Margaret Pestorius

I have been involved with social change since discovering, as a young adult, the beauty of working together to oppose something big and unjust and having SUCCESS!

 

I was part of the Melbourne Rainforest Action Group [MRAG] at it’s height in 1989. We blockaded ships carrying Malaysian rainforest timber threatening the livelihoods and lives of the Indigenous Penan and the ecosystems they had nurtured and lived with.

 

We blockade timber ships at all times of the day and night. That’s what we did for a year.

 

I became committed to nonviolence and nonviolent action because as my mother sneeringly commented: I “like the power’ we feel when we take action – you bet!

 

And I knew it was successful. Because we were young, with no apparent position in society. But we could make a difference. We could get 4 channels covering us in the big city. And we severely reduced the amount of rainforest timber coming into the Ports of Australia that year and in the years following. We had learned the art of political disruption.

 

I went on to teach the techniques of nonviolence for wielding power in politics to others, always in the context of actions: Solidarity actions with the Gulf Peace Team; peace convergence actions at Nurrungar and Benalla small arms factory. Then in north Queensland with my husband Bryan Law: actions confronting US warship visits in our hometown of Cairns, and actions to conserve local infrastructure and stop dangerous and unnecessary development.

 

We were altruistic: we wanted to hold the tide of colonisation while Indigenous people built strength in their own ‘take back’ as they called it in Aurukun.

 

While I became a professional social worker and parented our son, Bryan went on to initiate and support others in various nonviolence campaigns. In 2005, fearing complicity in war crimes, with Christians Against ALL Terrorism, he entered to inspect Pine Gap  and led the legal arguments in the court case there with Jim Dowling, Adele Goldie and Donna Mulhearn. I sat through weeks of this court case while my 9 year old son ploughed through Harry Potter in the back of the courtroom.

 

During the 3 weeks of the case, we had a community of up to 50 people run three actions, three public meetings and three street theatre events. Each morning we would start with a prayer gathering and a procession through the streets of Alice Springs before court. Local interest was not high. Many Alice Springs people were busy supporting Aboriginal people to get strong. Peace was not high on their agenda despite the continued lengthening of Australia’s involvement in overseas US wars. We were – still are – in a state of permanent war. But in the court, the Pine Gap held the interest of the barristers, one each for the Commonwealth, Defence and for the Northern Territory and the jury who spent 5 hours considering whether they really should convict.

The Pine Gap 4 were ultimately acquitted on appeal. Like us #PineGapPilgrims in 2016, the Pine Gap 4 were charged under the Defence Special Undertakings Act. But during the court case, witnesses revealed details about operations at Pine Gap, confirming much of what we suspected.   ‘Signals’ are collected and transferred, complex digital information for war-making: satellite photos of troop movements throughout the world, photos of military installations, information for drone operations, for identifying targets for illegal and indiscriminate killing. We found how fences were alarmed and monitored.

 

The Pine Gap 4 used the “necessity defence” though it was disallowed by Judge Thomas before the jury was dismissed. They argued they had a serious belief that war-making was going on there and they they had a duty to investigate and stop serious war crimes because of imminent danger to civilians.

 

During the court case, Bryan had a heart attack. He didn’t really notice at the time, but over the next several years his health declined rapidly reducing his ability to run campaigns. So the end of the decade saw our focus swing more locally again to Queensland – regional Queensland. I am 5th generation Queenslander. Bryan was a Queenslander. There are many injustices here that that I was exploring on the ‘frontier’. I became a counsellor listening to the stories of Aboriginal people and European survivors of the frontier families. I was finding a horrible, unresolved legacy with roots in the Frontier Wars of this country. People were not able to heal the hurts of war because of the Frontier silence and the disgusting pretence of Queenslanders.

 

Our peace work focussed on assisting the campaigns run at the Rockhampton Peace Convergences: campaigns associated with the return of military land to Indigenous peoples in Australia and the Pacific; the campaigns urging Australia to distance itself from the US alliance; to withdraw from US wars that are not our business.

 

At Rockhampton we experimented with incursions into the training areas to disrupt the exercises as much as possible. In 2009, 3 different groups moved into the training area at Shoalwater Bay and took up residence camping, praying, thinking, walking, building community in the midst of war making. It seemed to me they were a sort of Queensland bush  ‘pilgrimage’ to a holy place in a time of darkness. The idea of  ‘peace pilgrims’ was thus born.

 

This work culminated in 2011 with Bryan damaging a Tiger attack helicopter during the exercises as they were parked on a Rockhampton air field. They were killing machines, built to shoot machine fire from air to kill people. He hit it with a single blow to the side using a garden mattock from my garden shed. Bryan experimented with a type of openness not usual in the ploughshares movement. It made everybody uneasy in case they were implicated. People were anxious about such an action but pleased and proud to be even vaguely associated with it after the fact. It was courageous and brave and significant. It disrupted the use of that helicopter for 9 months.

 

Bryan died before trial.

 

I spent some time recovering after his death figuring out what I wanted, what my role would be in the peace and environment movements without him driving me and choosing strategic targets and creative tactics. The Rocky Tiger Ploughshares action and his death were complicated and very much outside the mainstream of society: the world was gearing up for more war and, as I gradually noticed, increased climate destruction. I discovered the Labor government had built its largesse and federal military through destroying parts of my beloved Queensland. Coal was the new monster which had risen under our very noses.

 

Eventually I had a calling to lament.

 

Archbishop Coleridge writes on lament in his Lenten message just this year

 

“Come back to me with all your heart, fasting, weeping, mourning” (Joel 2:12)

 

… “words which echo one of the key themes of Scripture, the theme of lament.

 

Ancient Israel had to make sense of the blood, sweat and tears that so often marked their history; they had to learn to lament. So too do we personally and the Church as a whole. In a sense the Church is always in crisis, always under judgement – not only the judgement of the tribunals of this world but the judgement of God. That’s why we need to learn anew the art of lamentation which the Bible wants to teach us – especially perhaps in these days of Lent. That’s part of what it means to come back to God with all our heart.”

 

Though the Archbishop may be speaking to other events and different sordid activities of human oppression, to me the greatest crime is the militarisation of our planet forcing the greedy drive for resources. We must lament the frontier, the rise of capitalism, the harm done.

 

Through all this I have been a committed Catholic, undertaking basic theology studies and remaining active in my local community. My catholicism keeps me focussed on what is right.

 

At Pine Gap, the lament was originally considered as a type of decoy. But in the end it became the central idea of the action: to surround Pine Gap with the grief and sadness, the music of lament, with the cry of the prophet, given through the people who notice what is happening and are called to act. Perhaps we are the prophets?

 

In the end only those of us who had worked together at the Peace Convergences were called to act. The meaning of the action is not fully revealed until after having done the action. Nonviolent witnessing is like that. You can’t fully understand all the consequences until you place your body in position and watch how it unfolds. It calls for miracles, it calls for faith in God and trust in God through our relationships.

 

We went twice to lament and pray in the sight of the war-making place. Once on Sunday night and once on Wednesday night.

 

Graeme Dunstan, Captain of PeaceBus and our faithful friend came the first night despite clicky, sore hips. It was the most beautiful star filled night: cool but not cold; light and dark. They way was open and easy for those of us in unencumbered by age. Our friends dropped us near by with love and a smile. We new we had the blessing of local Indigenous land owners because we had spoken with them and informed them of our plans.

 

According to plan we were to wait till just before the dawn so we lay down near where we thought the boundary might be and lay down for a nap. “Stay awake with me, Judas, John, James” [from Tim Rice’s Gospel: Jesus Christ Superstar!]

 

The police surrounded us at about 2.30, playfully arrested us without charge and took us home to our camp.

 

Whoops.

 

We set out again on Wednesday. This time without Pauli who was making other arrangements and with Grame replaced by the inimitable Andy Paine. We had talked a lot about how they knew EXACTLY where we were. Was it a satellite, heat seeking? Was it sensors in the bush?

 

We settled on heat blankets to guard us from heat seeking instruments. This was hilarious because it made us look like groovy doods going to a disco. And we rattled which drove Tim mad because he couldn’t hear stuff that helped him guide us.

 

We got amazingly lost.

 

I got really tired because even though Phil’s calisthenics classes on the Esplanade in Cairns where I had been training for 3 weeks, are really good, I’m 51 and walking around in the dark on rocky unstable ground is complicated. I was so grateful for the hands and shoulders of my young companions who I am indebted to for life!. At one stage I couldn’t figure out which way was up and required a hand up the hill and a hand down the hill to get along.

 

We arrived at a place that may have been a boundary. It was near the bottom of a hill and the lights of Pine Gap illuminated the back of the hill.

 

We could hear the police on the move, the rumble of diesel in the distance. I took the viola, and while walking quickly upward, removed it from the case. I was determined to lay eyes on the evil facility to lament and pray. I kept walking and removed the viola from the case. It was clear we were not going to get time for a settled performative experience. Franz started to play his guitar. The amp boomed out the low notes. I started to bow while walking upward on rocky ground in the darkness. It sounded – well bumpy. [LOL}

 

But Tim led to a spot on a shoulder with a view through the gap to the other side of the hill. And there was the vast, bizarre, war-making facility – it was truly like coming to Mordor. It was enormous, lit up, with dozens of structures. Out of place in this sacred desert place. Space age. Grotesque.

 

But the police were already there. They ran up a road up the ridge right next to where we arrived. They tackled Andy who was filming the lament.

 

I played to the end, perched on a rock. Lamenting, grieving, praying amidst the disturbance of our friends from the AFP and the NT police.