Shannon Airport, 12 October 2002
Marching with a hangover has become somewhat of a tradition for me. It is said that routine is good for the constitution. With that in mind I made sure the prelude to my small part in the jamboree outside Ireland's U.S. Air Force B+B was a night on the beer.
Volunteering information in one's workplace always backfires. Letting it be known that I'd be in Shannon on Saturday to wave placards at airplanes and get up to other assorted mischief landed me two appointments in Cork city for Friday. Work done and a mere ninety minute drive to reach Shannon next morning proved too tempting to resist. My latent drunken whore took control, Night of the Living Dead style, and cajoled me into getting wasted in a very tacky nightclub. Amorous locals stacking drinks in front of me were blessings from on high at the time; vomit from the Devil's bile soaked depths after too few hours of ineffectual sleep. Compounding matters, the Lord of all Darkness had seen fit to take the morning off and thereby drench the South-West in blinding sunshine -- considerably more than my sunglasses, or tired eyes, could satisfactorily deal with.
I can't comment much on the road from Cork to Shannon. I didn't get to spend a lot of time driving on it. However the hard shoulder to Shannon is adequate. My alternative to having such intimate knowledge of it was hitting the oncoming traffic, engaged in the South's favourite suicide sport; overtaking on a blind bend. I suppose it's a compliment of sorts, the oncoming driver betting his life on the quality of my reflexes behind the wheel.
Shannon Gardai were making it very clear from the get-go that any party in their house would abide by house rules. Adult supervision would be present at all times and rowdy children would be sent home. A small rabble of protesters were at the airport entrance when I arrived. Gardai were screening cars at this point, about one third of a mile from the terminal. I parked up in the industrial estate and made for the worryingly small crowd but was heartened to overhear that some of the organised buses were running late. The extra bodies would be vital to give the turnout some respectability. I wondered, half aloud, how the handling of a full minibus would stack up against the grade of kamikaze driver I had faced.
Beelzebub got back from the golf course at about the time the last of the minibuses dropped their cargo. He punched the big, red button labelled ``rain on the tree hugging hippies'' and water duly fell from the sky. The sunshine we had enjoyed moved off but stayed in plain view, teasing us from beyond our localised drizzle.
I recognised some partial faces obscured behind barking megaphones calling us to something approaching order to begin the march. A second barking demi-face countermanded the first, then an electronically unassisted shouter took issue with both megaphones. This was a taster of the factional disagreement that was to be a recurring theme through the day. While the problems were sorted out I looked around at the crowd which had gathered close, in anticipation of setting off. We were fewer, much fewer, than in Dublin two weeks previous but enough to make the day worthwhile. Some grumbled about the weather turning bad, the creeping damp even more dreary because of the sunshine we could see encircling our rain cloud; others that posturing by those with megaphones was frustration best directed at Aer Rianta and its overlords than at each other.
More than a year after reading Klein's work, the post No Logo guilt still aches. A red Levi's t-shirt -- refugee from the emergency clothing drawer -- had been rejected at wardrobe call that morning. A marching shoulder-to-waist advertisement for predatory Americana would have been a delicious irony but was too much for even me. My still slowed mind was telling, though. Sparkling in the rain running down the front of my coat was a small american-flag lapel pin, a gift from a close friend. I wasn't fixed by disapproving stares or verbally taken-up during the twenty minutes or so it was on display. Nonetheless, it was unclipped and slid into a pocket lest I be thought to be inviting a fight.
As we set off I angled for a quiet bit of the crowd. The hangover had waned a little but I wasn't yet ready to withstand ``One, Two, Three, Four ...'' at megaphone volume and a dozen voices yelling in refrain. That didn't matter. The guy in front of me couldn't see me wince as he wound his voice box up to eleven and bellowed ``UK, USA! How many kids have you killed today!'' but wince I most certainly did. Credit to his able lungs but in my fragile state I was hoping he'd either lose steam or wander off to join another chap who'd rowed in and was now helping to nurse my headache in stereo.
A decision had obviously been taken in advance of our arrival at the terminal that we were not to be permitted entry to the building. A two-deep line of Gardai (I counted 51 of them) were waiting, with ``If your name's not down, you're not coming in'' written in stony faced, folded arm body language. That posture was their biggest mistake of the day. The head of the crowd made a beeline for the implied challenge of the overguarded door and took point, nose-to-nose with our friends in bright yellow jackets.
If those inside weren't to be let see us, they sure as hell were going to hear us. The building's facade reflecting the sound was artificial amplification but we still made a tremendous noise for such small numbers. The shed-like interior of the airport acted like a skin, reverberating our roars into the foundations. The tumult was at least partially successful. The large windows overlooking us filled with many curious faces seemingly eager to identify the ruckus.
In a sinister turn, a permanent fixture in the window was a Garda with a video camera who, like his colleagues in a (fully liveried) Garda surveillance van, earned a cheery wave from the crowd when he was spotted. It didn't go unnoticed that peace campaigners who photograph American aircraft as part of cataloguing the extent of the military use of Shannon have been removed from the airport grounds, while Gardai photograph and video peaceful demonstrators from within the same building.
As the metaphorical chest-beating was underway at the terminal entrance, a megaphone completely drowned out by chants appealed for people to move back from the doorway and from what it -- the megaphone -- saw as a confrontation. Repeated calls to move back had little effect, principally because the appeals couldn't be heard. From my position, I considered the megaphone to be needlessly conservative. The protesters were loud and fired up but under control. The Gardai were likewise. Two officers on horseback kept watch from the far end of the building but looked as bored as their mounts throughout.
That degree of intensity couldn't last long. As the body density at the door gradually decreased, organisers -- megaphones never far from reach -- began to direct act two.
All traffic to the terminal area had been stopped for about forty minutes by this time and it was destined to remain confined to the outer grounds for about another two hours. We had stretched from the entrance to the edge of the footpath, across the width of the road alongside the terminal and perhaps five metres back onto the footpath on the other side. A road hump which doubles as a speed ramp and pedestrian crossing was employed as a platform for a round of short speeches.
A number of people spoke: some with passionate oratory, clearly used to public speaking and rousing a crowd. A diminutive Iraqi woman, introduced as having only a few words to say, and crying before she managed her first, brought a raw passion to the event that no amount of shouting or arm waving could equal. At a volume barely above whisper she reminded us why we were there. Her voice broke repeatedly when she spoke of her parents living in Iraq who now face the threat of a new war: a war against one man, for the oil he controls, which will kill thousands of mothers, fathers and their sons and daughters. It will kill thousands who have already suffered irreconcilable injustice at the hands of the western world. If we fail to stop this war, this woman's family will be killed in our name and for the most cynical and hypocritical reasons imaginable.
I estimate two hundred and seventy people heard her plea for another way. All but the oblivious, playing children, shrieking with joy at having the outlines of their bodies marked in chalk on the footpath, were held in thrall. I couldn't have been alone in hoping that if I ever have to speak, even only a few words, I could do it half as well as she. Those standing by me shared my appreciation of her particular courage to speak candidly of the dichotomy in despising Saddam whilst opposing the enormous military assault and wanton slaughter that war advocates are proffering as the only way forward.
Quarters of the assemblage wanted to make a point about restrictions placed on the demonstration by the Gardai. Loud hailered protests about holding us outside an otherwise public building, barring even parents in care of children needing nappy changing or a bathroom passage through the Garda line yielded no meaningful response, despite the operation's commanding officer being located -- skulking on the outskirts of the crowd, shielding himself from view behind a Scottish lady of my brief acquaintance -- and cornered.
Notable in its absence from the event was the national media. RTE News is least likely to forget that day. A direct number for the newsroom was announced over megaphone accompanied by a call for all mobile phone users to produce same and make their complaint directly to the newsdesk. Fellow pranksters joined me in giving the hapless reporters in Montrose a roasting for RTE's no-show. As later events transpired such a presence was sorely missed.
Marching back to the carpark, I considered the day a success. I also considered it to be over. Breakfast had worn off and my legs were tired. A lazy jaunt in the car to the nearest greasy spoon was tantalisingly close. The perimeter fence falling open put pay to that idea.
From distance the fence appears up to the job. Concrete posts supporting insulated chain-linked, sheet fencing and topped with barbed wire do look good enough, but the posts and fence are attached to one another with what looks like unravelled paper clip wire. A few solid tugs and twenty metres of fence fell away from its supports. I've read other accounts of the day claiming one hundred and fifty metres (and over a thousand participants). Flattery is a valid device in these endeavours, but fabrication is entirely another.
The Gardai nearest the incursion had paid no attention to the whoops and hollers leading up the to fence coming down. I imagine the shouts of encouragement and appeals for assistance were judged part of the background noise. Sheeted chain-link makes a very distinctive sound when it lands hard and its unmistakable clank! hit home. Half a dozen folks or so had bounded over the flailing fence and were making high-stepped progress through the heavy grass and into the airfield before the three Gardai, manifestly outnumbered, started a creditable if thoroughly ineffective resistance. At least one Garda who attempted pursuit of those already inside had a face-first introduction to the sodden ground while, in true cartoon style, his cap flew skyward as he landed. Another was made fun of by a younger, nimbler protester quite literally running him around in circles.
With the Gardai helpless, dozens of people surged through the break. A handful of the more vociferous raiders barracked those, myself included, who did not follow their lead. ``Direct action'' (an awful coinage) is an essential, valuable tactic but it needs a real purpose to be effective. Dubsky's paint job on US Air Force machinery is quality direct action, with real consequences. Skipping around deserted airport mudscape isn't terribly useful. No military activity was halted or even inconvenienced. My initial instinctive opinion remains after clear thought; you're welcome to your actions but don't attempt to guilt others to imitate.
The head of the surge was a dense bunch of about fifty people with pockets tailing behind, strewn sparsely over the sixty odd metres back to the defeated fence. Airport police and extra Garda numbers initially coralled only the forward group, unsure whether there was any point in attempting to prevent more people entering. The invaders had already stopped, sat down and started singing before Gardai were in a position to offer any real resistance. By then it had become unnecessary.
The conservative megaphone fired up again, suggesting those remaining outside the fence continue to the carpark. He was shouted down and consensus rapidly formed around staying put, in solidarity with those already arrested and those risking arrest by not leaving the airfield. In the absence of media, too, the Gardai were not trusted to be left unsupervised, as it were.
One doesn't know whether the authorities in Shannon panicked or merely have an acute sense of the absurd, but dispatching an airport Fire Service foam tender -- decked in brilliant, day-glow pink -- to bear down on happy-clappy, singing anti-war protesters nearly split my sides. The fluorescent behemoth's foam cannon was trained on the group for the rest of the sit-in. What did the fireman atop it plan to do? Wash everybody? Within seconds of its arrival, a quick wit on my side of the fence had a ``No cannon, down in Shannon'' chant on the go.
Second-hand reports told of minor scuffles and name-calling which led to the early arrests. They also relayed that internal discussions had taken place, votes were cast on some topics and a deal to leave the airfield in return for prisoner release was rejected by Gardai. I'm breezing over the details because I don't have them to hand. During the forty minutes or so that our fellow protesters lived under threat of a bubble bath they wouldn't soon forget, we -- the recaltricant onlookers -- chanted, sang, blocked the airport's access road and teased our Garda chaperones. At the outset we figuratively sat on the fence, now we did it for real and resolved not to permit its ressurection while our people were still inside.
It's only now as I think back that I recognise the shift to ``our people''. In us-against-them situations, and especially with the people who were present, empathy has a viral quality; our people are being detained so we must not leave. Staying has little impact but leaving would be callous abandonment. After all, they are ``our people''.
We greeted the return of our people with a round of applause. Most skipped back towards us with large smiles. Some, presumably the burn-the-airport brigade, looked displeased. For all their apparent unhappiness, I thought events had come off quite well. Sure, a handful of people had been arrested but the Gardai assured us they would be released within the hour. I was on Dame St. for the May Reclaim the Streets baton party. Trust me, the Shannon sit-in ended well.
Under much closer Garda scrutiny, the protest resumed its march back to the airport entrance, my car and something to eat. Refuelling Peace's Tim spotted a suspicous aircraft that had pulled up to the terminal during the march. Unmarked, plain white 747 jets are often troop carriers Tim told us. I wonder if its payload was allowed to know we had been at the airport, much less why. At a reported five hundred dollars per seat, Aer Rianta has commericial profit to protect, in addition to its corporate pride.
Profit and pride are driving forces in all of this mess. They are valued above justice, compassion and even human life. Oil, hegemony and a decade old grudge are conspiring to kill, humiliate and enslave more of the Middle East. I'll be marching again because I refuse to accept that this is how the world should work.
(c) James Raftery. October 2002.