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A Student Marcher

This is the most honest, humblest and accurate account I have read by a street marcher in Queensland during the Bjelke-Petersen era (1970-1989). I think the importance of this story is that by banning our democratic-right-to-march, Bjelke-Petersen enlivened the student movement and made us fight for our rights that much harder. I hope that her story and others encourage students of today to do likewise. It was first published in Bjelke Blues stories of repression and resistance in Joh Bjelke-Petersen’s Queensland 1968 – 1987 edited by Edwina Shaw. – Ian Curr (Ed).

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It was a Wednesday morning in July 1976 when I read a poster advertising a student strike and T.E.A.S. (Tertiary Education Assistance Scheme) march while waiting for a lift in the Michie Building at the University of Queensland. As a second-year arts student, I rarely noticed posters and certainly didn’t read any of them, but this one caught my eye. On full TEAS as a 26-year- old “mature age” student I appreciated this living allowance. I couldn’t afford to study without it. I’d planned to spend that Thursday peacefully in the library but I realized that I should join a rally that was supporting the allowance that made it possible for me attend U.Q. I couldn’t expect others to campaign on my behalf.

Not that I knew what a campaign was. I’d never attended a rally or been in a march before and had no idea whatsoever that this proposed march was illegal. I’d arrived in Australia in 1972 and had only heard about Bjelke Peterson when a story reached me that he’d denied the existence of an oil spill on the Great Barrier Reef after he’d just flown over it. I wasn’t impressed.

The next day there was a great crowd milling around the Student’s Union building. A place I’d never entered apart from eating at the refectory. I heard a voice ring out. A girlfriend holding up one end of a banner called me over and asked me to hold her end while she went to the loo.

The moment she disappeared the march took off – with me holding one side of the banner right at the front.

Disconcerted at first, I quickly started to enjoy this new experience. A dynamic atmosphere of chants, shouts and cat calls. We marched down Sir Fred Schonell Drive and onto Coronation Drive until we came across the William Jolly Bridge. Suddenly blue shirted cops came hurtling towards us from both sides of the road and chaos erupted. I felt the banner being torn from my grasp. A sharp blow whacked me on the back of my head making me stumble forward. Puzzled, I concluded that somehow a flag pole had accidentally hit me. We marchers regrouped and stormed triumphantly and chaotically into King George Square.

I was in a swirl of people when a bloke jumped in front of me pushing a microphone into my face. “Are you the student that got bashed?” he yelled. I don’t know what I gabbled to the journalist as it dawned on me that it wasn’t a banner pole after all. He told me it that it was a policeman called Beatty who he’d seen slam me with a baton from behind.

Little did I know that the scene of Beatty drawing his baton out of his sleeve and hitting me on the head before furtively sliding it back up his sleeve had been filmed by more than one TV channel. I never watched TV but started to hear from those who did. And they weren’t all approving. My family and some friends were not impressed that I’d got involved. My first march and I’d made the 6 o’clock news.

The next day there was a mass student meeting at the Student’s Union about the student bashing. I didn’t attend. I was busy going about my usual student life and ignored the whole issue. When I refused to be interviewed by the press, I was in a class of about 400 students when the lecturer received a note … after reading it he called out my name and requested that I go outside.

Bemused, I gathered up my books and stepped outside the lecture room to find a bevy of journalists with microphones and cameras. When I was asked where I was hit, I touched my head and the next day the Courier Mail had a photograph of me doing it. I looked like an idiot.

After that it was all on and I no longer resisted the pressure to go on TV and make statements. It was scary but suddenly I was part of a movement for the right to march. When the interviewer asked me whether I’d march again I said, “Only if it’s legal.”

Getting politicised in this way was sudden and at first intimidating. The Student Union president asked me to meet Civil Liberty lawyers – a certain famous red-headed one said they’d back me if I wanted to take Bjelke Petersen to court for quashing Police Commissioner Ray Whitrod’s inquiry into the bashing. I asked whether the court case would be public …yes was the answer. Would it be around exam time, was my second question. Probably. I said that I’d think about it over the weekend. And said no. I wanted peace to continue my studies and sit exams at the end of the year. A law student braver than I took up this action and eventually it got thrown out of court. At the time I knew nothing of the “Rat Pack” and Whitrod’s struggle to survive. Hearing about the storm trooper attacks on hippies in Cedar Bay was a shock. Commissioner Ray Whitrod wouldn’t survive these two tests to his authority and Bjelke Petersen replaced him with the infamous Terrance Murray Lewis.

To cut a long story short I joined in many illegal marches after that and got arrested at one memorable rally at King George Square. It was in October 1977 and opposed uranium mining. As usual we were surrounded on all sides by hundreds of blue-shirted police. Hoping to avoid trouble, when we left King George Square I chose a spot to march that looked less hectic. I must have been one of the first to get arrested.

After supplying what the police officer called a voice print, getting fingerprinted and photographed, I was left alone in a paddy wagon. I banged the walls of that metal box over and over again … outside there were many arrests and inside the wagon I made my own thundering protest at the attempts to stop us marching against uranium mining. At the Watch House sitting with crowds of women in one cell I listened to defiant shouts in the next cell – women yelling “Kill the cops! Kill the pigs!” I shut my eyes tightly, made myself very small and waited for us all to get beaten after those calls. But no-one threatened us and eventually we were all released – I heard that our bail was paid by the Civil Liberties Co-Ordinating Committee.

The civil liberties campaign was on and the Civil Liberties Co-Ordinating Committee met on campus. During my third year, 1977, I became distracted from my dedicated life as a student and often helped upstairs in the Students Union building to write posters and placards for marches. This is a skill I still use today. I became a participant in The “Right to March” campaign and devotedly marched to King George Square to hear old “Squaremouth” Gary McLelland howl his instructions to us and marched many times from UQ often seeing lecturers and tutors ahead of me. George Georges was a familiar leader at the rallies in King George Square.

Sam Watson Senior, Sammy Watson, Pastor Don Brady and Keith Williams were active on campus, promoting a campaign to “Smash the Act”, the antiquated repressive Queensland Act that Bjelke Peterson refused to repeal. The forum areas around the Student’s Union were a vital area for their speeches and I helped organize microphones and book spots for them. The Campaign against Nuclear Power C.A.N.P. on campus also made a big impact on me and I remain an anti-nuclear activist to this day.

The day I received my degree I joined the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) in Brisbane and briefly became a Trotskyist. I was told that Trotsky was reputed to have said, ‘Put the new ones at the front of the marches. When they get bashed they quickly become committed comrades.’ Most appropriate.

In 1979 a pro-abortion campaign, A Women’s Right to Choose, started in response to the Bjelke Petersen government’s attack on women’s abortion rights. We held many meetings, and had rallies outside Parliament House near where I was studying at Q.I.T. I hid behind a placard when I saw my tutors or lecturers.

One night I was caught with three other feminists with bucket and brushes pasting up pro-abortion posters. We flung the buckets of paste and brushes into the river, fled to our little red car and locked the door. The four detectives soon stood outside the car as we sat inside half-laughing, half-afraid. Each detective took one of us aside and I was dumb stuck when mine said, “Well! still in the SWP?” Not only did this stranger know my name but he knew that I’d joined the Socialist Worker’s Party. It was a great day when feminists at work re-enacted this scene in a skit with a cardboard car and women dressed as us poster women and cops … with strident music and strobe lights.

It wasn’t all fun though. When I started my career, a panel member at an interview queried my name – that she’d heard it somewhere. I looked blank and shook my head – and got the job. I kept my head down in a small country town.

In conclusion I’d like to acknowledge the enormous dedication of the leaders and organisers of the 1970’s Civil Liberties Campaign for the Right to March in the Joh era and to give a tribute to Ray Whitrod, a decent cop.

Anonymous

The first march from the University of Queensland on 12 September 1977
after Bjelke Petersen banned street marches. Inset is a picket at Hamilton No 4 wharf in Brisbane in the month leading up to the suspension of democratic rights on 4th Sept 1977.

This short story was first published in Bjelke Blues stories of repression and resistance in Joh Bjelke-Petersen’s Queensland 1968 – 1987 edited by Edwina Shaw.

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