Bowen28 September 2019
Content warning: mentions of domestic violence, criminal enforcement
Lindsay Lohan’s done this, I think, as the cop takes my mugshot. Should I smile? I give the camera a glare that looks petulant, childish.
He picks up an iPad and holds it like my grandpa: the screen’s at arms-length and each one-fingered jab lands too hard on the screen.
“Brunette,” he says, eyes flicking at me, then back at the screen, “Blue eyes. Slim build.”
My skin crawls. I haven’t showered in days and I’ve been up since 3am. I’ve been holding a shit in for eight hours. Here’s the thing about cops: they’re big. About me: I’m not. He leans in close to me, my back against the wall so I have to look up at him, and tells me about the crimes they couldn’t get to because of our protest: the car crash, the domestic violence. I can feel his breath on me and I want to be sick, want to shit.
“If you don’t leave the police station now,” he says, “we’ll charge you with trespassing too. This is what happens when you come to Far North Queensland.”
Dress conservative, respect the judge, my mum had told me. Don’t let on like you have much money, said the protesters.
Across the road from Bowen Magistrate’s Court is a mural. Interlaced between checked police print are portraits of war medals, old-school constable caps and police batons. Scotty jumps out of the car—shirtless—before the engine’s stopped moving. He pours around the back of the ute, all wiry muscle and movement, and pulls out a dusty pair of slacks and a too-big dress shirt.
“Time for me court uniform,” he jokes.
He pulls his grungy blonde hair into a ponytail and shoves the slacks on over his boardies. He’s jovial, but there’s anger in the way he jerks the zipper shut, snaps each button through the hole.
Pinned to the courthouse wall is an article about the Magistrate’s appointment. He hates flip flops and domestic violence, it says. Domestic violence is on the rise, he says, because the mines are closing down. Technically we’re charged with trespassing, but it still bodes bad news for a group of environmental activists.
I press my tongue against the back of my teeth, crack my knuckles too hard against my palm. It’s a late realisation, but I’m angry too.
It takes the police almost two hours to release the next protester. I forgot to ask for my one phone call, and the cops kept my phone. (“Give us the password or we’ll fry it,” they said, and I’d called their bluff). I take a seat on a park bench and watch the wide mall-strip fade to grey.
When the sky is full dark another protester staggers out of the police station. I ask what took so long, and she says they processed a local in and out between myself and her. Later, I’d hear his story from protesters who shared a cell with him. He had fought with his wife, or maybe girlfriend. He was angry, punched a bin. Nice enough guy, they said, but that’s just his side of the story.
Was this one of the domestic violence stories the police told me about? I’ve been awake for 21 hours when the final protester is released.
It’s quarter past four when the Magistrate sees us.
Before us, a stringy white man pled guilty to driving with methamphetamine in his system ($500 fine, licence suspended) and an Aboriginal woman admitted to spitting in another woman’s face (jail time discussed, the sentence postponed).
It’s an old building. The ceilings are high and the distance between us and the judge feels heavy. The walls are covered with portraits of former judges, figure-heads and Captain Cook look-alikes.
Scotty looks bored. I pretend to be, but I’m nauseous. I make a joke to the protester next to me, and I know she’s as scared as I am. The joke’s not very good, but she laughs a lot. I’d always believed that the arc of history bends towards justice, but today it feels like a slippery, wriggly thing.
“These are the facts,” says the police prosecutor. She’s in a stiff brown suit. I find her too smug, too certain. She reads rote-like from a sheet of paper.
“At 5am on Friday the first of December 2017, the defendant and a group of associates consisting of adult males and females have approached the rail infrastructure located at Bogie River rail crossing at Binbee.
“A male from this group has interfered with the rail infrastructure by elevating himself in a tree by a rope which was connected to the rail line—”
She keeps reading, monotone, then gets to the gist of it:
“—On arrival, police observed four males and four females sitting under the railway bridge on the dry river bed.”
I remember the scream of cicadas in that riverbed, so many at once that their rhythms drowned into one piercing screech.
The ground was sandy, broken up by shrubs and the cold concrete pylons holding up the rail bridge. A rope stretched from the bridge to a nearby tree. From the other end of the rope, dangling over a branch, was a tent made from a bed frame and tarp. Activists call this a tree-sit. Should a train come through, it would cut the rope supporting the tree-sit, sending the bed frame, and anyone in it, hurtling towards the ground.
It was my first protest. I’d planned to take photographs, see what happened. I’d supported the #StopAdani campaign from Melbourne and was curious to see the action first-hand.
Before the final rope was secured, a protester called the railway company, Aurizon, and told them to stop the trains: someone was on the tracks. An hour later a police car rolled up.
The first cop stumbled down to the river bed and arrested everyone. Then, two Aurizon workers arrived. We don’t own the riverbed, they said. Riverbeds in Queensland are Crown land; that’s why we chose to sit there. The officer let us go, told us we were welcome to stay where we were. His shoulders softened. Then more cops showed up.
“You’re all under arrest,” said one.
I don’t make the rules, I just enforce them, he kept repeating, as though that was somehow better. The first cop shrunk like a submissive dog. Someone asked what our charge was.
“Keep asking questions and you’ll be charged with assaulting or obstructing a police officer,” said the cop.
Another man pled guilty that day: a young man with a slight limp, charged with assaulting or obstructing a police officer. (It’s a joint charge in Queensland: fail to follow an officer’s orders and you’ll get assault on your record, too.)
The police prosecutor read the facts. Two constables arrested a young, drunk woman near the Bowen service station. The man saw them from across the road, ran towards them, his phone up, yelling: “I’m filming you, cunts. I’m filming you.”
He was agitated, wouldn’t stop yelling. The cops weren’t hurt, says the prosecutor, but they had to forcibly detain him.
“Is there anything I should know before sentencing?” the Magistrate asked.
“I’m a painter,” the man said, “I’ve been out of work for the past month because of the injuries I received that day.”
He didn’t know the woman. What he was filming hangs unspoken, a black hole in the facts.
One month before my arrest, the headline of the Townsville Bulletin read ZERO TOLERANCE: POLICE CRACK-DOWN ON ADANI ACTIVISTS. There’s a quote from the police chief, saying they’ll charge protesters with whatever they can.
One activist was pulled over on a grocery run. The officer recognised her.
She got his badge number, asked him what the matter was.
“One of your tail lights is defective,” he said, “I’m going to have to write you up.”
Later, when I saw the taillights myself, it took me a good minute to notice which of the six bulbs was slightly dimmer than the others.
I make excuses for pleading guilty. Travel to Bowen was expensive. I’d just started a new job and was nervous about taking the time off. I wanted my belongings back, and the police were holding them until after the trial. The sentence would be light. It would save months of stress.
The truth is, I didn’t know I was going to plead guilty until the day before the hearing. Or perhaps I only knew when the words came tumbling out.
Do I regret pleading guilty? I do when I hear stories from the protesters who pled not guilty, those who lived near Bowen. They represented themselves and, six months later, were cleared of all charges. I remind myself that the barriers to pleading not guilty felt all too high. It doesn’t feel like justice.
“You need to come to terms with your role in domestic violence,” the Magistrate tells me. After sentencing ($500, no conviction recorded), I leave the courtroom and burst into tears. Uncle Kenny, the Birri traditional elder whose land we were arrested on, is waiting outside with one of his kids. When I see them I try to control myself. It’s embarrassing, being so affected when, by contrast, the stakes for me are relatively low.
I stutter an apology. Kenny says it’s alright. His son smiles, friendly and warm. You get used to it, you’re just not used to it.
How to come to terms with my role that day?
Can I accept that the police have no triage system, that its first-in first-serve, and arresting people adjacent to the crime is just part of the job? Or do I have to live with the knowledge that the police do have triage? They do have a choice, and they chose to arrest me instead.
Scotty pled not guilty. He’s got a long track record with the law, is used to it. Still, when he came out of the court- house, he was angry. Spittle flew when he spoke.
“When are they gonna recognise who the real criminals are?” he asked.
I know he meant Adani and coal exporters. But I can’t help but think of the cops, the courtroom, the men who punch their girlfriends. Their actions feel criminal to me, too.
“I hope you write about your role in domestic violence,” the Magistrate had said. But I don’t have the words. Not then, not now, perhaps never.