Peace pilgrims on trial – Daily blogs from the Alice Springs Supreme Court

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.

Peace, Andy.




Day two of court for the five Pine Gap peace pilgrims, and the end of a long week during which we have all become very familiar faces to the friendly staff of the Alice Springs Supreme Court.

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.

Peace, Andy.




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.

Peace, Andy.




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.”

Peace, Andy.




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.

Peace, Andy.




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.

Peace, Andy.




Day seven in the Alice Springs supreme court for the Pine Gap peace pilgrims, with all the evidence done and the jury out considering their verdict. Surely it couldn’t go any longer?

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.

Peace, Andy.



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.

Peace, Andy.


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The spirit of Mambesak – West Papuan freedom music

It always takes an element of courage to sing protest songs, but few musicians have ever faced the same consequences as Arnold Ap. The West Papuan folk singer and anthropologist was killed in 1983 by the Indonesian army. His crime was preserving a culture and language the Suharto Indonesian government did not want preserved. The music Arnold collected, and the songs he wrote with his band Mambesak, was seen as a direct threat to those in power.

Arnold Ap is not alone as a martyr to the cause of West Papuan freedom – in the half century since Indonesia invaded and took control of the former Dutch colony, hundreds of thousands of Papuans have been killed by the army police or armed militia. Even today, every few months there are new reports of Papuans killed at protests or by vigilantes. But neither is he alone in using music as a part of the struggle.

Contemporaries of Mambesak in Papua were pop band the Black Brothers. Possibly wary of facing the same fate, they left Papua in 1979 – first for Vanuatu, then neighbouring Papua New Guinea, the Netherlands and eventually Australia. Becoming probably the most popular band of their time in the Pacific Islands, the band never lost their radical stance, as songs like the patriotic Laskar Papua shows; or their pride in Papuan culture, as seen on this amazing clip from Dutch television.


Other Papuan pop bands have recorded patriotic songs that challenged the Indonesian control of a country that for decades they referred to as Irian Jaya – Trio Ambisi’s Tanah Papua being another example, or Edo Konodologit’s Aku Papua.


In the late 80’s, an art-rock band from Melbourne called Not Drowning, Waving arrived in Papua New Guinea. They were interested initially in the music of the country, but while there they encountered West Papuan refugees fleeing violence and living in the Blackwater refugee camp near the border. They wrote the song Blackwater in response. That was the begininning of Not Drowning, Waving and particularly their pianist/vocalist David Bridie with the protest music of West Papua.


Bridie would later record the soundtrack for the film Strange Birds In Paradise about the plight of the West Papuan people, and would start the record label Wantok Musik to release Melanesian music. Among the releases was an album of Papuan stringband music, in dialect by Black Paradise. The album’s name is a tribute to Black Paradise’s predecessors in soundtracking the struggle of the Papuan people – Spirit Of Mambesak.


Also on Wantok Musik is Papua New Guinean musical legend George Telek. The border between the two halves of the island was drawn lang ago by colonial powers. George Telek for one rejects the demarcation – on this joyous song (recorded with fellow PNG singer Ngaiire), he sings “ol wantok bilong you me” (“we are all the one tribe”).


One of the most prominent advocates for West Papuan independence in recent years has been UK-based Papuan refugee Benny Wenda. Benny has lived a life most of us see only in our nightmares, but like most Papuans he loves to sing. He plays the ukelele, and he and his wife regularly perform freedom songs as the Lani Singers.


Within Papua, music plays a big role in maintaining the spirits of people in the struggle. Papuan people who have grown up with horrific violence and repression are rarely in need of consciousness raising. But outside of Papua music is vital for bringing attention to a struggle that is often scarce due to the apathy/complicity of other nations and the media blackout long imposed by the Indonesian government. Sometimes from Papuans abroad like those I have mentioned already, sometimes from projects like the Rize Of The Morning Star albums, a couple of compilations bringing together artists from the Pacific and around the world put together by another PNG musician Airi Ingram aka Airileke. Airi also made this song and stunning film clip about the unity of the island of Papua.


The last few years we have seen music used in a different way to help the struggle; with a series of events across Australia like Punks For Papua and Rockin For West Papua. Izzy Brown of political hip hop group Combat Wombat has also organised events like the land and sea Freedom Flotilla which in 2013 included concerts across Australia retracing the ancient links of of Australian Aboriginals with their Melanesian brothers and sisters in Papua.

Of course the struggle towards merdeka continues, and it is indeed a long and hard road. But music plays its part in the journey, in a way that surely honours and cheers the spirit of Arnold Ap. Arnold’s last song Mystery Of Life sings

“Life is a mystery, we can not picture what to expect.
That is the reality.
I am imprisoned in my world. 
The only thing I desire and am waiting for is nothing else but freedom”


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City streets

For the last year and a half or so, members of my household have committed to doing a weekly one hour protest vigil for West Papua. Every Wednesday afternoon, we take some banners and flyers and head to King George Square.

Sometimes noteworthy things happen and sometimes they don’t. Hopefully it does a bit to raise the visibility of West Papuan people’s struggle for self-determination. But it does mean I regularly do something I wouldn’t do otherwise – stand still for an hour in the middle of the city. After a while you come to be well-acquainted with the happenings of a city street, especially the little strip of Adelaide St that is our regular haunt.

Our vigil is not the only thing trying to get the attention of the many passers by. Far from it in fact. There are often buskers there, for one. They could do with a bit more originality (is there anyone in the world who still wants to hear some guy with an acoustic guitar sing Wonderwall?), but usually they are a fairly pleasant addition.

On top of that though, there are usually a group of christian street evangelists. Makes me think of the line from Elton John’s Tiny Dancer – “Jesus freaks on the street, handing tickets out to God”. King George Square isn’t Los Angeles circa 1970 though, and these guys aren’t long-haired hippies who’ve been turned on to Jesus. They are a small group of committed but fairly intense people who hand out business card sized tracts and ready-made arguments to convince people of their need to pray the prayer of repentance (since I’m there holding protest signs, the one I have gotten is why human rights don’t make sense unless we believe in God).

I’d like to think of these guys as allies in what we are doing on the street; but unfortunately there are significant differences in our conception of what God’s liberation of the world looks like, as well as the means of communicating it. For these guys, preaching the gospel is a matter of such urgency that there is no time for getting to know the people they approach in the street, or for really listening to what they have to say. They offer suggestions for how to avoid eternal damnation, but not many glimpses of what a kingdom of God based on radical love for our neighbours might look like.

Also frequent denizens here are the street fundraisers, aka charity muggers. Now I know they hate being called that, and I know they are just trying to do their (quite difficult) job and raise some money for good causes in the process. I’ll admit they must be fairly effective at raising money for charities too, otherwise there surely wouldn’t be so many of them around. But again, the street fundraisers aren’t quite the friends on the street they could be.

For one, recently one fundraiser came up to our vigil. Rather than showing an interest in the plight of Papuan people, it was to tell us he had booked this stretch of public footpath and threaten he would have us removed. But also, the street fundraisers in my opinion don’t offer many enticing visions of a better world. And not only because the whole thing is based on private companies profiting from desperate backpackers struggling through a miserable day’s work and still being able to claim moral virtue because they’ve raised money for charity. The exaggerated smiles, cheesy compliments and 30 second pitches come straight out of a sales textbook. At times they are literally as misleading as the proverbial used car salesman; like when they say “we’re not asking for any money” (by which they mean they’re not asking for cash at this very moment. They are in fact only asking for money). The street fundraiser looks at the pedestrians and sees only dollar signs, potential sales to meet their quota.

When it works it still promotes a compartmentalised view of social progress where we give money to someone else to cure cancer/save the reef/be a clown doctor; rather than assess our own lives to consider how our gifts can be best used and how our day to day actions can best align with our values and dreams. But worse than that; as the public face of social causes, they represent us as only interested in you for what money you have. They have turned the noble act of generosity into something you cross the street to avoid.

Also competing for the attention of city-goers are another army of salesmen. These ones are mostly silent (though King George Square features a large tv screen that plays obnoxiously loud to willing and unwilling viewers alike) and mostly stationary (though sometimes they move around on the sides of buses or on trailers towed by tiny little cars). They are the ubiquitous and inescapable advertisements that bombard us wherever we go in the city, showering us with false promises and needling away at our insecurities.

The commonly quoted figure is 3000 ads a day the average person is exposed to. We become accustomed to shutting them out (the hidden cost of which is what else we might subconsciously shut out as part of this survival technique), but who could measure the impact they have on us? These images that surround us are designed to manufacture desires; while the things we really need – loving and understanding relationships, a meaningful way to actually better the world around us, the freedom to chart our own course in life – have no space on our walls and billboards.

Add to this the subtle unspoken messages of things like security cameras and guards; expanses of concrete; the Greek-style columns of City Hall. As each person walks through the city they pick their way through not just all these suitors; they dodge the other pedestrians, sift through all the noise of the city. In their pocket are electronic devices that carry not just every person they know but also all the collected knowledge and entertainment in the world. The many stimuli fight for our attention.

I wonder whether in the midst of all this there is still space for what we were promised by so many books and movies – the chance encounter that changes our life. In their own ways the ads and the evangelists offer it, but I wonder how many people are truly satisfied by their encounters with either. Mind you, I’m not claiming my own efforts on the street like our West Papua vigil necessarily provide those experiences either. Maybe I’m some kind of hopeless romantic, but I’ve always somehow kept believing in this. Which is probably why so much of my life has been spent on the street holding banners, serving food or just sitting around reading. Believing that maybe I could be that serendipitous encounter that changes someone’s life, or who knows, maybe they could be that for me.

Do those moments exist? It’s hard to measure the consequences of any single action, but surely they must in some form. The city is not really designed to provide really radical ideas or moments to threaten our equilibrium. But if we’re honest, neither are our lives; ensconced in our safe bubbles of predictability and reinforcement. If we want streets alive with new possibilities, we somehow have to create them.

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Anarchy means DIY

Upon discovering that I call myself an anarchist, people give me different reactions. Many are curious about what that means. To which I say it means I’m against any person having control over another; whether that is physically, economically or socially. It means I want to work towards a world where people have more control over their own lives and less over others’.

Maybe unsurprisingly, the conversation then often turns to what an anarchist society would look like. How would decisions be made? What would you do about crime? Would there be any borders or private property?

This is all fair enough. I mean, you want to interrogate ideas by asking questions, plus visions of an alternative society help stimulate our imaginations as to what is possible and what we want to work towards.

But in a way these questions are a bit annoying because I think they miss the point on why anarchism is relevant as an ideology. Because anarchy (“without rulers”) doesn’t begin on some distant day when we somehow manage to convince everyone who currently holds power over others to give it up. Anarchy is a philosophy relevant and revolutionary to our lives right now.

“I learned a new phrase,” an elderly activist friend said to me recently. “‘Prefigurative politics’. But I think it’s just a new term for the old idea of being the change you want to see. Right?”

Prefigurativism (or whatever name you want to give it) is a helpful idea in a world of wars for peace and control to protect freedom. It’s also useful to how we inspire imaginations and conversations about the kind of world we want. It’s a good concept; and yet with its eyes still firmly planted on a prospective future society, it also doesn’t quite grasp what is for me the value of anarchism.

Because to me anarchism is neither locked up in a future dimension, nor is it prefigurative. Never mind what the dictionary says; to me anarchy is a verb in the present tense.

The idea of anarchy at its most basic – “without rulers” – leads us intuitively to the conclusion that no one can give it to us or do it for us. No one is in a better position than us to put it into practice. So this means to start living it out we don’t need to wait for anyone’s directions or consent.

But more than that, it means why would we want to? The minute we cede the terms of anarchy to anyone else we might as well give up on it.

Now you might point out here that it’s not as easy as just announcing a personal state of anarchy while there are vast structures of power held in place by the forces of the state. You might also say that as a white male in one of the world’s richest countries I have to be conscious that even the freedoms available to me are not necessarily there for everyone. And in saying that you would be correct. To really struggle for a world of more level power structures means working to dissemble the inequalities that currently exist – especially the ones that consciously or not give me power over others. To do this is undoubtedly hard work and means real reflection on what our world is really like and how we can change it.

But still, when I first met anarchists and decided I was one too, it was not at all a theory that inspired me. It was the praxis (what a wonderful word that is) of anarchism – radical social centres, food not bombs, squatting, DIY culture. I already knew there was something wrong with our society and believed a better one was possible; these guys helped me believe it was possible right now.

These things of course are not everyone’s vision of an ideal society, and in fact the sentiments I’ve just described are often derided as “lifestyle anarchism” or self-centred pap. But the truth is, I don’t know whether I really believe in an anarchist society. The urge for power is very elusive and amorphous – its very difficult to eliminate. If the rest of the world wasn’t evidence enough of that then consider those organisations that openly identify as anarchists – they constantly have to deal with struggles for and abuses of power. I’m not convinced that bringing an end to capitalism would tame these impulses either.

I definitely believe a better society is possible, and an anarchist revolution may be a way of bringing that about. But to me anarchism is not a static situation one day to be realised – it is a constant motion that moves towards the levelling of power imbalances. After the revolution the need for that motion would be just as much as now.

All this may sound self-defeating from someone who has for so many years now (metaphorically) flown the black flag. But the anarchism I believe in is powerful and active. I see in it the ability to inspire, provoke, liberate and transform lives, communities and societies. This simple idea can radically change the way we relate to people around us and society as a whole; the way we assess our values and priorities; the way we structure our communities.

And by its very nature, I see these changes taking place right now, by ordinary people willing to take up anarchism’s challenge of not deferring responsibility to anyone else, but rather doing it ourselves.

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Two Masters – Where is the Christian campaign against wealth?

As social media overflowed with Christian commentary on the same-sex marriage postal survey, a thought crossed my mind. Well many thoughts actually, but we’ll just focus on one for this article. I thought; I’m sure there’s something missing here. Like a conspicuously empty chair in the room. Where was the mass Christian response earlier this year when the federal Productivity Commission recommended Sunday penalty rates be scrapped?

In case you’ve forgotten or missed it the first time around, in February the Productivity Commission announced its findings that the extra loading hospitality and retail employees get for working on a Sunday should be removed and made the same as Saturday. The reasons were varied – from the idea that more hospitality venues would be able to open, that prices could come down, that consumer expectations have changed along with the way we relate to Sundays.

Not specifically mentioned, though surely implied in this, is the fact that religious beliefs which once defended Sunday as a holy day for rest and worship have declined in adherence and influence.

Now you’d have to say that’s true. But the question to be asked in the light of the current political climate is: where was the indignant Christian response? While unions and the Labor party very vocally opposed the changes, the church was deafening in its silence.

To be fair, the church wasn’t completely silent. The Australian Christian Lobby did make a well articulated statement against the changes, as did the social justice departments of the Catholic and Anglican churches. But I can say from experience that these statements would have hardly been heard by anyone who wasn’t looking for them. And why was the issue relegated to “social justice” anyway? Isn’t this a fairly serious attack on our “Christian society”? Where were the posters, facebook memes, the editorials in church newspapers? The sermons warning about the dire wider consequences? How can it be that Christians who believe the “safe schools” program is an attack on christian morality, or that Muslims are trying to take away Christmas; find no issue with a government body dismissing the ancient tradition of the Sabbath and saying just “for many workers Sunday work has a higher level of disutility than Saturday work, though the extent of the disutility is much less than in times past.”?

Now I should say here I don’t really believe in a legalistic definition of the Sabbath or other Old Testament laws. Nor does Jesus, who several times intentionally broke Sabbath laws to challenge that kind of thinking. Nor do I really believe in Christian religious beliefs being enforced on everyone by state power. But still, for reasons of Christian morality I oppose the cuts – because I believe that time spent on family, community and rest on Sundays is an important part of a balanced life and family; and should be the right of everyone. Because I believe hospitality and retail workers, already among the lowest earners, should be compensated for missing out on the social life high paid 9-5 workers are entitled to; and because I belief work and shopping are not supposed to be the things that run our life.

But also, a Christian approach to the issue should really go deeper than that. Because when it comes to greed and money; the bible doesn’t really take the moderate, balanced critique approach.

In fact, the great bogeymen of contemporary Christianity – secularism, sexual immorality, other religions – would hardly even when combined match the amount the bible comes out against money; either in frequency or stridency of criticism. Let’s dip in for a quick sample. From the words of Jesus there is

But woe to you who are rich, for you have already received your comfort. Woe to you who are well fed now, for you will go hungry.” (Luke 6);

Luke 18: “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”;

Matthew 6: “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

Luke 12: “Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; life does not consist in an abundance of possessions.

Luke 16’s parable of Lazarus and the rich man gives no reason for the rich man’s “torment” after death other than that “in your lifetime you received your good things, while Lazarus received bad things“.

The parable of the sower (Matthew 13) contains this: “The seed falling among the thorns refers to someone who hears the word, but the worries of this life and the deceitfulness of wealth choke the word, making it unfruitful.

That’s honestly just the beginning rather than a definitive overview; but let’s move on so we can hear from some other biblical voices, like Paul. Many would say Paul shifts the focus from the social reality of the gospels to a more Gnostic, spiritual idea of following God. Yet he is vocally critical of wealth: “many live as enemies of the cross of Christ. Their destiny is destruction, their god is their stomach, and their glory is in their shame. Their mind is set on earthly things.” (Phillipians 3) or famously; “Those who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil.” (1 Tim 6).

To the same effect, but with a bit more rhetorical flourish, there is James: “Now listen, you rich people, weep and wail because of the misery that is coming on you. Your wealth has rotted, and moths have eaten your clothes. Your gold and silver are corroded. Their corrosion will testify against you and eat your flesh like fire. You have hoarded wealth in the last days. Look! The wages you failed to pay the workers who mowed your fields are crying out against you. The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty. You have lived on earth in luxury and self-indulgence. You have fattened yourselves in the day of slaughter.” (James 5)

Not to mention Revelation’s depiction of the evil empire of Babylon (Revelation 17): “For all the nations have drunk the maddening wine of her adulteries. The kings of the earth committed adultery with her, and the merchants of the earth grew rich from her excessive luxuries.” As Revelation depicts a victory of the kingdom of God over this empire of greed and power, we are told “The merchants of the earth will weep and mourn over her because no one buys their cargoes anymore… ‘Woe! Woe to you, great city, where all who had ships on the sea became rich through her wealth! In one hour she has been brought to ruin!’”

Most emphatic of all, and one that is impossible for Christians to ignore, is Jesus’ extraordinarily blunt statement in Matthew 6: “No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.

The biblical picture is pretty clear . Not only are the dictates of wealth dangerous and seductive; they are the opposite of the values of God. It is impossible to read it any other way. And yet one can’t help but think that at times Christians confuse God and Mammon. While the early church took Jesus at his word and gave away and collectivised all their wealth; these days we have a church that preaches the prosperity gospel – God wants you to be rich. Despite Jesus’ instructions in Luke 14 to specifically give money to those who can’t pay you back; the church has developed a doctrine of “sowing” into the offering plate – giving money believing it will return you more, as if God is some kind of divine stock market.

We have christian bookstores stuffed with books offering business advice. We have Christians believing that somehow Donald Trump represents the values of Jesus; that opposing healthcare for poor people is the duty of believers. We have committed Christian and former NSW Premier Mike Baird earning the nickname “Casino Mike” by defending the rights of casinos not to be subject to the lockout laws. The church, despite all the biblical warnings, has developed a dollar sign shaped blind-spot.

While unions are still campaigning against the changes to penalty rates, I can’t help but think the church could be the most powerful voice in reversing that law. And this is because the church can argue more than just economics or the right of a worker to enjoy a Sunday off. The church, equipped with the gospel of Jesus, can articulate an alternative society where it is love, not money, that is the guiding force – the kingdom of God.

That is, if we actually want to stop the changes to penalty rates. Plenty of people of people defend them. They say it’s good for the economy. They say society’s changed and the old rules of Monday-Friday 9-5 no longer apply. To be honest, I think a lot of people probably can’t conceive of Sunday leisure time that doesn’t involve there being hospitality and retail businesses open.

Which if you ask me, just goes to show that despite the claims of hopeful secularists and concerned Christians; society is not getting less religious. There are still two masters, we are just choosing one over the other.

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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 satelite 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 porotests 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 recieves via satelite are used for drone strikes or other targetted 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 peacefu 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 samller, 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 reconnoiter 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 refrain 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 lamentors 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 believeing 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 satelite 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 shakey. 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 resons, 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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Party and protest (If I can’t dance to it, I don’t want your revolution)

“If I can’t dance to it, I don’t want your revolution”. Supposedly that was said by a young Emma Goldman in the early 20th century (quite possibly she never actually said it, but it’s a good line so I’m sure she doesn’t mind taking credit). Since then, there have been plenty of people claiming the struggle for social change is all work and no play, but there have also been plenty of people who like Emma, believe that protest and party can go together.

The 1960’s is an era commonly associated with both partying and protest, but its not exactly clear how often the two were in a mutually beneficial relationship – Timothy Leary’s “tune in and drop out” proselytising of LSD was often anti-political; while Woodstock, for all its mythology, was a for-profit rock concert – people got in for free only because they tore down the fences erected by festival organisers. One of the points when party and politics met at that festival was when activist Abbie Hoffman bumrushed the stage to inject some radicalism. “I think this is a pile of shit while John Sinclair rots in prison!” he yelled. Guitarist of The Who Pete Townshend yelled “fuck off my fucking stage” and hit him over the head with his guitar. The crowd cheered.

John Sinclair and Abbie Hoffman though are two 60’s figures who really tried to combine protest and party. Sinclair formed the White Panther Party, whose propaganda came from heavy rock band the MC5 and whose manifesto was “dope, guns and fucking in the streets”; Hoffman and his group the Yippees staged hippie “be-ins” at the Pentagon and sent Wall St into chaos by showering the stock market floor with dollar bills. In 1968 at the height of the Vietnam war, Sinclair and Hoffman among others organised a protest outside the Democrat convention in Chicago. In response to the “national death party”, they called it “the festival of life” – the invitation said:

“Rise up and abandon the creeping meatball! Come all you rebels, youth spirits, rock minstrels, truth seekers, peacock freaks, poets, barricade jumpers, dancers, lovers and artists… We demand a politics of ecstasy.”

The UK equivalent of Woodstock was the Isle Of Wight festival in 1970. Like Woodstock though there was a tension between party and protest. A group calling itself the British White Panthers broke through the fence, opening it up to all comers. Far from a one-off example though, that festival invasion was part of a “free festival” movement of radical parties. Most free festivals occurred unpermitted and often led to clashes with police – the Windsor Free Festival (which was billed as a “rent strike” and intentionally held “in the Queen’s back garden”) was violently broken up; the Stonehenge festival famously ended in the “battle of Beanfield” between police and partiers in 1985. Free festival organisers saw them as potential not just for great parties, but for radical transformation. One flyer from 1980 said

“Free festivals are practical demonstrations of what society could be like all the time: miniature utopias of joy and communal awareness rising for a few days from a grey morass of mundane, inhibited, paranoid and repressive everyday existence…The most lively [young people] escape geographically and physically to the ‘Never Never Land’ of a free festival where they become citizens, indeed rulers, in a new reality.”

While some free festivals struggled against violent policing, some were co-opted into the not-free festival world (eg. A little festival you may have heard of called Glastonbury). But the energy lived on and the rise of electronic music led to a revival in the early 90’s. Underground raves (what we in Australia onomatopoeically call “bush doofs”) were so huge in the UK that the Tory government passed the Criminal Justice Act of 1994 – a law that gave police powers to shut down any outdoor event where ‘”music” (inverted commas actually in the law!) includes sounds wholly or predominantly characterised by the emission of a succession of repetitive beats’.

There were massive protests (and more clashes with police) against the laws. But somewhere between the idealism of the parties and the radicalisation of being criminalised just for being young and having fun; the rave scene built links with the radical squatters scene and the anti-roads campaign against new highways that destroyed forests or communities. The most famous was the weeklong eviction resistance of the Claremont Rd squats in east London set up against the M11 highway. In Harry McIntosh’s very entertaining account of the blockade, he describes how after police turned off power and shut down the sound system on the first day, power was restored via an underground tunnel to the blockade; keeping the party going. “In the face of anti-rave and protest laws techno continues to provide the rebel soundtrack for the British 90’s.”

Out of the anti-roads movement came the idea of Reclaim The Streets – parties that invade and shut down major roads to either protest specific issues or just to open up new spaces (physical and mental) for creative use. Reclaim The Streets became strongly linked with the anti-globalisation movement of the early 2000’s that would attempt to shut down global trade meetings.

Recent documentary Do It Ourselves traced the history of Reclaim The Streets, underground raves and protest partying in Australia. That history is still kept alive in events like recent “protestivals” at the Olympic Dam uranium mine and some of the experiments in “tactical urbanism” by groups like Brisbane’s Right To The City.

Part of that tradition though has also transmuted into commercial raves and bush doofs – scenes that have taken on the music and aesthetic but not the ideals. Many participants would have no idea of the scene’s links with radical politics. It should be said that there’s nothing inherently radical about partying – especially in the hedonistic world of 21st century consumer capitalism. That tension between those want to fight the power and those who just want to fight for the right to party still exists.

To really be revolutionary, our parties and festivals need to in some way build links to movements that can actually change our social conditions or environment; movements that can include people beyond the young white demographic of much of the party attendees. They need to also hold an awareness that while some of us are lucky enough to spend our time partying, others don’t have that luxury – they may in fact be slaving away for long, dangerous and underpaid hours soldering our sound systems or sewing our cool party outfits. For many, partying is something that happens in opposition to protest – people are actively hostile to collective organising for a better world and instead espouse new age/conspiracy ideas.

Partying in itself will never bring about a revolution. And yet I can’t help but feel that neither will endless political rallies and meetings, perfectly formulated theories or campaign strategies. Music, art and partying can change political consciousness – being experiential they can penetrate to where no theory can reach. They can help us to envision alternative possibilities for the future and the present, and in a tiny way can create models of another world.

And you know what? The best parties always have an element of revolution in them, and the best protests always have a bit of partying. The struggle goes on for a revolution we can dance to.


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