It could have happened anytime. There we were lined up at the entrance to the University facing a phalanx of police. It was 31st March 1978 at Griffith University in Brisbane. Why were we there? Street marches in Queensland were banned by the government. But why then?
Step back to August 1977 and some of us had been down at Hamilton wharves standing on the rail tracks in front of a Uranium train. We were trying to stop uranium from being loaded onto a container ship bound for Hamburg Germany to fuel the nuclear reactors over there. Harrisburg, Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukashima hadn’t happened, yet. We still had years to wait for the lies about those nuclear disasters. We knew about Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Maralinga, surely they were enough? Plus the Fraser federal government released Australia’s Uranium decision that year. The Bjelke-Petersen government and the mining companies were keen to sell as much uranium as they could before prices collapsed. Opposition to mining and export of yellowcake was growing.
On October 22, 1977, the largest mass arrests in Australian history occurred when 5,000 opponents of uranium mining and export tried to march out of King George Square. 418 were arrested and charged with offence like disobey direction and unlawful procession.
On 4 September 1977 Bjelke-Petersen had decided to cut the growing movement off at the knees when he declared in parliament in answer to a Dorothy Dix question: ‘The day of the political street march is over. Don’t bother to apply for a permit you won’t get one’.
This video shows the march on the eve of the 1977 State Elections. At that election there was a 10% swing against the Bjelke-Petersen government in the metropolitan areas because of the Democratic Rights campaign. As a personal note I was arrested that day with about 300 other people. We spent many hours in the watchouse, were released and we went back on the streets to challenge the ban on street marches, some being arrested for a second time on the day of the election 12 Nov 1977. Over 3,000 arrests occurred in the period from 4 Sept 1977 till July 1979.
So here we were preparing to march out of Griffith University on Brisbane’s Southside. Most of the people in the front line had been arrested before at similar confrontations with Qld police. Most but not all of the marchers in the front row were members of the International Socialists, one of a number of small radical group that arose after Bjelke-Petersen banned street marches. There was JM, Vicki , Carole , Charlie, Michael , Grant C, Jane, Lee , Steve , John B and another Grant. I was about four rows back with students from the other University in Brisbane, the University of Queensland (UQ).
Carole was a English lecturer at UQ and Jane was her student. Jane is shown at the end of the 11 Nov 1977 march arrested and chanting the familiar refrain: “The people united will never be defeated.” Charlie was the son of a fridge magnate. Lee had been, at one time or another, in political groups from the far right to the far left. He worked for the ALP and was eventually convicted of electoral fraud. I did not know it then but John B was on bail for possession of drugs. In fact I know little of the background of any of the participants, least of all their personal histories. They were fellow travellers along the road to democratic rights. Behind us there were 300-400 marchers. Nearly all were either students or teachers. There was Keith H who had been there the night the coppers pushed us off the railway track at Hamilton No 4 wharf to enable the uranium train to go through. Our banners read “We Demand the Right to March”, “Unite in Opposition to the State & Federal Governments” and “Campaign against Nuclear power”. We discarded them carefully by the roadside with poles and red and black flags.
The speeches back at the forum area on campus were long gone and now was the time for action, bodies to be placed on the line. The people in the vanguard linked arms ready for the confrontation – a loose sign of solidarity with the persons bedside you. Where moments before there had been youthful exuberance now it was down to business. Across from the entrance to the University on Kessells road stood the Qld Special Branch ready to direct uniformed police to arrest the leaders, to take photos and to behave like thugs if the situation warranted it. There was Mick Vernardos arguably the dumbest man in the police force – reputedly taking over 30 attempts to pass his Sergeant’s exam. Nearby was David Ferguson, lout and thug. There too that day was Mrs Reid perhaps along to assist in the arrest of women marchers. Some women had been strip searched in full view of male police in earlier marches.
The plan was to evade police by turning into Kessells road in a direction away from where ‘the thin blue line’ was waiting. Adrenalin was up. The front line began to run. It became skewed almost immediately because of the unfamiliarity people had with this formation while at the gallop. Lee and Steve wore tight jeans and heavy boots hoping to evade police by running their heels down the shins of arresting officers. Steve did manage to break free but Lee was captured and placed in the Black Maria.
I was arrested that day (31 March 1978) with 7 other people, I was taken separately to the South Brisbane Watchouse, detained unlawfully, verballed by police, and charged with conspiracy to breach the peace in the night-time and willful damage. I was also charged with illegal marching and disobey a police direction. Police claimed that I had lit a fire on a magistrate’s front lawn. I was sent to prison and the bail was set at thousands of dollars that I did not have. A collection was taken up by the Civil Liberties Coordinating committee and I was eventually released. Months later I was refused bail and jailed again, this time by a judge of the district court. He eventually resigned from hearing the case after he was overuled by the Supreme Court of Queensland. The public defender, know as Wild Bill, and his apprentice John Jerrard stood before the Supreme Court asked why it was necessary to throw me in the slammer on the basis of damage done to a $25 nylon garden hose.
Some time later I was tried and acquitted by a jury of the charges of willful damage and breach of the peace. The jury doubted the version of events given by police.
Later, a magistrate convicted me of the lesser charges of disobey a police direction and unlawful procession. I was fined about $100 at a time when the dole was about $50 per week. The judge would had thrown me in jail expressed the opinion that marching was a criminal breach of the peace and should be met by unflinching retribution. One of the National Party’s mates proclaimed that marches should be shot.
It took us nearly two years to win back the right to march that we have today.
Sometimes I wonder if it was all worth it.
The people united will never be defeated!