Peacebus @ Pine Gap

Here is Peacebus parked across the gates of Joint (not!) Defence (not!) Facility, Pine Gap,, in Central Australia on 7 September 2020.

In far away London, my favourite Australian hero, Julian Assange, is in the Old Bailee facing extradition to the national security state dungeons of Virginia, USA.

On the Peacebus PA, and playing painfully loud, is the latest version of the Pine Gap Lament now known as the Drone Lament (Demons from Hell) with lyrics and music by Peace Pilgrims, Franz Dowling and Margaret Pestorius.

In 2016 Margaret, Franz and three others trespassed onto Pine Gap to play a lament at dawn within sight of the radomes of the US communications base. They were soon arrested, charged and in the next year endured a trial in which they were facing seven years in jail.

A book about that protest and others at Pine Gap, and the trials of the protesters, was recently published by Kieran Finnane. It is called Peace Crimes - Pine Gap, National Security and Dissent.

Kieran is an Alice Springs based journalist. She and her husband, Erwin Chlanda, publish Alice Springs News on line.

Lively writing, i had been reading and re-reading Peace Crimes in the night. My waking dream was about it and when i opened my laptop, there was the latest version of the Peace Pilgrims' Lament with lyrics by Franz and haunting viola by Margie.

While tears ran and my chest ached, my eyes were drawn from the screen by the arrival of my mate, Damo, who rocked up to my camp on his postie bike and approached me wild eyed with moral urgency. "Julian Assange is on trial in London today. Get that #FreeAssange signage out there."

If all these coincidences were not a call to action by the God of the Prophets, what was?

Full tilt now, Peacebus with its #FreeAssange mural readied for action. We moved cables and got the PA playing the Drone Lament as we barrelled down the Stuart Hiighway to War Criminals Way, aka Hatt Road, and the gates of Pine Gap 16 km away.

Damo in the passenger seat, alarmed at my haste and multitasking, urged me to stay on the road. Excited too because for him it was his first visit to Pine Gap.

The previous time for me there had been lots of protesters and uniformed police. As we pull up, no one to be seen and no base traffic either.

A crazy idea arises that the US war criminals had packed their bags and gone home and that the spy base had become a high-tech ruin of the kind one reads about in Ray Bradbury stories.

But no, not yet at least. Two AFP guards emerge and beckon me to the security fence, to go close so that they can speak over the din of the Drone Lament.

"Hang about," they say. "The bosses are coming down. They want to speak to you."

It is Inspector Ken Napier, head of base security, and his 2IC Simon Ingham. Full uniforms and grins.

"Good to see you, Graeme. We have been expecting you."

How about that? Peacebus welcomed to Pine Gap.

I explain the significance of the music and he asks me to move Peacebus off the road.

"You can park over there," he says pointing to the other side of the crash rails by the gate, "And stay all day if you want."

I comply but first up email him the YouTube link for The Drone Lament and turn down the PA.

Ken and i had met again in the days before in the park across the road from the Alice Springs court.

Peacebus was there with the #FreeAssange mural on Peacebus covered with a "Justice for Walker" banner. It was parked on the lawns in support of the witness of the grieving Warlpari famiiy of Kumanjayi Walker, the 19 year old, shot dead by NT Constable Zachary Rolfe at Yuendemu last November.

On my knees rigging the Redtail Black Cockie flags, Ken approaches me in the company of the smiling Sgt Terry Simpson, the police l iaison for the event. Ken kneels to greet me.

Respect! And painful for him for his knees are stiffer than mine. But I was soon up and gabbing.

Ken and I both have talking parts in the Peace Crimes book and i am eager to hear if he had read it. Yes, he has and like me marvels at the research and the engaging writing style.

But the desert sun beats down on us.

"Let's meet for coffee in Alice and talk more tomorrow," says i. "We got spruiking to do for Julian today."

With Damo driving, we cruise the CBD of Alice with the PA booming. "Julian Assange, Julian Assange. Australian hero, persecuted for telling the truth about US war crimes. Give him a thought. Give him a prayer. Bring him home."

The Peacebus and its #FreeAssange signage is no new sight in Alice for it had been in town driving about for a month as part of the Green NT election campaign. But the PA in the CBD startles and, from the looks i saw on the faces of the Aboriginal children, who likely had come to town from some remote, red dust community, it mystifies.

A police patrol van pulls in behind and trails us close behind for a block. No flashing lights come on and it is soon gone. I guess that the crew had radioed in and had been assured. Soon enough we tire and retire to camp.

Next day i meet Ken and Simon at the Red Dog Cafe in Todd Mall. Civvies this time. I have invited Kieran Finnane and she arrives bright eyed, grey haired and elegant. Peacebus companion, Shahnaz Martin, also joins us.

We order coffee and move our table into the shade. Our conversation goes for about 90 minutes. Ken does most of the talking. He has been with the Australian Federal Police at Pine Gap for over 25 years and has been part of all the major protests there.

Likewise Kieran, but she as a journalist. They recall incidents and personalities.

Ken says how much he is enjoying her book. Almost finished.

Kieran asks if he has read the chapter about the trial in which his evidence giving is recorded. Yes, says Ken. "and i got to read for the first time the evidence which my AFP colleagues gave. Thank you."

The conversation drifts to Aboriginal sacred sites on Pine Gap. There is a long standing accusation that neither the US nor the Australian Government ever got permission from the Arrernte to be there.

Ken assures us that the AFP are assiduous in protecting and identifying special sites and that elders come every few years and are hosted to make inspections.

I prompt Ken and Simon to talk about other "sacred objects" held by the AFP at Pine Gap.

They speak of artefacts of protests past which they have collected, some hanging on the walls of the AFP mess. Simon recalls that he has a beautiful, Somerset Bean designed, "Secrets in the Centre" poster which i had given him after 2016.

"These artefacts are part of the story of Pine Gap, part of our history," they say, this in a land criss-crossed with story lines.

Story lines have story holders. No question that both Kieran Finnane and Ken Napier are now major story holders for Pine Gap.

Politeness and goodwill sometimes holds me back from morality questioning, about the consequences of the policies Ken helps implement. But it hovers and Kieran asks it.

Kieren asks Ken if the stuff about the base that's in the book had unsettled him? Ken was quite firm and sharp in saying "no".

Of Pine Gap he says he doesn't think about it. He says he likes to get a job done, go home, watch The Simpsons, laugh and go to sleep.

Ken as a can-do sort of guy, the boy from Oodnadatta, who grew up on the land, became an engineer and was the manager of the diesel plant which sealed the road from Port Augusta to Darwin - 2700 km - is admirable service by any standards.

During the week before Kieran had been in court covering the committal of Constable Zachary Rolfe. This had included repeated, frame by frame viewing of the evidence from the police body cameras of the shooting. Shahnaz turns to conversation to NT policing.

Rolfe is ex SAS and so too was another of the four man Immediate Response Team sent to Yuendemu to arrest Walker three days after Walker had evaded arrest by local police for breaching conditions of his suspended sentence, by chasing them away with a hatchet in hand.

The IRT cops had watched the body camera videos of the chase repeatedly.

The police evidence suggests that Rolfe and his copper mates ignored and over rode the softly-softly arrest plan of the local cops and went into hunter-killer mode.

Rather than wait for a 5am arrest as agreed, they went house searching. (Here one needs to be aware that the Intervention has stripped indigenous people of any protections such as search warrants from house invasions by cops.)

The modern militarisation of policing in the NT is vivid in this narrative but killer cops with guns are a central to the story of white settlement in Central Australia.

After the shooting, the Yuendemu elders had asked the NT Police to respect their grief not to bring guns. They were ignored.

The NT Police responded wth a show of force. They had sent in cops with guns including assault rifles to patrol Yuendemu before they let in any health and welfare workers.

Shahnaz like Kieran had sat through three days of police evidence and had come away deeply disturbed. From her bottom up, brown skin view of the world, the Immediate Response Team would be more accurately named the "Intervention Response Team".

In court they had heard that, at close range maybe 150 mm or less, Rolfe had fired his Glock into the body of the prone and restrained Walker three times. Three spaced shots with 2.7 seconds the between the first and the second.

Kieran had reported in the Alice Springs News that expert witness Detective Senior Sergeant Andrew Barram of the NT Police Professional Standards Committee, had said that the first shot "may have been justifiableÓ but not the second and third. That Rolfe had time to make other choices and did not.

"How many ex SAS are employed in NT policing?" Shahnaz begins. "What protections do we have from traumatised Afghan war vets".

Ken and Simon tell us the PTSD is a major concern of the AFP and there are lots of screenings for it. They understand that it arises from trauma in policing as well as military service, and that it can manifest without warning years after the traumatising event.

Shahnaz says she knows a few traumatised Afghan vets and is cynical about screening procedures. "They know the questions and also the answers to give," she says.

And there our conversation ends. Time was up. But goodwill had prevailed and many insights had been shared. How extraordinary that we could meet so. Only in Alice ...

Kieran had asked earlier how it is possible to meet with police and plan protests which will include illegal acts such as trespass. The question had been overtaken by another but i had wanted to respond and waited till after our AFP friends had departed.

"Respect is the key," i say. "It is to be understood that in planning a protest action, police will have secrets and so too do protesters.

But the prime outcome being sought from peaceful protest organising is enduring respectful relationships.

"This is a core teaching of viola playing Peace Pilgrim, Margaret Pestorius." i say. St Margie of Manunda. May she be praised.

Graeme Dunstan
9 September 2020 homepage

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