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(en) Organise #61 - Confessions of a Peace Thug: Shannon and Direct Action

From Worker <a-infos-en@ainfos.ca>
Date Fri, 17 Oct 2003 09:08:28 +0200 (CEST)

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One year in the campaign to demilitarise Shannon, a civilian airport, now used by the USAF.
This is a personal report of my own participation and observations,
so of necessity it is strong in some areas – the various
demonstrations at Shannon, and weak in others – the peace
camp, the surveillance. Of course most of what I have been doing
in the campaign to demilitarise Shannon has been helping to
organise meetings, and leafleting, organising helping to organise
buses, and sticking up posters, and running another bus, and
sticking up posters, and sticking up posters, and sticking up
posters and oh yeah did I mention sticking up posters?.

So needless to say this report has been a bit "sexed up", with little
emphasis on the humdrum grunt work and more on the those rare
moments of adrenalin rush, with special reference to that one
glorious piece of mass destruction on October 12th.

I was first down in Shannon in mid August last year. We were only
about 70 strong, yet we defied police orders to stay outside the
airport, and by entering caused a warplane to leave without
refueling. On August 31st there was a 24 hour women’s peace
camp outside the airport, with an information stall in Shannon town
itself which got a good reception. On September 1st there was a
small picket outside the main terminal building. Also at this time
two American warships carrying ammunition to the Middle East
were due to stop over in Cork Harbour, but this visit was cancelled
because of planned protests. On the night of September 3rd Eoin
Dubsky went into the airport grounds and re-decorated a warplane.
I am normally critical of this sort of "ploughshares" type action but
it led to the undeniable truth is that this was a massive advance in
building a serious anti-war mobilisation - . That is to say a
movement which aimed to, at least to some degree, grasp the
problem with both hands and sort it out.
Empirical evidence bears this out – within one month the
numbers protesting at the airport increased tenfold. Shannon
became a public issue. On October 12th hundreds of people turned
up to demonstrate at the airfield, and after a fence was surgically
struck and decommissioned by a small mob, one woman darted
across the runway grounds pursued by Keystone Cops. After a
pregnant pause she was followed by well over a hundred, who soon
faced threatened use of water cannon and police dogs, dogs and
arrest. Ten people were arrested, but released after the people
occupying the runway grounds refused to move until they ere
released arrestees went free. After , after the airport road was
briefly blocked, and after we all went down to the cop shop to make
sure they would get out.

Shortly after this the Third Grassroots Gathering took place in
Belfast. This brought together over one hundred environmentalists,
anarchists, and other assorted troublemakers from across the
island and beyond. There were almost 20 different workshops on a
wide variety of topics including Gender, Direct Action, Social
Centres, Reclaim the Streets, Sectarianism, and Forest Gardens.
Long and laborious meetings at this event sought to co-ordinate an
autonomous strand within the peace movement with an orientation
towards direct democracy and action. We announced a ‘day of
action’ on December 8th. That day a diverse throng of around
400 demonstrators gathered in Shannon, accompanied by 200
Garda (on two shifts), the Garda canine unit, undercover police,
Special Branch, a police helicopter and Aer Rianta’s own
security. Well we must be doing something right. We set off on a
long trek to the airport, complete with music from a shopping
trolley sound system and fiddle player. Strangely absent were
mass produced placards bearing the same slogan, so people had to
make do with D-I-Y banners, homemade T-Shirts, one coffin with
‘Irish Neutrality’ written on it, various Uncle Sam/Dubya
impersonators, and a bunch of kids chucking flour about the place.
A team of graphic design artists went to work on the truly crass
1970s tail fin monument near the terminal building -a piece of public
"art" that seems to plead ‘paint me!’, ‘paint me!’, in
a whimpering despair filled voice every time you pass it. It was
briefly transformed into a memorial to the recently deceased
anti-war activist Philip Berrigan and to the Iraqi children slain by
UN sanctions and the US war machine. Despite names being taken
there were no arrests.

After a wee bit of a hibernation over the hols the new year saw an
avalanche of escalation. A permanent peace camp was set up. On
January 18th thousands traveled to the airport.

The best thing about that day was the spontaneity, which was also
perhaps the worst thing! I’m a great believer in the power of
chaos but after you occupy the rooftop of a derelict building before
breaking into ….a hanger? No a cafeteria stockroom! Yes
that’s the day you know throwing a dash of organisation into
the pot just might improve the taste. Just a dash mind.

But it was all great craic. Although people have dissed the rooftop
occupation as a bit pointless, we had dodged police dogs to get on
to the roof so the disgruntled look of disgust as we gazed down
upon the bacon, was a pleasure to behold. No one was nicked on
this occasion. The demonstration and peace camp had a sizable
impact. World Airways – one of the charter companies ferrying
U.S. troops through Shannon – took the decision to re-route 17
of their flights to Frankfurt in Germany. A posse of peaceniks
permanently camped on the doorstep were not a reassuring sight to
the suits in the corporate boardrooms. And as a result, the
government had to make Shannon safe for Washington. Injunctions
were brought against peace campers. One answer came when
Mary Kelly did a bit of D-I-Y on a military plane and a few days
later the Pitstop Ploughshares Five had a go at the same plane
after it had been repaired. World Airways pulled out and repression
from the police and media went up well more than a notch. The
terms of Mary Kelly’s bail was to ban her from Clare, and the
five were to spend several weeks in prison, only being released
with punitive bail conditions – including having to sign on every
day with the police. The media smear campaign – which is
basically the psychological warfare wing of the police – also
went into action. Sections of the anti-war movement –such as
the NGO peace alliance (who had just organised a 800 strong
demo in Shannon) and the Green Party – who were
pro-smashing warplanes one minute and not the next, sought to
distance themselves from these actions.
And the troops went in with armoured cars and guns; they would
have had tanks only the Irish army doesn’t have any. This was
half a publicity stunt, half a cost-cutting exercise as soldiers
don’t have the power of arrest but are paid much less than
cops. The Star’s headline "Will They Shoot on Sight" must
have given hard-ons to many in the US Embassy. That was the
point: intimidate the ‘citizens’, reassure those whom the
‘public servants’ really serve. Two weeks later we were to
get a lesson in the reality of "democracy". F15: over 100,000 on the
streets of Dublin, opinion polls showed massive opposition to the
Government’s support for the Anglo-American war effort.
Many of us had argued that marches around city centres had no
impact on state policy.

And the troops went in with armoured cars and guns; they would
have had tanks only the Irish army doesn’t have any. This was
half a publicity stunt, half a cost-cutting exercise as soldiers
don’t have the power of arrest but are paid much less than
cops. The Star’s headline "Will They Shoot on Sight" must
have given hard-ons to many in the US Embassy. That was the
point: intimidate the ‘citizens’, reassure those whom the
‘public servants’ really serve. Two weeks later we were to
get a lesson in the reality of "democracy". F15: over 100,000 on the
streets of Dublin, opinion polls showed massive opposition to the
Government’s support for the Anglo-American war effort.
Many of us had argued that marches around city centres had no
impact on state policy. We pointed out that the really huge
demonstrations which had taken place in London and Glasgow had
not changed British Government policy which was still dictated
from Washington and were accused of being negative. Well here
was the proof in Ireland that we were right – we marched, but
nothing changed. Demonstrations like this can be useful, as a
morale boost, as a way of getting more people involved. I helped
organise four buses to F15 and two local protests around that time.
But a strategy of marching and marching alone will do nothing. You
couldn’t miss the truth of that when in the face of the biggest
demo in Dublin in years the state didn’t change it’s actions
one iota. Unfortunately this truth missed self professed
"revolutionary Marxists" (like why have a revolution if lobbying
works!??!!) and republicans (hey couldn’t you have had a
protest march instead of ‘800 years of struggle’?) by a
couple of hundred miles.

It would be nice to have a real positive article but how can we
write about the March 1st action without mentioning the massive
hostility shown by the Left towards it? March 1st was first
discussed during the January 18th demo, developed in local
meetings after soon after was put forward to the leadership of the
Irish Anti-War Movement (IAWM) as a day on non-violent direct
action. We emphasise the word leadership because much of the
membership of the IAWM had no awareness of our approach. That
leadership’s reaction was to call a protest march for the same
date, then to claim that nasty anarchos were hi-jacking their event.
In the week running up to the March 1st Action, two charter
companies carrying American troops through Shannon pulled out,
citing "security threats". World Airways having already pulled out,
according to media reports, this left one charter company hired by
the American military still using Shannon airport, as well as direct
military flights. One big push might have done it.

Instead, the Labour Party, the Green Party and Sinn Fein all pulled
out of the day without consulting the rank and file, though to their
credit, individual Labour Party and Green Party people refused to
follow the diktat of their leaders. The Socialist Party and Socialist
Worker’s Party marched in a separate contingent which
ignored the attempted direct action and meandered up to the
terminal. The Green Party had their national conference 30 minutes
up the road where Shannon was high on the agenda for
discussion!!!!! Some people had genuine problems with a ‘day
of action’ but when a political party which (still!) has an armed
wing starts waffling about the need for ‘peaceful protest’,
y’know this is for party political reasons not a matter of
principle. These parties want to appear radical to hoover up radical
youth, yet respectable enough to win votes, forge electoral
alliances or earn union funding. They invented reasons not to
support the March 1st action and denounced it in the mass media.
For example: ‘it won’t be a family day out’. Aye, and
Trotsky went down in history for running a crèche during the
storming of the Winter Palace. Or: ‘It’s premature’.
Sure, after the fall of Baghdad would have been a better time.
There is no evidence that public opinion and protest marches
altered the situation and clear-cut evidence that direct action at
Shannon changed things. If you don’t believe me, ask the
airlines why they pulled out of Shannon or Jane Fort, acting head of
the U.S. embassy in Dublin. In the Sunday papers following March
1st, she admitted that direct action had caused "difficulty", had
prompted the airlines to review their position and the
movement’s tactics had been "really threatening". This from
the representative of a regime guilty of mass murder, stating
clearly that we had got them over a barrel and on the run. You
could play by the system’s rules, do only what you are
permitted to do, and Jane Fort will probably love you, there will be
no controversy, you’ll have a nice media image, no political
backlash……and you’ll get absolutely nowhere. Imagine
what a unified mass non-violent direct action mobilisation in
Shannon on March 1st could have done. Following March 1st, the
movement went into reverse. Day X reaction didn’t keep the
pressure on Shannon and two of the further demos there either
massively policed by the boys in blue or kept under control by the
political parties.

Direct Action is not another way of saying militancy, it means
going and sorting a problem yourself, as opposed to indirect action
- asking someone else to do it by lobbying or voting or whatever.
Direct action’s purpose is to have an effect, to directly sort out
the problem. The diverse actions at Shannon, by creating a
‘security threat’, led to the charter companies pulling out.
Shannon was being demilitarised as a result of direct action. Now
there’s all kinds of ‘direct action’. The successful
penetration of security at Hillsborough during the Bush-Blair
summit? The blockade of the Dail? Here in Galway we marched
into a Fianna Fail office, and likewise in many other places the
focus was on the politicians. But where was the end product?
Many of these events had the form of direct action but the content
of protest lobbying. ‘Put pressure on the politicians’, start
with letter writing, get progressively frustrated through protest
marching until you’re throwing paint at the pricks. But in the
end the focus is still on politicians who will not listen. After Day X,
the dominant form of action was…. wait for it…marching. This
can be a cul de sac. You come to a march in Dublin, then another
and another. As they have no noticeable effect do you keep
coming? Or do you just become more cynical and disillusioned? We
need an effective strategy. We need to fight where we can win
because that builds confidence and overcomes apathy. The point of
direct action is to build up a general climate of confidence and
culture of resistance through winning and most importantly through
winning by our own efforts.

The conservative left’s campaign against direct action served
to facilitate state repression. People arrested in October started to
get their summons and more people were arrested and charged on
March 1st. House raids, arrests and riots cops appeared on the
horizon. Blanket policing prevented a march from even getting into
the airport grounds. The numbers of cops at Shannon station
increased massively: last year there were 234 cops in Clare with
only 30 in Shannon. Now there are 140 in Shannon alone. Many
activists have been banned from Clare despite it being
unconstitutional according to a High Court judge. Even so, the
state has not thrown a ring of steel around an impenetrable citadel:
on Good Friday last, the Catholic Worker spud-planting division
went walkabout through the airport grounds and built a shrine. The
state has mobilised sufficient numbers of police to match the
numbers those networks up for mass direct action can produce.
They have also know that the only mass direct action they were
going to see from large sections of the anti-war movement will be
rhetorical. Charter companies have returned, and others have come
to replace the ones that haven’t. To prevent further
demobilisation, defendant/prisoner support is crucial. Its
effectiveness (or lack of it) will inhibit or facilitate further action or
further repression. All of the fines and legal costs arising out of the
March 1st action, and most of the costs from October 1st,, have
been met by support networks.

From a libertarian perspective the point of direct action is that
people winning small victories through direct action are empowered
– a culture of resistance is built up. This is an essential short
term goal for all who dream of a free society without hierarchy and
bureaucracy. You cannot change social relationships by legislation
but only through a mass movement of people shaping their own
destinies. Only an empowered people can do this. We need to
create and support forms of direct action that are most accessible
to all people. We don’t need a specialised activist elite –
unless we wish to reproduce the hierarchy and alienation of
capitalist society. We need mass participation.

We are faced with a conundrum. Direct action (which only a small
minority can/will take part in) or ineffective protesting? Are those
our only options? It looks like it, if it is currently beyond our
capacities to mobilise sufficient numbers for mass direct action.
However there is a way out. That way out leads through the soft
underbelly of USAF Shannon, the corporations which operate the
airport. Top Oil re-fuels the warplanes but it may also have put the
petrol in your car or the oil in your central heating. As a pretty
small indigenous company, with just over a hundred filling stations
and some local distributors in a very competitive market, it is
susceptible to a consumer boycott, which would have an immediate
and direct effect.

We can establish a spectrum of resistance ranging from boycotts
to mass trespasses to hammering planes, in which everyone can
play a direct part in the de-militarisation process. All of us can
participate directly, on our own initiative, at whatever suits us.
This strategy also applies to other issues and arenas of struggle.
Our main goal should be on seeking ways to have an impact and
empower people through mass participation. In regard to Shannon,
obviously the heady days of the spring of 2003 are over. Time to
pack up and go home? I think not. The planespotters down at the
airport report no appreciable reduction in military traffic –
hardly surprising when you consider that troop numbers in Iraq
have not be reduced. The war may not continue on Sky News but it
does on the ground. Similar arguments were heard in the aftermath
of Afghanistan, that is: no war equals no anti-war movement. But
the war is still going on and it is being waged as much by local
businesses like Top Oil as it is by the US Marines and fedayeen.
Something like the Top Oil Boycott Campaign can incorporate
action – hurting the company’s sales figures and
propaganda – keeping Shannon and the war in the popular
consciousness by being out there on the forecourt.

The pictures used in this article come from the Workers Solidarity
Movement site: http://struggle.ws/wsm.html. There are many more
to view on their site.

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