We got to Woomera on a drizzly Thursday morning, cold wind rushing off the desert. The set-up crew consisted of about 30 people, most of whom had driven through the night from Sydney and Melbourne to make it in time. We'd already heard from the Woomera Area Administrator -- a kind of sheriff, I guess -- who offered a football oval 2 kilometres away from the Detention Centre gates to camp at, with fresh water and port-a-loos. Two people had gone to meet him and scout campsites earlier. This was the beginning of a 24-hour negotiating and waiting game, reported on in an article I wrote for www.Indymedia.com on Friday:
We're sitting around a card table in this dust-bowl of a campsite, drinking coffee and eating muesli. It's just like ordinary camping, except there aren't any tents (Australian Protective Services have forbidden us to 'erect camping structures' as part of their mission to make us leave, on pain of arrest) and no sane holiday-maker would ever want to camp here. The wind sweeps another cloud of dust into your eyes and you take another second to wipe them clean; if you sit down for more than five minutes, you get tiny patterns of red sediment in the creases of your pants.
But we're here, and we're staying. The camp has now been held for twenty-four hours. This morning we're waiting for the big convoy of buses to arrive so we can put down tents with the strength of added numbers. Last night, after the APS failed at their bust-in, people parked their cars in a 'wagon circle' to protect everyone through the night. We know that APS reinforcements have arrived in Woomera and that they'll be in to 'move us on' at some point; the only question is when. The general feeling in camp is that we can win, whatever they do; having already de-arrested three people, we can de-arrest more if necessary.
You could argue that holding this particular camp-site is not the thing we're here to do; that we're here to talk, to act, maybe to walk onto the Prohibited Area on Saturday and fly flags and let off fireworks to let the detainees know we're here. But from the moment you get here, you're involved in direct action. Claiming space is what it's all about. We're in Woomera because a defence force employee, the Woomera Area Manager, can issue an order for our eviction from degraded, unused land. We're here because the state controls this land, rightfully the country of the Kokatha people, and the state isn't using the land right.
As I write this, two buses from Melbourne are arriving. Ridiculously clean people are climbing off them and tying scarves across their faces. Soon enough they'll be red-faced with dust, but for now it's just nice to see clean, fresh faces come to join us. A new arrival has just erected a tent on the edge of camp, and he's being told to take it down so we can all put them up together, in solidarity.
Hopefully we'll also succeed in getting permanent medical, legal and media tents set up at the same time. Camping has never been so political.
A few Indymedia kids had gone to the Indymedia Secure Upload Location (henceforth known as the ISUL!) as six busloads arrived from all over. Imagine our surprise when we returned to find a fully-fledged tent city, silver domes everywhere. The Spacekids and people from Irene warehouse had erected a giant tarpaulin between our two vans. We had some lunch and then trooped down to the police roadblock, 1 km from the detention centre, to witness a 'noise and flag' action inside. You could see small figures waving on the roof of a building beyond the fence, so far away we couldn't read the text of the banner they'd strung up. People made noise back, played drums, chanted, took pictures and filmed, and then it was all over, about an hour after it had begun.
I expected the action that evening to be similar. We were already all arrestable, and it seemed that going onto the 'exclusion zone' would simply make us more vulnerable. Besides, the group No-One Is Illegal had scheduled a direct action on Saturday afternoon, a mass walk-on.
At around five, someone received a message from inside the centre asking us to come at 6pm. A sound system was connected to a phone, so that we could receive messages from inside the centre, on the phone they had. By 6pm, they had already begun their own protest and had the phone taken away by guards, I assume, because the phone link-up never happened.
For some reason, the first people to start walking towards the centre bypassed the roadblock and headed cross-country, making a beeline for the fence closest to the place where detainees were protesting. I'll never forget that moment, walking along in a giant column of people waving flags and banners, all of us yelling things like 'Freedom!' and whooping. The sound system was playing the 'Amelie' soundtrack, so sad and yet majestic, important-sounding music. (it already had significance for us who'd been there from, the start; 'Amelie' had been our lullaby before APS raided the previous night.) We came to the first fence, a 5-metre high fence with razor-wire lining the top of it, and milled around it. People ran up to climb it, and began to shake it back and forth, bending the bars. Someone let off a flare and orange smoke billowed into the sky. And then the fence started coming down for real; every shove bent it away from us until finally people were hopping over the wire, bringing sandbags to weight it down, and a whole 30-metre section of fence was flattened. People ran through. What else were we gonna do? There were hardly any cops, something I could not believe, and in a slightly paranoid state I waited for them to head us off somewhere, to burst from inside the centre with riot gear. None did until much later.
I don't think my heart has ever felt so big or close to bursting. Ironically, we found out two days later that we could have gotten to the inner fence without bringing that fence down. But it didn't matter, or it did; it was just the way things happened. Finally, I ran in to join those who had begun to mill at the inner fence. Detainees were on the fence, everywhere, at the bottom between two gigantic inner palisade fences (both lined with razor-wire) and on the roof of the compound. Some were crying; many were yelling chants as loudly as we were. One man was preparing to climb right over the top of the razor-wire (I learnt later that he'd been passed wire-cutters and snipped at the wire until his hands were bleeding so badly he couldn't use them anymore). At one point, someone inside had produced a metal bar; people were using it to lever the bars apart so they could slip through. Everyone was crying it seemed. I was standing opposite a middle-aged man and a young boy, both of them talking fast, telling us as much as they could about beatings, threats from guards, thanking us for coming. One or coming. One of them said, 'We knew the people of Australia did not want us locked up here, we knew they cared about us.' Some of them were throwing flowers to us. I couldn't talk much; I said 'sorry' a lot of times and burst into tears and held someone's hand through the bars and finally, when the police were coming, untied the orange 'No-One Is Illegal' bandanna I'd been given and handed it to him.
By then people were running away in small clusters shielding escaped detainees from the police, who were now coming in with batons. Everyone ran back in the direction of the campsite; at one point I had a small altercation with the Channel Ten camera crew who were trying to film a detainee; I ran in front of the camera, holding my hand up. We jostled a bit; the camera person called me some names, tried to push me away, and then told me indignantly, 'We give you a voice,' which was so ridiculous I had to laugh. Police were now approaching from the other side, trying to cut our access back to camp. Horses had come out at the fence, driving away the last of those helping detainees escape. To my shame, when the coppers came towards us I moved out of the way (last time I was that close to a copper I got my head beaten in, guess I'm still not entirely recovered). Although people blocked the way with their bodies, one detainee at least was arrested just then.
I don't think anyone realised the extent of the escape; I certainly didn't. I thought maybe about ten or twelve had gotten out. It was more like fifty. This was confirmed when I got back to camp and found detainees, everywhere. I'm not gonna be detailed here (there are so many stories people cannot tell, that no-one could tell even to fellow protesters, for fear of incriminating others or ourselves) -- suffice to say that some detainees had a chance to sit, to talk, to have their stories recorded (check out Melbourne Indymedia -- I am proud to say that no mainstream media outlet got interviews with freed detainees, but Indymedia did...).
No-one had known this was going to happen. The action was the most spontaneous thing I've ever taken part in; no-one planned it. And almost no-one had ever thought we'd ever have an escape situation to deal with, so we were very unprepared. This is one of the things I most regret about Woomera2002; we didn't plan enough, we didn't believe in the power of action enough to think that possibility through.
Then again, people simply dealt and did what they could. It was getting dark and this made it far more difficult for the police to check through every campsite. A group of socialists had blockaded a tent with an Iranian woman inside; the stand-off lasted for hours, until the police broke through the linked arms and found only a white, youngish protester dressed in the burqa the Iranian woman had left behind hours before. Money, food, water, maps, warm clothing and other supplies were passed onto those detainees who wanted to chance walking out through the desert. The police had set up roadblocks immediately, and at one point that night, a whole heap of people tried to bust through the roadblock in cars and on foot. (They were arrested, both detainees and our protesters.) At around 10pm, I left with A., an Indymedia kid, to do uploads at the ISUL. We somehow got someone to drive us out; at the roadblock they made me answer questions about my job, why I have such a weird name, where I live, how much income I earn per annum. In the car, S. and A. joked that the (female) cop was trying to pick me up, she kept me there for so long.
At the ISUL, we wrote, chain-smoked, talked, uploaded reports and checked different newswires for what the mainstream media were producing, how the SA government were responding and so on. Every so often I'd ring someone back at camp for a progress check; we fully expected the cops to bust through, and rumours of lines of horses and riot police were running rife. Finally at about 1.30am he said that people were going to sleep, that it seemed quieter. There were millions of questions I wanted to ask but couldn't. Neither A. nor I slept well that night; it seemed callous to walk out on such a tense and needful situation. We were also reading accounts of continuing rioting inside the detention centre, perhaps a tactic to prevent ACM guards from doing a head count and working out just how many people had escaped. Later we found out that ACM had dosed their food with sleeping pills to stop them rioting. I wanted to go back to camp and even considered walking, but it seemed safer to just to brush my teeth and try to sleep in the bed we'd managed to furnish the ISUL with. The bitch was that we didn't have any food; no breakfast in the morning or, as it happened, until 4pm when we finally got back to camp. I went to sleep wondering how the 'visitors' I'd met would leave, hoping they were safe and that someone back at camp was helping them.
I think I'll end it there; lots more happened, of course, but there's dinner cooking and I think I've written as much as I can at one sitting. The one thing I want to say is that this protest renewed my hope, a giant hope, a hope that dares to help free people literally, not just symbolically. We've been shafted in the mainstream media as a violent rent-a-crowd (how original). People like the Woomera lawyers, who represent many of the detainees incarcerated at Woomera, have told us we did the detainees a huge disservice by colluding in their escape. In fact, one lawyer at least believes that the protesters inside the razor-wire did not have an informed choice about escaping, that if they'd known the penalties they wouldn't have done it. (She said, and I quote, "No-one knew what was happening. People inside thought there was a revolution going on out there!" Yes, Virginia, many revolutions were going on outside, and inside. Millions of them.)
I don't believe that, and moreover I don't believe it was us who initiated that action. We just helped in whatever way we could; we acted in solidarity. I believe in diversity of tactics and respect the hard work that many lawyers and immigration agents do to get detainees through the system; but when the system itself is fucked, working outside of that system seems like the only rational response.
The other thing I want to say is that borders are real. I don't think you can really understand such a border until you're face to face with it, touching the bars, holding the hand of someone inside and wondering how it's possible that they ended up inside the fence and you didn't. I'm not usually a person who comes out with 'shoulds' but I reckon everyone should go to a border camp. This is a global issue.
For more information on Woomera and related issues please visit Melbourne Indymedia
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