Wage Peace Activist Margaret Pestorius on Police Framing Antiwar Actions as Violence

By Sydney Criminal Lawyers, February 15, 2024

The Queensland Police Service announced on 23 January that officers from its Counterterrorism Investigation Group had executed multiple warrants at Brisbane residences, in relation to protest actions that took place in Tingalpa and that capital city earlier in the month.

According to the QPS, officers allege “the group forced entry to the workshop premises, assaulted staff and caused property damage, deliberately spilling paint, destroying documents and causing graffiti”. And whilst this description sounds confronting, what actually took place was much less aggressive.

“During entry, it is alleged that a staff member was assaulted before damage was caused at the premises,” the QPS continued in a press release.

Although participants would translate this assault as equating to a group walking through a door and the damage as the pasting of paper to a cabinet.

And “a 59-year-old Bardon woman”, who was “expected to appear before the Brisbane Magistrates Court” later this month with four other activists arrested on the day, is globally recognised antiwar activist Margaret Pestorius, who is not known for perpetrating violence at peaceful protest actions.

Strategic incapacitation

Pestorius has been mobilising against the global war industry for decades. And of late, as an activist educator, she’s been popularising the use of the term strategic incapacitation, which is a technique being employed by police of late, in an attempt to break popular protest movements.

Strategic incapacitation is a technique that was first championed by NSW police around the time it and the state began an enhanced crackdown on climate protesters in early 2022. And it comprises of the imposition of inflated charges, severe bail conditions and increased surveillance of civilians.

As Pestorius tells it, strategic incapacitation allows law enforcement to demonise protesters by charging them with inflated charges that are often later dropped, to frame their actions as having been more extreme and, indeed, violent, when they were actually peaceful.

The other key aspect to strategic incapacitation is loading activists up with bail conditions that prevent their communicating with other activists, restrict their participation in certain activities and limit their movements. And all these factors are designed to dissolve the protest group.

This was first applied to climate activists in the Greater Sydney region two years back. But as Margaret points out, it’s now being used nationwide and, as well, against antiwar demonstrators, while NSW police now appear to be using this technique against drug law reform activists.

World BEYOND War

But whilst Queensland police and the local mainstream media might consider Pestorius and Wage Peace to be enemies of the state, global peace movement World Beyond War awarded the activist and the peace promoting organisation an international antiwar prize mid-last year.

Sydney Criminal Lawyers spoke to Wage Peace activist educator Margaret Pestorius about the distorted framing on the part of authorities relating to the recent actions in Queensland, and how there is a huge influx of people joining the movement in the face of the blatant genocide in Gaza.

Wage Peace activist educator Margaret Pestorius

Margaret, your Brisbane home was raided by the Queensland Police Counterterrorism Investigation Group on 23 January.

Five suspects were taken into custody during multiple raids involving two antiwar actions targeting aerospace company Ferra Holdings on 9 January and a second action in the foyer of Boeing offices on 17 January.

To be clear, the initial action was by the group #ShutFerra, of which you participated, and the Boeing action was by Wage Peace.

What happened during these raids?

There were three simultaneous raids on shared households: five households in all. Six to ten counterterrorism officers were present at each, and they were accompanied by a single representative of the Australian Federal Police.

There were reports of a backup squad of about 30 police officers nearby, but they were not deployed.

People were upset by the genocide, the killing of families and the destruction of hospitals and living spaces in Gaza.

People are very upset, and they are taking action on the worldwide cause for Palestinians and First Nations people: to stand up against these terrible injustices that we can see unfurling before our eyes.

These are just ordinary people.

At my house, they rapped at the door fairly loudly at 6.30 am. They woke us up flashing a warrant issued by a magistrate, who apparently serves in Emerald, which is a long way from Brisbane.

What happened at the actions?

At the Ferra action, they entered a factory space. There were 30 people, they spread out over that space.

Some people turned off the machines. People shouted slogans, read poetry and made speeches. They generally made their presence known in the factory, where an essential product is being made for the bombing of Gaza.

They are also making all sorts of components for Boeing and Lockheed Martin. But we were there because they are making an essential product for the Israeli F-35.

For the F-35 at Ferra?

Yes. They are the only maker of this product in the world, and it goes to a particular Israeli version of the F-35. It is a weapons adaptor, so you can rack and stack different types of bombs.

There is also information circulating about another Australian company producing components for the bomb delivery door on F-35s.

Yes. That’s RUAG or Rosebank in Melbourne. There is a map going around with multiple parts for the F-35 being made in Australia. Some of those are essential parts.

Kellie Tranter wrote an article about this for Declassified Australia.

How do you consider the police response to these two acts of civil disobedience?

It’s total overkill. At some point somebody has directed the counterterrorism squad to make a series of raids to address this nonviolent action that’s occurring.

The other action that they were ostensibly here for was the Boeing action, which was similar to what we have been doing over the years.

We went and occupied an office. Some people read poetry. Some people pasted up pictures of dead babies on the glass.

So, it was a simple action. The young woman in the office left us to do what we were doing. We were left to be given move-on orders and sent away.

They didn’t even follow us out onto the streets. They were so unafraid of us, they just said, “Okay, off you go now.”

Once the counterterrorism squad gets involved though, everything gets inflated, conflated and overinflated.

So, now we have a police taskforce involved and this moves us into strategic incapacitation.

So, nonviolent peace activists are now being equated with terrorists.

That’s right. For some reason, the counterterrorism squad has been shifted onto us. And they choose five people they can identify from the actions and then they go after them.

And there’s been an attempt to apply strategic incapacitation to those participating in the action.

The police tried to impose bail conditions. We resisted them. And a judge refused them. That is because the bail conditions police tried to apply were improper and against the law, and a good magistrate will throw them out.

So, what sort of overinflated charges?

I’ve been charged with assault for moving through a door with a group of people. People have got unlawful assembly, which is a Queensland charge aimed at rioting. And there are charges for violence toward property.

They now have a definition for violence so broad it has become meaningless. And they said we stayed in the unlawful assembly for a long time after the “violence” against property occurred.

The violence against property was sticking small pieces of paper to a glass cabinet with food paste.

So, that is violence?

That is called violence against property, and it allows them to charge us with unlawful assembly.

The first step for strategic incapacitation is the description. They describe it as violence. Then they charge you with violence. Then they try to get extreme bail conditions.

So, I’ve also got enter with intent to do wilful damage.

The Wage Peace demonstration against Boeing on 19 January

The police have described it as violence, but also, media reports have described the actions as “violent invasions of defence contractors’ offices”.

Can you talk about the media claims?

The counterterrorism squad put a media release out, which was very vague about what had happened. The media started to put together what happened, looking back at the other actions we’d done previously, via media releases.

The use of the word violence and descriptors like assault, these are legal terms, which are poorly defined in the laws, and they then make us sound violent.

One of the violent hotspots at one of our demonstrations is people tussling over a banner. So, the workers try to grab the banner, and the activists hold onto it.

So, this tussle over a banner becomes a violent incident.

And law enforcement is framing nonviolent actions as violence in the media.

That’s right. And they do it through the charges, in the way they impose these overinflated charges.

You’ve already touched on this, but why are peace activists targeting Ferra and Boeing right now?

Ferra because it is essential for the F-35 jet fighter and it also makes wing attachments for bombs. It is a totally unaccountable US private equity company that specialises in parts for US weapons.

So, it’s a US company manufacturing these parts in Australia.

Yes. It is not even owned by Ferra anymore, it is owned by a US equity company. And also, with Boeing, the reason we target them is that we’ve had an ongoing campaign against Boeing for three years.

Boeing has a special relationship with Brisbane Labor and the Queensland government. It is a US company, so it’s representing the US military-industrial complex here in Australia.

Boeing’s international office is headed by ex-Australian defence minister Brendan Nelson, which is a symbol in itself. We estimate it gets $4 to $5 billion a year in contracts from Australia.

This success in Australia leads back to Brendan Nelson. And Boeing products are at the heart of the Gaza genocide: the bombs, the Apache attack helicopters.

You’re raising all this information, while Penny Wong has been telling parliament that there have been no weapons exports to Israel for the last five years.

She’s lying. But also, what we know is that weapons go via the US.

There are two levels of campaigning here. There is a level that is looking at what is legal and not legal and another level looking at what is moral and what is immoral.

We are acting on what we see is an unfolding genocide that is driven by the profitmaking of weapons corporations.

They love it when you have a war like this. All those weapons from their stockpiles are being used, and now they have to be readded. This is the way they view it.

These companies do not do anything to prevent the genocide. They push and produce the genocide.

Whether or not Penny Wong is right, and l would say she is most likely lying, she and her government are totally implicated in this genocide through the allowance of the transfer of these components.

And this component, this weapons adaptor, is made for the Israeli version of the F-35. Even if it goes to America first, and then America sends it on to Israel, while the component came from Australia.

Also, the spreading of component manufacture across the globe is connected to the contract that is supposed to assist in the development of local manufacturing capabilities.

So, local manufacturing capabilities for Defence are totally interwoven with the component exports across the globe.

The truth is the US denies Australia use of intellectual property for almost everything else, apart from our own defence equipment.

The US will not allow Australia to have a manufacturing sector, except one that it controls with its own intellectual property.

A defence manufacturing sector, you mean?

The US will not allow the building of any manufacturing sector in Australia that it does not have control over and may interfere with its own manufacturing economy.

The US denies Australia that. That is the reason that we can’t build a manufacturing sector, it’s because the US stops Australia manufacturing.

So, has Wage Peace picked up its work since the Gaza genocide commenced last October?

Many people can see the current genocide for what it is and want to take action.

We’ve worked hard in recent years to understand the nature of political action for ordinary people: what’s possible, what they can do and where they can stand alongside thousands of new people taking action.

So, we’ve picked it up to the extent that we are standing alongside a lot of young people, but we’re not driving it in any way.

We have been able to hold a rational position about how disgusting the government is, the arms industry is, and the US is. So, we’ve maintained this position.

We are going to have to reorganise our society and our governmental systems if we are not going to kill everybody, because right now we are heading towards a situation where everyone is in danger globally.

Your work, the work of Wage Peace, has been recognised globally. And you’ve spent years putting yourself on the line legally to raise attention to the cause of global peace.

How has the recognition from World Beyond War impacted your work?

Yes, we were surprised to win the Organisational War Abolisher Award from World Beyond War last year, and it has bolstered our ability to stand alongside people during this genocide.

Civil liberties is always a parallel stream to any social change movement. Potentially, it is the core work, grassroots democracy, getting people involved in the complex issues of our time and understanding what the government is hiding from people.

Community justice, improper use of the law by police and politicians and abolition: these are all very important issues. And this is the work that has to be done.

And lastly, Margeret, the genocide in Gaza continues. The Biden administration is escalating the conflict with ongoing strikes against Yemen, which have Australian support.

So, with that in mind, what’s coming up for Wage Peace?

We are going to disrupt Land Forces in Melbourne in September. It is a massive weapons exhibition, where all the arms dealers, including the Israelis, will come to share their stories of profitmaking and killing.

It is an evil event. And the politicians will be there feeding at the trough. And we will be there to disrupt that event in whatever ways we figure out.

The government is starting to look sick. Penny Wong is starting to look horrified at what she has unleashed. She is starting to notice the shitfuckery she is involved in.

And that is because so many people are out every week, all those people in Sydney, and people know the truth about what’s going on.

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