The morning was taken up empanelling the jury, so it wasn’t until after lunch that court proceedings really began. There was a bit of debate about whether we would be able to give an opening statement outlining our defence that our actions were defending others. The prosecution opposed it, and the judge ruled against us.
The first crown witness was a Federal Police officer who talked about spotting us on Pine Gap’s CCTV camera. At this point the proceedings took a dramatic turn with the sudden appearance from the wings of Department Of Defence lawyer Tim Begbie. Like several of our pilgrims, Mr Begbie is a veteran of the 2007 case from the last civilian incursion into Pine Gap. He had come to argue that the CCTV footage should be shown only in front of a closed court, but first he had to argue that he (who is not the lawyer in this case) should be allowed to argue that.
He came with a lot of case law to back him up, but Justice Reeves wasn’t entirely convinced (he also seemed to be somewhat affronted by this sudden interloper giving him very strict advice about what he should rule) so he deferred it to be argued later, not in the presence of the jury. A trial within a trial if you like.
So stay tuned for that I guess. The comedic highlight of the day came in the affidavit from the Dept of Defence as to why the footage should not be viewed by the public. The affidavit says Pine Gap is vital to Australia’s security because it contributes to the goal of nuclear disarmament! It’s not clear whether that’s by gathering signals intelligence that would be used to target bombings by the US in the event of a nuclear war, or by the thermal imaging equipment that allows the US to ensure they maintain a bigger and more powerful arsenal than other countries; but apparently due to provisions in the National Security Act, Ms Skinner who wrote it won’t be required to come and face cross-examination on it.
One would think with all the intelligence floating around at Pine Gap, someone would have suggested that a good way to contribute to disarmament would be for either the Australian or US government to ratify this years United Nations resolution to ban nuclear weapons.
With all that business finally put aside for now, the jury and the witness returned. The defence asked him questions about the protests against Pine Gap last year and whether he could remember which functions of the base the hundreds of protesters had been opposed to. Unfortunately, his memory was a bit hazy on those details.
And that was it! Things move slowly in the Alice Springs Supreme Court, and not just because of the desert heat.
Meanwhile, thousands of km away in Canberra, Greens MLA Andrew Bartlett gave a wonderful speech in the federal senate about our court case, the role of Pine Gap in US wars, and the lack of accountability the base has to the Australian public. He tabled an open letter to his fellow senator and Attorney-General George Brandis signed by over 70 prominent Australians and now over 600 people overall; saying the charges under the Defence (Special Undertakings) Act should be dropped to protect the right of peaceful protest. You can add your name to the letter here
As for us, we’ll be back in court at 10am tomorrow, continuing to try to put Pine Gap on trial. Thanks everyone for your many messages of support (sorry I’ve been too busy to reply to them all!), we definitely appreciate them and carry you all with us into the cold environs of the court. I’ll be back with another update tomorrow.
DAY TWO, NOVEMBER 17
The day was sadly lacking in much courtroom drama, taken up as it was by prosecution witnesses – all of whom were police recounting in excruciating detail the events of the early morning of September 29, 2016.
The first witness, head of the Federal Police at the base, was another veteran of the epic three week trial of the four Pine Gap citizen’s inspectors in 2007. Some good reminiscences were exchanged during cross-examination.
Our efforts at shedding light on Pine Gap and its operations in cross-examination of witnesses didn’t come to much, though we had fun at times. Like when, after repeated accounts of how dangerously rocky and steep the terrain was, Margaret asked one of the cops whether she looked like the kind of person who could climb Everest after four hours hiking through the dark and no sleep. Or when we asked another to explain in layman’s terms what the police wrestling move “arm bar take down” looks like. Best call of the day though came from Jim. On being told we would have to return the dvds of CCTV footage because of national security reasons, Jim said “I’ll have to contact Vladimir Putin to get back the copy I lent him”. Even got a smile from the prosecution.
The final evidence of the day was the video records of interview. At this point the serious pretensions of the court faded into farce as we were presented with audio and vision that didn’t line up; adding a surreal edge to otherwise remarkably dull footage of us wrapped in blankets in the watch house, having our rights read to us for five minutes before refusing an interview.
The exception was Margaret, who despite exhaustion gave a very spirited interview about going to the mountain to witness this hidden place which is the cause of so much death; about breaking the denial most of Australia live in most of the time when it comes to this US base in the middle of our country.
That was the end of court for another day – probably not the most eventful day the Supreme Court has had. But the peace pilgrims were not the biggest story in Northern Territory justice today – that was the release of the royal commission into youth detention, a report that called for the controversial Don Dale prison to be closed. After finishing in the afternoon we headed up the road to the Magistrates Court, where a rally was being held against youth detention.
There are some similarities between the two cases – in the name of responding to anti-social behaviour the state has developed an immense system of institutional violence that can justify torturing kids. In the case of Pine Gap, the claim is that to combat terrorism requires a never ending war that has hardly stopped terrorist attacks but has killed hundreds of thousands of people and forces many more into a state of permanent fear of the unmanned drones hovering above their heads. Or an extraordinary surveillance system that monitors the online activities of everybody in the world; seeing us all as potential suspects and enemies.
In this context, what Margaret spoke about in her interview was so prescient – the need to open our eyes to the violence perpetrated in our own names – to confront it face to face, to lament and commit to a new and better way.
There are a couple of events planned over the weekend and the chance to hear on Sunday from some experts on Pine Gap. It will be nice to have a break from court, though the park next door will be a less fun place without our eclectic bunch of humans and dogs, banners and peace poppies. Court will resume on Monday, when the prosecution will presumably finish giving their evidence and we will hopefully begin giving ours.
The five Pine Gap peace pilgrims were back in court today after a couple of days off. The weekend was not spent idly mind you – besides lots of case planning, we did a lament service on Saturday night at ANZAC Hill, and a public meeting at the town council building where we heard perspectives on Pine Gap from a couple of the peace pilgrims, Nautilus Institute’s Richard Tanter, former senator Scott Ludlam and US drone whistleblower Lisa Ling.
So with our spirits (if not our bodies) re-energised, we headed to court again this morning. Outside the court we stopped together for a few prayers and words of support, then entered for what would be quite a dramatic day.
The prosecution still had to finish giving their evidence, which began with the last couple of police officers. Through them came the photos and video of our lament we had taken on the morning in question. It was nice for the videos to get another screening, as at 4am when they were originally live-streamed (with no forewarning for obvious reasons) there was a limited audience.
Unfortunately the re-screening didn’t change the fact that it is extremely difficult to make anything out in either the photos or videos. The viola playing is hindered by being done on the move up a steep and rocky hill, while the cinematography struggles with the fact it was filmed in pitch darkness with only the flimsy light of a head-torch, plus it was done while moving away from the hastily pursuing police. Fortunately the jury is by now well-acquainted enough with the story to make out what was on their screen.
A few cross-examination questions about police experiences at the anti-war IPAN conference completed the prosecution evidence just before lunch. Which meant it was time for the first big question of our defence – would we be able to present it?
Since the first day of the trial you see, the prosecution had been indicating to the judge that they were opposed to us giving our legal defence (of defending others in an extraordinary emergency – section 10.4 of the criminal code) in front of the jury. The Crown believes our defence is invalid, and thinks the judge will agree with them and therefore it would confuse the jury to see what would later be disregarded. Our team of hotshot lawyers had compiled a submission to argue why we should at least be able to present the evidence in front of the jury. And whether it was due to our legal expertise or not, Justice Reeves ruled in our favour in that respect.
And so we began with a powerful opening statement delivered by Margaret. “At Pine Gap,” she said, “data is collected and processed from satellites orbiting high above and relayed to the US military to provide real time targeting information for bombing runs and targeted drone assassination program; resulting in death, suffering and property destruction on a vast scale.”
It was amazing to cut through the formalities of the courtroom with such powerful words – in a way it felt like we were getting away with something naughty. And yet what else were we going to say? Of course our belief is that is the function of Pine Gap and we needed to act to put a stop to it. Why else would someone risk the penalty that we have?
With that done, we called our first witness. Well, we had another argument with the prosecution first. They opposed our witness Scott Ludlam because he wasn’t allowed to speak on anything that happened in his work as a senator (parliamentary privilege laws, you see). We responded that Scott had done things related to Pine Gap outside of parliament and therefore should be able to speak about that. Happily, the judge agreed again. The prosecutor Mr McHugh proceeded to object to nearly every question, which was a test of our amateur lawyer abilities, but somewhere between the objections we got some good information out of Scott on Pine Gap.
Next Margaret gave her testimony. It was a good talk about a life spent pursuing peace, about her late husband Bryan Law (who was one of the four Pine Gap citizen’s inspectors in 2005 and a key part of the last court case) and their combined activist efforts within the Cairns community. She talked about hearing former Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser on the need to end Australia’s military alliance with the US (including Pine Gap), and in fact was able to play an interview Malcolm had done with ABC radio.
Two former politicians in the court in one afternoon! There’s a few more I wouldn’t mind putting on the stand to ask about Pine Gap’s activities, but I guess that will have to do for now.
That ended another day in court, one where we got to celebrate a couple of small victories. Who knows? They might have even inched us a tiny bit closer to the ultimate goal of a world based on principles of justice and peace rather than violence and the rule of the strongest.
The nature of non-violence is that it can bring great changes, but mostly in small increments – transformation that happens first in our own hearts and minds, then usually in the people we come into contact with, or maybe through the media if you do something crazy like walk on to a top-secret spy base. It says that changes won by force are pyrrhic victories – real peace is never won by the barrel of a gun. This is why for us, the way we relate to each other and to others in the court (including the prosecution who in a couple of days are literally going to demand we be sent to prison) is as important as presenting the facts about Pine Gap and the mass destruction it causes. Tomorrow we’ll be back again to do all of those things.
Day four in the Alice Springs supreme court for the five peace pilgrims charged with trespassing on Pine Gap. And this one was really our most important day so far as we finally got to give our testimony. Again we stopped for prayers outside the court. The bible passage I was reminded of was Matthew 10 as Jesus sends out the disciples. He tells them “when they arrest you and put you before the courts, do not worry about what to say or how to say it. At that time you will be given what to say, for the Holy Spirit will speak through you.” Not to say we hadn’t put in preparatory work, but we were definitely counting on some spiritual help!
First Margaret continued her statement, and then she faced down cross-examination from the prosecutor Mr McHugh. We got a sample of what the questioning would be like – trying to beat our defence by saying we had no ability to actually disrupt operations at Pine Gap. Margaret refused to be pinned down though and stuck stoically to the point that non-violent direct action always means resistance by the mere fact of your presence. Eventually Mr McHugh was forced to admit defeat and give up.
Which meant it was time for the next witness – that was me. I gave a detailed account of the US drone program and the reasons I believed it needed to be disrupted; from learning about the role of Pine Gap and signals intelligence in identifying targets, to the legal questions about extra-judicial assassinations, the dehumanization of enemies that drone warfare facilitates, and hearing the voices of drone whistleblowers victims. I also spoke about my sincere belief that social movements can bring about great social change, and the power of a small group of ordinary people taking a public stand against violence. I was grateful that Mr McHugh’s cross-examination questions gave me a chance to further elaborate on this last point.
That brought Franz up to the stand. He spoke about the importance of music in his life and in creating change; and recounted the story of our incursion into Pine Gap. Just as he got to the climactic point it all got too much and he broke down in tears. Take that, prosecution who keep objecting to evidence on the grounds it’s emotive! Franz blamed tiredness after a very busy and nerve-wracking week, but he was rescued in any event by the lunch break which gave him time to recompose himself. When we got back, Franz showed the court a clip from the Tonje Hessen Schei documentary Drone; a powerful film which had been shown in Alice a few days before our lament last year.
Tim got up next. He is a man of many talents, but I don’t think it’s unfair to say he is not the most confident public speaker. Still, he gave a good account of his lifestyle and reasons for resistance; as well as relating the story of how his cousin Sam along with two friends walked onto a spy base similar to Pine Gap at Waihopai, New Zealand. They sliced with a sickle the weather dome that covered one of the satellite dishes, and were subsequently found not guilty by a jury who ruled they were acting legally to defend others. Hint hint 😉
With the afternoon creeping by, we called our second witness Richard Tanter. Richard is the foremost scholarly expert on Pine Gap, and he gave a characteristically detailed account of what the base does and its role in the US drone program. Mr McHugh had objected to Professor Tanter’s appearance on the grounds that the evidence could be emotive – he’s obviously never read those Nautilus Institute papers! It was great having Richard there talking about this subject he has done so much to shed light on over the years. Even beyond his evidence, so much of what we were able to say in court was indebted to the tireless and invaluable work of Richard and the late Des Ball.
There was still time for our final testimony from Jim. He had a bit of a struggle getting some of the evidence he tendered accepted; but like a lot of us who are more comfortable in conversation than as orators, he really came to life when being cross-examined. Highlights included when he was asked whether he had considered other options like taking legal action against the government. Jim answered “I once did a citizen’s arrest of Peter Dutton for his war crimes”.
“How did that go?”
“I think he was embarrassed, but mostly he went unpunished”.
Perhaps unwisely, Mr McHugh pressed on. At one point the questions turned to the constitutionally enshrined separation of powers. Jim replied he felt the concept was a bit of a myth, and gave as an example the fact that the last time he was charged under the act that presently finds us in court, he had his conviction overturned then watched the government change the law to stop the court from doing that again.
Before the close of the day, the jury was sent out for the beginnings of the discussion of whether our defence will be accepted as valid. That conversation will continue tomorrow, but as for today I was so proud of all my co-accused and how they spoke in the court.
Last week we gathered with some Alice Springs locals to discuss the transformative power of lament. The conversation was heavily influenced by theologian Walter Brueggemann. A quote from him was used then, and I thought of it again today. Walter says the task of the prophetic voice is to “unveil truth in the face of ideology; to voice grief in the face of denial; and to proclaim hope as a counter to despair.”
DAY FIVE, NOVEMBER 22
Day five in court for the Pine Gap peace pilgrims. It was a tired morning after a big night of preparing legal arguments and joining a local bible study at the gates of Pine Gap itself; but once again we put on our assortment of anti-war t-shirts (except for Franz, who donned a fancy paisley number for the occasion) and headed back to the court.
Yesterday we had said goodbye to a few of the friends and supporters who had come from across the country to Alice Springs for the trial. Unfortunately the trial seems to have outlasted people’s schedules! Today we said goodbye to a few more. But we got a boost of solidarity from Brisbane, where birdwatchers reported sightings of a flock of black cockatoos roaming the city handing out flyers about Pine Gap!
Having completed our evidence yesterday afternoon, this morning opened with the court voir dire (that means without the jury – you learn all kinds of legal jargon doing this stuff) while we debated whether our defences would be allowed for consideration by the jury. Basically, the way it works is this: pleading not guilty in court, you can either claim you didn’t break the law; or that you did but had a legal reason to do so – eg in response to a sudden extraordinary emergency or in defence of others. This is what we were going for.
The morning started slowly as the prosecution argued why our defences should not be allowed using lots of case law precedents from Australia and the UK. My personal highlight of this less than thrilling episode was when the precedent was raised of Dave Burgess and Will Saunders painting “NO WAR” on the Opera House in the first week of the Iraq war in 2003. The judge back then ruled against them and actually gave a prison sentence; which is why they were mentioned today by the prosecution. But in any circumstances, it is an honour to be compared to such an iconic action.
With two barristers, three solicitors and the commonwealth public interest specialist up against five anarchist peace activists; the odds were stacked against us when it came time for the legal stoush. But the ability of a small but determined group of people should never be underestimated, and so it was that Margaret presented everyone with a masterpiece in the art of lay law. Margaret has grown more exhausted, stressed and sick as the trial has progressed, and at this point can hardly speak due to a sore throat. Yet this morning she stood up and with supernatural power was arguing case law examples, legal elements and subsections, taking on each point of the prosecution argument. It was magnificent, a kind of performance that rarely is summoned in the day-to-day life of a mum, social worker and activist. As a final dramatic flourish, she emphatically folded her notes and sliced open her thumb with a papercut. But seriously, she was amazing.
Justice Reeves retired to consider his decision while we retired to the park for lunch. When he returned, it was to announce the disappointing but not entirely unexpected news that he would not allow our defence.
And so the jury was led back in for the closing addresses. The prosecution’s was a plain restating of the facts in Mr McHugh’s very dry, one-hand-in-the-pocket, gesticulate-with-glasses manner we are by now so familiar with.
Ours’ were much shorter, as you would expect given we had just been told all our evidence was effectively invalid. In our own way we each appealed to the consciences of the jury; telling them to evaluate the facts and take the action they felt necessary, the same as we had. Margaret finished with a quote from the closing statement her late husband Bryan Law had given in court a decade ago after similarly trespassing on Pine Gap.
Tomorrow the jury will receive their final instructions then make their decision. If it is guilty, we could face sentencing in the afternoon. So if there’s no court blog tomorrow, you can probably hazard a guess as to why. But you can be sure that none of us regret taking the action that we did for peace, or regret representing ourselves in court. It has enabled us to present ourselves to the court, the Pine Gap staff, the jury and the world as we are – a group of five friends with nothing to hide, who in our words and deeds hope to point the way to a world of new possibilities.
Whether we wind up in the clink or not, that struggle for a better world will go on in our hearts, our relationships, and how we respond to injustices on a systemic scale. Sometimes the struggle involves lament, sometimes celebration. Sometimes it is mundane, sometimes dramatic.
That last sentence is also a good description of court; but the jury, after five days of experiencing both those extremes and plenty in between, tomorrow will have to work out between them whether we are guilty or not.
DAY SIX, NOVEMBER 23
Day six in the Alice Springs supreme court for the Pine Gap peace pilgrims. With all the evidence done and the verdict set to be given, you would be forgiven for thinking we would be getting more nervous. But in fact we were the most rested and relaxed of any morning we’ve had yet – done with the legal arguments and testimonies, we could hand the whole thing over to the jury and whatever other forces are at work.
The first couple of hours in court was Justice Reeves giving directions to the jury and summarising the evidence. Mostly the prosecution’s evidence of course – he told them to ignore all of ours except the bits where we admit to walking on the base. He accepted the jury may feel we are of good character, that we were sincerely acting on our conscience, or that our concerns about Pine Gap are justified. They might even believe the law is unjust or too harsh. But all that counts is whether the prosecution has proved the elements of the law in question. The insinuation was pretty clear.
So the jury went out to deliberate. We had some lunch and waited for the call. It didn’t come straight away, so rather than sitting around in the heat we headed to the local library. It was an unusual, almost surreal feeling flicking through books and CDs there. We’ve been so immersed in the court process for two weeks now, it felt weird sitting there reading a book of gonzo music criticism. After a week of talking about drone warfare, and a morning following the unfolding disaster at Manus Island; I had this uneasy, kinda guilty feeling chilling out in the library.
After four hours, we got a call summoning us to the court. Not for a verdict, the judge’s associate reassured us, they just want to ask the judge a question. We walked in to hear the jury foreperson saying they didn’t think they’d reach a unanimous verdict this afternoon, and one of them had an appointment they had to go to. Justice Reeves said they could go home and come back in the morning. When they turned up for jury duty a week ago I’m not sure they knew what they were up for.
Having left in the morning not knowing if we would come back, it was a strange anti-climax to return to the retreat centre that has been our temporary home. The whole time we’ve been here we’ve been saying once court’s over we’re going to climb that beautiful, ever-present range that is such an iconic part of the landscape here (and also hangs on our dining room wall at home thanks to an Albert Namatjira print I found in an op shop). It might not be over yet, but it seemed the perfect time.
So we set off in the direction of the hill. There was a storm out on the distant horizon, and the afternoon light gave those red desert colours an extra luminescence. I know it’s a cliché to say Alice Springs has some kind of mystical beauty, but when you’re here the words just fall out of your mouth and there’s nothing you can do about it. Of course, it’s also a place of much sadness and struggle, and from the top of the range you can see in the distance the distinctive domes of Pine Gap that have brought us out here.
But as we walked back down the hill and home, the storm came upon us. Usually that might put a dampener on an afternoon bushwalk; but when you’re in causes and circumstances that seem impossible, the symbolism of rain in the desert is just too potent.
DAY SEVEN, NOVEMBER 24
We have been staying at a lovely Christian retreat centre, where among other things they have communal prayers every morning. Today one of our hosts read from the bible about John the Baptist and then played a beautiful song about John’s ministry and his unfortunate end. I’ve always loved the wild desert prophet, but today it had even more significance. Jim spoke about how last time they came out to the Alice Springs supreme court in similar circumstances, they stopped in at the Mt Isa catholic church. The reading that day was the same one, and the story of a voice crying out in the wilderness brought people to tears. We appreciated that again, as well as John’s invitation to repentance a new way.
The jury had been out for four hours yesterday afternoon, but it took less than 30 minutes this morning before we got the call from the judge’s associate. Caught slightly unawares despite the long buildup, we rushed to the court. Margaret got back into her colourful hippy wedding dress she had worn at different key times in the trial.
The jury filed in, and there was a tangible tension in the air. The scene wasn’t quite like the movies though – the judge’s associate had to read out the charge in full for each defendant before getting the verdict, and even after that she read them out again to double check. The whole thing took about five minutes. So though lacking somewhat in dramatic punch, the epic adventure for ourselves and the jury was over. We were all found guilty.
The jury members got up and walked out. It’s odd to spend seven days with people who find out intimate details about us; yet we never actually get to know their names or anything about them. We’ll never know what they thought of us and our actions, though after four and a half hours we can at least assume they took their job seriously. Justice Reeves announced the sentencing hearing would be in three hours and adjourned the court.
One of the good things about doing something completely insane (like representing yourself in the supreme court and pleading not guilty to something you openly admit you did) is that the pressure is totally off. So after the verdict was announced, our demeanour and group dynamic was exactly the same as before – supporting each other, not taking the whole thing too seriously, holding on to a certainty of purpose that stopped us from being blown around by external factors.
The Crown QC called me over to his side of the bench. He told me I was obviously an intelligent and passionate person. He said he didn’t start studying law until he was 30, and he thought if I gave it a go I could have a future as a lawyer. I think he meant it as a compliment. I told him he also seemed like a talented man, and we are always welcoming of new people in the peace movement.
We went downstairs and outside. We grabbed our banners and instruments and performed one last encore in front of the court. It started out with Franz and Margaret’s lament, which as always was very moving, but then we realised people might think we were sad because of the court verdict. So we changed to something more jaunty – the old gospel tune Down By The Riverside, with a few verses updated to make it more relevant to Pine Gap and the age of remote electronic warfare.
Sentencing submissions needed to be prepared; so we did that sitting in the park, only mildly disrupted by various people stopping in to say hello and wish us well. Having already seen the Crown’s submissions for Paulie’s sentencing over a week ago, we weren’t surprised to see them claim we were a great threat to national security and the only appropriate sentence was one of imprisonment. We had already seen Justice Reeves ask on what grounds they could claim this and Mr McHugh squirm behind the bench as he tried to justify it. So we weren’t that worried.
Once we got to the hearing, the prosecution was far less insistent on us getting prison than they had been for Paulie. We handed in the 90 letters asking for clemency the court had been sent from politicians, lawyers, organisations and random strangers. We also had one last bit of courtroom fun arguing against the Crown’s submissions and looking through each others’ criminal records (unfortunately we are going to have to plant a few trees to offset the paper used in this court case; and Jim’s list of prior convictions was one last hefty document).
Justice Reeves helpfully reminded each of us that we could get our sentence somewhat mitigated if we showed contrition for our actions. He got responses varying from “I have nothing to offer on that count”, to “I’m very sorry Pine Gap is still open and committing war crimes”, to Franz quoting Catholic Worker founder Dorothy Day’s immortal line “our problems stem from our acceptance of this filthy rotten system”.
Sentencing was put off until December 4th; by which time the defendants, prosecution and judge will all be back in our various home cities. By the time this trial is over I will have written enough daily blogs to publish my first full length novel. We said thankyou and goodbye to all the court staff, who most of us had seen every weekday for the last fortnight.
One local friend had invited us to eat pizza at the community garden; another (who we met when she was walking past our banners and signs one lunch break) offered to take us exploring some underground caves. So we did both.
Our little sojourn in the red centre has been exhausting, challenging, inspiring and empowering. It’s been a pleasure working on the case with my four co-defendants (now co-offenders, I suppose); but also wonderful to be part of a diverse and beautiful community of people from Alice Springs and across the country that the trial has given an opportunity to come together. It’s not over yet; but whatever happens on December 4th, we will be alright and better for the experience.
Tomorrow we will probably leave town – we all have lives to get back to at home. But before we get on that long straight highway we’ll pay one last visit to the front gates of Pine Gap to remind both ourselves and that institution that one little court case is just a blip in the long struggle that is trying to resist empire and create a more peaceful world.
DAY EIGHT (or something like that), DECEMBER 4
19 days since our court case began in Alice Springs, 356 days since Federal Attorney-General George Brandis authorised our prosecution under the Defence (Special Undertakings) Act, and 431 days since we walked onto Pine Gap carrying musical instruments on a chilly early morning; today the trial of the five peace pilgrims (as well as that of our friend and fellow pilgrim Paulie Christie) finally concluded.
It did feel a bit strange, after an intense couple of weeks in Alice Springs, to come back to Brisbane and our everyday routine with the court case still hanging in the air. But one advantage of being back was when we went to court this time it was with a room full of friends and supporters. Many of those friends we hadn’t seen since before we left. So it was a wonderful scene out the front of the court having everyone together.
Journalists asked how we felt about potentially going to jail. We felt a bit silly answering the question – all the indications from the trial were that most of us at least were unlikely to receive a prison sentence. We didn’t want to engage in hyperbole (there’s enough of that in the media without us adding to it), but I suppose the Brisbane journalists didn’t know what had gone on at Alice. And besides, in the long time since we’ve been charged we’ve definitely each had to grapple with that possibility.
The fly-in fly-out nature of Northern Territory justice meant this sentencing took place amongst a bizarre web of video link-ups. We were technically all meeting in the Alice Springs Supreme Court, though that courtroom was empty bar a few journalists in the gallery (friends in Alice did hold a solidarity vigil outside, which was much appreciated). The prosecutor appeared via a video screen from Darwin; Paulie and Margaret from the court in Cairns; while Justice Reeves and the other four of us were in Brisbane at the Federal Court.
So with all the screens linked up and a Brisbane courtroom packed full, the proceedings began. Justice Reeves amped up the suspense by talking first about the general sentencing principles he applied and all the legal technicalities. When it came time to eventually hand out the sentences, he would preface each one with a long description of our individual circumstances. First he sentenced Paulie – whose trial had ended before ours even began, leaving him hanging in suspense even longer. He was fined $2,000.
Then it moved on to us. The order he did (ascending in ages and criminal histories) indicated the sentences were likely to build up as he went. Franz and Tim were each fined $1,250; myself (for the dual charges of trespass and possessing a photographic device) $2,500. Margaret $3,500. Jim was the one we were worried might be imprisoned, given he has (in Justice Reeves’ count) 27 relevant criminal antecedents. But the judge said he didn’t feel jail time would do any good. Not for the seemingly sensible reasons that jail time rarely does anyone any good, or that Jim in his day-to-day life offers a lot to the world around him that would be missed with him locked up. No, Justice Reeves said he didn’t want Jim becoming a martyr to the cause and increasing the visibility of the protest. So he fined him $5,000 instead.
And that was it. We walked out of the courtroom to the sound of cheers, and once we were done signing paperwork we came outside to a group singing in the rain. The Lurkers’ classic protest anthem Padlock and Chain had been adapted to “who’s got a rattle and flowers?” in tribute to Paulie’s weapons of choice when walking on to the base.
It was definitely a joyous scene outside the court, but what were we celebrating? Was it just that we had stayed out of prison? Well that was a bit of relief (it certainly wasn’t martyrdom we were after), and I think we deserve some credit for the outcome from the arguments we made through the court case. But as I told the assembled group before we went in, we wanted people to celebrate whatever the outcome was.
We were celebrating the act of resisting injustice in the face of feelings of hopelessness and the potential legal consequences. We were also celebrating the power of community. The little community of peace pilgrims who over the last 15 months have worked together to do the lament, the court case, construct a media campaign, and support each other mentally and spiritually. But also the broader community who were standing outside the court – people from different places with different histories and different abilities; who all work together in some way to build a better world. Some people on occasion trespass on spy bases, some contribute specialist skills, some offer friendship and support. At different times we can all play each of those different roles for one another. And today was just a great example that the lament had given an opportunity to come to life.
So after doing a press conference and milling around in the rain for a while, we headed home and put out an open invite for anyone else to join us. It was a fun afternoon there, hanging out and playing games directed by 8 year old Omar.
What happens now? Well we might get to relax a little bit after a busy last few months. Not being locked up means Tim can return to his homeland of New Zealand, and Jim can see his granddaughter when she takes the same journey in the opposite direction. The fines won’t worry us too much – having taken to heart Jesus’ instructions to give freely and not worry about what we will eat or wear; we mostly live lives unaffected by economic concerns.
Pine Gap has probably been in the news more in the last month through our action than it has in years, despite its omnipresent role in the wars Australia is involved in and in the mass surveillance of computers and phones across the planet. Hopefully our action can be part of a broader campaign to bring into the open what happens there and to challenge it. But that will take more than just a handful of scruffy peace pilgrims.
For us, our lives will mostly go on as per usual. Resisting injustice is a normal and important part of our lives, but doing so only rarely leads us in front of courts and TV cameras. As important as we believe those times to be, mostly it’s in everyday actions that go largely unnoticed. The challenge for us is to keep doing it the best we can using what we have. The invitation we hope to have offered during our brief time in the public spotlight is for people to join us in trying to do the same.