Swan Island Protestors face Court again. Another victory!
Relections by Jessica Morrison on the Geelong court appearance
of the Swan Island Nine, 29 November 2010
It was over five months ago, in the depth of a chilly Victorian winter day that about forty people gathered in front of the Swan Island military base. They had just been to court and witnessed four activists have their charges of trespassing onto the base be dismissed by a Magistrate. The group sang songs; chalked the footpath with messages for peace; spoke to an aid worker in Afghanistan; heard from an ex-serviceperson; and then held a die in.
At the end of the die-in, nine activists refused to get off the road. After some time they were arrested and taken to the local police station where they were questioned and released without charge.
It has taken five months and two adjournments for the police to have gathered the very basic paperwork for today's hearing. Why it took so long was a mystery until we realised we had almost 9 different informants, with officers based at as diverse locations as Neighbourhood Watch and Liquor Licensing -
clearly they weren't expecting to be arresting officers on the day!
The police chose to charge us with both Hindering Police and Obstructing a Road -
a fairly heavy handed response for sitting on a road. We'd attempted to negotiate with police to drop the Hinder charge, but they wouldn't be moved. They had expended 300 '
man hours' (their description - not very PC of them) on the day of our arrests, and they weren't letting anything go.
So on the morning of Monday 29 November, nine of us gathered, supported by local Unionists, Socialists and Church Ministers; as well as family and friends. Graeme Dunstan's famous Peacebus.com amplified our speak-out across the streets.
By 10.30am we were being called into court to face a new magistrate, Magistrate Carlin, a friendly looking woman who seemed ready to listen.
We began by indicating that while we were pleading guilty, this was mostly due to logistical concerns. We noted that we do not think what we did was wrong, but that we came to face the consequences of our actions before the law.
The police read out their brief of evidence, which included the defendants presence at the court hearing of the original action, the dismissal of the charges and their journey to Swan Island. Whoa a minute...said the magistrate (well that's not a quote)...in response to the dismissal of charges.
"Do the defendants mind if I get a photocopy of this brief so I don't have to make notes?"
the Magistrates asked….Already encouraged that she was paying such close attention, we did not object to the polite request! The brief included some inaccuracies -
that we linked arms (there was some brief snuggling at the gate -
the freezing cold wind was biting- but that was all); and that we'd given police undertaking that we'd all move off the road (yeh right!).
She said that she found the charges proved.
We then moved into sentencing statement.
I respectfully submitted that the offences of the day were similar to that of the previous actions, and that she may consider Section 19B once again. I indicated that we stand today in the tradition of civil disobedience, quoting Martin Luther King Junior"
One who breaks an unjust law must do so openly, lovingly and with a willingness to pay the penalty. I submit that such an individual is, in fact, expressing the highest respect for the law"
(thanks to Jake for bringing that quote to court last time, and for Simon Moyle for hastily scribbling it out!)
I read my statement, quoting Amin Saikal and Malalai Joya, and then sat down. However the Magistrate wanted to question me about my actions. She asked whether our actions were aimed at publicity. I replied that my primary goal was not publicity, that the voice of the Afghanis, not mine needed to be prominent. But that I was seeking to disrupt our war making. She said that I'd gone back to Swan Island straight after my previous court case, that I can't keep expecting leniency.
"How long will you keep doing this?" she asked. I swallowed. It became a moment for me of crossing over. Of indicating, openly, to the law that I intended to keep breaking its edicts. There is always a powerful moment in this crossing over, of choosing to hold to ones own truth, when you know it puts you in conflict with the powers that be. So I indicated that I would continue to break the law until the unjust laws stopped - that because this war was so central to my life, and our country, that I intended to keep going. I breathed. And felt liberated.
Trent Hawkins got up and detailed the great achievements we've made as a group this year -
our vigils, the 9th Anniversary rally, the submissions to the Afghanistan Parliamentary debate that was used by Adam Bandt, and the recent vigil and die-in with Malalai Joya. He shared our intentions to keep on with these actions.
Shane Anderson spoke about his journey as a father, and the significance of watching each milestone of his children. He then went on to emotionally compare this with parents who loose their children to this war in Afghanistan, and children who loose their parents.
Julie Moyle shared that she is not a troublemaker, public speaker, attention seeker (not sure if I could have made this statement!); that she's an ordinary mother, mid-wife and Minister's wife. She shared her journey about why she can no longer choose to ignore the war, but instead must choose to be involved.
Dave Fagg talked about Jesus, and his call to follow the prophets who spoke out against injustice and war. The call to love his enemies. His desire for an active democracy where people continue to be involved between elections.
Ellen McNaught noted the lies about this Afghanistan war. That it hasn't liberated women, but instead increased the rape, increased the human trafficking, increased the suffering. She cannot see that this war is bringing any compassion.
Leesl Wegner talked about her work and her journey with asylum seekers. About what it means to acknowledge our sameness with these people. She noted that when we recognise our shared humanity, it becomes much more difficult to bomb people.
Mitch Cherry talked about how it is our Government in this war, our money that is being spent for this war. That this war is reflecting badly on us as citizens and it is incumbent on us to act against us.
Tom Beattie shared about his active involvement in Socialist Alliance and Resistance. That he wants us out of Afghanistan and that's why he had to act.
And then we were done speaking.
The Magistrate asked the Prosecution whether they had anything to add to sentencing. The Prosecutor asked for a harsher sentence for me, as I'd shown a blatant disregard for the law, and had encouraged others to break the law. Dave was up on his feet in an instant -
indicating that the others had made their own choice to break the law, and hadn't been encouraged by me (that's activists ... feisty and self-authorised!).
We waited those long, painful moments as the Magistrate waded through legislation; shuffled papers; looked at her computer. Waited.
When she began speaking again, she noted that in sentencing there are numerous factors that she must consider. She noted that in this case, she was convinced that all of the people acted with "consciencious and heartfelt effort". I am satisfied that everyone has a respect for the law ... but felt a greater duty to do what they can to stop war, and persuade the Government to stop war and are prepared to accept the consequences.
She stated that all but the two younger ones had showed that they are worthwhile members of the community who contribute to society. In response to the gasps of surprise she quickly sought to clarify her comments that the two younger ones, both students, hadn't yet had an opportunity to show this track record. It was as if she was indicating that she expected them, with what they had said today, to be great citizens.
She went on to say"I take into account the guilty plea ... I take into account that it was a nonviolent protest. It caused inconvenience but no harm…that you conscientiously object to war ... that one of you stated you feel disempowered by the Government's response, and that this has been a motivating factor.
And I breathed ... waiting for the 'but' factors.
Her next comment was "that weighing up all considerations, I find it inappropriate to record a conviction for any of you". For 8 of us she said that she would dismiss the charges. Dismiss the charges!!!! This is much more than not recording a conviction - its throwing the charges out...not because they aren't proven...but because she can let them go. A second Magistrate who thinks the most appropriate thing to do with protestors is to dismiss their charges - amazing!
Then she asked me to stand up.
"I doubt there is anything I can do to deter you from continuing your actions," she said. I smiled in agreement.
"However, I must consider general deterrent."
She said that her options are a fine, or a Good Behaviour Bond. Noting that the fine goes into general revenue, and therefore the Government may choose to spend it on war, she indicated that a Good Behaviour Bond of a month might be appropriate. She said she wasn't sure of my plans for that afternoon. I indicated that I would be happy to accept a one month good behaviour bond!
I would like to thank Magistrate Carlin the perspective she took of our actions that day.
I'd like to thank our families who attended court, even though they might not be convinced of our strategies. I'd like to thank friends who gave up their time to support us. I'd like to thank those in court, and elsewhere, who texted, tweeted, facebooked, e-mailed and talked about what happened today.
It was indeed a special day where our actions appeared vindicated.
I think it sends a very strong signal that citizens should feel empowered to act against the Afghanistan war -
which is, indeed, horrendous.