Peace Pilgrims – a Pine Gap tour diary

Friday September 16 2016 was a busy day for me. I began it preparing a radio show about Pine Gap, the secretive US military base near Alice Springs in central Australia. I had interviewed an academic who has studied Pine Gap and what it does; an activist who has opposed it; and an Arrernte traditional owner who says it has no right to be there. Then I rushed off to Griffith University, where I gave a guest talk to an ethics class about civil disobedience – the practice of intentionally and openly breaking unjust laws.

But I am not purely a journalist who reports on what’s happening, nor an academic who explains theories. So after completing these two tasks, I got into a car and headed for Alice Springs to attempt to resist Pine Gap and the US wars it facilitates.

So I guess before we go on, a quick primer about Pine Gap and what it does. There’s a lot more information out there if you’re interested, but basically Pine Gap is one of three satellite communication bases the US has planted strategically around the globe to enable it to spy on the whole world. The lease for it was signed in 1966, the base built in 1970. At first, it was never publicly admitted that it was a military facility – it was described as a “space research station” until academic Des Ball uncovered what it actually did. Rumours abound that the sacking of Prime Minister Gough Whitlam had something to do with his wanting more control over the base and getting on the wrong side of the CIA.

For most of its life, while Pine Gap has always attracted protests from anti-war activists, its purpose has been just basic surveillance. In the last ten years though, this purpose has changed. These days the mobile phone and radio signals that Pine Gap receives via satellite are used for drone strikes or other targeted bombings – enabling the US to kill people in the Middle East without the risk of having a soldier killed – or the risk of the empathy that comes from interacting with an actual human being.

As I said, Pine Gap has been the subject of numerous protests over the years. This one was to mark the 50th anniversary of the signing of the lease – though for what exact purpose everyone was going out to the desert wasn’t quite made clear. More on that later.

The trip to Alice was in my friend Jim’s van. Jim is a veteran of numerous actions and court cases out at Alice – he was well acquainted with the route. The van runs off the biodeisel Jim makes out of used fish and chip oil; so all available car space was taken up with drums full of fuel. Other travel companions were my housemates Franz and Tim. Franz is Jim’s son so grew up going to protests though he is still a teenager. Tim is from New Zealand; his previous act of anti-war civil disobedience in Australia led to him being assaulted, stripped naked and threatened by SAS soldiers at Swan Island in Victoria. Undeterred, he was coming back for more.

For us housemates (and in fact Jim as well, who has for decades lived in similar Catholic Worker houses), travelling 3000km to protest was only part of our attempts to create a more just and peaceful world. Living together; we try to live communally and sustainably, to open our doors to friends and strangers needing somewhere to visit or stay, and to publicly agitate for the world we believe in.

The other travelling companion was a guy we’d never met but who got in contact looking for a lift. He was a talkative fellow, and didn’t necessarily share the same taste in conversation or the same values as the rest of us. Which is fine, but just gets a bit testing over a four day trip.

And for four days we drove. For a desert, it sure rained a lot. At Mt Isa we slept under the cover of a church’s back verandah and showered under an overflowing drain pipe. There we also briefly met up with the convoy from Cairns who were also heading out to Alice. They had had a torrid time with the weather and were drying out their stuff at the laundromat. Included in that group was our friend Margaret; another long-time peace activist who had been trying to organise an action for quite some time. We talked strategy for a bit then got back on the road.

Even in rain, the desert drive is of course spectacular. We watched the scenery change as we drove – the trees thinner and smaller, the pastures from lush to patchy, the dominant colour from green to red. We stopped at the Devil’s Marbles to climb on those extraordinary gravity defying rocks. We stared out the windows at the beautiful colours and vast horizons of central Australia. Even in our cramped car, it felt like we were stretching out from the claustrophobia and stress of the city.

We got into Alice on Monday afternoon. We drove through the town to the Claypans just on the south side, the site of the Healing Camp. There was a camp of probably 40-50 people set up; including another old peace activist Graeme, who put the kettle on and welcomed us all with cups of tea.

At this point I should probably digress from the narrative to explain how this convergence on Pine Gap was composed. As often seems to be the case in the peace movement, it wasn’t entirely peaceful. I had first heard the idea of a convergence discussed a couple of years earlier, at the annual Independent and Peaceful Australia Network gathering. IPAN is a coalition of peace groups who each year organise a conference where mostly academics and activists give talks on various topics relating to war and militarism. It’s quite good but doesn’t involve much of the disruptive troublemaking that is more fun and commands more media attention. So to that end, a group called Disarm was formed with the idea of setting up a campsite and a space for people to do actions that might disrupt the smooth running of Pine Gap.

In addition to these two callouts, Arrernte man Chris Tomlins decided there had been enough killing done from his traditional land. His hoped response though was not so much a protest as a “healing camp” – it seems his vision of this was an indefinite intentional community that included everything from traditional aboriginal culture to permaculture and meditation. He went around the country sharing the idea – mostly at hippy events like Confest and Nimbin’s Mardi Grass.

It was the healing camp that started first. The call for this camp appealed to the kind of people who believe in spiritual healing and attach special significance to the idea of traditional aboriginal rituals. Funnily enough though, people who place a lot of stock in the internal politics of indigenous culture were turned off by what seemed to be a dispute within the Arrernte as to whether Chris Tomlins had the right to speak for them or use the land at the Claypans. A somewhat messy business.

Turning up at the camp, it quickly became apparent that it was full of the kind of people you might find living in Northern NSW (where I think most people actually came from) or at a Rainbow Gathering – into alternative medicine, reading energy and living in harmony with nature. Unfortunately they are also the kind of people prone to heavy dope use, awkward cultural appropriation and a lack of awareness of their privilege that allows them to believe that peace and prosperity can come from sitting around meditating. This may sound harsh, but I have spent a fair bit of time around this kind of culture and don’t think it’s very helpful for trying to create social change or even for having enriching social interactions. I quickly surmised this was the kind of situation we were facing here.

Still, for a couple of days we hung out at the camp and tried to contribute. It was a strange group but there were some good people there. As others started to come in too we began talking strategy for actions and media.

The action that had been proposed by Margaret was a “lament” on site at Pine Gap to mourn all the dead caused by this place. She had suggested creative interpretation – music, dance, art. I personally felt I wanted an image more directly linked to halting the operations of Pine Gap. I had heard there was a depot in town where the buses leave from to take all the workers out to the base. I envisioned locking it down and being in the middle of town near media and passers by.

So as the others looked at potential routes to walk on the base, I went into town to suss out the depot. Turned out it has four gates – a bit much for one person and his lock-on device to shut down. I would need a plan B.

Still, going into town for the reconnoitre had its advantages – it got me out of the healing camp which was starting to appeal less and less. Coming to Alice I had known there were a couple of old friends there it would be nice to see. But a welcome surprise on getting into town was discovering that actually there were a whole heap of familiar faces from around the country – some of whom I hadn’t seen in years (hardly surprising since they were in the middle of the desert – I had last come to Alice five years previously).

Some of these people weren’t much more than acquaintances, but you get a special kind of bond through doing political activism with people. For one, working on a project or action with people, even briefly, is very different to running into someone a few times. Secondly, sometimes these situations can be kinda tense or towards the extremes of the emotional spectrum. That can have the effect of very quickly building strong bonds. Thirdly, the knowledge that you share the same values and that the other person has probably been working on things you support means there is an instinctive trust and solidarity.

Maybe it was these reasons or maybe they would have been no matter what; but one household was very welcoming when I asked if I could crash there while I planned an action. In fact, the question was answered emphatically in a way that implied shock at the thought I wouldn’t have been welcome. This kind of total hospitality is what I try to offer to others, and have often been on the receiving end of. Every time is just as appreciated.

So I stayed for days, camping out in the backyard and finding things to do in town since I didn’t especially feel like going back to the camp. I hung out, helped around the house, worked for a day painting walls and constructing a basketball hoop at a drop-in centre for local kids some friends run, cooked and cleaned for Food Not Bombs (the free street meals that are one of my favourite things and have been a constant part of my life for about six years now).

The combination of welcoming people and things I could contribute to made it very easy to feel at home in Alice and I really enjoyed my time there. There’s a funny kind of contrast there – it’s such a transitory town and there is rightly a lot of cynicism towards people who come claiming to want to help aboriginal people only to stay a couple of years, earn a lot of money and then head back to the coast. At one point I sat down for a cuppa with two people I had just met. We talked about our proclivity to move around, a trait we all interpreted as a form of weakness. But it doesn’t have to be. Some people live their whole life in one place but never really commit to the people around them. To be a drifter, and to do it well, is not to never be at home, it’s to always be at home.

While I had been in town, my companions (as well as enduring the healing camp) had been preparing for their lament. On the Sunday night they set off. It was a diverse group – six people, one each in different decades of age from teens to 70’s. They walked through the bush for several hours in the middle of the night, their intention to walk on to Pine Gap territory and perform their lament at dawn. They arrived at the exterior gate (the base itself is well secured and lit up, but the actual Pine Gap property is very large and comprised mostly of empty scrub) while it was still dark and took a break to have a snooze and wait till dawn. Amazingly, they awoke to police headlights – they had somehow been detected and were now surrounded. They had not broken any laws, and in any case the police weren’t too keen to have too many arrests and free publicity. So they were all put into the cop cars and driven back to the camp.

The next morning three elderly Quaker grandmothers temporarily and partially blocked the front entrance to Pine Gap by having a tea party. It was a reprise of an action they had done a year earlier during US-Australia joint military exercises at Shoalwater Bay; and the site of friendly old women drinking tea and blocking a road always gets a bit of attention. They had been prepared to be arrested, but again it seemed the cops didn’t want to – traffic was diverted around them and eventually they picked up the teapot and went home. It was the first public action of the convergence though.

We regrouped to talk backup plans. The lamenters were keen to try again at some point. I shared my plan – I wanted to lock myself to the undercarriage of a bus carrying workers at the front gate of Pine Gap (again, the front gates are a long way from the base and not really walking distance). We set the date for Wednesday morning.

Back in Brisbane, preparing for the trip, I had bought myself a bicycle D-Lock. At $65, it was a cheap lock but still the most expensive single object I had bought in over five years (I’m not making that up). It was to be a single-use item – my plan was to use it to lock myself to something until a police officer was forced to test out its strength with an angle-grinder. On Tuesday night, after fine-tuning my media release, I spent at least an hour practicing locking myself to the axles of different vehicles.

When we had talked about the action, a couple of people had expressed concerns about my safety sliding under a bus. I wasn’t worried about that, or about getting arrested; but I was nervous about whether I would be able to lock myself on in time. Any other lock-ons I’ve been a part of have been done with plenty of time and space – not in front of police officers. Also, because it was the only thing I’d brought, I would be using a D-Lock around my neck rather than the more practical elbow lock with both arms in it. The only choke point in the road (where I could hope to hold up a whole convoy and not just one bus) was right at the front gate, where there was certain to be cops. My only hope was to catch them by surprise.

I couldn’t sleep from nerves. I just kept envisioning what might happen. After finally drifting off for a bit of sleep, my alarm went with the sun still below the horizon and pouring rain hammering on the tent. It was time to go.

There were police already waiting near the gate. We had done a dummy run the previous morning just holding signs, so with my lock hidden under my jumper we pretended we were just doing the same thing. The buses arrived. On cue, my friends walked out in front holding a banner. The bus stopped in front of me. The police were maybe 20 metres away. After all the nerves, it was the perfect opportunity. I slid under the bus, squirmed on my back towards the front axle. I got the lock over the bar, put my neck through and went to click the lock closed. And then there were hands grabbing me. I held onto the axle desperately, but it was no use. Three cops were dragging my body out. They took my lock but let me go, leaving me soaking wet from lying on the road and sheepishly watching the bus drive in.

The cops were also a bit embarrassed. They lined both sides of the road now as the rest of the buses went through. One of them stood a couple of metres in front of me, doing his best intimidating glare. Eventually one came up to me, took my details and told me I would probably be getting a fine.

After all the buses had gone through, we trooped back to the Disarm camp, which had now been set up a few kilometres down the road from the gate. I was soaking wet and a bit disappointed, but still high on the adrenaline. Back at the camp, I had a cup of tea, some breakfast and sat down for the camp meeting, which planned to do a mass blockade of the road that afternoon.

The camp meetings were long and chaotic – too many people who didn’t know each other and had different ideas together in one space. Discussion went round and round. In the end some resolution was reached, but by this point I was cold and the disappointment of the morning’s failure was starting to kick in. We headed back to the healing camp to relax.

I hadn’t really been at the camp for most of a week, and it seems it had gotten a lot stranger in that time. Drug use was high – a lot of weed but also apparently toad body fluids. The theories too had gone way past the usual hippy auras and good vibes. Inexplicably, the camp now mostly seemed to believe that there were aliens planning to come to earth and usher in a new society but they had to wait until the world was peaceful enough for them to come to Pine Gap and sign an inter-galactic treaty. Protesting against Pine Gap was a bad idea (despite it being what we had come out here to do) because it put the treaty at risk.

I never quite grasped all the nuances of the theory, but I swear I am not making this up. One guy came up and told us he had come out to Alice believing that humans were responsible for wars and we should protest Pine Gap, but had the previous night been convinced of the error of his ways by this theory. What are you supposed to say to that? There were some good people at the Healing Camp, but mostly it was awful. I could write an account just of the Healing Camp and it would be somewhat humourous, but it’s not really the point plus it was hard enough living through it at the time without recounting it now. Every radical political group has its share of wacky ideas, but this was another level. Anyway, after this we didn’t spend much time at the camp and I can’t really say I missed it.

The lamenters meanwhile, minus a couple of members from the first attempt, were planning on trying again to enter the base. Having failed in my Plan A, the obvious solution was to join them that night. It was a bit of a relief really. Compared with the nerve-wracking morning, walking through the bush for a couple of hours in the middle of the night would be relaxing. Plus I would be with my friends!

A few things were to happen before then though. First the afternoon roadblock. It was an interesting action that displayed what the police tactics would be – the police didn’t arrest anyone or even move us on. Traffic to Pine Gap was diverted through the back entrance; and not only were the protesters allowed to stay on the road, the police actually blocked the end of the road themselves, stopping us from getting out. This led to a few jokes about the police having joined us in the blockade, but it did raise a bit of an issue for those of us who needed to get out to plan our next action. The three of us who were there in the end had to walk to the end of the road carrying any stuff we would need and got a lift back to town.

The pre-lament meeting point was Campfire In The Heart, a spiritual retreat on the outskirts of Alice where they have a weekly shared meal and discussion. Tonight the topic was “faith and activism”. People around the group shared different perspectives, but of course what we didn’t mention was the spiritual practice we were about to undertake – a pilgrimage into the eyes of Babylon, risking imprisonment to publicly state resistance to the US military rule of the world. “Put away your sword,” Jesus had said, “For he who lives by the sword shall die by the sword.” For me, faith and political action are indivisible. The pilgrimage we were about to leave on was a deeply spiritual act.

And so we began preparing. We had a couple of friends who had agreed to drive us out to a point from which we could walk on to Pine Gap. Before then though there was one matter to attend to – not media this time, which had been left in the hands of a couple of other friends.

Following the first failed trespass attempt, there had been much discussion about how the group could have been spotted. One suggestion, seemingly unlikely but all the same taken seriously, was that Pine Gap’s access to heat-sensor satellite tracking of the globe (used to detect missile launches, also apparently to follow climate change) had detected the group of warm-blooded humans waiting at the perimeter fence of the base. The suggestion to mitigate this was to be more spread out this time (so we could plausibly be kangaroos or something), and to wear plastic emergency warmth blankets to trap our body heat in and not radiate it for detection. I had been opposed to wearing the shiny plastic blankets, but as everybody else put one one, I was left with the conclusion that if I refused and we were again detected it would be my fault. So sheepishly I wrapped myself in what looked like an alfoil suit and put my jacket on over the top. The sacrifices we have to make for peace.

We set off walking, in silence (except for the rustling plastic) and by the light of the stars. We had gone less than 500 metres when the first moment of confusion came – we were near a house and dogs were barking. Someone said to stop, but people at the front were speeding ahead. We got separated. It was not the start we had hoped for. We waited a while, trying various attempts to find the others without drawing too much attention to ourselves. In the end we kept walking, figuring (in the end correctly) that the others would wait for us at a conspicuous landmark.

It was a long walk. I had barely slept the night before, and we were now well past midnight. But I trudged on, a little bit sleepy but with enough adrenaline to keep going. The adrenaline, funnily enough, was not nerves over what might happen when we were caught, although I knew we were risking lengthy prison sentences. That hardly crossed my mind. It was more the excitement of sneaking through the desert on a mission for peace with a group of comrades.

For some time now there has been a tradition of “peace pilgrimages” on military bases around the country to witness for peace – mostly christians who combine pacifism with the religious tradition of a sacred journey to publicly stand against militarism. At Pine Gap, at Shoalwater Bay in Queensland where the US and Australian militaries do joint training exercises, at Swan Island where the SAS plans its special missions. I’m a fan of the pilgrimage idea – we are publicly disrupting the war preparations but also the long journey offers a chance for reflection on what it means to live for peace in our own lives, our relationships, our society.

Plus I could reflect on the people I was conducting the pilgrimage with. I was proud to be walking with them. Jim and Margaret were both long term activists – they had been doing this stuff since before I was born. They are both inspirations to me as well as friends – for the dedication they have shown to this cause through defeats and disillusionment; through parenthood and the passing of time. I had been arrested with them both multiple times before for the same cause.

Then there was Tim and Franz – my housemates. We don’t just share space, food and resources; though we do share them. We share values and dreams – we choose to try to live in a way distinct from the culture around us as a little refuge from the self-centred, money-focussed world around us; as a witness of a different way that is possible. And now as an extension of the project we were walking together onto one of the key bases of the world’s military superpower – and doing it together.

Still, the walk could at times be hard going. We walked up and down hills. The rocks and spinifex grass underfoot was all so sharp that even Jim, who never (and I mean never) wears any footwear, was in a pair of joggers he had found at home (they probably belonged to one of his children). Margaret had been seeing a personal trainer in an attempt to get fit for this very walk, but she was also exhausted from all the other work around trying to do this – the meetings, planning, media releases, co-ordination.

For her and the others, it was the second time they’d done this particular late night walk in four days. Margaret was getting tired and losing her balance. As we walked down the hills, she held on to my arm to steady herself.

We took a few stops along the way. In keeping with the heat sensor precautions, we would spread out to stop. I would lie down and look up at the stars, as I mostly do on any night out of the city. Tonight though it wasn’t quite as satisfying as usual. For one, the enormous lights of Pine Gap creates light pollution that makes the stars not as impressive as they normally would be in the desert. And then there was the shooting stars – normally such a joyous sight, but tonight I’m like Billy Bragg reflecting that they are probably satellites. Satellites that Pine Gap uses to kill people on the other side of the world.

Anyway, we walked on. A slight misjudgement of where we were meant we unnecessarily ascended and then descended a very large hill. It wasn’t really ideal, but we kept walking. And then we were in sight of the outer fence. Our joy though was shortlived. We could see spotlights on the hill between us and the actual base. We could hear voices talking to each other on radios. It was hardly surprising, really. The police have access to a lot of surveillance powers, Pine Gap even more. But possibly they didn’t need either. They may just have expected we would try to enter again and been waiting for us.

Either way, our plan of getting to the top of that hill, unpacking the instruments and performing our lament in eyesight of the base was looking shaky. The new plan was to go as fast as we could and hope we could perform some of the piece before we were arrested. We went over the fence.

My role, as I had been delegated that night, was cameraman. For the task I had been equipped with a phone camera and a head torch for lighting. I had hoped I would have a bit of time to get the shot right. That was starting to look unlikely, and as we power-walked up the hill I was turning on the phone and putting the torch on my head.

We were halfway up the hill and amazingly, the cops didn’t seem to have seen us yet. Margaret was exhausted though. She grabbed her viola out of its case. I whisper/shouted to Franz to come back and get his guitar. Miraculously, the instruments were in tune. As they were played and I shone the torch to attempt to get a photo, our game was up. The cops were coming for us now.

We were still moving mind you, racing them to the top of the hill where Pine Gap would be laid out in front of us. Our lament became a procession – Jim holding a picture of a dead child from the war in Iraq, Franz playing the guitar, Tim carrying his amp, Margaret on the viola. I was trying to get it all in the shot despite the fact everyone (including myself) was walking quickly up a very bumpy hill and the only light I had was the pathetic beam of a head torch. Suffice to say, the resulting footage is not my finest work. Knowing we would never get the phone or memory card back, my focus was making sure it would upload. So I would film a bit then hit the upload button.

The practiced lament starts slowly, with a dirgey two note riff played for a while. It gets better from there with some amazing viola playing. But unfortunately, we would not get there. The police were now upon us. They bypassed the musicians, calling “He’s livestreaming!” and heading straight for me. It was 4am and our broadcast, for obvious reasons, had not been advertised earlier. But it’s nice to know that at least one person was seeing it live. I ran from the cops, still trying to film and hit the “upload” button. It maybe bought me a couple of seconds, but that was it. As I sidestepped in vain, one cop tackled me into the hard ground. Another instantly dropped on top of me, wrenching the phone out of my hand. They twisted my arms back and cable-tied them together as tight as they could. With one cop on each arm, they dragged me to the top of the hill. Hardly the worst treatment you could expect from the police, but I mention it because when I got to the top I saw my companions all sitting around. Evidently they had been allowed to walk to the top unimpeded and not had a hand laid on them!

Detained though we may have been, at the top of the hill we did get to look out at the Pine Gap base with its distinctive radomes and antennae. I have to admit it does look kinda extra-terrestrial. It was a surreal experience to have it right there in front of us. This place I had read so much about, a place intentionally placed in one of the most remote locations imaginable. A place whose secrets took so much hard work to unveil – from politicians, academics and whistleblowers. All around us, invisible satellite signals were being sent and received; part of the never-ending and all-encompassing War On Terror, aiding the reign of the world’s military superpower. We called our action a pilgrimage, and it did seem like our act of physically going to the place was a transformative process. Prayers were uttered. Tears were shed. The defiance in our hearts was strengthened. And then we were frisked and locked in police vans.

In the Northern Territory, the back of the police wagons are just cages. This is done I’m pretty sure to stop police cooking people to death in the heat (a la Mr Ward in 2008), but in the winter desert night it makes for a very cold half hour trip back to Alice. Especially for Franz, who for some reason had his jumper taken off him by the cops. Fortunately me and Tim had by now taken off our ridiculous foil blankets, which Franz wrapped around his shivering body.

The experience in the watch house was pretty normal – sleep, being woken to go to an interview in which you refuse to say anything, being given breakfast (and did our eating requirement shuffle – Tim being the only meat eater got the ham off everyone’s sandwich; Franz being vegan exchanged his sandwich for extra fruit), boredom. Worse than being locked in a cell is being locked in a cell with the TV on at full volume, though we did get some enjoyment at one point from watching people hurt themselves on “Wipeout”. Around the middle of the day we were called in to go to court for what we assumed would be a fairly routine court appearance.

I should at this point note that we were charged not with any of the usual summary offences you get for protest activity. Pine Gap has its own law – the Defence (Special Undertakings) Act. Under it, trespass is punishable by a maximum seven years prison. Taking photographs is another seven. The law has been used before only once in history (though many people have walked on to Pine Gap before) – that was after the “citizen’s inspection” for weapons of mass destruction done by a group of four people including our own Jim Dowling and Margaret’s late husband Bryan Law in 2005. They were found guilty and fined, but when the prosecution appealed the sentences (they felt the four should have gone to prison), the high court actually threw out the original charges. The law was for defence facilities, the court said; and by refusing to allow any evidence as to what Pine Gap actually did the court had failed to determine whether Pine Gap actually was a facility related to Australia’s defence.

The government responded by changing the law in 2008 so that argument could not be used again. Something a bit fishy about that whole process really. But that’s not the only unusual thing about this law. Because of the extreme severity of these punishments, you can’t actually charge someone using the act without the expressed consent of the federal attorney-general. And in this case, George Brandis was apparently not answering his phone. So the police had already told us they couldn’t charge us and would be seeking an adjournment. Which was ok with us, we just wanted to get one court appearance out of the way. But then, as we sat in the holding cells at the back of the courthouse, things started to get a bit crazy.

The duty lawyer in Alice Springs that day just happened to be an old activist who knew some of our crew from the last Pine Gap trespass. As we sat in the holding cell, he entered and told us he had heard the prosecution were opposing bail. If they were successful, this would mean we would be held in jail in Alice Springs, at least until they could get George Brandis’ signature. It would also be virtually unprecedented – usually bail is only refused for people who are considered a risk of running away or a danger to society.

We talked about it and agreed it shouldn’t be too hard to argue against that before the magistrate. We had another surprise in store though. When it cam time to go up to the court, we were not all called together. Only one person was let out of the cell and up to the court – Franz. To be fair to the court, Franz was the first in alphabetical order. But he also was the youngest (19) and had no court experience at all. Now he had to take on a hostile prosecution on his own. Apparently inside the court our friend the duty lawyer got up (out of turn in court protocol) to say it was unjust to call Franz on his own. Inside the cell, we gave him frantic legal instructions – “quote the presumption for bail!” Franz left the cell, and the rest of us sat nervously.

He hadn’t come back when the guards summoned me and Jim. We weren’t sure what to expect, but it definitely wasn’t that we would take the stand and be told the charges were being dropped. And yet that’s what happened – while we had been in the cell, judge Daynor Trigg had been arguing with the prosecution about the Defence (Special Undertakings) Act. According to the ABC news report, Trigg had called the law “a nonsense bit of of legislation”. Without the Attorney-General’s consent, we couldn’t be charged. That’s what the law says, so we had been improperly charged and were now free to go.

Outside the court there was jubilation from the big group of supporters. There were also media cameras. We came out, chatted a bit to the cameras. Franz and Margaret got to play their Pine Gap lament uninterrupted. Then we got to sit down and relax for a bit. It had been a crazy couple of days.

The craziness wasn’t quite over yet. Besides the endless work of media (both traditional and social), looming over us was the prospect of the cops getting the go-ahead and coming back to arrest us. With the weekend coming up and the court closed, we were looking at a couple of days in custody – potentially more. Our plan was to leave town in two days and get everyone back to everyday life in Queensland. It was decided we should head to a property out of town and lay low for the next couple of days.

Meanwhile, in Alice Springs, one of my best friends from high school is watching the news and sees me outside the courtroom. We hadn’t been in touch for years, but it’s not every day an old friend comes to the red centre – so Joel (my friend), knowing where the protest camp was located, headed out there to say g’day.

Out of a fairly unusual couple of weeks, this bit might be the strangest part of the whole story. Because when Joel turned up at the camp to see his old buddy, he found only a bunch of activists expecting the police were after me and not intending on helping the search. So as country boy/footy player/steel salesman Joel wandered up to a few people asking my whereabouts, all he got was people saying they had never heard of Andy Paine. He got out his phone and showed them the picture of me that had been in the news. They shrugged.

Eventually, someone took his number and sent it to me. I was delighted to catch up with him, after trying to explain to my somewhat perplexed friend why he had so much trouble getting on to me. It was now our last day in Alice, so after a great time catching up, I went back to the sharehouse I had stayed at to say goodbye there. The IPAN conference on “putting an end to war” was on, but after an exhausting couple of weeks, I passed it up and instead watched the Western Bulldogs win the AFL flag at a packed Todd Hotel. The night ended with a candle-lit “peace procession” from the lookout through town. There (after I improbably ran into another old friend randomly) we said our final goodbyes to old friends, new friends, comrades, crazy hippies and the town of Alice Springs. We got into the van and drove off into the desert’s distant horizons.

The story doesn’t quite end there. After 40 hours straight of rotating drivers, we turned up back in Brisbane just in time to be welcomed to a solidarity anti-Pine Gap action. Several months later, George Brandis finally got around to checking his voicemail and signed the memo. We were sent our charges in the mail,and in November will be heading back out to the desert to argue that the people who kill and destroy in war, not those who resist it, are the real criminals. The next chapter in the long adventure of trying to create a more peaceful world.

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One response to “Peace Pilgrims – a Pine Gap tour diary

  1. Pingback: Peace pilgrims on trial – Daily blogs from the Alice Springs Supreme Court | andypaine

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