Desert Peace Protest - October 5-7, 2002
A successful and highly publicised demonstration was held over the weekend of October 5-7, 2002 at the gates of the US war base at Pine Gap near Alice Springs, Northern Territory.
The Anti-Bases Campaign decided that an action was needed at Pine Gap over two years ago. We are delighted that so many other groups and individuals participated in the planning and organization of the action which we believe has taken the anti-war and anti-bases movement a huge step forward.
The message of the three day action was clear: that the Pine Gap base is being used now and will be used for any US war against Iraq and its presence in Australia is unacceptable.
With the role of the base exposed, the next step is to get it closed and we must encourage the Australian people to speak out and to act so that ultimately the base will not be permitted to remain in Australia.
In the week leading up to demonstration, people began gathering and preparing the Bush Camp. The police and local authorities were not co-operative and insurance issues were used to try to close the Bush Camp down. This prevented or delayed some camp infrastructure preparations, but it did not dampen our spirits or determination that Bush Camp would exist.
By late afternoon on Friday, October 4 the numbers at the camp had grown to such an extent that the police were not able to move such a big crowd.
The first day began with a meeting of all participants and planning for the day's activities. There were medical and legal briefings, banner and puppet making, and non-violence training.
At 1pm, led by the Raging Grannies, we moved down to the gates at Pine Gap through various police checkpoints. The first barrier, about 1.8 km from the base gates, prevented all vehicles (except police and media) from going further. Later police lines stopped and searched activists as they moved between the barrier and the base gates.
By this time the crowd had swelled to over 500 - about 400 from all around Australia together with a wonderful contingent of about 100 supporters from Alice Springs.
The police presence was very large, indicating how important Pine Gap is to the US and Australian Governments. Other security measures including a massive new fence and helicopters showed that no expense was being spared to protect their war-fighting asset.
Undaunted by all this, the anti-war people continued with their program. The Raging Grannies and some lively and entertaining street theatre set the tone, and then Denis Doherty, Co-ordinator of Australian Anti-Bases Campaign, welcomed the protesters to this most horrible site. He then introduced the speakers.
Bill Sulzman, our international guest from the Global Network Against Weapons and Nuclear Power in Space mentioned that we were not alone in our fight for anti-war demonstrations, co-ordinated by the Global Network, were taking place simultaneously in over 100 cities around the world.
The other speakers were Jacob Grech from OZPEACE in Melbourne (Jacob had been instrumental in preparing a lot of the groundwork at Alice Springs, as well as coordinating the Melbourne participants), Giz Watson, Green Senator in the West Australian Parliament, Gareth Smith, prominent peace activist formerly from Canberra Program for Peace and now working in northern NSW, and Jo Vallentine, former Nuclear Disarmament Party Federal Senator from WA.
Finally Felicity recited a poem and Anne sang a song.
Toward the end of the speeches, a disturbance happened when police deliberately provoked some demonstrators. Many people went to the assistance of a few young activists who were being brutally manhandled by police.
When the paddy wagons finally left with their load of "criminals" whose only crime is loving and acting for peace, the crowd withdrew to find shelter and shade. By now we were out in the open at the hottest part of the day and conditions were extremely taxing for the protesters.
Police later charged four people with various offences including, amazingly carrying an offensive weapon. These were water bombs! One wit asked for equality in sentencing: our water bombs compared to the US Government's massive arsenal, including many thousands of weapons of mass destruction.
When the day became cooler, the focus of protest moved from the base gates to the buses that were bringing in the shift changes every eight hours. During Saturday evening there was one blockade of the procession of police cars and coaches full of base staff. This small blockade became the first of many, growing in size, organization and determination.
The Northern Territory police and Australian Protective Service personnel were brought out in a show of overwhelming force, using US style paramilitary techniques of crowd control.
That night participants relaxed at a concert at Bush Camp, with bands from Alice Springs providing the music together with other groups who had traveled to the actions from different parts of the country.
Day 2 started with a blockade of the buses by people from the Bush Camp. It was lifted quickly as the police came in with massive force.
The main actions of the day took place at the Pine Gap gates and, learning from previous day, we arrived early before the heat of the day set in.
Events began with an ecumenical service at the gates led by a Uniting Church Minister from Adelaide. Many people expressed their appreciation, saying how appropriate and how moving the service was.
At the end of the service, the minister put his purple vestment on the fence of base. Purple in the Christian tradition represents sorrow, penitence, and mourning. Within seconds, the beautiful small vestment was torn down by a detachment of police.
An act of civil disobedience was the next event. Called "the necessity action", three peace activists stepped up to the main line of police at the gates and insisted that they intended to enter the base.
The three activists - Dr Hannah Middleton, Stop Star Wars campaigner for the Australian Anti-Bases Campaign Coalition (AABCC), Jim Dowling of the Brisbane Catholic Worker, and Denis Doherty, AABCC National Co-ordinator - stated: "We undertake this action, breaking a smaller law for a greater good, convinced of the imminent threat to the lives of at least 100,000 Iraqi civilian men, women and children in the event of an attack on Iraq in which this United States base at Pine Gap will play an indispensable role." They also carried with them documentary evidence of Pine Gap's complicity in war against Iraq.
The three pushed forward and the police reacted with pushing and shoving. The police pulled one metre back and the three moved forward again. Again pushing and shoving started but the three did not moved and refused to move when ordered to do so. When the two men were knocked to the ground, the police also kicked them.
Eventually a standoff developed with Hannah standing barely centimetres from the faces of the police and the others sprawled on the ground, leaning against the legs of the police. This went on for about 2 hours with other protesters supporting the three, singing to them, drumming, and supplying them with fruit and water.
At one stage they were joined by "storm trooper" puppets who came through the crowd to the music from Star Wars. The police started shoving them away when they got too close to the line but the storm troopers insisted that "we're here to help you". Apparently the police did not appreciate this help.
A large contingent of about 100 people from Alice Springs came out to the demonstration and drew cheers from the crowd when they began chanting: "locals against Pine Gap!!"
Shortly after this theatre, Federal Green Senator Kerry Nettle arrived at the gates of Pine Gap and, with the three activists sprawled/standing behind her, made a statement of support for the protest and for no Australian involvement in a war against Iraq.
It became clear that the police would not allow the three activists through their lines and also would not arrest them. With the Medical Association for the Prevention of War (MAPW) scheduled to arrive at the gates, the three ended their action, vowing continue their struggle against Pine Gap into the future.
The MAPW contingent arrived with much noise and colour. They presented a petition for no war on Iraq and demanded that the petition be handed to the base commander. The main theme of their contribution was that rather than have to deal with consequences of war, they want to prevent war! They emphasized that there is no cure for nuclear war, only prevention. They received a warm and enthusiastic response from all the other activists at the gates.
Senator Lyn Alison, Deputy Leader of the Democrats, was then introduced and she also delivered a statement of support for the demonstration. She demanded more openness about what Pine Gap does and why it is here.
Meanwhile all around the speakers and through the crowd there was much colour and music. Huge puppets of a fly and skeletons were waltzing through the anti-war activists while an emu puppet delighted many of the participants, especially the younger ones.
The Democrats appearance was the last event at the gates that morning. As the heat and wind gusts increased, participants withdrew to Bush Camp and Town Camp.
Later that day another blockade occurred near Bush Camp which was on the corner of Hatt Road and the Stuart Highway, some 10 kilometres from the gates of Pine Gap. The police aggressively broke up this blockade
On Sunday night a number of protesters broke into the base and reached the radomes which they filmed. Five were arrested in the early hours of Monday morning and all their photographic equipment was confiscated. The equipment was returned with the film or images missing. At last report this group was not charged even though they claimed they posted a banner on the inner perimeter of the base seven kilometres inside the base. There is speculation that they may never be charged since this would involve an admission that base security had been breached.
Meanwhile at Bush Camp the 'space ship' was launched - a huge contraption looking like a spaceship, with music and flashing lights, and powered by an old fire engine. Later in the early hours of Monday morning it was driven out onto Hatt Road and became part of another blockade of a shift change. A hessian barrier was erected, activists locked down and others danced in front of them.
The police responded violently. One group of brave boys armed with shields charged the young people who were dancing and bashed many of them. Other police broke the lockdown and threw activists off the road. The space ship was smashed and the fire truck's steering wheel was broken off.
There were five arrests and one person was taken away in an ambulance. The news as we left Alice was that this person was now quite OK.
A parade through Alice Springs was planned for the third and last day of the protest.
As people gathered on the small park in front of Alice Spring's Council chambers, they watched the Great Anti-Bases Tennis Match staged by the Sydney crew. On one side there was the big evil Bush supported by the brown noses (John Howard and Alexander Downer), protecting a large silver radome with tennis racquets. One the other side were the people, "armed" with tennis balls. Dismissed by one person as a "bunch of uneducated mung beans", nevertheless the people won! The radome was destroyed and the US-Australia military alliance was over.
After this, the march started. It wound its way slowly through the mall where a number of groups of local people clapped and called out encouragement and support.
The parade then turned left into Parsons Street, bring about 300 people to the front of the courthouse. At that moment orders were issued to evacuate the courthouse because police apparently feared we would invade the place!
The arrestees from our protest group were outside the court. This was an ideal time for an impromptu press conference and speeches condemning Australia's involvement in the US base at Pine Gap. The assembled crowd chanted "Put John Howard on trial not the protesters!"
When all who wanted to speak had spoken, the march moved off to the town facility for Pine Gap. This is a large block of land near the town center containing a huge warehouse and parking for over a dozen buses and some 40 tradesmen's vehicles. Normally a bustling center, it was completely deserted except for the usual ring of police inside and outside looking annoyed and tightly under control.
This was the venue for the final act of the demonstration with speakers including Denis Doherty for the AABCC, Bill Sulzman for the Global Network against Weapons and Nuclear Power in Space, Hannah Middleton for the AABCC, and Matt Skellern for National Union of Students.
After some announcements, there was a final shout of "Close Pine Gap" and a promise that we will be back in bigger and bigger numbers until it was closed.
The protest was over, and amid farewell hugs and exchanging addresses, most participants started heading back home to continue activity against the bases and against the war from their respective states.
There can nothing but praise for all the participants and supporters who were at Alice Springs over the days October 5 to 7. They had endured long trips in coaches, the weather was definitely not kind - it was extremely hot on the first day and hot and windy on the second day. Many suffered in those conditions but the good humour and unity continued and the courage and determination never failed.