Pine Gap is a joint United States-Australian military surveillance base located on Arrernte land 20km outside Alice Springs. It is regarded as one of the most important US military instillations outside of North America.
It collects data as part of the “five eyes” intelligence network, through which Australia, Canada, the United States, New Zealand and the United Kingdom collect and share information. That includes spying on their citizens. Edward Snowden, the National Security Agency whistleblower wanted by the US government, pointed out of such “intelligence” operations: “These programs were never about terrorism: they’re about economic spying, social control and diplomatic manipulation. They’re about power”.
More than a year ago, activists from anti-war group Disarm began organising for a protest at Pine Gap. Each step of the way we were told that it was going to be hard to hold a protest here. We were told that the locals didn’t want us coming, that the police would attack us, that we couldn’t camp where we wanted and that we didn’t understand the importance of Pine Gap to the community.
What we were met with was vastly different and a truly inspiring experience. The camp, situated on the side of Hatt (later renamed Hate) Road, which leads to the base, was exceptionally well run. There was a kitchen cooking three meals a day, shared small and large undercover meeting spaces, a media tent, a women’s camp, toilets and individual and shared camping spaces.
We held meetings each evening, and more through the day. While not everyone knew each other, an environment was established to enable people to join the publicly announced actions or make connections and organise other actions.
In the days that followed, activists occupied the office of the minister for Indigenous affairs, blockaded the road to the facility, joined a Don Dale prison solidarity action, held daily stalls in Todd Mall and organised a community bike ride from Alice Springs to Pine Gap,
We were subjected to police searches at a protest at the gates of the base, and we warned officials about an outbreak of “Pentagonorrhoea” (which we told them was caused by involvement in dirty wars). We dismantled a prop bomb in tribute to the late Dr Bill Williams, a tireless campaigner for nuclear disarmament.
On Thursday, 29 September, five peace pilgrims managed to get inside Pine Gap before being arrested by federal police. They were remanded in custody and held until a court appearance later that day to be charged under the Special Undertakings Act. The courtroom was full of activists; many more gathered outside awaiting the verdict. A guilty finding can carry a penalty of seven years. The charges were thrown out by judge Daynor Trigg because the police failed to gain the consent of the attorney-general before beginning the prosecution – a requirement of the legislation.
Close Pine Gap activist Gaye Demanuele described the impact of an action at Raytheon, a major US military contractor, on the same day in Alice Springs: “We raised awareness of Pine Gap’s role in facilitating the US war machine, making Australia both complicit in war crimes and a potential target; and we put a small dent in the profits of the military-industrial complex. We locked down the Raytheon/Lockheed Martin facility for over 10 hours.
“This delayed the morning shift start at Pine Gap as the buses that transport contractors remained locked in the compound. Work for the day on site was shut down; no one crossed the picket line. No arrests were made, nor did the police ask us to move on. The authorities and the bosses chose to tolerate us and lose a day’s production rather than draw attention to the fact that the biggest arms manufacturer globally has a facility in Alice Springs. Despite their strategy, we created a focus that did garner the media attention they sought to obscure.”
The following night, more than 130 activists gathered at the Chifley in Alice Springs for the opening of the Independent and Peaceful Australia Network national conference. The speakers – senator Scott Ludlam (Greens) and professors Lisa Natividad (Guam), Kosuzu Abe (Japan) and Richard Tanter (Australia) – captivated the room. The conference continued on Saturday 1 October. On Sunday morning, speakers and activists made their way in a cavalcade to the base to protest at the gates one last time.
Disarm was inspired by the actions over the week and is now organising for the next major action: a protest at the Avalon air show in February 2017. The “trade days” of the show in 2015 facilitated an estimated $1 billion in sales for arms dealers.
Disarm meets at 6:30pm on the first Monday of every month at Trades Hall in Melbourne. For more information, visit www.disarm.org.au