written October 2014 (and promptly forgotten until recently).
I’m sitting in a courtroom at the Brisbane Magistrates Court. The matter at hand is over a few hundred dollars in fines given out regarding the lighting of the sacred fire at the Musgrave Park aboriginal embassy.
The embassy has had some dramatic moments in its time, but the incident we’re talking about here wasn’t really one of them – the embassy lighting the fire as a ceremonial formality at a small meeting, the council extinguishing it out of pure pettiness.
The court hearing now is even less distinguished. Present in the room is the defendant, the prosecution and defence lawyers, witness on the stand, the magistrate and clerk, and myself and one other supporter.
The magistrate is literally falling asleep in his chair, closing his eyes for minutes at a time, yawning and at times swinging around on his chair. His interactions with the lawyers mostly seem to be snappily asking when the whole thing will be over. The clerk is looking nearly as bored as she stares at the computer screen – I have no idea what she is looking at on there. The walls are drab and brown, the light fluorescent and the atmosphere less than electric.
The prosecution lawyer is trying to build his case by extracting from the witness a statement that the fire in question, though it had once carried the coals from the original Canberra tent embassy, was no longer sacred because it had been put out and re-lit.
This displays a lack of understanding of ritual, symbol and traditional religions. What makes a fire sacred is not how long the coals have been continuously burning; it is what it symbolises that makes it sacred. I remember once having a conversation with a whitefella who lived at another aboriginal embassy. He had worried that the fire would accidentally be left to go out. The elder replied that the fire went out all the time, but the real fire was what burned in our hearts.
But more importantly, the question is what role does the court have in determining what is sacred? I can’t think of anywhere less sacred. Even that bible that sits on the witness stand is the opposite of true symbolism – it is just a worthless prop where the actual contents of the book mean nothing. The pages of court copies of the bible could all be blank and no one would ever know.
For all its mighty imagery and glamour, our courts seem to me to often be concerned with semantics – endlessly digging out different laws and sub-laws, building entire legal arguments not on the actions in question and their consequences but on one specific word in the law. If people can afford a good lawyer they can get off virtually anything by arguing some trivial detail; but people who can’t afford a good lawyer are told they won’t be represented by legal aid unless they plead guilty – regardless of whether they actually did it or not.
A friend told me once about a time they were at the magistrates court waiting to have their matter heard. There were over 150 people waiting in there, and so the police prosecutor walked into the waiting room and declared that there was a “special” for that day – if you had a minor charge and plead guilty you would be fined $150 plus $100 court costs and you could walk out. This is pretty much my experience of our justice system – judges file away people like they file away papers. Read out the charge, give a punishment, sign the sheet and walk out.
Plea bargains are very common in our court system, but to me these represent the opposite of justice – the chance to not actually deal with what really happened in court is dangled as an incentive for people to plead guilty, often to something they may not have actually done. Especially when people have been held in remand and will be released with no further punishment than the time already served, it sustains a system of not actually dealing with the issues, yet the lawyers and judges all still get paid for doing their job.
Aboriginal people understand better than anyone the hypocrisy of the law. As a race they are maybe the most incarcerated people in the world, often for completely trivial offences; while the theft of their land and murder of their people goes unquestioned. Over the sad history of white domination of aboriginal people in this country, every new horrific development has been signed in by the law.
And not much ever changes in that regard. Wars, climate change and massive financial inequality go unchallenged, while our courts are full of people busted with drugs or not co-operating with police. Or people who actually have committed significant acts that affect other people; but who rather than dealing with the real-life consequences of their actions go through an endless rigmarole of bureaucracy and then finally pay a fine or do time or end up with some other condition completely unrelated to the crime of which they are accused.
Of course, often our court plays a very important role in defending human and environmental rights when they are threatened by politicians and businesses. But even this process is one that is hidden from understanding from the rest of the general public – veiled in a cocoon of law-speak inaccessible to most of us, to in the end provide a verdict that seems to be pretty much common sense.
Back at the court, and the magistrate and both lawyers are trying to work out what a “statutory instrument” is. The magistrate sighs, adjourns the court, and walks out. I don’t know what a statutory instrument is either, but I also don’t care or pretend that it has anything to do with whether a group of aboriginal activists should be allowed to light a small fire when they meet together.
And this is the real problem with the law – the law enforcers (in this case the council) can take an action and fine someone no matter how inconsequential their actions are, and the only recourse people have is to take it to a mind-bogglingly confusing court case a year and a half later.
As we see governments rushing to give more powers to police and intelligence organisations, it’s important that we remember how the law mostly works – those in power do what they want, and if the person on the receiving end is wealthy or persistent or lucky enough to challenge it then they might one day have the court agree with them; although most likely by that point the damage has already been done. The system works, but for who?