had decided to us the protest to further political aims, i.e., squeezing more money out of the Federal government. All this suited us fine..)

We pushed our arms through, they reached back. They cried and called to us, we cried and called back. I have never seen such desperation or such pain. I can't imagine what it must be like, to travel so far across oceans, mountains and deserts just so sanctuary can be snatched away at the last moment and to find yourself in the middle of a desert behind fences and razor wire. Later, they told us of the centre guards putting sleeping pills in their food, and of the threats and beatings for people who protested. But at the fence, there wasn't much conversation, just an exchange of grief, anger and love.

Three images from the fence that I will never be able to forget is an old man cutting his arms on the razor wire trying to reach through the fence, a child of 6 crying and pointing at a APS officer in riot gear, and a man writing 'freedom' in his own blood on a security cameraŠ

We had been there for 20min's and I had moved back to check out the situation when I saw a man inside the centre brig out a metal fence post. He jammed it into the bars of the fence and started to push. Quickly protesters grabbed hold and started  to try to break the cageŠThe first attempt didn't succeed, but the second did. People started to leap out of the centre and run for freedom. I saw a mother and her child running, a man who yelled 'free after 2 years', and an eight year old boy, all climb through the fence. By this time, about 40-50 South Australian police officers had gathered to the west of us along the fence. They marched down to our position and the officer in charge told us that we had to move out behind the second fence. We packed in tighter and locked arms, ready to hold them off for as long as we could so more people could escape. The police came in from one side, and the APS from the other. We pushed back at them, de-arresting our friends, making as much room as possible for detainees to make their escape. The police eventually got between the fence and us, but the struggle didn't stop. We grabbed some of the detainees the police had arrested, and continued to push at them. Eventually the police brought their horses in and galloped them at us in a sweeping motion. Out in the open there was little we could do to stop the horsesŠwe didn't come prepared for taking down fences that day, let alone repel a horse charge.

After we had lost at the fence, we started to run back to camp. As I left, I turned to look back at the centre. The last thing I saw was two APS officers in riot gear beating a man down to the ground inside the centre.

Down the road from the camp, the police had managed to recapture several detainees and put them inside a police van. People where trying to get close to them, but the police where holding them backŠsoon the horses where there too..

I didn't realise this until someone told me back at camp, but people had been running back with the detainees, swapping clothing with them on the run, and bringing them back to camp. When I got there, there was around 40 or so detainees who had not been recaptured yet. The detainees weren't in one spot - people had hidden them throughout the camp in their tents and shelters. There was an attempt to hold a spokes council to figure out our next step, but most of the action was in smaller networks of affinity groupsŠ

The police set up roadblocks almost immediately. They also set up a ring of officers and lights around the camp. We were pretty much surrounded by them. They sent a few initial sweeps through the camp, but only found one detainee. We stuck to a strategy of keeping calm, and acting as normal as possible under the circumstances. Quietly we started to gather supplies, find drivers, and formulate plans for escape.

Most of the night was spend in some kind of strange waiting room - waiting for breaks in the police lines, for resources, for plans to come together. My friends and I did all we could, but we didn't have cars to use, and so in the end it almost felt like we could do only small errands - getting money, getting food and clothing, finding numbers for peopleŠWe heard the next day that detainees inside the camp had protested all night so the guards couldn't do a head count, giving the people who had broken out a better chance.

One thing we could do was get their stories out - to help them speak when the government had taken their voices awayŠthere are many interviews with escaped detainees out there now, some on film, and quite a few on Melbourne indymedia.org

Interview one - http://melbourne.indymedia.org/local/webcast/uploads/metafiles/01-z1ld.mp3
Interview two - http://melbourne.indymedia.org/local/webcast/uploads/metafiles/02.mp3
Interview three - http://melbourne.indymedia.org/local/webcast/uploads/metafiles/03.mp3
Interview five - http://melbourne.indymedia.org/local/webcast/uploads/metafiles/04-fourguys.mp3

A few attempts were made early on in the evening to break the roadblock - some people tried to drive through, some detainees decided they would rather take their chances in the desert that go back. Many weren't successful (16 protesters have been arrested for harboring detainees and helping them to escape, and 34 detainees were recaptured), but there are still 8-10 detainees that haven't been caught yetŠand most of them will not be recaptured I think.

I don't want to say too much more about the escapes during the night - both because it could endanger people who are still free, and endanger protesters. I do want to say though that I have never seen such selfless acts of courage before - the people who tried to break through the roadblock will have my love and admiration for ever.

The night was difficult - some detainees had expected us to have more elaborate escape plansŠhow could we tell them that we didn't expect the fence to come down, let alone for them to escape? The action was truly spontaneous - one of the most amazing spontaneous direct actions I have ever seen - but this meant that we were in some ways unprepared for the result. Most detainees where grateful though, thanking us for our help, for our resistance. I heard so many stories of suffering within the camp - of beatings, of being drugged. I heard people say that they would kill themselves if they had to go back. Everyone I met from within the centre told me they ha been there for more than 2 years - 24 months, 26 monthsŠsome said that because the Australian government had no treaty for deportation (like Iraq) they were stuck in the camp indefinitely - they couldn't leave, they couldn't go back. I met a child of eight who had been there for over 2 years with only a guardian - I don't think he knew where his parents wereŠ

By dawn, most of the detainees had made an attempt to break through the police lines - some seem to have succeeded, most didn't.

The protests went on for another three days, but I will leave the stories of those days to indymedia - read the day by day features at melbourne.indymedia.org for more detailsŠ

I do want to say a few things about the action on Friday thoughŠ.

I have been asked so many time, and we asked ourselves so many time, if what we were doing was the right thing, if we had failed the detainees by not being prepared enough, if the detainees suffering because of the escapes was our fault.

So often activists from countries like Australia (from the North) think and act with the assumption that it is only us that can think and act - that detainees, indigenous peoples, etc, are people we must help, that we must do something for. Part of the journey out to Woomera involved losing that assumption. The detainees had initiated several actions while we were there, and had done many more before. An they will continue to do so. These are people who had already suffered incredibly, and yet still managed to cross the world to a country where they though they would be safe. Of course they will resist their detention, their isolation, and the beatings and violence of the guards. And when they can see a chance to end their suffering, they will take it. The action at during which they escaped was initiated by them. The bars where first bent by them. The courage to escape was theirs. But I'm not trying to avoid responsibility here - we made the journey out there, we brought down the second fence, we held off the police, and ran roadblocksŠI am not trying to deny what we did - on the contrary I am incredibly proud of what we have done, and would do it again. But it is important to remember that we are not the only people who can resistŠresistance to the camps lives on both sides of the fence.

Did we fail the detainees? That a hard questionŠwhen I think back, I don't feel any guilt for what we did. But I do feel guilty for underestimating both us and them - if I am guilt of anything it is of not having enough hope. If I had believed that we could have taken down the fences, I would have been more prepared for it. We all would have. But under the circumstances, we did all we could, and so I don't think we failed them. If nothing else, we brought hope to people where they had none.

I won't be making the mistake of not having enough  hope again though. Nor will anyone else. We can with dignity, joy and hope, and achieved far more than any of us could have imaginedŠit was the most militant defense of dignity I have every witnessed. And it won't be the last. All of us will carry the image of the fence coming down in our imaginations, and it won't be too long before the fence comes down againŠ


we do not lack communication, on the contrary we have too much of it. we lack creation. we lack resistance to the present.
we do not lack communication, on the contrary we have too much of it. we lack creation. we lack resistance to the present.