Schweik Action Wollongong
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Schweik Action Wollongong is named after the Good Soldier Schweik, the fictional character in Hasek's novel who caused chaos in the Austrian army during World War I by pretending to be extremely stupid. We are interested in promoting nonviolence, but there are problems with the word "nonviolence": it's a negative, and people think they know what it means but mostly actually don't. The name Schweik Action is peculiar and inspires curiosity, thereby allowing us to talk about the issues.
Wollongong is a city 80km south of Sydney, on the Pacific coast, with a population of 250,000. It is a working class town, with a high proportion of immigrants from many countries. The district is dominated by Australia's only remaining integrated steelworks.
Schweik Action Wollongong formed in 1986 and has always been a small group, with 3 to 5 members. We started by promoting social defence as an alternative to military defence, and have gradually broadened our interests to a range of issues relating to nonviolence. We have taken a long-term perspective. Other peace groups in Wollongong have surged in size and activity during crises, such as the Iraq wars, but then dwindled to nothing in other periods. Meanwhile, in Schweik we have carried on as usual. We participate in other peace activities as well, but Schweik assists us to keep our attention on activities related to social defence.
We have done a series of projects that might be described as community research. In one project, we wanted to look at nonviolent action inside and against oppressive bureaucracies, namely organisations built on hierarchy and a division of labour, like most large corporations and government departments. We knew that when the Nazis conquered countries in Europe, they used the existing bureaucracies, sometimes replacing the top managers. If all the employees had either refused to follow instructions or had resigned, it would have been far more difficult for the Nazis to control occupied countries.
So we looked for examples of challenges to bureaucratic elites. Surprisingly, it was difficult to find examples. We found a few local cases, such as the Movement for Ordination of Women, within the Anglican Church in Australia, and a challenge by women workers to discriminatory employment practices at the steelworks in Wollongong. We researched these and others - including historical and foreign examples - and interviewed participants to gain insights.
We have found interviews to be one of our most productive activities. We interview people to find out what they have to say that is relevant to nonviolent struggle. But to do this, we need to explain our project to them, which means explaining nonviolence. So the interviewee learns about nonviolence, and has to think about it in relation to issues they know a lot about. This, we have found, is much better than us trying to convince people that nonviolence is worthwhile.
After collecting information about the case studies, such as the Movement for Ordination of Women, we planned what we were going to write. The bureaucracy project resulted in our biggest publication, a booklet of 55 pages.
Schweik doesn't have any funds or a bank account, so when we want to produce something, we put in some cash ourselves or get assistance from people we know. We didn't want to bother with selling our bureaucracy booklet, so we financed the printing ourselves and gave it away. We also put all our publications on the web (http://www.bmartin.cc/others/SAW.html).
We keep in touch with other activists in Wollongong as well as nonviolent activists in other parts of Australia. But just as important are connections internationally. We like to do projects that can stimulate others in different circumstances - just as we are stimulated by initiatives elsewhere.
Each of us in Schweik is busy in our daily lives, including in our paid jobs: community worker, teacher and researcher. When we get together, we spend time exchanging news about our individual lives and offering each other support with challenges. The group is important to us for this personal support.
Because of this, we only accept new members by everyone's agreement. Getting along together is important to us. Although membership has changed over the years, we have never had any bitter personal disputes.
We meet about once a month, often at a restaurant or at someone's house. Our projects usually proceed slowly, because we are so busy individually and because mutual support is a priority.
After we finish a project, like the bureaucracy project, we decide on the next project. Sometimes this is a lengthy process. We want something that is interesting to each one of us, that is socially relevant and that we can learn from.
We've done several projects related to communication. One was about communicating in groups, so that members can know each other better and be ready to communicate in an emergency. In another project, we talked to several feminists about their experiences in social action, and then wrote a leaflet, in the form of a fictional dialogue, about feminist approaches to action.
After 9/11, attitudes in Australia became much more hostile towards Muslims. So we decided to interview Muslims in Wollongong, asking them what sorts of knowledge, skills and contacts would be helpful for them in dealing with discrimination and harassment. We used our personal contacts to talk to about 15 Muslims, comprising both high and low community profiles.
We wrote up a leaflet with our findings and circulated it widely in the Muslim community. But just as important as the leaflet were the interviews. It didn't matter so much what we were asking. The important thing is that we - as non-Muslims - were interested in what was happening to Muslims. That sent a strong message of solidarity.
One time when we were considering possible new projects, someone mentioned an article about happiness, and before long we decided that would be our next project. We reflected on our experiences with campaigns that emphasised everything that is wrong with the world: war, poverty, torture, exploitation. But who wants to join a movement that is all doom and gloom? So we looked up some research on happiness and told how it can relate to activists. That was a lot of fun!
Currently we are examining ways that activists can respond to the Australian government's repressive new terror laws. We are hoping to find ways to strengthen connections between groups, including Muslims, environmentalists, lawyers and journalists. This topic is also very relevant internationally.
Focussing on repression can be a bit depressing. So we sometimes stop and say, "If the Good Soldier Schweik was in Australia today, how would he give the government a hard time?"