Moira Darling, Victoria Regional Meeting.
It was with mixed feelings that I engaged in the nonviolent action at HQJOC during AYM this year. I was definitely called to be there and to be present, although a part of me was anxious at what might happen. At different times I also felt excited, curious, awkward, vulnerable, confused, saddened, bored and self-righteous. All of which being a lot of emotions for such a short action, which was literally but a walk in the countryside and the reading of a letter.
HQJOC – Headquarters Joint Operations Command – is the central command centre for Australia’s military engagement (army, navy and air force) around the world and our Quaker action and vigil was an act of witness against the war machine that this centre represents.
It was a well planned action. Jo Valentine had contacted key personnel at the centre to announce our arrival and request a meeting with the senior officer in command to deliver a letter of protest at the activities of the defence forces engaged in warfare. We had met as a group the night before to plan the action and to talk through the issues. We would attempt to drive up to the gates of the centre and a delegation of three people would request to meet the commanding officer then read and deliver the letter.
At the planning meeting we were informed that we would probably be stopped halfway along the road and have to walk the last kilometre. We selected the delegation that would accompany Jo (Julian Robertson and I volunteered ourselves). We shared copies of the letter, discussed banners, and matters of self-care (sunscreen & water).
Our first surprise after we were flagged into a layby halfway along the road was to realise that despite all the preparations we weren’t expected – the message hadn’t got through the chain of command. About thirty of us emerged from the cars and milled around the two commonwealth policemen who had no idea who we were or what we were intending.
Their stress at this confrontation was palpable.
We were waiting for quite a while as the police called HQJOC to facilitate our action and it was interesting to observe how people behaved to reduce their own levels of stress. I also notice that these actions could easily be misinterpreted and lead to an escalation into violence. Some people who hadn’t been at the briefing session were quite confronting to the police, moving right into their space and talking loudly at them while they were attempting to negotiate with the centres personnel. This form of behaviour did not seem to me to be nonviolent, but in another situation could have led to an escalation of the situation.
Given the high level of stress the police were under, as they were dealing with an unknown mob of thirty protestors, I was impressed by their discipline and the courtesy they showed.
As we were waiting we pulled out the banners and vests, holding them up to the cars coming and going to the centre. That is, until we were asked to put them away. It was quite boring – just waiting in the sun to see if we could proceed.
I again noticed the level of stress building up amongst our group.
We decided to form a circle and enter worship. It was really interesting how as a group we couldn’t go straight into worship and several songs were sung before we could settle. I now think that singing should be part of the preparation for actions – it seemed to connect people to their hearts clearly and quickly & relieve the stress, enabling a considered presence. We then entered a deep and moving Meeting for Worship commemorating the many victims of war.
After quite some time we were given permission to proceed to the gates of the centre. So with spirits enlivened by action and our banners unfurled we proceeded to the gates where we were directed to stand under the shadow of a tank by the gate. It was here that the delegation moved to meet the commanding officer. Some of those who hadn’t been to the briefing were wanting to be involved in this part of the action and had little understanding of the planning and preparation that had already been done.
It was surprising to be greeted so warmly by the commanding officer who recognised Jo from a previous action and welcomed her back. I felt quite composed at the time, although it was a challenge for me as to how to engage with the “enemy”. I found myself stopping the smile that I would normally greet people with and stopping myself from replying that it was a pleasure to meet the commanding officer.
So I wonder now – where is the “enemy”.
I was also clearly called into worship while the letter was being read and felt at the time at which I entered worship that there was a difference in me and in those around me. The clearest example was the change in tone of voice as the letter was being read – it became clearer & stronger. Other changes were less tangibly observable, but included a sense that there was an increased receptivity. I don’t know what was happening behind me in the larger group. There may have been a deepening of worship there at that time too. It was a real eye-opener as to the power of prayer and the contribution that Quakers can make.
After the letter was read we walked back to the cars and returned to Canberra.
Overall it really became apparent to me the level of planning, discipline, team building & self-reflection that is essential in even the simplest of nonviolent actions, as there are many opportunities for misunderstanding and escalation into violence to occur. It seems to me that as Quakers we bring with us this incredible gift of Spiritual practice that is powerfully transformative. However, we are still human and need to develop our own awareness and skills in nonviolent communication, transforming the violence within, engaging with that of God in the other, stress recognition and management, and learning a few protest songs.
The most important thing for me about engaging in this action was the transformation in me and the self-knowledge that I gained. I will be much better prepared and ready to engage in nonviolent actions in the future.