Media manipulation of Baxter Events
by Bob Briton The Easter weekend's National Convergence on the Baxter Immigration Detention Centre outside Port Augusta brought out the usual responses from the usual sources. The mainstream media locked on to images of police facing down demonstrators, responding to breaches of fences and, in general, maintaining the peace despite the supposed best efforts of the protestors. Even before the events of the long weekend unfolded, an image was being painted in the media of small numbers of police being left to deal with thousands of extremist thugs. "When our people are at risk — their physical being is at risk — we'll then utilise the equipment available to us", Assistant Commissioner Graham Brown told the press. In the end, some of the 357 South Australian Police present chose to use the "civil disorder" gear in far less dramatic circumstances — in fact, in circumstances for which they bear a heavy responsibility. A disturbing incident on the first day set the tone for the type of confrontation that marred the weekend. Initially, protestors were told that they would have to camp beyond the roadblock set up three kilometres from the detention centre. They were later permitted to carry their camping gear beyond this limit and to set up camp about one kilometre closer to the Baxter facility. The police then changed their attitude and charged the new camp on foot and horseback in a frightening display of "get out of our way" authoritarianism. The five-minute warning to move on given by the police before mass arrests were to take place had not even expired. In the end, 33 demonstrators and one journalist were arrested over the four days of the protest for a variety of offences including "offensive language" and "loitering". Premier Mike Rann made the most of the opportunity to pander to what he must think is a large parochial section of the SA electorate. "There is a small minority of protesters, that come from Victoria in particular, who are simply over here on some kind of violent frolic . they are more interested in having a stoush. I actually believe that there is a minority group from interstate that are basically 'dial-a-demo'", he is reported as saying in Adelaide's daily Advertiser. Elsewhere, Mr Rann described the activists as "ferals" and "meatheads". Other outrageous events of the weekend and of the days leading up to it got scant attention in the media. These were to do with the treatment of asylum seekers detained at Baxter during the lock down of the facility in preparation for the protests. Despite reassurances from Immigration Minister Philip Ruddock that life was going on as normal in the former army facility, the truth was that repression had been drastically increased. Melbourne Refugee Action Collective protest organiser Fleur Taylor told the media that on the night of April 6 eight men held in the Red 3 compound at Baxter were taken to the isolation cells known as the "Management Unit". They were bound hand and foot with "flexi-cuffs" and a special tape was applied to further restrict movement. Tape was placed over their mouths for periods of up to ten hours. At least one of the men was severely beaten by a guard employed by Australasian Correctional Management (ACM) — a fact independently verified by a visiting GP. A further 14 Iranian men were held in the isolation block for more than two weeks. They were released only after several of them had slashed themselves. While they had been held for allegedly intending to start fires, none of the men have since been charged with any offences. Visitors to Baxter reported that during the four days of the demonstrations, 30 ACM guards in navy blue uniforms and in full riot gear would march round the compound shouting "hup two-three-four". Five men were "extracted" without notice from Baxter to other facilities. The sudden, unexplained disappearances added to the frightening and unsettling atmosphere in the camp. Men in some compounds were strip-searched daily, being forced to remove all their clothing, bend over and spread their buttocks in a humiliating fashion. Children were threatened that their recently granted "privilege" of attending local schools would be withdrawn if they "misbehaved". Four of the Baxter children are permanently denied schooling. Some sort of over-reaction to the protests was expected. Greg Wallace, the Department of Immigration officer in charge of Baxter, headed the now closed Curtin "hell-hole" in WA. When asked by a former ACM guard at that facility: "What regulations govern these people?" Wallace is reported to have said, "What regulations we say." Pamela Curr, the Australian Greens National Spokesperson for Refugees, told the media that these possibilities were considered before the convergence on Baxter but that representatives in the detention centre had asked them to go ahead to focus attention on their plight. The sorts of incidents described above happen on a continuing basis and, because they take place on Department of Defence property, the SA Police cannot investigate them. The Australian Federal Police has shown itself to be reluctant to get involved. "So what do we do — just sit quietly while people are locked up in 'the management unit', beaten — it has happened before, and it will happen again — and there is nothing we can do about it until one day ACM go too far: someone dies and even then, it will no doubt be covered up." At one point during the Easter convergence, detainees managed to contact the protestors by phone and told them that their chants had been heard inside the facility and that it had lifted the people's spirits to know that such solidarity with them exists.