First published on New Matilda on 19 December.
Thirty years ago Michael Connors spent Christmas in jail after being arrested at the Franklin Dam blockade. He looks back at the successes of one of Australia's largest civil disobedience movements
The Risdon Prison official sat me down in his office and swore, gesturing for me to sign a release form. It was, I think, the governor. If I signed, I’d be free.
It was late December, 1982. I was too young to be inside, he said. Sign this and appear at the Launceston Magistrates court in a few days, he advised. The official had been summoned from family festivities to try and get me out of prison. He was not jolly.
For a green and curious 17-year-old from pro-dam George Town in Northern Tasmania, prison had been the best Christmas gift I could have had. Two weeks or so earlier I rejected bail conditions not to return to the Franklin River Blockade and the old wise magistrate I went before imprisoned me, along with many others. "No one is here to clap now," he said as I was led out of court.
But like all gimmicky gifts, the excitement of imprisonment wore off. The food, the regimentation, the cell-life, all began to fade into grey boredom, only to be broken by rude eruptions of reality. Most days were spent in the remand courtyard. There, card-playing was made difficult when the non-greenie prisoners used the dozen or so remaining protesters as target practice during a game of cricket. A quick way to make six runs.
Nights were mostly quiet. But not always. A prisoners’ middle of the night attempted suicide and Bob Brown’s initially unheeded calls about being a doctor don’t so much haunt me as remind me the place was glum for some. The man’s leaking blood traced a rusty path across the courtyard and had to be washed off in the morning.
There was also the Christmas day film treat: a screening of the historical-flesh pic, Caligula, in the mess. Guards stood on alert as they maliciously stirred up the incongruous brew of Roman empire flesh, Christmas spirit, and the pent up sexual frustration of some prisoners. I still remember looking away for most of it. A stranger in the dark asked if I was okay. I was scared, but I didn’t say so. Half-way through the film I was taken out — I had a visitor. I made the visit last as long as allowed.
So, with all this in mind, and convinced by the official’s red-faced irritation, I signed out of prison. In early January the Launceston magistrate looked at me with bewilderment. "You were there for over two weeks?" He then whispered to a court official, smiled at me and announced that I was released without bail conditions. I was one of the few protesters afforded the freedom to continue protesting.
Which I promptly did.
I hitched back to the blockade, variously lying or bragging about my intentions depending on who picked me up. When I returned to the Strahan arrival camp I found my tent standing alone, utterly deserted. The camp had moved to a site just out of Strahan. Shortly after making it back, I was again nabbed by the police in a mass arrest. Just as we were being taken away to be processed in moon-scaped Queenstown I saw my Year 11 Social Psychology teacher near the boat that took protesters up river. "Mr Tolhurst" I shouted through the bus’s open window, "I’ve been arrested". He seemed proud. It was like that.
I can claim no trauma from those days, no real deprivation and only a world opening before me. It seemed like a natural place to be.
On my second blockade arrest I agreed to bail conditions not to return to the protest sites and was released. I spent the rest of the blockade as a Non Violent Action Trainer at Green Acres, the massive sprawling makeshift campsite in Strahan. There I learned about hot water pulley systems and dug out toilets and blind-folded trust games. I learned the modesty of lentil-fuelled quiet farting in a high density city of pitched tents, and I heard the oohs and ahhs of people making love.
I fell in and out of love several times, not knowing what was happening to me. Between those sublime moments when a kind glance could make a day, I busied myself with occasional jobs including toilet clean ups, deployment to an overnight camp to protect a small plane (Dick Smith’s I guess), and kitchen duties that challenged my beans and toast habits. I co-facilitated three-day workshops at the camp site, with waves of eager arrivals, who would form "affinity groups" in preparation to go upriver and get arrested. We sang songs of eagles and trees and had group hugs. I was never really there during the group hugs.
I met my first radical feminist in an early affinity group. She scolded me when I spoke, aided by my Franklin River Handbook on Non Violent Action on the Gandhian "lessons of history". "What about herstory", she asked? She was, of course, right. I puzzled at the sneers of radicals who spoke about putting sugar in the engines and nails in the trees to break machinery. When we role-played arrests in the early evening of the final day of the training some of these hotheads would deliberately take pot-shots at the arresting police officer and challenge the group to get real about the State. "You need to overthrow it, you know, the State, not group hug it with love". I would in a later political life say such things too (for a time).
But the Franklin River campaign worked, as we know. The proposed dam was halted. It was a victory enabled by protest, politics and law. When the economy was all development and growth with no sustainability, it was the rarest of victories and a visionary one at that. It bruised a working class convinced that cheap energy was the key to jobs — and I know that such feelings remain today. The latest hopes have been pinned to the proposed Bell Bay Pulp Mill.
George Town at the time had one of the highest unemployment rates in Australia. The town’s biggest employers were big energy users Comalco and Temco. Car stickers "Fertilise the earth, bulldoze a greenie" were everywhere. I returned home for a brief time thinking about enrolling in Year 12. This meant taking a daily bus to Alanvale College in Launceston. I found that the daily taunts of "greenie get a job" yelled from passing cars on the main road quickly developed into unrelenting knuckle assaults on my head when I sat on the bus. I moved to Hobart in early March. If anyone can ever have a beating with a good outcome, then this was it.
A year and a half or so after the Franklin River Blockade I found myself at a protest site against the road being built through the Daintree Rainforest in north Queensland.
Here, it was much tougher. Police dogs and Queensland police made sure of that. Along with others I was semi-buried on a dirt track to block the progress of bulldozers building a permanent road through the forest. Dug up and arrested, I didn’t have enough money to pay the fine and so was imprisoned in the Cairns police watch house. I spent eight days of a prison sentence to pay off some of the fine — and then got out the moment my budget allowed it. This was like a real prison, with over 20 people crammed into the two open cells. Most of the inmates were young Indigenous men imprisoned on minor charges such as driving without a licence. We were fed a starvation diet.
At the Daintree protest, there emerged a division between the radical greenies — this was when I first learned the word feral — and the now more sober Wilderness Society as it sought to establish itself as a respectable middle class environmental movement. Another blockade was not the way to do that, it seemed. The road went through, but in 1988 the area was listed as a World Heritage site: a mixed victory or sorts.
Instead of looking back at the successes of one of Australia’s largest civil disobedience movements we now forlornly face a future in which greater challenges appear to excite no mass willingness to engage in civil disobedience. I think about the costs and trade-offs involved in the grey-suiting and power-dressing of the green movement and how it is not only people who mellow, but social movements.
But then again, the Greens can not be denied their significant achievements and since the 1980s there have been scores of small environmental protests across the country. There are still thousands of young and old people willing to climb up trees, trespass and transgress. With the possible growth of state authoritarianism to deal with impending environmental crises, I wonder what the role of protest will be in our turbulent future.
Michael is a Politics Lecturer at La Trobe University.