War on trial

November 16, 2013
"Mass movements don't come from nowhere" … veteran peace activist Graeme Dunstan is taking on the military-industrial complex.‘Mass movements don’t come from nowhere’ … veteran peace activist Graeme Dunstan is taking on the military-industrial complex. Photo: James Brickwood

A thorn in the side of the Australian government for decades, activist Graeme Dunstan has upped the ante by aligning himself with the radical Christian Plowshares movement and taking on the military.

During Graeme Dunstan’s criminal trial in Rockhampton in August, the easiest way to find the veteran peace activist was to head to the river. There, you’d first spot his “Peacebus”, the large white van that has been his home for 15 years, and which on one side is completely covered by a large billboard artfully painted with the slogan: “War brings neither peace nor climate justice: cut military spending.”

Then, next to the Peacebus, you’d see Dunstan. Kneeling. Meditating. On the yoga mat. Praying as the sun rose over the Fitzroy River. Afterwards, he’d brew a stove-top coffee out of the back of the van, its inside a hippie rabble: aromatherapy bottles, a single bed, feathers, a boomerang, and tomes on drones, military weaponry and Zen.

Taking up the fight … Graeme Dunstan and his "Peacebus".Taking up the fight … Graeme Dunstan and his ‘Peacebus’. Photo: James Brickwood

As he contemplated the Fitzroy, yachts bobbing nearby, he’d be wearing one of a seemingly perpetual supply of shirts stamped with a political statement. “Save the snubfin dolphin.” “Peace pilgrim.” “Stand fast: support the troops! Bring ’em home!” And when asked about potentially going to jail, the 71-year-old, who blockaded US president Lyndon Johnson’s motorcade in Sydney in 1966 and founded the Aquarius Festival in northern NSW’s Nimbin in 1973, would be philosophical: “The company and the food is not too good in jail, but I can still be an activist there. I can teach meditation. It won’t be an unproductive time for me.”

There was never any doubt about Dunstan’s guilt. Before and during the trial, he had told anyone who would listen – police, local media, lawyers, readers of his blog peacebus.org – that he had indeed helped his friend Bryan Law, a radical Catholic activist and taxi driver who died this year of a diabetes-related illness, commit a crime in 2011.

Dunstan had damaged Commonwealth property. He had rented a truck, driven Law to Rockhampton Airport and helped open a chained gate that Law had attacked with bolt cutters. He had taken photos and called the media. He then watched as his friend, dressed in a black suit and white cowboy hat, drove undisturbed across the tarmac on a bright red tricycle and struck a $45 million Tiger military helicopter with a garden mattock, causing $162,000 worth of damage.

Fought hard … the late Bryan Law, a radical Catholic activist.Fought hard … the late Bryan Law, a radical Catholic activist.

The pair had undertaken what is known internationally as a “plowshare”, a radical form of left-wing Catholic activism in which protesters break into military facilities and damage weapons. Their inspiration comes from a passage in the Book of Isaiah: “And they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.”

Clearly guilty, the pair both pleaded not guilty in order to take the matter to court. They wanted to put the military arsenal in the dock and the notion of war on trial in front of a jury – a tradition in the Plowshares movement. “There have been some spectacular successes – the juries have gone against all the evidence to say ‘not guilty’, ” says Dunstan now. “Those charged have argued in court that the crime was a moral necessity, that the war had to stop, the government wasn’t going to do anything about it and this was the only means left to us.”

Law, who fellow activists admit was a difficult man to work with, set out to do a plowshare after being inspired by three Christian plowshare activists in New Zealand. In 2008, the trio had broken into the Waihopai spy station and deflated two US radar domes with sickles; they were subsequently found not guilty by a jury. “Bryan wanted to do it here; he wanted to embody the prophesy of Isaiah,” says Dunstan, a devout Buddhist.

All we are saying ... anti-war activist Donna Mulhearn.All we are saying … anti-war activist Donna Mulhearn. Photo: Fairfaxsyndication.com

The fact that a Christian and Buddhist faced trial over a high-profile act of civil disobedience is indicative of the state of Australia’s peace movement. While the scene is made up of all sorts – socialists, greens, communists, unions, aid groups and students, all sharing opposition to war, nuclear weapons and military bases – in recent years it is largely faith-based activists who have been undertaking the more noticeable acts of non-violent civil disobedience, known as “the arrestables” in protest parlance.

“They are seriously talking about walking in the footsteps of Jesus and Gandhi,” says Dunstan of the radical Christians. “The thing Bryan Law kept saying [is] if we really want to stop this war … the tools are given to us – they are there, they’ve been tried and they work. Non-violent direct action works. You go and put your body on the line and bear witness. It works. So that’s what they are aspiring to. And, of course, it is kind of respected in the secular left, this kind of action, but they don’t associate with it, it is something else – people are afraid they are going to be preached it.” He shakes his head. “It doesn’t happen like that.”

Christian opposition to war dates back to the time of Jesus and has concerned the faithful for centuries. However, according to University of New Mexico sociology professor Sharon Erickson Nepstad, who has written extensively about plowshares and non-violent action, the modern movement had its genesis in the 1920s, when Pope Benedict XV rejected the centuries-old notion of “just war” – a Christian idea that, in some circumstances, war could be justified.

In response to the pope’s encyclical, in 1927 American Catholics founded the Catholic Association for International Peace (CAIP) to study and promote Catholic notions of peace. “But as Hitler rose to power, CAIP leaders veered away from pacifism, arguing that a war against the Nazis was morally justifiable,” Nepstad wrote in an essay on the Plowshares movement. However, American Catholic activists like Dorothy Day – who helped found the anti-war Catholic Worker movement – continued advocating for pacifism and direct action against militarism. Her ideas later inspired young Catholics to burn their Vietnam War draft cards and raid draft offices – in one instance dramatically pouring their blood over files.

The modern Plowshares movement began in 1980 when eight Catholic activists, including two priests, broke into a Pennsylvania General Electric plant that was manufacturing nuclear warheads. The ease with which they broke in led them to believe divine intervention was involved. As one activist told Nepstad: “Somehow it felt holy that we actually got into that room, because we didn’t know where things were inside that building. We just kept walking until we walked into the test area and there were these golden-coloured warheads on the table.”

The activists hammered on the nuclear warhead cones, poured their blood on security documents and prayed for peace. Some of the “Plowshares Eight” subsequently spent up to 10 years in jail, and their legal plight was later immortalised in the film In the King of Prussia, starring Martin Sheen. But Plowshares campaigns spread across the world, including in Australia. As Nepstad detailed: “Plowshares activists are not concerned that it is illegal to smash at these ‘contemporary gods of metal’. Nor are they worried that such rule-breaking behaviour will provoke negative reactions from others. They maintain that civil disobedience and defiance of social norms is consistent with the example Christ set.”

Each day of Dunstan’s four-day trial, around 20 activists would set up a large, brightly coloured banner outside the court featuring the words from the Isaiah prophecy alongside photos of children killed in Iraq. They would hold a prayer vigil. Sing peace songs. Call out the names of people killed in wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The eclectic cast – some mumsy-looking, others dreadlocked – would then fill the courtroom gallery.

Watching and tweeting each day was Treena Lenthall, who was jailed for two months over her role in the “Jabiluka plowshare” in 1998 when she disabled equipment at the Northern Territory mine. Sitting nearby was her partner, the independent filmmaker David Bradbury – the pair are working on a documentary about Dunstan’s case. The only secular supporter was Robin Taubenfeld, a kooky and key anti-war activist who runs Friends of the Earth in Brisbane.

Meanwhile, online from London, Brisbane-born Catholic Worker Ciaron O’Reilly was sending rambling, passionate emails offering strategic advice on how to conduct the defence in the trial, including the suggestion to play Collateral Murder, the infamous video Chelsea (formerly Bradley) Manning leaked to Julian Assange’s WikiLeaks depicting a US Apache helicopter killing innocent civilians in Iraq in 2007. The defence aim was to highlight that military helicopters like the one Law attacked killed innocent people. Eventually, Judge Nicholas Samios allowed the video to be played, but admitted he was giving Dunstan “a lot of latitude”.

O’Reilly, one of Australia’s most active Plowshares activists, has faced court three times over his actions, including attacking a B52 bomber in New York during the 1991 Gulf War, disabling equipment at Jabiluka with then-partner Lenthall in 1998 and disarming a US Navy warplane at an Irish airport in 2006. Sean O’Reilly, Ciaron’s younger brother, helped Dunstan at his trial; Dunstan was, in turns, overwhelmed, unprepared, amusing, cool and Buddhist in representing himself. A particular low point for Dunstan was when the jury asked for a mental-health report on him.

After showing Collateral Murder, Justice Samios also let defence witnesses who had “seen war” on to the stand. Australian peace activist and former journalist Donna Mulhearn, who was a “human shield” in Iraq in 2003, talked about her experiences there of seeing helicopter gunships kill civilians. Reverend Simon Moyle, a Melbourne Baptist minister and non-violence activist, spoke about the Plowshares movement, as well as his time in Afghanistan. After closing arguments, the jury was sent out but, to the excitement and shock of the activists, the 12 men and women of the jury did not immediately return with a guilty verdict.

Rockhampton is a sleepy and pleasant river city near the mid-north coast of Queensland. One of its more charming buildings is the Criterion Hotel, which Douglas MacArthur used as a base during World War II.

Since 2005, the city has hosted the month-long Talisman Saber “war games”, during which an estimated 20,000 US and 10,000 Australian soldiers undertake realistic, large-force operations ranging from amphibious beach landings to parachute jumps. While they are called “games”, their seriousness was highlighted this year when the US military admitted to dropping four unarmed bombs from two Harrier jets on the Great Barrier Reef – they’d been forced to drop them to avoid hitting civilian boats that had strayed into the testing area.

Talisman Saber has traditionally been catnip to Australia’s peace movement. When the games first kicked off in 2005, a Greenpeace yacht managed to disrupt navy exercises. Protest numbers swelled to the hundreds in 2007 during the height of left-wing anger against US president George W. Bush and the Iraq War. It was during these games that the nomadic Dunstan connected with the faith-based activists, his “affinity group” as it is referred to in activist circles. Both the faith-based groups, as well as organisations such as the Australian Anti-Bases Campaign Coalition, would be involved in protests.

When I showed up in July for this year’s Talisman Saber, however, the number of activists had dwindled to about 12. At times there were more police watching the protests than protestors themselves. While their numbers were tiny, they still managed to annoy the military and the police, spending the week popping up at various locations with flags, pamphlets and loudspeakers to voice opposition to war. Four protestors blockaded the Western Street Barracks and were arrested. Two police liaison officers followed them wherever they went; a working friendliness seemed to flow between them.

Days later, Dunstan and Greg Rolles, 31, a Quaker and high-school history teacher from Brisbane, continued a tradition, started by Christians in 2007, of walking onto Shoalwater Bay Military Training Area while Talisman Saber exercises were taking place. They then spent 30 hours on the site, including praying to a small angel dedicated to Franz Jägerstätter, a peace activist executed by the Nazis in 1943 for his conscientious objection to war. (The shrine had been planted in 2011 by Margaret Pestorius, Law’s wife.)

Some of the Christian activists I spoke to in Rockhampton said their faith was intrinsic to their civil disobedience and gave them courage to break into sites. Jessica, an articulate 37-year-old, recalled that at her first Talisman Saber protest in 2005, after jumping the fence of the Shoalwater Bay military zone and sitting on a road with makeshift coffins, she went into a “space”: “It was almost going back to my Pentecostal Christian days, this kind of sense of the spirit, about being so released … it doesn’t matter what they do to me now, I’ve done what I think is really important, a tiny gesture of blocking a road and not letting the military traffic through.”

Jim Dowling, a scruffy-looking man who never seemed to wear shoes, told me he was a veteran activist from Brisbane who was politicised during the corruption of the Joh Bjelke-Petersen years in Queensland. In the 1980s, he and Ciaron O’Reilly founded a Catholic Worker community in Brisbane that focused on hospitality to the poor. Now living with his family on a farm outside Brisbane, he made money by making and selling soap and caring for a disabled man one night a week.

Dowling said he believed that faith was needed to commit to the cause long-term. As he put it: “People of faith have faith, as Saint Paul said, in things unseen, things unbelievable. In an age like today of cynicism and pragmatism, you have to have a lot of faith to believe that peace is possible, that non-violence is possible and that another world is possible … I can’t comprehend what motivates anyone without any faith. I can’t understand why people without faith would bother to be part of any movement for justice.”

A seemingly mellow guy, Dowling was part of a crew including Law, Mulhearn (who testified at Dunstan’s trial) and Adele Goldie who audaciously broke into the Pine Gap joint-defence facility outside Alice Springs in 2005. Depending on your point of view, the ease with which they entered Australia’s most secretive satellite station was either disturbing or comical. According to Dowling, in the lead up to their action, Law wrote to then defence minister Robert Hill and Pine Gap management requesting they be allowed to have a “citizens inspection” of the facility because they believed “it was a terrorist base involved in killing civilians in places in Iraq and Afghanistan by providing targeted information”.

“Of course, the minister said, ‘There is no way you are going out to inspect it and we will charge you under the Defence Special Undertakings Act if you try to,’ ” Dowling told me. “We said, ‘Oh well, we are going to try anyhow,’ and we drove off to Alice Springs. We were there for quite a few days, went to the front of the base a number of times.”

Dowling claimed that at one meeting, Mulhearn asked the head of Pine Gap security: “What do you think our chances are of getting into the base?”

“No chance,” he replied.

“Do you think it would be a miracle if we got into the base?”

“It would definitely be a miracle,” he replied.

On the night of December 8, the four broke into pairs – Dowling and Goldie, Mulhearn and Law – and were dropped off at different locations to begin the five-kilometre walk to the base. Dowling and Goldie managed to cut through two interior fences at dawn, climbed onto a building next to an antenna and took photographs of themselves before they were eventually caught. Mulhearn and Law made it to the interior fences and began cutting through before they were stopped.

During the group’s trial in 2007, the court heard that the sensors supposed to detect intruders coming through the interior fences were turned off as they were routinely set off by kangaroos and goannas. To the Christian activists, however, their break-in was indeed a miracle.

I asked Dowling whether the fact Plowshares was inspired by a verse from the Bible would lead people to view the movement as a radical, nutty, fringe Christian organisation. He shrugged, nonplussed. “The mainstream religion is materialism, just get a job, make some money, consume, consume, be silent and die,” he says. “Anyone who is outside of that … is obviously [the] ‘crazy, radical fringe’. ”

Graeme Dunstan was eventually found guilty. While the prosecutor called for a custodial sentence, Judge Samios sentenced him to a suspended two-year jail sentence with a three-year good behaviour bond and ordered him to pay $162,000 to the Commonwealth.

He is now back on the road in his Peacebus, having recently been at Victoria’s Swan Island SAS training base, at a time when 15 Christians broke in to the facility. “There are tides in the affairs of men and mass movement arises, and then they disappear again,” he says. “We are in one of the troughs between mass movements. But mass movements don’t come from nowhere – they are actually built by solid work, by people who keep the work going and then seize the moment.”

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