Diary of the Close Pine Gap protest camp

October 14, 2016
Activists at the Pine Gap spy base to demand it close.

We drove through the night by bus from Melbourne, stopping only for petrol and food, for 32 hours to reach the Disarm Camp at Pine Gap on September 26. We were going to the protest marking 50 years since the spy base was established in 1966 for a “peppercorn rent” by Prime Minister Robert Menzies.

Pine Gap, 20 kilometres from Alice Springs at the end of an unmarked road, is the site of a huge US military base in the desert in Central Australia. The road is actually called Hatt Road, but the last “t” has been changed to an “e” on the sign. The council keeps rehabilitating the name and activists keep changing it back.

The next day we went into Alice Springs. The Quakers had organised a vigil outside the office of Liberal Senator Nigel Scullion, Minister for Indigenous Affairs, over the Don Dale Youth Detention Centre scandal. The royal commission into the scandal was taking submissions in Alice. Scullion is infamous for saying that the bashing of youths by Northern Territory prison guards “did not pique his interest”.

We noticed that many buses travelled back along the road at the afternoon shift changeover, bringing workers back into town. Pine Gap employs more than 800 Australians, who do all the dirty work. The Australian government has no idea what transpires at Pine Gap, except for vague statements on keeping us safe from terrorism.

On Wednesday, we spent time painting signs and banners. In the afternoon, about 50 of us blocked the road to stop any traffic going into or out of the base. There was a dangerous moment when a carload of angry workers almost ran down a protester.

About 50 police stopped cars at both ends. There are alternative dirt roads out of Pine Gap. It was clear the police had orders not to arrest us as that might alert the Australian people to what transpires at Pine Gap.

That night, five protestors got into Pine Gap and played a lamentation on a viola and flute for all the dead caused by wars. They were arrested, charged with trespass and jailed in Alice Springs. At 3.30 am, protesters arrived at the gates of Pine Gap contractors Raytheon in Alice Springs. The building is unmarked, but Raytheon supplies state-of-the-art sensors, effectors, electronic warfare, satellite navigation systems, laser guidance, high definition radars and other technologies to Pine Gap.

Lock on

Three men and a woman locked onto the gates with a chain around their neck. No one could go outside or inside the arms supplier. The police, realising it would generate publicity, sent all the workers home early that morning. In the afternoon, the Anti-Bases Campaign Coalition held a theatre action outside the gates, shining a light on Raytheon. After the lockout, lasting about 14 hours, we retired to the pub for a well-earned drink.

That afternoon we celebrated another victory as the five arrested were released, with the charges under the Defence (Special Undertakings) Act thrown out of court on a technicality. The police had failed to seek the authority of the federal attorney-general before bringing the activists before the court.

However, the five could be charged with trespass under the Crimes Act, which does not need authorisation by the attorney-general and has been done in the past in relation to protesters entering the Pine Gap base. The maximum penalty under the provisions relating to Pine Gap as a prohibited area is seven years in jail.

On Friday morning, a cavalcade of protesters from the Disarm Camp, the Women’s Healing Camp and organisers from the Independent and Peaceful Australia Network (IPAN) arrived at the gates of Pine Gap, 8 kilometres down Hate Road. But before we could get to the actual gates, there was a roadblock of about 30 police with barriers, searching us one by one for any weapons or dangerous instruments. We asked the police to disarm but they did not reply.

Actual views of Pine Gap are impossible: the 33 radomes are built behind a hill, although it can be seen from planes taking off from Alice Springs airport. Arabunna leader Uncle Kevin Buzzacott reminded us that the traditional owners had never been asked for their permission to occupy the land.

Speeches by Greens WA Senator Scott Ludlam, Kosuzu Abe from the University of Ryukyus, Okinawa, Japan, Lisa Natividad, University of Guam (Guahan) and Richard Tanter alerted us to the dangers of hosting one of the largest and most important US spy bases in the world.

On Saturday, Tanter told us that Pine Gap downloads information from satellites orbiting 36,000 kilometres above the Earth, picking up phone signals from Russian and Chinese satellites as well as all phone conversations from Syria and the Middle East. Pine Gap is also used for nuclear war planning and makes Alice Springs a nuclear target in the event of a war.

US colonisation

Natividad spoke of the devastation in Guahan, one of the Mariana Islands, caused by US colonisation since 1898. The US military is one of the largest landholders, grabbing 30% of the territory.

The island is a vital part of the US Pivot to the region, forming a strategic triangle in conjunction with bases in Japan, Australia and Hawaii. It’s known as “the tip of the spear” because of its proximity to potential conflict hot spots in Asia, including North Korea and the South China Sea. It has also been dubbed “America’s unsinkable aircraft carrier” and “Fortress Pacific”. Guahan has one of the highest rates of child poverty and infant mortality in the world.

NSW Greens Senator Lee Rhiannon spoke of the 800 attendees at the women’s camp held at Pine Gap in 1983 in sympathy with the women at Greenham Common, the US base in England. At that time, the women sang, tied ribbons to the fence, pushed the fence down and walked onto Pine Gap.

She said we need to rebuild the movement and focus on the dangers inherent in the US-Australian Alliance.

Arrernte spokesperson Aunty Pat spoke of the problems among Black youth, going to Darwin into prison, the confusion from living in two cultures and how police make them a target.

That night for the first time, a very moving lamentation was held on Anzac Hill in the middle of the town, to commemorate the Aboriginal men and women who fell in the Frontier Wars.

Activist Graham Dunstan explained that the origins of the Light Horse brigade in World War I came from white men hunting down Aboriginal people on horseback with guns during the colonial wars of the 19th century to empty the land for the pastoralists.

Arrernte leader Vincent Forrester talked of the history of white men twice massacring the Aboriginal workers employed by his white grandfather. We walked down the hillside holding candles, to a wonderful feast cooked by Eli, who had cooked for us at the Disarm Camp.

On Sunday morning, another cavalcade was held at the gates of Pine Gap. This time we had police on horseback. Knitting needles targeted as dangerous weapons were taken from a 9 year old girl.

After many speeches on the horrors of Pine Gap and its implications for Australian, we held a picnic nearby with the Quakers, IPAN and the Peacebus from Cairns. For many reasons we need to close Pine Gap as part of the struggle for a peaceful world.

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