On Monday, 10 February 03, at 9.20am, Reta Kaur and another woman chained themselves to a statue outside the USA Consulate on St Kilda Road, Melbourne. Two other women provided support by calling the media and attending to us. This was a nonviolent peace action by four women, ages 20s to 60s, using 2 chains, and an empty, gift-wrapped 5-litre petrol container, flowers, and a small bottle of red fluid symbolising blood.
Aim of the peace action
To draw attention to the threatened war on Iraq To deliver a letter to Mr Bush through the Consular General, pleading with Mr Bush to take the oil and spare the blood.
Peace action outcomes
The police came in large numbers, 12 to 14 men, no women, although only women were involved in the peace action. They threatened to cut the chains and remove us from the premises, the walkway entrance to the building. When they realised that we were harmless and posed no threat, we were allowed us to stay until 12 noon.
The presence of male police carrying guns was immediately frightening. Their large numbers created a threatening presence. The absence of policewomen caused me concern: Would male police physically search us?
The media came in large numbers, radio, TV, print. They did not know how many women were involved. When they saw just 2 women, they were disappointed.
I, Reta Kaur was made invisible by the police and the media. They gravitated to the younger, Anglo, blonde woman who was chained, and to the other two white women. The assumption being that in the presence of white women, a black woman can only be subservient, and cannot possibly be the leader and spokeswoman. Only when the other women said that Reta was the spokeswoman did the police and media make eye contact with me. My traditional dress and veil further reduced my authority in Western eyes, and they were doubtful whether I even spoke English.
A woman observed and commented that the police and media had treated me in a racist and disrespectful way.
A journalist said to the other woman: You don't look like a typical protester, your hair is washed, your clothes are clean. She received unwanted attention from some male journalists.
At 12 noon, the police came in large numbers again and supervised our leaving the Consulate. A police presence had remained all the time in the street and in the building. Only one TV station devoted a few seconds to the peace action in the evening broadcast.
Peace vigil at the US Consulate
The idea for a peace vigil outside the USA Consulate at St Kilda Road came during a public meeting at the Brunswick Town Hall on 4 March 03. Women for Peace and Moreland Peace Group started the vigil as the invasion of Iraq appeared imminent. We were there every day for 30 days, from 8am to 6pm, from 6 March to 17 April 03. There were only 20-30 people at the peak of the protest. From 28 April 03 we were there on Mondays, and had our last vigil on 22 March 04, marking one year of the invasion.
Aim: To be present, to bear witness, to hold the USA accountable for the crimes against humanity, our evolving, graphic clothesline told the story about the savagery of the invasions and the lies. We kept faith.
Features of the vigil
The vigil was characterised by the following features:
We stood on busy St. Kilda Road with placards saying, Hoot for Peace, War is not the Answer, No War for Oil, etc. We had a lot of support from passing traffic.
Over the months we added a clothesline of bloodied clothes, media headline placards, flags of USA, Australia and UK, a large picture of George Bush next to Amrozi, the Bali bomber, pictures of the carnage in Iraq, etc. It was a visual and a powerful display and attracted a lot of attention and often formed the footage of TV news stories. We also had special vigils on 4 July - American Independence Day, Hiroshima Day, 11 September, and the first anniversary of the invasion. Street theatre was also a feature of the vigil. I wore the American flag upside down with a child's bloodied dress. This became my personal symbol against the US led invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq and the crimes against humanity.
Reta Kaur arrested
On Thursday, 20 March 03, when the bombing started, in a moment of terrible grief and betrayal, I wrote: The Killing has Started! in red paint on the two statues outside the Consulate. I have been charged with criminal damage of $9080. It was a spontaneous act arising from the horrific moment when a passer-by said to me, They've started bombing.
Police and legal issues associated with the vigil and my arrest
As a new and inexperienced group consisting mainly of women, we felt that we had no reason to fear the police or the Diplomatic Protection Unit as we were entirely peaceful. We were exercising our democratic right of peaceful protest, and the police had no right to take any action against us. Knowledge about the law and police powers was minimal among us. But we felt safe from the police on St Kilda Road, although there was often abuse from pro-war passers-by.
The police were often called by the Consulate to check on us. The police told us so. They came daily, sometimes twice a day. They asked our names, addresses, and date of birth. Only I told them my name, the nominated spokeswoman, as I was at the vigil almost every day. I gave the police no other information. The other men and women also refused to give the police any information.
Most of the police were impartial and polite but occasionally some police made snide, political comments. Once, when a car full of louts yelled abuse at us, the police laughed. We were watchful of the police, polite but detached.
On 20 March 03, 2 policemen and one woman were involved with my arrest. I refused to give them my full name and address as I thought I had done nothing wrong. I was going to wash down the statues myself before leaving the Consulate to attend the rally at 5pm called by the Victorian Peace Network. As it was water-soluble paint and would wash off immediately, I did not think I had committed a crime and did not have to give police my full name, address, etc. The police insisted I give personal details, and when I refused, I was arrested, put in a car and taken to St Kilda police station.
In the car, alone with the police sergeant, he wanted to know what my background was, if I was Sri Lankan, where I came from. Traumatised by what had happened and needing to be silent within myself, I told him that I needed to be quiet. He then drove without another word.
In the police station I was told of my right to call a solicitor, which I did, and obtained advice. I was told that I should not be photographed. The chatty sergeant took a picture of me without my permission, and I told him that he was wrong to do that. He didn't care. I was not allowed to use my glasses for reading and during the interview, for fear that I might harm myself. I was left alone in a locked room for a long time before and during the interview, resulting in increased stress and trauma. The door was always banged and locked loudly, giving a jail kind of impression. I dealt with all this by becoming a witness, a fly on the wall, observing what was happening to me.
I think being older helped, having my head covered with a veil helped in a way that I'm still trying to understand. The police and other figures in authority don't seem to know how to treat and deal with a woman of my age wearing a veil. My silent demeanour also confused them.