Breaking the law (and the lessons learned)

The first time I was arrested, it was my first night in Brisbane. I was lucky enough to meet that afternoon a few people who would go on to become great friends, and that night they were going dumpster-diving. As somebody who lived (and still lives) off supermarket waste as well, I happily went along with them.

At the bin, the manager came out and told us to leave and put the stuff back. One of my companions refused to. When the manager threatened to call the cops, he responded “go on, call them”.

I had only met these people a few hours earlier, but it felt wrong to leave – I had been happy to join them for the free food, so surely I should be there for the consequences. So the police turned up and, looking a bit embarrassed about the whole situation, put us in the back of the divvy van. They took us back to the station and released us with an exclusion notice and an apologetic “technically, you were breaking the law”.

Not that remarkable an experience really, but the most memorable thing came later that night as I lay in bed. I thought about the lifestyle I had fairly recently taken up – live with no money, try to challenge our greed and wastefulness. Things it involved – not just dumpstering, but squatting abandoned houses, hitch-hiking, even sleeping out in a park; were all things that technically put me in conflict with the law.

But even more than that, I thought about the values of this society that were upheld by the law – the wars Australia was fighting, the mistreatment of refugees, the indifferent response to climate change. When all these things were legal yet represented everything I was against, it made sense that I would have run-ins with the law. I had been a bit nervous in the back of the van that night, but upon reflection I had to conclude that if I was serious about living a life true to my principles, this would surely not be the last time I would be seeing the inside of a police cell.

The second time I was arrested was a few months later. It was in Rockhampton, where the Australian and US armed forces were doing joint training exercises. This time there was no surprise – I had gone up to central Queensland planning on getting arrested, and had sent out a press release that morning saying that I and two others would block the gates to the army barracks where vehicles left to drive to the training.

As you could probably predict, the police didn’t take long to respond, and our blockade did not last very long. It was more symbolic than practical, really. But that short time, as well as the four hours or so in the watch-house and my first appearance in court, was an extraordinary time emotionally and spiritually.

I thought about all the years I had despaired about Australia’s involvement in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars but felt powerless to do anything about it. I remembered being a teenager when Australia had gone to war in Iraq despite mass protests. I remembered fuming at the hypocritical shows of grief from politicians on one of the rare occasions it was an Australian who was a casualty of the war. They never mentioned that between those two wars, the total death count was over half a million.

So it was a decade’s worth of Pilgrim-Bannerfrustrations that welled up inside me that morning in Rockhampton. How much it did to stop the war is debatable, but I felt the freedom of acting out what I believed, no matter what the consequences. As I sat in the police cell, I started composing a song in my head. The first lines went “the day I was arrested was the first day I could justify my actions ethically.” (I swear in the song it’s catchier than it sounds on paper).

The next few days were a crazy rush. My arrest had been shown on the local television news, which was nice but didn’t affect me that much. It was when the footage went on social media that things really took off.

In all the years I had used facebook, barely anything had ever happened on my page. I don’t think I had ever used it enough to have an argument on there, but now there were debates raging about war, protest and faith. All kinds of people weighed in with different views, from friends to strangers and even my old lecturer dedicating a blog post to (respectfully) critiquing my actions. But to me, it was all great. This war that had been going on so long it had mostly been forgotten was now being discussed. And my own position had been made well and truly clear.

The fifth time I was arrested was at about 7am, in Brisbane’s Post Office Square. It was the eviction, after two and a half weeks, of the Occupy Brisbane encampment. I had been a somewhat cynical participant in the Occupy camp – while I thought it was a great thing to be happening, I wasn’t quite as certain as some of the other campers that this was the revolution and change of consciousness we’d all been waiting for.

Still, when we got tipped off that we would be evicted the next morning, I decided that I would resist. If you tell everyone you’re claiming back a city square, there’s no point in giving up as soon as someone says you can’t, even if that someone is the council and police.

In the end it was only a handful 170331-occupybrisbane-sit-inof us that refused to leave. With a crowd of onlookers gathered in the city, the police moved in and dragged us out. We were cuffed, put in the back of the wagon, but again taken back to the station and released without charge.

This time the arrest was on the national news. And the footage was of me handcuffed and being dragged off, but smiling at the camera. Over the next few days, as we were evicted from park to park, I had all kinds of people – strangers, journalists, even cops – come up to me and say they saw me smiling while getting arrested and that they loved it.

Meanwhile, unbeknownst to me, apparently facebook was going crazy again. People I went to high school with had seen the news and weren’t impressed. Neither were some of my relatives. In the time since my last arrest, a couple of them had told the extended family that they were so angered by my actions that they didn’t want to see me again. This latest arrest (on national TV!) prompted another showing of their disapproval.

I’ve already said that getting arrested can be an amazingly powerful experience, and there is a kind of personal glory in it too – not just getting on TV, but it makes for stories to tell later, and in the kind of activist hierarchies that we all wish didn’t exist but do, it can give you some extra brownie points.

So it’s helpful to remember that there is a downside too. There are the threats that it could harm your job or travel prospects. By the way though, I think these are really exaggerated and worth questioning anyway – who says that money and comfort is more important than your conscience? If you disagree with the morality of our system that privileges those with wealth, then why expect to be able to keep accessing those privileges?

But also, there is a confrontation that comes from breaking the law intentionally – it is drawing a line in the sand, and inevitably not everyone is going to come join you on your side. In the end, it is the fact that our society places so much emphasis on obeying the law that makes acts of civil disobedience powerful. And while you can probably guess that I don’t believe in surrendering your principles for respectability; if we’re serious about actually creating change, we will need other people to help. So just putting everybody you don’t agree with offside is not a good idea, and taking on some kind of more-radical-than-thou persona that seeks out conflict is even less helpful.

Easier said than done I guess, but I’m happy to say that these days I get on with all members of my family, and as far as I know have no enemies from my brushes with the law. I have always tried to show respect to police and security as people, even if I don’t respect their powers. But it is something I try to be continually conscious of.

130719barrackblockadeThe eighth time I was arrested was in Rockhampton again. US-Australian joint training exercises again, and several days earlier I had been arrested at the same gate I have already mentioned. That action had been one proudly done in solidarity with American dissidents Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning, as well as the detainees of the Guantanamo Bay prison, who were on hunger strike at the time. But that was number seven, and a different story.

Two days after that, me and friends were still up in Capricornia, doing a few more little protests and offering support for others who were planning civil disobedience actions. We were driving around just for something to do, and out near Byfield we stopped for a swim and a bushwalk. When we emerged from the forest, there were two police officers waiting for us and telling myself and one other that we were under arrest. Our bail conditions prohibited us from going with 100 metres of any military facilities, and the road we had driven on, though it was unmarked and we hadn’t got out of the car, was within 100m of the training area.

A bizarre situation was made even more farcical by the fact that these two police intelligence officers weren’t themselves able to arrest us, so we had to wait an hour and a half sitting at a picnic table with the two of them while we waited for other cops to show up.

After our afternoon of pleasant chatting and occasional hilarious attempts at gathering information (“so… you got any plans for the G20?”), the cops arrived, took us to the watch-house and released us with a new charge (breach of bail) but the same bail conditions.

Not the most action packed arrest story I know, but it is illuminating in how completely arbitrary and pointless the law sometimes is. The ethics of our arrest days earlier was debatable – we were blocking a road to protest wars that had killed hundreds of thousands of people. Our act was a crime, the military’s a government endorsed and funded job. But what about the ethics of this one? These cops were being paid just to follow us around, and even though we were not doing anything that could possibly harm anybody, we were arrested just for the sake of it.

Something happens when you spend as much time in cells and courts as I have . You kinda lose the fear of the law we’re supposed to have, but you also lose respect for the law as a way of doing ethics. I mean sure, we need some kind of way of dealing with behaviour that is dangerous or anti-social, but does the law actually do that?

So much of the power of the law is expended on petty drug and alcohol related offences, on the homeless or aboriginal. People land in the criminal justice system at a young age and spend the rest of their lives pursued by the law. Meanwhile, other more serious concerns are never properly addressed – things like sexual assault and domestic violence for one rarely end in prosecution, but even beyond that, greed, exploitation and environmental destruction on a mass scale are never challenged and in fact are usually protected by the law.

Similarly, actual “justice” never seems to be the main concern of the law, as people are shuffled through the system like papers in a filing cabinet – who is truly rehabilitated by being stigmatised with a criminal record or sent to prison to hang out with other criminals? How does punishing one person resolve a situation of injustice?

What’s more, you could go your whole life without ever breaking a law and it wouldn’t necessarily mean you had ever done anything good or to stop evil from happening – the law exists only to stop us doing wrong and says nothing about actually doing good.

Sometimes the aim of civil disobedience is to attempt to show how a certain law is unjust, but incidents like this show – in a way that is every bit as valid – how problematic the law as a whole can be. They show how if we want to truly engage with issues of injustice and create a more just and sustainable society, maybe our system of laws is just not going to be able to do it. Maybe even when it comes down to it, the law and its enforcement will be the thing that will stop us.

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4 Comments

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4 responses to “Breaking the law (and the lessons learned)

  1. Michael

    Personally, I wouldn’t let the police off the hook quite so lightly. They can justify themselves by saying that they’re just doing their job, but it’s a job that they volunteered to do and a job they could stop doing whenever they like. People join the police to ‘help people’ or ‘protect society’ but instead find themselves enforcing the dictats of the dominant cabal in their territory. A nice bait and switch.

  2. I agree in that the law waste a lot of time, money and pain in small drug and booze things, homeless, etc. but what about the big things like murder. In a perfect world would you envision a community/tribal “court”. What would the opposite to the broken system before us today. None the less a great little insight to your criminal background.

  3. Michael Mounteney

    Morgan: you open a can of worms there. A community/tribal court works when society is entirely homogenous. Socrates was convicted by a community/tribal court basically on charges of `doing stuff we don’t like’. Draco’s achievement was not `draconian’ penalties but the fact that he published the laws in advance, with the penalties, so everyone knew where they stood.

    In theory, the current system is good inasmuch as the laws are open to scrutiny and can be repealed or modified by popular pressure. In practice, public apathy lets the law-factory apparatus get away with murder (literally, sometimes).

  4. Reblogged this on Workers BushTelegraph and commented:
    The law and its enforcement is an impediment to justice?

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