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Iain McIntyre, 'Always Look on the Bright Side of Life: The AIDEX '91 story'

Homebrew Press, 2008; ISBN 9780975731918; 144pp; $18AU; available from www.foe.org.au/shop

This book is about a campaign against an arms fair in Australia that included a two-week-long attempt – with a large measure of success – to blockade all three entrances to the site – not only during the arms fair but the week before, when exhibitors were arriving to set up. I would recommend it to anyone concerned about the problems of large demonstrations and meetings involving individuals and groups with a range of attitudes to nonviolence.

There are day-by-day accounts of what happened – a bit like a diary but not from one person. The accounts, gathered from diverse sources, include recollections in interviews with the author, letters and articles in the press and radio interviews.

At one gate the demonstrators included an affinity group committed to non-violent direct action. They used a tactic I have not seen in this country: “Star blockades... a physical blockading tactic … involv[ing] a small group laying (sic) face to face in a circle with arms tightly linked.” This gate was used for both the arms fair and another event. The protesters successfully turned away much arms fair traffic and allowed the non-arms fair vehicles through.

At another gate very different tactics were used including barricades, metal pickets forced into the ground, steel drums with fires inside and gates wired shut. At one time an old car was set alight to block the entrance.

The demonstration at the main gate appears to have consisted of people who avoided both extremes. “Everyone who didn’t fit in with those wound up in the middle.” Protests at all three gates must have had some effect – at one point the police cut a hole in the fence to allow vehicles through.

The book title comes from an event one night when a sit down blockade realised that the journalists and camera crews had all gone and they were surrounded by increasingly menacing police (Australian police apparently put on latex gloves before they beat people up). Someone started singing the Monty Python song “Always look on the bright side of life”. Soon the whole crowd joined in. Then people started laughing including the police. The violent attack was averted, for that night. Humour and music can sometimes be a useful defence.

One strong point of this book is that differing accounts of the same incidents, meetings and actions are put side by side without editorial comment. It illustrates vividly how perceptions can differ an how difficult it is to perceive the whole picture of something you yourself took part in. For this reason, it is very useful for us, in this country, to study a campaign on the other side of the world. They faced problems that have parallels in all actions involving large numbers.

Was police violence in reaction to abuse from protesters or vice versa? Were organised political groups dominating meetings or just speaking up for the majority? Was the main aim to physically prevent vehicles getting to the arms fair or to draw public attention to the evils of the arms trade?

I would recommend this book to all participants in demonstrations, from nonviolence trainers to the newcomer who innocently comments “I thought this was meant to be a peaceful protest”.

Topics: Arms trade