Swan Island peace protestors back in court July 27th: results and court statements

Another chilly morning in Geelong on July 27th, with 30 people coming along to join the 3 defendants in court. We had some pre-court reflections in the park opposite the court, sharing reflections of the Peace Convergence, and some inspiring words from heroes of the movement (Jesus scored a mention or 2). We then processed to court with some standing out the front, and others joining the wait inside the court.

Thanks to the Geelong activist crew, family, and Melbourne friends family and activists for joining us.

Jess and Olivia were up for a obstruct traffic and hinder police for blocking the road on Thursday, Simon and Jess were up for trespass for climbing the bridge on Friday morning. Olivia and Jess went into pre-court conferencing to try and get the hinder charge dropped, but no cigar!

We faced Magistrate Saines, the Magistrate that we had the first time we went in front of for the first action in June last year. He didn’t seem to be in a particularly chatty mood. Olivia was first up and got cut off near the end of her statement (see below for statements) — I get your views of the war, he intimated, let’s talk about your circumstances. Jess and and Simon were able to scrape through their statements about themselves and their decisions to keep offending against this war.

The penalties, given the context, were modest. We were all given convictions for our offences. Olivia had no penalty; Simon $400 and Jess $650 … look out for the e-mail/facebook post inviting you to chip in money!!

As we exited the court the three policemen who were posted to look after our group were arguing about the Afghanistan war — and surely this is part of what its all about … keep talking crew … this war must stop!

Olivia’s statement

I wish first to acknowledge the traditional owners of this land, the Wathaurong people of the Kulin Nation, and to pay my respects to their elders, past and present.

To briefly introduce myself, your honour, my name is Olivia. I spent 10 years training and practising as a registered psychologist, working primarily with asylum seekers and refugee survivors of torture, trauma and war from dozens of countries around the world. I worked for the Australian Red Cross, the Victorian Foundation for Survivors of Torture and, in London, the Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture. I have since given up psychological practice in favour of human rights advocacy and have spent about 10 years working in human rights: in research, writing, teaching and campaigning. I hold a first-class Masters degree in human rights from the University of London and I’m now undertaking doctoral research at the Castan Centre for Human Rights Law. Part of my present research involves interviewing Afghan refugees.

As a human rights advocate, I spend a great deal of my time focussing on all that’s wrong with the world, on injustice and human suffering, and what can be done about them. War violates just about every human right. In Afghanistan, people’s rights to food, water, shelter, health and education, among many others are being violated every day, and I believe this war is making it worse and cannot be defended. So what to do about it?

Civil disobedience has a long and proud history, frequently associated with the human rights struggles led by Gandhi and Martin Luther King. If I may quote your British colleague on the bench Lord Hoffman in R v Jones in 2006:

“My Lords, civil disobedience on conscientious grounds has a long and honourable history in this country. People who break the law to affirm their belief in the injustice of a law or government action are sometimes vindicated by history. The suffragettes are an example which comes immediately to mind. It is the mark of a civilised community that it can accommodate protests and demonstrations of this kind. But there are conventions which are generally accepted by the law-breakers on one side and the law-enforcers on the other. The protesters behave with a sense of proportion and do not cause excessive damage or inconvenience. And they vouch the sincerity of their beliefs by accepting the penalties imposed by the law. The police and prosecutors, on the other hand, behave with restraint and the magistrates impose sentences which take the conscientious motives of the protesters into account.”

Our actions at Swan Island were, I submit, acts of conscience. Deeply committed as we are to a philosophy of nonviolence, I believe we acted with the restraint Lord Hoffman describes.

These days, civil disobedience is most visible in the anti-war movement. And it is more common than we may realise. Since 9-11 there have been literally tens of thousands of arrests in the United States alone for acts of nonviolent resistance to war.

People who commit such acts of conscience are often asked whether they respect the law. As a human rights advocate, I have an enormous respect for the law. The rule of law is fundamental to human rights, as human rights are to the rule of law. I have no desire to break the law. Within our unshakeable commitment to nonviolence, we seek to find the best means at our disposal to end war. Gandhi might call it ‘experiments in truth’.

We blockaded the entrance to the Swan Island military base in the hope of disrupting preparations for war – a war waged on our behalf but without our consent or, I might add, that of the majority of Australians.

Australian SAS Special Forces are trained at Swan Island. Of the 1,550 Australian military personnel presently in Afghanistan, it is the SAS who engage in active combat. Hence our targeting of their training facility here in Victoria.

Our government claims we are in this war to inhibit terrorism and opium production in Afghanistan and to promote democracy. I dispute the premise that any of these things can be achieved by means of violence. War serves only to increase terrorism. Recourse to violence betrays a lack of imagination. There is no shortage of effective nonviolent solutions to conflict and terrorism.

Meanwhile, opium production in Afghanistan has not declined but increased during the course of this war. The war is not bringing freedom or food or education or democracy to the people of Afghanistan. It is destroying their means of subsistence – the orchards, farms, wells, irrigation systems and grain stores – and it is fuelling appalling rates of child malnutrition and poverty.

This war is impeding the capacity of Afghans to build an indigenous, democratic movement against the warlords and Taliban. If Australians are serious about rights, freedoms and democracy in Afghanistan, we should support Afghan grass-roots organisations working towards human rights, democracy, peace and development.

Our actions at Swan Island may seem small, relative to our goal of ending Australia’s participation in the war. But consider that civil society resistance to the military training at Swan Island began only in March last year, by 4 courageous citizens acting in conscience. This month over 50 people gathered at Swan Island sustaining a week of nonviolent protest. Imagine if a thousand men and women of conscience sat on that road, in utter nonviolence, contemplating the evils of war and saying no to the war, not in a poll, not to their television set, but by putting themselves in the path of war-making.

I thank you.

Jess’s statement

Good morning, your Honor.

Thank you for the chance to speak briefly about myself and the context of my actions on the 7th and 8th of July this year.

I am a 35 yr old social worker by profession. I take my responsibilities as a citizen very seriously, far too seriously many people in my life would say. I think deeply about my place in the world and the responsibilities that being a privileged, white woman might afford me. My work as a social worker exposed me to the many structural inequalities in our society, and spurred many questions about what I can do about this.

I now teach social work at Victoria University. I am also the carer of a 17yr old young woman, and share the care of a number of a number of children I know through my church community in Melbourne. I am an active part of a number of social justice movements, and have attended and organized countless rallies; petitions; submissions to Governments and public forums.

A number of us have been taking our inspiration from Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German theologian who wrestled with his place as a citizen under Nazi occupied Germany. He is the man that our Foreign Minister says he admires most in the 20th Century Bonhoeffer stated that when the state is doing unjust things, the church (he was a theologian after all!) must do three things. It must petition the state to do what is right, it must bandage those who are caught under the wheel of oppression, and thirdly it must jam the spokes of the wheels of oppression.

I spend much of my life doing the first two things. I care for many people who suffer in this world. I painstakingly attempt to shift our Government’s involvement in wars of aggression that are clearly doing so much more harm than good. And irregularly I do what I can to try and interfere in the machines of oppression.

This is the third time I face this court for attempting to directly disrupt the activities of the Swan Island facility. Swan Island trains the SAS troops who are one of most significant military involvements in Afghanistan.

Just after I faced court last year, I went on a trip to Afghanistan. I wanted to see the country for myself and listen to people in Afghanistan directly about their views about this war. I didn’t have to look far. The fear and poverty that surrounds all the people in Afghanistan is overwhelming. The people in progressive movements that I met with are clear: that our involvement in Afghanistan is fueling both hate and funding fundamentalists, and we must leave so they can start again.

Over 60% of Australians are citing in opinion polls that they want this war stopped. This war is using my tax dollars to support a corrupt government, elected by fraud and full of warlords which is enacting terror on its own people. The Afghan people are asking for an end to our military involvement, and I want to do what I can to help them. Our Government is not listening to the petitions of its people. In the context of this I think that civil disobedience is not only warranted, but standing in my own conscience, for me it is necessary. In thinking about my own place in Australian society, I often think about the people who have been the ‘safe’ citizens of other countries while their governments inflicted horrendous suffering on others. We are highly critical of them and wondered why they didn’t do something. We celebrate the actions of the anti-Vietnam movement – as they tried to stop the injustices of their times. I want to try and stop the ones in my time.

I am painfully aware that this week, in Norway, a man has chosen to break the law and cited his Christian convictions. I am deeply horrified by his act of violence, underscored by his hatred and fear of Muslim people. I wish to reinforce that our actions are underscored by the philosophy of Gandhi, who himself was inspired by Jesus, that we must never, ever, inflict violence on another, for any cause however noble. We choose to act nonviolently, to take any violence or consequences upon ourselves.

Simon’s statement

Thank you for this opportunity to speak. I am a Baptist church minister in a parish in Coburg, where we try to live simply and lovingly together, and I work for Urban Seed, an organisation in Melbourne’s CBD which provides hospitality and connection to homeless and other marginalised people. I’m married to Julie and we have three young kids. I did not take this step lightly.

I have been doing what I can to stand against this war for years now. We have signed petitions, written letters, held information nights, done public vigils and organised demonstrations. But in the face of a ten year war which according to our Prime Minister will go on for at least another ten years, I had to ask myself, is that all I am willing to do? Is stopping there an abdication of my responsibilities as a human being and certainly as a follower of Jesus?
Rev. Dr Martin Luther King Jnr

Rev. Dr Martin Luther King Jnr

As Martin Luther King Jr. once said,

“There is nothing wrong with a traffic law which says you have to stop for a red light. But when a fire is raging, the fire truck goes right through that red light, and normal traffic had better get out of the way. “

What is happening in Afghanistan is not just an emergency, it’s a full scale disaster.

War and violence cannot create the conditions of trust and cooperation that any country needs in order to be peaceful and secure. Only active nonviolent love has the capacity to transform the fear that lies behind wars and that is why we chose it as the means of our resistance. We were entirely open with the police and military about what we were going to do. That nonviolent discipline led to a significant relationship of trust being built with police over the week we were there.

Please understand this is not merely an intellectual or ideological exercise for me. Earlier this year I travelled to Afghanistan to spend time with the people there, and to understand what they want for their country. I spent time with with the Afghan Youth Peace Volunteers, a courageous group of Afghan nonviolent peacemakers. They are not only working to end the war, but to teach fellow Afghans and the world that the only way to peace is through actively loving those you oppose. And that means listening, and speaking truthfully, and acting truthfully, even when it might be controversial or costly. I have sat with 15 year old Abdulai who told me he spends every night crying at the trauma this war has caused him and his family, with 22 year old Faiz whose brother was murdered right in front of him. And I’ve sat with 15 year old Zikhrullah who lives with the daily terror of never knowing if a US helicopter gunship or unmanned aerial drone will come out of nowhere and kill him or his family. Afghans have had enough of violence and we continue to force it on them by our military presence there.

I believe any law which stands in the way of those who seek to end this war through nonviolent means is unjust, particularly after all legal means have been exhausted. I accept the penalty of that law willingly.

I went to Swan Island because it is one practical, identifiable part of the machinery behind this war. I climbed the fence and attempted to block the gate because it is one practical, identifiable way that I could put myself in the way of the war being conducted.

And so I’m guilty, not only of breaking this law but more importantly of not doing enough to end this war, not being at Swan Island every day, every week, every month until this war is over. Of that, I’m truly guilty.

I do need to be honest and say I cannot in good conscience pay a fine into the general fund, as that money may go towards paying for further military engagement. My family and I deliberately live a simple life, under the tax-free threshold in order to not pay for war. I also cannot honestly sign a good behaviour bond, as I would not want to give an undertaking I could not honestly keep. As long as this war goes on, I need to be free to resist it. I would, however, pay a fine to a charitable organisation, particularly one which is trying to help the Afghan people, such as the Red Cross or the Mahboba’s Promise orphanage, which I visited while in Afghanistan, if you deem that appropriate. But obviously I leave that in your hands.

I guess I’m saying is that, with respect, there is no deterrence value to any punishment you might give me. I intend to continue this course as long as war continues.