Mum, did you steal any refugees? Sylvie Leber on the Baxter convergence, 2003

The Baxter Detention Centre in South Australia was used for the mandatory detention of asylum seekers between 2002-2007.  In 2003 detainees protested and set fire to the facilities over the Easter Weekend protests. This happened again with worse results in 2005, but then Immigration Minister Amanda Vanstone said that acts of vandalism and self harm by asylum seekers were “unattractive” protest measures.  These protests united the struggle of those inside the detention centre with the fight of Australians who traveled from across the country to camp near the site for the weekend, adding their voices to this movement.
Sylvie Leber was at the Baxter convergence in 2003. She shares her photographs and private notes from the Easter protests of that year:


I’ve just returned from the three-day 2003 Baxter convergence. I kept diary notes during this time.
Friday 18th April.
Our first of several spokes council meetings was held at midday in the centre of town (Port Augusta). The local indigenous community had given us a traditional welcome. They were to stick close by us for the next three days.
We decided whether the camp should be on the West or Eastern approach. A consensus was reached without too much trouble. Scouts from Adelaide had done their homework in the previous weeks.
I have come armed with all sorts of art materials and small paper banners. I also had my own version of riot protection gear: swimming goggles and a respirator in case police used pepper spray and tear gas like they did last year at Woomera.
We headed towards Baxter Detention Centre. Baxter is on Federal Military land and adjacent to aboriginal sacred land.  Apart from a few sheep grazing on the prickly saltbush and an occasional long train in the distance, and the long water pipe, the backdrop for the Easter weekend was the spectacular Flinders Ranges. The detainees can’t see out of the detention centre. They can only see the sky.  The police wanted us at least 2KM from the detention centre. Roadblocks had been set up to stop cars that were not police or media from getting through.
The battle with police over where to set up camp ensued, police flexed their muscle, they were determined to move us. I noted about four different types of uniform. A tall thin man with dreadlocks played violin in front of them. While a group of parents put up tents, their children played nearby with water pistols.  The Chief inspector of police warned us to move back.  At 4.45pm they brought in the horses and started pushing us back. People in the front line were picked out and arrested. They used unnecessary levels of force and arrested people.   Police grabbed possessions as they advanced. Chaos ensued. There was screaming, yelling, young women in tears. My worst fear was that a policeman would split my bare head open with a baton. Throughout all this someone was flying a kite with a love heart painted on it. People were searching for their packs – a young woman who had lost her things spotted her bag and ran and hugged it exclaiming “My baby!” The water pipe was to be an asset for us. It acted as a barrier to the heavily armored police who could not outrun us, was somewhere to hide possessions under as well as being cool to touch, providing shade and acting as a vantage point to film and photograph the events that were unfolding. An older and disabled activist from Melbourne had collapsed during the police violence. There were a handful of physically disabled people amongst us and several sprightly women in their 70s. We had legal observers, medics and couriers (iXpress) on hand. Meanwhile the police were holding their first media briefing in town.
Dejectedly the group moved back up the hill.  We all knew we had stuffed up the first day. During the night various small groups tried to breach the police line around Baxter, some got arrested.
Evelyn and I started to chalk the word Freedom in as many languages as we could on the one metre in diameter water pipe while others set up camp. The sun was harsh, the air was dry. I understand why Dusty is an Aussie outback nickname. Many people wore bandanas and scarves over their nose and mouth. I sensed these bandanas were more than protection from the red dust, some of their significance remained a mystery to me.
Baxter Detention Centre is a high-tech, militarized facility based on the infamous J Ward at Pentridge, which was closed down after six months because the suicide attempt rate was so high.
There are rotating video cameras on high poles – high tech observation towers without the guards. There are two outside fences. The inner one is a 9,000-volt electric fence. There are several detainee compounds each is surrounded by an electric fence. Detainees are under constant video surveillance except in the toilets and showers.
From a distance the detention centre at night is lit like a night football match at the MCG.
At night the detainees could easily hear us and when our protest group was silent after making lots of noise their distant calls were faintly audible. All phone calls have been banned during the lockdown inside.
I spoke to my daughter by mobile. She asked me “Did you get arrested?” (I had warned her that this could happen but that I was not a frontline person. I’m scared of batons splitting my head open.) As our conversation was ending she asked? “Did you steal some refugees?”
I was getting ready for bed when there was a desperate knock on the door. “Sylvie are you in there? It’s A I’ve been arrested and I’m really strung out”. A looked a mess. He was completely covered in red dust. He had been thrown to the ground, held face down with a policeman’s knee on his neck unable to breathe, his arms were twisted behind his back and handcuffs put on. He showed me the bruises. He’d lost his possessions. It turned out he had been the first to get arrested and had just gotten out on bail.  The charge on his bail form was “Fail Cease Loiter” he was to come back in June. A was the most unlikely of arrestees. The doco crew next door kindly lent him some bedding. His bail condition stipulated that he was not to take part in any of the protest activities and that he wasn’t to venture further than the first road block.
Saturday 19th
Today we had a much more successful day. We were no longer a rabble we were strategic and organized at all three of our actions. The police were in overkill mode. A group went down at 9.00pm to hold a can
dlelight vigil of mourning. People sat quietly and sang. Arrests were made. A young woman had been arrested earlier in the day for flying her kite in a restricted zone near a military airport.
We were a mixed crowd. I enjoyed seeing the colorful appearance of the passionate young people. The Desert Rats without Borders, feral anarchist punks, were the most visually striking group, dressed in black, interesting tattoos, intricate hair designs, body piercing, some men wearing kilts and a few wearing black bandanas over their mouth and nose. The Greens added an air of respectability. There were several sprightly older women, a couple of New Romantic-looking fellows from the VCA, Melbourne’s elite art school, and many 30 and 40 something women who had left their partners and children behind. The array of T-shirt messages was to be constantly stimulating and entertaining.
There were the Queers for Refugees, Rural Australians for Refugees, the Radical Cheer Squad who never failed to amuse with their witty routines. Food not Bombs were impressive providing yummy vegetarian food made from “found food”. No One is Illegal had organized the water truck; the Refugee Action Collective organized the concert. Indymedia set up the media tent
Yesterday a plain-clothes policeman with a backpack had been recognized by one of the local aborigines who had formerly been a policeman himself. A crowd gathered and hounded him out of the camp. We had no idea of how many spies there were amongst us. The police had expected about three thousand of us there was overkill everywhere
It was beyond my expectations to meet two Australian Correctional Management (ACM) building subcontractors, who worked at both Woomera and Baxter, during the concert. Australasian Correctional Management was a private company running several immigration detention centres. The guys seemed to have pretty good communication with the women and children of the housing program and the men in the detention centres. They described how the community of Woomera had done a lot in terms of material assistance to the housing program residents. I found it confronting to meet these two blokes because my feeling was that no one should work for ACM if they had a conscience. They told me that they were part of the protest but they wouldn’t take part in any action, as they feared losing their jobs. They were happy to talk to anyone at the camp and answer any questions but would not appear on film. They confirmed that at Woomera the women were still taken shopping by guards.
During the concert we were able to do a mobile phone hook up with one of the detainees over the PA . We learnt that contrary to misinformation before the protests we had the full support from the people inside.
Baxter convergence 2003 memorabilia

Sunday 20th
It was meant to be a 7.00 am start as it was the cool time of the day, people from Perth had a 30-hour trip ahead of them and we had to pack and be at the Port Augusta jail by 1.30.  A group of us filled balloons with helium and with felt tips wrote messages to detainees. We finally headed off at 8.30 for our last of the five actions at the detention centre. We released our balloons in unison; we hoped some of them would land in the compounds.  A Jewish group from Sydney stuck rows of yellow Jewish stars around the entrance and handed yellow flyers to the media pointing out  the similarities as well as the differences between Australia’s Detention Centres and Nazi Concentration Camps.
We made lots of noise and as we left we tried to get past the police close to the fence, the Darth Vader–like police chased us again, a few more arrests but most of us could easily outrun the police so heavily weighed down by their uniforms.
When we got back we heard about a four-wheel drive full of police armed with machine guns who had driven through the camp. Channel Nine was negotiating with some of us to get our handy cam and Super 8 footage of this. Apparently four hours earlier someone had pointed a tripod at the relentless helicopter that has been hovering above us day and night for the three days.
As the camp was packing up a spectacular whirlwind of red dust swept through the camp sweeping objects up towards the blue sky. Similarly we had swept through Port Augusta and the desert for three days. On the way to the Port Augusta jail solidarity protest (80% of prisoners are aboriginal) we noticed the police having a damage control press conference. They were being questioned by the media about the machine guns.
I thanked Noelene, the aboriginal elder who had spoken and sang at the Rock Out Against Racism concert the night before, for having us. She replied “Well you know where we are now, come and see us anytime.”
Post script
Coming home I realized that Australians must fight to protect our fragile and eroding freedom and understood that if we are complacent how easily our government will be able to take it away.
For the economic rationalists: the South Australian Government spent $1,000,000 on the protest. There were about 500 protestors. Each protestor cost them$2000. It only cost me $300. It was a worthwhile investment to put refugees in detention back on Australia’s agenda.
Thank you to all my fellow protestors and all the people back home who supported the Baxter 2003 convergence in other various ways.


Leave a Reply