We were some 20 eco-activists from Adelaide, Melbourne, Albury, Sydney and Newcastle plus a a couple of nomads, outside the gold mine at Lake Cowal, central NSW, guests of Uncle Chappie Williams, honorable elder of the Wiradjuri.
On the other side of the closed mine gate, a platoon of some 30 armed cops, a paramilitia in blue coveralls, blue caps, black boots and black utility belts, was lined up to prevent our entry, their paddy wagons at hand to cart us away if we tried.
Another Easter at Lake Cowal and once more into the breach, dear friends, bearing witness to the cyanide crimes of the gold mining industry generally and the multinational giant, Barrick Gold, in particular.
On Easter Sunday in previous years, our direct action tactics had included "walk ons" that had shut the mine operations down for the day and won us national and international media attention.
What a triumphant it had been to hear the background roar of the earth movers and the mill go quiet and the sound of breeze on the plains re-assert itself!
For me the winds on that vast dry lake bed come like whispers of the ancestors blowing through us to future generations, reminding of the impermanence of things including gigantic toxic enterprises like the Lake Cowal gold mine.
But no walk on this year, no need.
The Mine's operations had been shut it down in anticipation. For sure it was not the 24/7 go-go operation of previous years.
Cyanide gold mines are highly toxic operations and the walk ons, lock ons and wild wallaby runs of eco activists present an Occupational Health and Safety liability for the mine management. So too it seems is the presence of a small army of cops.
Our banners and flags were arrayed on the Mine fence, glorious colour in contrats to the drab of the temporary buildings and wasted land of the Mine site.
The Happy Wheels folding table and chairs was put out on the road, the kettle boiled, food, tea served and, at ease, we picnicked there under the gaze of the cops and their cameras and a couple of Mine employees.
I cranked up the Peacebus.com PA and played the Earth Reggae "Stop the Cyanide" track, the speaker horns blasting across the police line and to the mine site generally, a voice for the Earth in a toxic wilderness.
My comrade eco-activists hearing the track for the first time were impressed. The reporter from Hack Triple J, who had came with audio recorder to make a radio program on the Easter action, lit up with a smile.
Then I got on the mike and gave a Cyanide Watch spiel to the cops and their cameras telling them that we were protesting at the Mine gates for the benefit of their children too.
That the gold miners were committing crimes against the Earth and future generations - cyanide crimes.
These are the stats on the Barrick Gold mine at Lake Cowal: about 60 tonnes of gold a year extracted at the cost of 3,600 megalitres of Murray-Darling water, 6090 tonnes of Orica sodium cyanide pa in transport 2000 km from Gladstone to the Lake, 20 million tonnes of waste rock pa and 1.5 million tonnes of CO2 emissions.
"We are here to bear witness to these truths." I said.
"Clean air and water is more precious than gold. And future generations have inalienable rights to both."
"Barrick Gold, its management, its suppliers, its promoters and its protectors within government are cyanide criminals," I concluded.
"May your children not despise you!"
My rant seemed to have intimidated my comrades and when i offered to mike as open to other speakers, none took it up.
"I will play "Stop the Cyanide" again," I warned.
That produced groans from some and a rush from Mia Pepper to amplify some tracks from the iTunes on her laptop.
The first up she chose "We not gonna take it." by the The Who, defiance blasting across the police lines.
So for an hour or so till we packed up and returned to the camp, the action became a kind a DJ session of music from iTunes on Mia's laptop.
Mission accomplished and without arrests or aggro.
In fact the cops were smiling after. But maybe those were smiles of relief.
Michael Atkin of Hack Triple J reported the action. Here his pod report and here his photo gallery
All good protest actions leave questions hanging in the air and ours were:
. How much cyanide is too much cyanide?
. How much water poisoned in the pursuit of gold is too much poisoned water?
. How much CO2 burnt up excavating and crushing rock in the pursuit of gold is too much CO2?
. How many cops does it take to keep a foreign owned gold mine operating in the face of popular resistance?
That same afternoon the protest camp broke up, the far-traveling eco-activists going their different ways. I was alone there on Easter Monday, when a paddy wagon rolled up bearing Constable Ian Rourke of the Weethalle Police Station and Snr Constable Michael Brown of Tallimba.
Cops had been rostered on from far and wide over Easter to contain our protest.
On a reconnaissance mission to see what was happening with the protest camp and, being paid overtime, neither Ian nor Michael were complaining.
Nor were they aggrieved about the protest action in the same way Acting Sergeant Paul Jones was when he invaded our camp to make arrests the previous Easter Monday.
To the contrary Ian and Michael were smiling and their only complaint was about the music of the previous day.
It was suggested either the cops get ear mufflers or they get some say in the play list. Ian wanted some Slim Dusty and Mick, some John Butler.
My first meeting with Ian and Mick had been less auspicious for it had been they who had arrested me on the road to West Wyalong on Good Friday.
At the time I was walking by the highway looking for a bird I had seen hit by the car in front of me and roll off the verge, a traumatised ball of feathers. Ian and Mick seeing Happy Wheels by the roadside had stopped to inquire if i needed help.
Ian had empathised about wildlife care and said he was a protector of snakes.
The injured bird not found, I was about to drive off, when Mick inquired of my name.
I was happy to tell him because I had come from Narrandera police station where the sergeant there had, at my request, emailed the Area Duty, Superintendent Dunlop, to say that I was on my way to West Wyalong and seeking a meeting in regard to the conduct of the protest action.
"Oh'" said Mick. "We are looking for you." And, after confirming by radio: "You are under arrest."
So it was that I discovered that there was an arrest warrant out for me in regard to a charge arising from the last Lake Cowal action, that of obstructing a police officer in the performance of his duty; to wit the aggrieved and vindictive Acting Sgt Paul Jones.
My appeal for an adjournment had been ignored and I had been convicted in my absence and was now to be held in custody to face a magistrate in regard to sentencing.
Happy Wheels was left locked by the side of the road and I was stripped of possessions, put in the back of the paddy wagon and taken to the West Wyalong Station about 20 km away.
Crown Sergeant Ken Dale processed the arrest. He was not unfriendly and, as he tended to the paper work and procedures, he did so with a bemused if not smug smile. He seemed to concieve of me as an adversary to be met with both respect and caution.
He soon revealed that he was the commander of the police operation at Lake Cowal and that he knew quite a bit about me, both from reading my www.peacebus.com blogs and from being stationed at Brunswick Heads for many years, this amongst cops, a premium posting. Ahh! the days of deep sea snapper fishing.
He told me that he had been in the Byron Bay police station on Easter Friday 2001 when the "Who let the dogs out?" protest besieged the station and crucified Rusty Harris there all dressed up as Jesus, a crown of cannabis buds on his head.
Of my "End Prohibition" work with the Nimbin HEMP Embassy, he said: "No complaints. You created a lot of work for me up there "drug proofing" young people." Whateber that is. But I was glad to hear it.
In the theatre of the charge room, words danced between us. Both of us were seeking rapport and information, but constrained not to tell all. For example Ken wouldn't tell me the force he had assembled nor confirm or deny the engagement of the Area Commands Operations Special Group aka crowd suppression cops.
Not that i had anything to conceal. I had had nothing to do with rallying an Earth defence crowd to Lake Cowal that Easter, no media work at all and didn't know who, how many and what to expect and wouldn't till I got to the camp.
At Lake Cowal protests I am just another dog's body though it is also true that my gray hair and experience gives me some influence. But flat structure anarchistic organising is hard for hierarchical minded cops to imagine and difficult to explain.
For the moment it didn't matter. Ken held all the cards. I was in fact his prisoner.
When Sgt Ken told me that i was to be transferred to "A Grade" prisoner accommodation (apparently such is lacking in West Wyalong) in Griffith 150 km away, I guessed the warrant and my arrest en route to Lake Cowal would be followed by a request for bail conditions meant to keep me away from the Mine. All part of a plan.
"Apologies for the second grade travel arrangements," Ken said smiling that smile.
He was referring to the paddy wagon, its hard suspension, its bare steel seats, the rough road, the roar of the wind and the loud and ceaseless metallic rattle of the door in its frame and the lock bouncing outside.
An hour and a half of this was to be endured, Ian and Mick in the front and me bouncing about in the back, all the way to Griffith via Rankin Springs, a rougher road but shorter route, Ian was to explain.
To use the time profitably I chanted out loud all 108 repetitions of the 12 syllable Vajra mantra unable to hear my own voice. But I had a sense of Padmasambhava laughing at my predicament, which was one of both fame and disgrace.
Disgrace to be in police custody and subject to the hard edge of the law shown to common criminals; fame that I was considered to be such a threat to the police and the operations of the Barrick Gold mine at Lake Cowal.
I had been practicing the Buddhist teaching of equal mindedness in the face of the so called Eight Hindrances (paired as gain and loss, praise and blame, fame and disgrace, pleasure and pain) and here was an opportunity for that practice. Monks cell, police cell; same same.
Still, I felt obliged to remonstrate if only mildly with Ian when he let me out of the paddy wagon by referring to my second grade transport as "cruel and unusual punishment".
"That's not punishment," said Ian. Cruel maybe but not unusual. It happens daily in the bush and Koori prisoners have been found dead from heat stroke or aggravated injuries after rough journeys in such second grade transport.
Griffith is a prosper commercial centre in an irrigated food growing area where Italian immigrant have done well. In the early 70s it was the centre of industrial scale cannabis production, set up to supply the Vietnam War market and the CIA backed Nugan Hand bank had financed it. Local cops were taking their cut.
But it all came undone when the Nugan Hand Bank went belly up (and reinvented itself as the Macquarie Bank?) and anti drug campaigner, Donald McKay, was murdered in the car park of a local pub, his body disposed of and never to be found.
As a consequence of the reforms that followed the public outrage, Griffith was to get a different police regime and a new Police Station with "A Grade" prisoner accommodation. And I was its guest for a night.
The cells are bare and gray, a tough glass wall with glass door at one end, two concrete benches each with a polyvinyl covered mattress and a thick acrylic blanket, a stainless steel flush toilet and wash basin unit between and a surveillance camera built into a corner of the ceiling.
Just the hum of air conditioning, the sound of the roller door as other prisoners come and goe, and the sound of the clanking of keys and doors as the junior police officer makes a personal check or brings food. No natural light, the same fluoro on day and night and stripped of watches, no sense of time.
My cell companion was a 23 year old koori-kiwi who had broken various bail conditions associated with charges involving break and enter and assault. He had given himself up, called the cops to come collect him and hold him in jail.
He was tipsy drunk when we met in the charge room but his remorse for how his life was going from bad to worse did not alter with the sobriety that followed a night of sleep. He was in despair about the degradation of his circumstance and knew no better way to improve his lot than imposing upon himself the external restraint of a stint in prison.
"I've got cousins in there," he said by way of sweetening his choice. Then remembrance of the boredom of his last timde in Junee jail would return and he would sit on his bunk and hang his head.
An affable young man his name was Terrence and all the police officers in the station knew him by first name and were genuinely concerned for him. In particular Probationary Constable, Semiti Beitak, a Fijian, showed compassion and tenderness for the lad, checking on him regularly while he slept, always speaking kindly.
The other prisoner that came in that night was a white wild boy named Timmy from Yetan. He too had broken bail conditions, a curfew, and had been found drinking with his mates.
In the morning we were hand cuffed and taken together to the Griffith court house in a paddy wagon. Only a block this time and through the peep holes we could see the crowd assembling in the main street for the Griffith Easter Festival.
Before the magistrate Sgt Jaime May confirmed my suspicions about the motives behind my arrest when, on behalf of the Police, she requested "strict bail conditions be placed on the accused, relating to the accused frequenting the Barrick Gold Mine site."
"The accused is the main organiser for protest action at Lake Cowal Gold Mine site," she read.
"The protests have caused interference with mining operations and personal safety for mine employees for several years. This bail condition is requested for the safety of all persons involved as a result of protest action."
Duty Solicitor Tom Gallagher defended me. We had met at the Police Station, he a bright eyed young man in board shorts and peaked cap. "I drew the short straw this weekend," he said.
When I told him that i would rather choose jail and a hunger strike than accept any bail conditions restricting my access to the Mine, he responded by saying: "I don't want to hear that. You have to understand that the police are in a position of power here. You can't make demands"
But before the magistrate he found winged words to say about my right to protest and the magistrate agreed. So i was bailed without security to appear at West Wyalong court on the following Thursday or forfeit $1000.
Being a prisoner means lots of waiting under guard, the guards presenting the most interesting subject for the guarded to watch.
Sgt Jaime May could have been a star in a cop shop Tv drama: young, smart, blonde, fair of face and trim and petit of body. The various objects on her police utility belt - cuffs, Glock hand gun and what not - crowded to fit about her waist, the belt seemed to sit on her hips, it wearing her rather than the other way around.
Her natural beauty, her gender and her uniform all seemed to conspire to weigh her down. She presented a blank, "give me no shit" face the world and the set of her chin seemed to signal a gutsy determination to show every and any man that she was on top of her job.
But there was a gentle streak there too and while she guarding the court house holding cell she expressed genuine concern about Terrence's refusal of bail but she didn't know where to find words that might help.
How could she? Her world and its rigorous self discipline were so far from the alcohol induced chaos of Terry's life. She gave up trying and sat with her chin in her hand looking away.
To me she expressed concerned about me being stranded in Griffith after being released. No return transport of any grade whatsoever was to be provided to take me back to where I had been arrested.
Of me she asked kindly if i had any relatives or friends in Griffith with whom i might stay. "The Easter Festival is on'" she said. "You might like to stay around and enjoy it."
Kind thought but not likely. Lake Cowal, here I come.
Never been in Griffith before and stepping out of the police Station, I had to ask directions to find the Main Street.
In the Festival crowd I met Timmy, who was reflecting grimly on the lengthy record of accumulated offenses the magistrate had read out to him as a wake up call. A cell bonded comrade he was pleased to walk with me, while a bicycle cop circled about us, and show me where to find a supermarket to get some tucker and point the way to the highway so that to might begin hitch hiking.
It was 4 pm before i was delivered to West Wyalong and I went directly to the Police Station to front Sgt Ken Dale and seek a lift to the protest camp.
"You're back!" exclaimed Constable Ian, my arresting officer, half surprised, half pleased. Sgt Ken Dale called to me from his office and welcomed me, grinning broadly.
"Sure I will take you to the protest camp. It will be an opportunity for us to talk about the conduct of the protest tomorrow," he said. "Second class transport again, but with some improvements."
The attempt to prevent my presence at the Mine having failed, he was chirpy, concilatory and helpful. He rang Mia Pepper for me on the police station phone, and before handing it to me, told her I had recanted by protest ways and was now working for the police as an informer.
Ken made his position about the conduct of the coming protest action clear, saying to me what he would say to the activists later in the camp.
"I respect your right to protest. I understand that you intend to invade the mine site and you are doing this to attract media attention. You have got to do what you got to do. Police will be there to make arrests when you do," he said.
"But let's agree to keep it safe for all. My police will be happy to play along with any dramatics for the camera and we will respect your camera people. But the line will drawn if any violence is directed towards my officers."
Fair enough. Gandhian tactics have always been our way at Lake Cowal - Satyagraha, holding firmly and non violently to the truth.
In regard to the transport Ken was talking about a newer model of paddy wagon one with a moulded white fibre glass holding cabin, referred to by the cops as "Ice Cream vans", the suspension a little less rough, the seats no less hard. No clanking steel door noise, but the roar of the air conditioning was just as deafening.
And so i was delivered to Lake Cowal protest camp and there Happy Wheels awaited me, brought in by my fellow eco activists.
First to greet me was the beautiful Charisse Venables, walking towards me with a smile and arms reaching to hug. Home is where the heart is.
Only part of the protest crew was in camp when we arrived, others came in car loads from Condobolin where Mia Pepper had hired the swimming pool for the day and opened it to local kids. It was an exercise in building community relations with the Wiradjuri there .Uncle Chappie Williams had attended and supported her.
Percy Knight had his name to a letter published in a recent Condobolin weekly paper condemning the protests. Percy is the chairman of the faction who signed off for the Mine and, in a deal kept secret from the community generally, accepted its money.
Money in the bank, Percy Knight's group dropped its Native Title claim on the crown reserve upon which the pit was dug and now Chappie's Mooka-Kalara Families group is the only legitimate claimant.
It was on this basis that Chappie served a notice to quit on Peter Munk, the Chairman of Barrick Gold at the AGM in Toronto last year.
But the divisiveness created by the Mine, its grasping for gold and its bribery, weighs heavily on Chappie who cops flak from the families of those accepting the money.
So it was a good tactic of Mia's to be building community relations in Condobolin.
But it had an unexpected result. Thanks to the Telstra service provided for the Mine, the protest camp 2 km away had excellent mobile phone reception, whereas the poor town of Condobolin has poor reception and in the area of the pool none.
Thus it was that Nat Lowery, our media liaison back in the Blue Mountains, was unable to make contact with Mia at the critical time when she needed to confirm a media release about our proposed action.
Chappie and Ellie Gilbert had done a fly over the Mine on the previous Thursday with photographer, Damian Baker, to record its evolution. The flight and the photos had revealed a huge cave in of the pit wall maybe 300 meters across.
The protesters spent a good part of the night planning a walk on aimed at focussing media attention on the cave in and the implication of faulty engineering. A reconnaissance patrol went out in the night to explore the access. And again at dawn the next day with cameras.
All this on the assumption that Nat had organised media to come for she had been talking about having interest of an ABC News and Current Affairs helicopter.
Next morning, Easter Sunday, rain came in and we huddled under a makeshift kitchen shelter waiting for it to pass. When it became clear that no media was to be expected, there was a bit of a let down.
But we decided to go to the gates anyway and do some "creative haranguing".
We also decided to light the sacred fire and do a smoking ceremony before we left.
We stood in the rain together and struggled to light the fire with wet tinder. It took time and cooperative effort and I reflected that this was what it was like starting up the Lake Cowal campaign which now goes from strength to strength.
The camp fire circle of the night before had been so sweet, beautiful people, beautiful music and the talk revealed deep commitment to campaign, new networks of support opening up.
We were not have been able to stop the start up of the Mine but the commitment is there to stay with the campaign to the bitter and toxic end of the Mine and bear relentless witness to the extent and cost of the environmental disaster done by it at Lake Cowal.
Along the way, and by collaborating with other groups protesting the cyanide crimes of Barrick Gold in other countries, we may rein in Barrick as a corporation and even bring it down. And maybe the corrupt NSW Labor government too. May it be so.
But right now we are fleas biting an elephant. But we could sense the elephant twitching with discomfort.
Compared to the 24/7 roar of the year's previous, the Mine site was quiet. Few were the vehicles passing the protest camp, no rush of vehicles and mini buses accompanying shift change.
And so it dawned on us that we didn't have to invade the site to stop the Mine. No need to get arrested and deal with the hassles that follow. The Mine had slowed, if not stopped, in anticipation of our protest.
The bail conditions required that i appear in West Wyalong court on the following Thursday so after my comrades had departed i stayed in the protest camp for another couple of days enjoying the solitude, the quiet of that country and doing a bit of wordsmithing on my laptop.
The mini buses of mine workers would wave and toot as the passed, but no one came to disturb my camp.
On Easter Monday I reflected on our actions and decided to do some follow up media by ringing ABC Radio Riverina and leaving a message on their news line: "20 protestors, no arrests, mine stopped".
Moira, the news reporter, rang back early Tuesday morning and got some comment.
Her question to me was: "Why are you doing this? Why do you keep coming back now the Mine is operating."
My response was to the effect that we wanted to bear witness to the very end and prevent any extension of the Mine.
The report went out across south central NSW that morning.
It must have riled the Mine's PR flak, Bill Shallvey, because he responded by denying that the mine had been stopped and when pressed, he revealed that, yes indeed, the Mine had an expansion proposal before the NSW Minister for Planning which will almost double area of the pit from 70 ha to 130 ha, extend the life of the mine from 13 years to 20 years and offer another local 40 jobs.
The West Wyalong Mayor was soon singing in praise suggesting West Wyalong is the envy of rural NSW.
But no mention was made of the environmental costs in terms of mega litres of water used, thousands of tonnes of cyanide transported, millions of tonnes of waste rock piled up, the hundreds of thousands of CO2 released into the atmosphere and the long term toxic consequences of the tailings that will accumulate.
Our witness had revealed, a secret deal in the making.
The Mine was completing its second year of operation and two major changes had been sought to the conditions with which the NSW Government had approved its start up.
The previous year it had sought and been given approval without question to pump water from the Lachlan River (this in a time of severe drought) and this year it was seeking to near double the pit size and the life of the mine by over half.
So much for the long negotiated consent conditions. They can only be high sounding but empty promises when the government monitoring and enforcing them is corrupt, a courtier of the corporations and staffed by a managerial culture that is of the corporations and for the corporations.
The inverter changing my laptop drained the battery of Happy Wheels and I was obliged to walk to the nearest house to ask for help. This was on a property named Coniston and owned by Andrew Buttenshaw whom I had met when I first came to Lake Cowal in 2002.
As i walked up the driveway i contemplated how desolate the drought had made the land and how few people it supported in residence, possibly fewer now about Lake Cowal than when the Wiradjuri ruled the land.
Andrew responded to my request for help with prompt country kindness, drove me to my camp and gave Happy Wheels a jump start.
I asked how he felt about the Mine.
He replied with admirable equanimity that as with most things in life it, had brought good things and bad things.
The good things he listed were an improved road between West Wyalong and Coniston and improved medical facilities in the town. The bad things were the forever eye sore of the rock bunds and the ever present noise.
Of the Lake Cowal Foundation, which was set up with an $800,000 start up gift from the Mine and upon which he serves as a Board member, he said it was doing good work advising local farmers on water management and dry land agriculture.
We talked at length standing by our idling vehicles speculating what Peak Oil would mean for agriculture in the district.
I so much liked his long view laconic manner that I invited him to come meet and talk to the activist who next year come to Lake Cowal.
At the West Wyalong court on Thursday 27 March there was a crowd of offenders gathered and when i asked why so many, I was told variously "we're a bad town" and "tough cops."
Most of the offenses were drunk driving, domestic violence and broken bail conditions.
I sought out the Duty Solicitor, one Steve Grock. He asked me how the charge had arisen and when I explained that it followed a successful protest action on Easter Sunday last year, he interrupted me to ask: "What you mean successful?"
"We stopped the Mine for the day," I replied.
He threw himself back in his chair and retorted with words to the effect, "You and the cocky half arsed students who were in here last year."
"I'll tell you something. The Mine has the right to sue you all for lost production time and when they do, you will lose everything including that van of yours outside."
And this man was going to represent me in Court? No way. I reached out and seized my papers from the desk in front of him with such vehemence that he stopped speaking, his mouth agape, saying nothing i left the room.
In the Court the magistrate was perfunctory: $300 fine, $70 costs and 28 days to pay.
So much for my day in court. I was pleased to be on the road again.
written 28 March - 7 April 2008