Grab that Graffiti Artist!

Write of life / the pious said
forget the past / the past is dead.
But all I see / in front of me
is a concrete floor / a cell door / and John Pat.
– Jack Davis

In August 1980, I was sent to Stuart Creek Prison for painting “This bank owns shares in Uranium Mining & Export” on the Westpac bank in Flinders Mall, Townsville.

This article describes how the criminal justice system in Queensland contrived to make me a political prisoner.

Magistrate John Winmill convicted me summarily in court when friends were charged wrongly with wilful damage for this and other graffiti. The magistrate told me that it was for ‘contempt of court’. Snr Sgt Sanderson, the police prosecutor, told the magistrate that I had said to him during a brief interval in proceedings that: “You have that magistrate in your pocket.”

I went along to court to support my friends who had been charged with offences they did not commit — political graffiti like: “This Bank owns shares in uranium mining” which had been painted on the Bank of New South Wales (now Westpac).

Right wingers in Townsville had come around and painted over some of the graffiti to make the meaning change into a form more politically acceptable to them. For example, by the application of white paint over some of the words, “Throw Fraser Out — introduce socialist policies” became “Throw out socialist policies”.

One feminist slogan “Export Romance” on Pat Washington’s boutique storefront became “Expo Romance”. “Nuclear Free” became just “Nuclear” and “Fight Joh” became “Fight Oh!” The counter-graffiti artists did lack imagination.

None of the counter-graffiti artists had been charged even though the police knew who they were. But my friends had been charged. Initially I was not charged with graffiti but I was planted with hashish by plain clothes Detective Conrad Martens. After a trial that took many twists and turns with the onetime head of the Crime and Misconduct Commission [CMC], Bob Needham, fronting the magistrate on behalf of the then Premier, Bjelke-Petersen, to say that the crown would not release my special branch file to the court.

I had subpoened it because I was searched by a special branch officer, John Joyce, when I hitch-hiked into town some months earlier. Another magistrate, Caldwell, acquitted me saying that I had no case to answer.

He said that the evidence given by the special branch against me had been a factor in accepting my application for no case to answer.

My defence was that the police had lied in court, it was simply too dangerous for a political activist to ‘do drugs’ in Queensland. One person helped me that day in court when Magistrate Winmill cited me for contempt. It was Cherie Imlah, a Bundjalung woman, who worked at Aboriginal Legal Aid.

My brother, John Curr, who had been a lawyer with Aboriginal Legal Aid in Mt Isa, was prevented from assisting me by the legal system and his position in it. John could not help me even though he was standing right there in court with me when Magistrate Winmill decided to try me summarily for contempt of court and to impose the maximum penalty of two weeks jail in one of the harshest prisons in the country.

As Winmill sent me down, I was escorted into a room by Det. Sgt Robert Joseph Donnelly and a Det. Barry Maff. Det. Donnelly took this opportunity to verbal me on a charge of wilful damage to the Townsville Courthouse. This was the sole evidence advanced against me in the court, yet it took three years to defeat the charge. In the magistrates court, in the district court, and in the Supreme Court of Qld before the charge was dropped by the crown after a Townsville (T’vlle) jury was ‘hung’ [= could not reach a verdict].

The verbal is a classic device used by police who have little or no evidence against a person. This device was used against Lex Wotton by the same T’vlle CIB that used the verbal against me that day with the assistance of Magistrate Winmill. The charges against myself and two others were orchestrated by a Det Sgt Gavin Radford from the T’vlle CIB. This detective threatened to have me killed, saying that there was ‘a truck with my name on it’.

While I did not take Radford’s threats too seriously, there was always the lingering doubt, created intentionally by him, because police in the north had only recently shot a man in the back in the much publicised ‘Don’t Jog in the Fog‘ shooting [the man they shot had been running through fog when he was shot and killed by police].

If Magistrate Winmill had not found me in contempt, the police would not have had a narrative upon which to pin the wilful damage charge on me.

During the next 10 days I was in prison there were two Murri men (among the many others incarcerated at Stuart Creek) whose names I know: one was named Murdoch and another was called Lance Poynter. I was to meet Lance Poynter 20 years later after the sentencing of Lex Wotton to 6 years jail for participating in a demonstration on Palm Island after the police murder of Mulrunji in 2004.

Whitefellas in prison told me to keep away from Murdoch. But he did me no harm. He just sat in the yard a said: “I have seen the promised land, I have been to the mountain top” quoting Martin Luther King’s I-had-a-dream speech.

I do not think the other whitefellas in the compound understood, but I did. They were just simple men, many in prison for crimes of poverty — they had not paid their fines for drink driving. Townsville was a hot, thirsty army town in those days, I suppose it still is.

The Lavarack barracks have been there for 40 years (since 1968). The Americans were there during the Second world war. Wherever you have army bases there is pornography, prostitution, drugs and racism. A friend was ‘sectioned’ [detained under the Mental Health Act of Queensland (1983)] because he complained about a pornography racket being run by a sleeze in West End Townsvlle.

The whistleblower, Ted, was love sick and had the misfortune of having a crush on the daughter of a security guard at the court building. The girl’s father had an order taken out against Ted preventing him from approaching his daughter.

Ted said that she had fallen into a pornography racket and was the subject of lurid photos being sold to soldiers (this is pre-internet). The cops arrested Ted and beat him up with a phone book.They then took him up to the infamous Ward 10B at T’vlle General hospital. The psychiatrist in charge was later named in the Fitzgerald Inquiry, itself initiated by an ABC Four Corners program about drugs and prostitution. This doctor sectioned Ted and had him drugged to the eyeballs.

Fortunately, with the help of a social worker who worked at the hospital, we got Ted out of the Psych Ward 10B. Soon after he was arrested again and sent to jail for writing the words “I love you” on a post-it-note and having someone hand it to his ex-girl friend .

My Auntie was a telex operator in the airforce in Townsville during the war.My partner’s dad was there too, he was a navigator in the airforce.

My Uncle Frank died up north-east of T’vlle in the Coral Sea in 1945 while flying a plane back from the war in the northern hemisphere. Uncle Frank had won a Distinguished Flying Cross [DFC with bar] for his contribution during the war against fascism.

Many Murris fought in the desert in Egypt and in the islands but they did not get any medals.One was refused service in the Cairns RSL when he was de-mobbed. [See the book published by LeftPress called “Peace – a workers’ journey” by Phil O’Brien with Bernie Dowling].

Stuart Creek Prison.

A big highland man from Papua New Guinea bashed me one day, out there in the prison yard. We were sitting down playing drafts one moment and the next thing I know I was thrown down onto the concrete and this huge man was on top of me about to smash my head into the cement.

A prison guard pointed an armalite rifle in my face from above, telling us to stop fighting. The PNG man had a screw loose. I begged him that day to stop or we would both be dead. I thought the guard was going to shoot us both. Fortunately the PNG man came back from wherever his mad rage had taken him and let me go. I never saw my checker opponent turned assailant ever again.

The prison authorities put me in solitary confinement after that. They left the light on in my cell. They came to me in the night time and scared me. Horrible loud commercial music was piped into my cell day and night. My lawyers were incompetent. I served most of my sentence before I got out on appeal.

I won my appeal after I sacked my lawyers. On appeal Judge McGuire said that there was nothing he could do about the sentence because I had served most of it. I received no compensation. This is what he said to me in the District Court in Townsville on 14 November 1980: “Judicial respect is not a purchasable commodity. It cannot be traded in the market place. It cannot be commanded. It has to be deserved. It has to be earned.”

A Judge’s authority is not the mailed fist any more than it is the language of sweet reasonableness. It is compounded of intangibles such as trust and confidence, impartiality and humanity – and, of course, learning. And because of this example of contemptuous conduct, in or out of the face of the Court, are, fortunately, rare.

The appeal against conviction must fail. I consider now the appeal against sentence. The appellant was sentenced to a maximum period of 14 days. The Magistrate said in his reasons for judgment the appellant had admitted a previous conviction for a similar offence. I must say, and say emphatically, that I think the Magistrate overreacted on sentence.

To impose the maximum period was in the circumstances, I think, a strong thing to do. I would not myself have imposed such a sentence. Bad though the case, on the face of it, might seem, I think some greater tolerance should perhaps have been allowed.

I think the appellant has been punished sufficiently. I allow the appeal on sentence. I reduce the sentence to the time already served, namely, 10 days. The appellant will serve no further imprisonment over this matter.”

While I was in T’vlle Prison (called Stuart Creek in those days), there was a hunger strike after a prison riot. The prison superintendent goaded me, he wanted me to eat. I refused. He called me out in the yard, “Com’ on Mr Civil Liberties, eat!” I would not eat and break the strike.

At the time there was a young aboriginal man working in the prison kitchen. His name was Lance Poynter — one of the heroes of Palm Island after Mulrunji was killed by Hurley. Lance, my brother, I send out to you my respect for who you are and what you have done for your people on Palm. Lex, wherever you are, you may be working in the prison laundry, you have my support.

When Labor won Government in July 1998, Judy Spence was sworn in as the Minister for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Policy, Women’s Policy and Fair Trading. Judy Spence entered politics in 1989 as the Labor Member for Mt Gravatt and was Queensland’s longest serving MP for the seat of Mt Gravatt. Ms Spence was also the State’s first female Police and Corrective Services Minister.

The poor tell us who we are, the prophets tell us who we could be, so we hide the poor, and jail the prophets.” —from Phil Berrigan

Ian Curr
September 2018

Winmill v Curr (1980) McGuire DCJ (District Court of Queensland) in 7 Queensland Lawyer 265 ; MC 04/1981.

This bank owns shares in Uranium Mining & Export” – August 1980, Flinders Mall T’vlle first published in the Townsville Daily Bulletin.

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