An organiser of a community protest group which removed barricades controversially erected on a public road at Brunswick Heads last year has been fined $750 after a magistrate on Friday found her guilty of a charge of disposing of stolen property.
Michele Grant was part of a group of more than a dozen Brunswick Heads residents who took part in the community protest action last November, but the only one charged over the action.
The group removed large barricades on Riverside Crescent which they said illegally obstructed access to a public boat ramp at Ferry Reserve, and took them to Mullumbimby where they left them outside the council chambers.
The barricades were erected on the road a week before a new licence agreement for the park was adopted by Council, sparking local outrage. The protest also aimed to highlight ongoing community support for retaining foreshore land for public use.
Ms Grant, of the Foreshore Protection Group, said outside Byron Bay Court after Friday’s one-day hearing that she was likely to appeal against the finding on the charge she had vigorously defended.
She added that she was disappointed magistrate Michael Dakin had ‘described a community protest as a vigilante action’.
Mr Dakin told Ms Grant before fining her that it was ‘not up to’ her to decide what action should be taken over the issue, but the responsibility of a ‘popularly elected government’, rather than for her to ‘take the matter’ into her ‘own hands’.
He told her she did not represent the ‘community view in its entirety’ and that the protest action had an ‘aspect of a vigilante action’ which should be ‘discouraged’.
During legal argument in the case, Mr Dakin told Ms Grant’s counsel, John Weller, that the disputed issue of whether the road ownership was vested in Byron Shire Council or the state agency North Coast Holiday Parks (NCHP) was not one he had to decide, but whether Ms Grant, when she disposed of the barricades, ‘knew they were stolen’.
The definition of the word ‘stolen’ under the Crimes Act was subject to much debate between Mr Weller, police prosecutor Brett Gradinski, and Mr Dakin.
Mr Dakin said Ms Grant had for a long time ‘fervently pursued’ the disputed access rights to the public areas ‘and in this case obstruction of those areas’, and that she had been ‘clearly passionate about the issue’.
But he said he was satisfied beyond reasonable doubt that the barricades had been ‘stolen’, irrespective of who owned them, and that they had been disposed of rather than ‘returned’ to any particular person or entity.
He said this was also because Ms Grant had later given police a plug which had been removed from the barricades so as to drain water to make them lighter to move.
‘If you’re wanting to return it, it’d be expected you’d return it in its entirety rather than without a significant piece of that item,’ Mr Dakin said.
Ms Grant throughout the hearing denied the barricades had been ‘stolen’, saying the action was a community protest in which Byron Shire Council managers, state MPs and ministers responsible, as well as local media, were informed well ahead of the action with numerous emails, calls and conversations.
She said the group believed the barricades had belonged to Byron Council and that they would return them to council after the action.
She said she spoke to council’s infrastructure manager Phil Holloway beforehand who told her it was ‘OK to bring back the barricades to the council chambers instead of the council depot in Byron Bay’ after they had been removed from Riverside Crescent.
Ms Grant said Mr Holloway had told her the barricades had been taken by NCHP from the old Pacific Highway nearby and used to block the road in Ferry Reserve.
The protesters had left signs at Riverside Crescent and attached to the barricades after the action, explaining what had been done and why.
She also said the group aimed to keep the action ‘as safe as possible’ and done quickly as there were plenty of young locals who had threatened to take action themselves and knock the barricades down.
The group wanted to ensure it was done quickly in a ‘very peaceful, polite way’.
Plenty of warning
She said the barricade removal had been made with plenty of warning which was obvious by the fact that a caravan park resident had prior knowledge as he had confronted them almost as soon as they started dismantling the barricades that night.
Ms Grant said the resident, Gary Worthy, had approached the group, which included many women, and ‘abused and insulted’ them while taking photographs ‘in his underpants’.
Mr Worthy, whose photographs were used as evidence, had denied he had been rude or abusive at an earlier hearing of the case.
Ms Grant told prosecutor Mr Gradinski during her cross-examination that ‘as a community we feel the responsibility for protecting that public land for public use’.
‘You just can’t go out and put things on the road, you’re not allowed to do that so I had as much right to remove them.’
Asked what right she had to remove the barricades, Ms Grant said it was ‘to prevent a greater theft: the theft of public land is to me a far greater theft than the bollards’.
She said the action had been supported by local residents, fishermen, a councillor and some caravan park residents who didn’t want to get involved for fear of being evicted.
She said the action was about ‘putting pressure’ on authorities to ‘do their job’ to unblock the road and it was a ‘completely victimless crime’.
She said NCHP had years of ‘form’ in ‘not doing the right thing by the public’ with encroachments on buffer zones and ‘disregard for council directions and the law’.
The closure, she said, was ‘unapproved and did not follow the proper process’.
‘I didn’t break any laws, I returned the barricades to assist our council to enforce their own rules… there was a lot of civil unrest over it.’
Former Byron Cr Tom Tabart also gave evidence, saying the licence conditions the council he was then part of was attempting to impose on NCHP had excluded Riverside Crescent from the caravan park boundaries ‘so at that stage it was still in public use’.
Supporters of Ms Grant claim her prosecution is a classic SLAPP (strategic lawsuit against public participation) move aimed at silencing the outspoken critic.
The group has long fought against encroachment of public land by NCHP, which runs three caravan parks on crown reserves in the village.
One of the group has told Echonetdaily that the charging of Ms Grant was aimed at trying to intimidate the vocal protest group by ‘chopping its head off’.
‘It’s a classic SLAPP move, one being used more and more by developers, corporations and governments in the US and Australia to silence those speaking out,’ the supporter said.