Justice? I Have My Doubts

Andy Mason fought the law, and nobody won.

Andy Mason fought the law, and nobody won.

On my second day in Narrabri local court, we were subjected to a reading from Shakespeare on the nature of belonging, and a bizarre exchange in which the magistrate reminisced on his days as a boy playing with tonka trucks in the sandpit. Our lawyer, meanwhile, insisted that a mine is, in fact, a big hole in the ground. All these things meant something, apparently.

Last year, I was arrested and spent a night in Moree jail as a result of my involvement in non-violent protest activity in the area. Finally, after 12 months, I headed up north again to face the legal music and have my case heard in court.

First, some background. The Maules Creek coal mine will destroy the bulk of the Leard State Forest, which contains over 30 sites that are of cultural significance to local Gomeroi traditional custodians. It will have devastating impacts on the local farming community, and emit as much CO2 into the atmosphere every year as the whole of New Zealand. I climbed up a drill rig used in building the mine to delay its construction, and to make a symbolic statement of dissent against what I and my friends at the #leardblockade see as a total failure of the political class to look after the public interest.

The experience of my action, arrest and imprisonment was the most brutal and lonely 36 hours of my life. For 12 hours I sat 15 metres in the air, harnessed to an imposing industrial tower, caked from head-to-toe in the thick, disgusting industrial grease covering all of its parts. My position at the top of a hill gave me a commanding view of a small valley. To the right was the forest, exuding its timeless, quiet calm. In the centre of my field of vision the dark green of the forest suddenly gave way to a patchwork of lighter and darker browns. As the sun came up I could make out piles of trees pushed over like matchsticks, and piles of woodchips. Workers arrived; they turned the piles of trees into piles of woodchips. Other workers moved piles of gravel from A to B in bulldozers. Every now and then a wallaby would wander through the worksite, stopping between machines to look around itself, seeming to ask “didn’t there used to be a forest here?” before hopping off again, puzzled.

When the police arrived with a cherry picker to get me, they pulled out every kind of insult they could. I was called a hippie, a useless city-slicking lazy student, a poofter. Their guns, pepper spray and batons in the corner of my vision, I quietly took all of it.

At the station, I got a 3 hour lecture about what a degenerate I was—I was told that I would never be able to work for government or go overseas and that I’d totally ruined my future. I also got an extremely invasive and unnecessary cavity search, as a result of which I was unable to have any intimate contact with anybody for months without breaking down.

Meanwhile, the custody officer spent an hour flicking through his copy of the summary offences book, trying to find as many “crimes” to charge me with as he could. He ended up finding four—two related to trespassing on private property, one of hindering machinery belonging to a mine, and one of endangering the lives of others by climbing up a structure.

After this came a 24 hour stint in Moree prison, which I wrote about previously in this paper, followed by more than a year on a legal rollercoaster. Some of my friends have been found guilty, then not guilty on appeal, then guilty again. The court has tended to prioritise certain ‘pilot’ cases, adjourning everybody else to a later date after the pilot case is resolved. We’ve been strung along for court date after court  date—told that this one will be the real one, only for the magistrate to decide in essence “nah too hard come back in two months”. Last week, we were told, would be the actual conclusion—really, this time.

So, after a long journey and an inadequate sleep in a cold barn, we arrived at Narrabri local court, dressed up as smartly as we could manage. We had been told to turn up in time for a 9:30 sharp start.

All the hippies were perfectly on time, but the court was having a bit of a lazy morning, and didn’t really get started for another hour. Many of us hadn’t seen each other since last year, so we just sat happily on the lawn out the front of the courthouse having a picnic until things got going.

The first day continued to go pretty slowly. We were met by a mind-bogglingly repetitive and pedantic discussion of what legally can be said to constitute “a mine”, and what “belonging” means. The Mining Act of 1900, under which we were all charged, is vaguely and badly worded and applying it to contemporary mining operations is not straightforward. The “mine” is no longer a singular legal entity, but a complex network of subcontractors, and the “mine” itself no longer owns much of the equipment used to build it. I shit you not, this conversation continued for 4 or 5 hours. Eventually, the magistrate decided that the prosecution had not established that the mine ‘owned’ the particular piece of equipment that a friend had chained himself to, and that he was therefore not guilty.

The next day, just before lunch, the magistrate decided that the evidence was, as in the previous case, not good enough to establish that the accused had hindered machinery belonging to a mine. He returned another verdict of not guilty, and finished by counselling the police prosecutor that in the interest of efficient use of public time and money, he would not be exploring all the cases in depth as he had done so far. At this point our mood became positively jubilant, believing as we did that the magistrate was finally thinking straight and that we’d all be out of there by the end of the day.

Things soured during the lunch break. Our lawyer came out and informed us that the police prosecutor had received orders from above to appeal all the not guilty verdicts, and would do so for any other the magistrate returned for the rest of this sitting. The police seemed to be more interested in wasting our time than in resolving the cases. Up to this point, the proceedings had the atmosphere of a test match, with long periods of boredom followed by a riveting session before tea—but this seemed to be blatant ball tampering. After lunch the magistrate indicated he would be adjourning all of the not-guilty verdicts until the outcome of the police appeal, and set hearing dates for the rest of us in August.

It’s been my view for a while that the major function of the “justice” system is to abuse and intimidate people who are unhappy with business as usual. It seems that the law is set up to punish the vulnerable, exclude the marginalised and protect the powerful. This last farcical encounter with the law has only deepened my conviction that it is not only a deeply broken system, but one that was never built properly in the first place.

The entire rationale for arresting and charging us was that our actions were a threat to the profitability of the mine—it’s never been about anything else. The police and the courts want nothing to do with justice. Like characters in some Kafka novel, we are strung along from courtroom to courtroom, understanding that the only thing that matters is the court’s power over us.