The first Drug War Freedom Ride


The Sydney 2000 HEMP Olympix

By Saturday 9 September, the miso soup and Chinese herbs had restored my chi. The wahoo of the Big Joint on Sydney Harbour two days before had also served as a tonic and I was ready to participate in the Sydney 2000 HEMP Olympix which were to take place in Victoria Park that day. But well clear of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy.

Another factor was compassion for my friend Michael Balderstone and the burden of madness he was bearing. It came as no surprise to hear from him that getting the Big Joint off the MV Mulguy the day after its Harbour cruise had been a major nightmare. The Big Joint had to be disassembled and carried ashore by dingy. Then the Mulguy scrubbed and prepared for its hire as an Olympics party boat. Help had been sparse and all the while Tony Spanos had raved maniacally and abusively.

So it was a very subdued and enduring Michael who worked to assemble the Big Joint again in Victoria Park. The happy aspect was that he was being helped by Bob Hopkins, the founder of the Nimbin Mardi Grass and the original Plantem.

Here was reconciliation in action. Bob, who had initiated and led the cannabis law reform movement in Nimbin for 7 years, had burned out after the '97 Mardi Grass and left town in pain after abusing all his friends and helpers (Michael in particular) and recanting his cannabis law reform convictions in various letters to local newspapers.

He had since been living in Sydney in a monk's cell in The Rocks, a stone's throw from the southern Harbour Bridge approach, applying his ethical principles and commitment to social justice to homelessness and drug abuse counselling. Cannabis detox in particular.

Now Bob was preparing to return to Nimbin. "It's a unique bubble of culture, nothing like it anywhere else, and it draws one back," he said and added. "As you well know." I do.

When I arrived Jab had already begun putting out the Freedom Ride banners. During the night he had helped Tony Spanos deliver Lady Penelope to the Park and it stood there, a former airport fire tender of the City of Lismore, a huge metal box on wheels and now painted luminous pink. Also delivered was Tony's Reclaim the Streets vehicle, a Mad Max style, crazy amalgam of welded car panels and other bits and pieces. No motor, it had two 50 mm diameter hawsers attached so that it could be hauled into action.

I became aware of Brett Collin's presence in the Victoria Park when I felt a nuzzle in my crutch and saw it was his dog Che saying hello. But Brett didn't stay long. Jab told him that this was ‘our event' (presumably meaning a Nimbin/HEMP Embassy event as distinct from a Freedom Ride event) and Brett was not welcome. This rudeness from someone with less than 6 months association with Nimbin and the HEMP Embassy set my teeth on edge. To my knowledge no-one, not even secret police and their agents, has ever been refused participation in the HEMP Olympix. Here was serious delusion. No longer ‘Just a Bus driver', our Jab.

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The HEMP Olympix had been introduced as a crowd participation activity at the 95 Nimbin Mardi Grass at the time Sydney was bidding to be host for the 2000 Olympic Games. It was one of those stoned fantasies that took off and became a national joke, a "positive drug testing mandatory" giggle to even the most poo-faced sports commentator. The principle events are bong throwing, joint rolling (speed and art) and the Growers Iron-person contest.

As an event the HEMP Olympix had gone from strength to strength and conducting them in Sydney in association with the Olympic Games to lighten up the overbearing nationalism and seriousness of the sports hype (what happened to play and playfulness?) had become a mission of Michael Balderstone, the personality behind the HEMP Embassy.

Michael regards the himself as the black sheep, the drop out stockbroker, of a rich and influential family. His father was a grazier in Western Victoria; his father's brother on the board of directors of BHP and the Westpak Bank, and chairman of the biggest beef empire in Australia. His brother Simon, a mover in the federal and state Labour Party, was part of the A Team of the Sydney Olympic Games Organising Committee, and this time in his moment of power. So behind the cannabis law reform gesture, perverse but good humoured sibling rivalry was being enacted.

Although Michael's help for the Freedom Ride had been slight and the obstacles he had created many (more unconscious rivalry I suppose), he had asked me often to help organise the Sydney HEMP Olympix. As a friend and as second priority to the Freedom Ride I had put in a few hours.

Earlier in the year I had visions of finding a Sydney promoter for the HEMP Olympix who would produce it with bands and make it the centre of a major drug law reform rally. But with no financial backing to offer and major obstacles promised for any non Olympic event organiser, such a person had not manifested and now we were at our fall back position – a zap event in a public park, no permissions, no insurance, and minimum production. The publicity for the event had been minimal too; some A6 stickers and flyers, printed at Breakout Press and distributed around Camperdown and South Sydney a couple of days prior.

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The Big Joint took 3 hours to assemble and while we waited, a small crowd gathered about, amongst them some international journalists in Sydney a week out from the Olympic Games opening to get some background stories. While I was talking to a US journalist from Associated Press, New York, who was saying how appalled he was by his nation's drug prohibition/incarceration madness, the Council Rangers arrived.

My captain's hat and grey beard must have given me some air of authority, because although I considered myself to be just another spectator at the event, they came straight to me and asked me what was going on. Michael and the rest of the NHE company watched from a distance, became invisible.

I explained that the Sydney 2000 HEMP Olympix were about to take place. "Do you have permission from Council?" they inquired. We had thought about asking, I explained, but considering the events were bong throwing and joint rolling, we decided not to bother. At this the Rangers fell about laughing. But we did get permission from Tony Spanos, I said. At the mention of that name, the Rangers slapped their foreheads and groaned.

"We will have to write a report", the lead Ranger said. "May we have your name." You may say my name is Lachlan Murdoch, son of Rupert, I replied. At this the AP journalist fell about laughing and the Rangers went away grinning.

Next I was confronted by three police officers on bicycles. Same routine. "Just treat it as a peaceful picnic, 200 people max", I assured them.

I had never noticed Sydney's bicycle cops before, and certainly not this close up. Skin stretched bike pants and tops, a girl and two guys, all of them young and trim of body. I guess it was the sexiness of the outfit and maybe the absence of the ploddy footwear that made them seem so harmless and friendly. For certainly they were friendly and I thought what a great job to be riding around Sydney's parks talking to visitors all day. Then I noticed the Glock hand guns on their belts.

Two nights before a police officer with a Glock, had shot, a car thief, in William Street Kings Cross. In the head and through the window, as he struggled to un-fasten his seat belt. The shot would have blown the poor boy's head apart. God rest his soul.

Pre-Olympic security jitters is how it looked. The police had seriously over reacted, beating up amongst themselves that the thief was armed, The boy on their records was never known to bear arms. A tactical response style road block and ambush had been set up in Williams Street.

The executing officer had tailed the stolen car in an unmarked car and sprung the ambush by ramming into its rear. He then leapt out with Glock drawn and demanded the boy leave the car. The officer's adrenalin would have been pumping, his sense of time dilated to the extreme, a millisecond in real time like 10 seconds to him as he stood with Glock aimed,a response demanded. Boy reaches to his side. Bang! Officer reels back and collapses by car and is comforted by his colleague, a female officer. Boy dies. Horror! Public outrage. Officer gets charged with murder, the first direct murder charge in a series of police killings since the issuing of Glocks.

Police community liaison, I reckon is a two way thing and if we community people don't use every opportunity to give feedback about police behaviour, police culture would exist in self referring isolation. Justice Wood in his1995 Royal Commission into Police Corruption report had been critical of how the corruption, which had flourished as a result of the Drug War and the trade in illicit drugs it had created, had been for so long denied and protected. Police had looked after their own however corrupt and murderous they were.

Community based policing (as in police embedded in community life) was a seen as a counter to this, as a path by which police culture could become more integrated and responsive to community concerns. Community policing not only offers better information for basing policing decisions, it also offers opportunity for direct feedback on police behaviour human to human. No hiding behind the uniform. This stuff keeps us all honest. And safe.

"Glocks on bikes," I observed. "You guys have got to do something about those Glocks. They are a danger to us, the public, as well as to you. The trigger pressure is too light, at 2 pound per square inch it is half what used to be called hair trigger."

"The officer should not have had his finger on the trigger", ventured one of the young officers. True but he didn't need to draw the gun at all. In fact no-one needed guns that night. Nor does 99% of policing requires the presence of Glocks.

Maybe politeness is in the training manual as the best means of disengaging from raving loonies in parks, but the officers soon departed giving me a blessing. "You have a good day, Mr Murdoch.", the young woman officer said as she turned to ride off.

I felt on top of the world.

The AP reporter who had been witnessing all this was agog. "You Sydney guys are something", he said. "If this was New York, the police would have been down here with batons by now"

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The Sydney 2000 HEMP Olympix began with the arrival of the hemp stalk torch born by the mighty Chibo who had done so much to promote sport in Nimbin, coaching soccer and basketball teams. There is no truth in the rumour that his father competed in the 1936 Berlin Olympics. I know because I started the rumour.

Behind Chibo ran The Plantem, in his green knitted hemp suit, sunglasses and gumboots. Not the scrawny Plantem of Chicken George, but the original Plantem, the fit and resilient Bob Hopkins. The torch did a lap of honour around Victoria Park, genuflecting at the Sacred Fire of the Aboriginal Embassy, Bob trailing, feeling the pace in the handicap of gum boots. Then it came to our set up, through an avenue formed by the crowd and a standing ovation, to light the candle of remembrance for the victims, casualties and prisoners of the Drug War.

Using the PA of Peacebus.com I led a meditation in remembrance of the suffering of Drug War prisoners by asking people to look into their hearts and recall the fears of childhood of separation from, or abandonment by loved ones, and to make this into a big ball of compassion to reach out to all the Drug War prisoners in the world who feel lonely, isolated and afraid,. "We who believe in freedom will not rest. We who believe in freedom will not rest until its won!" I concluded.

By this time we had a crowd of about 200 people and many were deeply moved by the rap. And the mood change. Princess Anne (how lucky we were to have royalty that day) gave an address and did the official opening. "Let the games begin!"

First up was bong throwing which involved throwing a standard 200 ml plastic drink bottle with garden hose and water as far one could while shouting something like: Folk rumour has it that the event began as a householder's bong protest. Bong smokers love to leave their grotty bongs on the floor where they get kicked over spilling bong water on the carpet and where it stinks for days. "Get that stinking thing out of here" was the shout as the legendary householder hurled the offending bong into a paddock.

The competition as always was the cause for great crowd merriment, and so it was this fine Spring day. And particularly so when a thrown bong fell amongst the laughing bicycle police.

Jab brought my attention to other police officers assembling in the park, including 12 on horses Glocks and batons on their sides. Tony Spanos explained that I should not be concerned and that this was his escort for Reclaim the Streets (RTS).

Tony had rigged the Big Joint on his Mad Max machine into which he had also mounted a generator and sound system. Off he went to reclaim the streets with the Big Joint. Overhanging so much at either end that the Big Joint curved like a Big Banana. Or a boomerang. I prayed it would come back.

The amazing procession departed doof-doof-doofing down City Road, Tony steering and calling directions to the tuggers on the ropes. A rare exposure of the denizens of dance to daylight, I saw silver space suits, colour spiked hair-dos and dreadlocks. Festivals around the world would envy such spontaneous art and gaiety in the streets and the police provided an impressive mounted escort, limiting their job to minimising traffic hazards.

Most of the crowd departed with the Big Joint, mobile doof and horse parade and the HEMP Olympix came to a halt. I stayed in the park resting and playing with magical children, friends of St John who had befriended me too. Michael and Kate from Lithgow had trained down for the day and brought their kids too. Sitting on the grass in this beautiful day, food was shared, and intimate conversation. Another convivial Peacebus picnic it was.

After about 2 hours Michael rang my mobile phone to say that the Big Joint had gone up George Street (a major traffic route through the CBD). Chicken George, a 60-year-old former jockey and at one time the youngest most intractable prisoner in the NSW prison system, had ridden the Joint all the way wearing the Plantem suit. The Joint had occupied Town Hall Square and the crowd was going off, he reported, with hundreds of young people dancing, international travellers and pre-Olympics media too. The police had blocked off roads to Darling Harbour but were happy with the Town Hall occupation. So were the people, apparently.

A little later Michael called again and asked me to go and meet the returning Big Joint. He said he was caught in traffic and the police had announced the Big Joint would not be returning to Victoria Park. So I stood at the City Road intersection of Broadway and waited for the Joint.

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The procession came into view 500 metres away, 250 people dancing in a throng across one half of Broadway. From my up hill view, the Big Joint seeming to float above them. Triumphant vision. Big Joint seizes city! But then at an intersection it halted its forward movement, blocked by a police patrol car and turned sideways. It stayed there for some minutes in ambivalence and blocked off all of Broadway. The approaching traffic began to build up and very quickly two blocks and six lanes of cars was waiting. The stopped cars could see the obstacle and some began to honk.

The Big Joint began moving but off Broadway into a side street. I hurried down there and found the Big Joint already on the ground and lying upside down like a gutted fish. A dance party was cranking up, crammed into a narrow alley, which could have been back street of an industrial slum, anywhere. Oh, the indignity of it!

The mounted police were at the end of the lane and there was one presiding police officer in the lane. I went up and introduced myself. He said his name was Inspector Dave Darcy. "You're famous", I said because he was for the win-win peaceful way and he managed protests and dance parties in the inner city. Tony Spanos had complained that Dave had been losing the plot of late and getting arbitrary about his decisions. There had been conflict at the last Reclaim the Streets party. Tony was no longer regarded as the police liaison person.

I could imagine that Inspector Darcy found walking a middle path between the anarchy of the likes of Tony and the law and order people of Police command very difficult. Major investment had been made in training and equipping tactical response teams and once trained these guys would always be looking for opportunities to use their batons. His liberal ways must often be under pressure from within the Police Service.

In reply to my question about why the Big Joint had been waylaid, Inspector Darcy said that the agreement struck with the Aboriginal Tent Embassy forbade drugs and alcohol in the Park and the Aboriginal Embassy people did not want the Big Joint there.

I replied that I would be happy to talk to the Aboriginal Embassy people about that but it was not my understanding of their position. Meanwhile the Big Joint was neither drugs nor alcohol. It was our icon and we wanted it back in Victoria Park.

Inspector Darcy told me the redirection had been negotiated with the Reclaim the Streets liaison officer and pointed out the woman. He then got on his radio: "I need help", I heard him saying as I hurried to the liaison officer's side. She was untying the skin of the Joint and I realised she had traded the Big Joint off so as to allow the dance party to continue till late. "You forgot to ask us," I told her.

A few words to Tony and he turned off the doof and with brevity and understatement announced the Joint was going back to the Park. In a big voice I called to the throng: "Help me carry it, fellas." Young men rushed forward like they do at Mardi Grass and in a flash forty of us had it aloft on our shoulders and were proceeding down the lane past Inspector Dave Darcy.

Ever flexible Dave was responding with a new plan and he wanted the Joint to turn right. No longer trusting his directions I led the Joint to the left and around the block, past the line of police horses and to the lights at Broadway again. What could a line of police on horses do with a 42 foot Joint? Just let it pass.

The Big Joint waited for the lights to go green then we surged ahead. The police and RTS organisers yelled for us to stop. For a while there was a test of strength as we pulled and pushed against each other, the police at the end of the Big Joint trying to deflect it from crossing Broadway. Turns out they only wanted us to wait until the doof machine caught up to us so we yielded.

At the next change of lights the Big Joint and doof machine were triumphantly reunited and we paraded up Broadway together and into Victoria Park. Great theatre. The Big Joint had proven unstoppable. Tony was elated. It had been the best RTS ever, he said. Likewise the lad shouldering the Joint beside me, a backpacker from Ireland, was smiling and saying what a great day it had been and what a great place Sydney was.

Then and there I decided to take the Big Joint to s11, the protest blockade of the World Economic Forum in Melbourne,11-13 September. We had heard about s11 before we set out and had checked out the website and made a tentative commitment when were in Junee. But now I had seen the Big Joint in action in Sydney I was wed.

Back in the Park Chibo got the joint rolling competition under way in the enthusiastic crowd and by the time he made the presentations, it was dark. An excellent rapper entertained a throng of dancers at the doof machine now in the car park and Murri and Johnny Chai from the Nimbin Timbarra Café set up a Chai stall. All anarchy but an orderly party of about 100 urban and provincial ferals was soon throbbing in public place.

Inspector Darcy came to my side while I was dismantling the Big Joint. He asked me to move the vehicles (Peacebus.com and Lady Penelope) from off the grass. A Council request. I replied that it was difficult for it was a messy crowd manoeuvre and I could not see they would doing any more harm to the grass or the people if they stayed where they were for a bit longer. We would be gone soon enough in any case. He also asked that the Park be left clear of litter and I replied that it was a point of honour for the RTS people to clean up. They had provided their own bins for that purpose.

Dave Darcy chose to trust that crowd and me. He dismissed his officers and we didn't see another police patrol for the rest of the night. It had been a testing time for him personally but his judgement had remained sound. Alcohol was minimal and there was no trouble. Later when a journalist from the Bulletin rang to follow up the HEMP Olympix story, I was lavish in my praise of Inspector Dave Darcy.

Given the chaos upon which he was surfing, his crowd management had produced excellent outcomes - a happy crowd and a demonstration to Sydney visitors how free wheeling and funny Sydneysiders could be in public place. His example and his influence, I knew, would ensure that Sydney would have happily managed crowds at the Olympic Games.

Michael was delighted at my determination to take the Big Joint to s11. Family commitments were calling him back to Nimbin. The deal was he would give the Freedom Ride $500 from the Nimbin HEMP Embassy for the fuel of Peacebus to get there and back again to Sydney for the Olympics.

I worked steadily at pulling down the Big Joint and stowing it on Peacebus.com. My body still weak from the flu I was pacing myself. In less than 30 hours we were due at the s11 in Melbourne 800 km away for the final adventure of the Freedom Ride.

My troubles with "More than Just a Bus driver" Jab began at once. I was eager to get on the road and start driving first thing next day or even that night. Jab claimed to have arranged a media photo opportunity for Peacebus and Chicken George,The Plantem, at 11 am the next day and wanted to wait for that.

Jab as media tout was new and to me likely delusional. Besides, as much as I admired the performance of Chicken George as Plantem, he was unlikely news and irrelevant to Peacebus and its s11 mission. We were soon shouting, me from on top of Peacebus where I was tying down the load. When Jab declared he wouldn't drive the bus on my timetable, I leapt at the opportunity and said: "Fine, you're off the bus I will get another driver." Finding another driver I realised would be a problem but not insurmountable given it would be carrying s11 protesters with driving licenses. Jab's delusions about his competency and authority were bigger problems.

Jab called in Michael to adjudicate and Michael backed Jab, saying a couple of hours delay would not make much difference and it would be too dangerous to trust the driving of Peacebus to a stranger.

More sibling rivalry, I reckoned but I was as stymied as I was fatigued. Michael with no experience in the convoy journey's of the Freedom Ride or Jab's madness, was telling me he knew better and using the $500 leverage to assume absentee command of Peacebus. Jab had a new master and I had troubles.

We were facing a major anti globalisation action and, based on past performance of police in Seattle and Washington, a real probability of police violence in Melbourne. And Michael, who would not be present in person at s11 or suffer the consequences of his intervention, had unmined my leadership to further his own sense of being born a Balderstone and as such, a naturally superior decision maker.

Getting people organised and moving together at social actions in the streets is difficult at the best of times and now I had the extra burden of working around the obstacles that Jab in his manic sense of righteous would create for me.

With friends like these, who needs enemies? But this is how it is amongst the anarchy, egos and the walking wounded of popular protest.

Graeme Dunstan
drafted between 8 & 25 September 2000

 

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