Occupying public place, speaking truth
and laughing together
Report of the celebration of Independence from America Day
Byron Bay, 4 July 2008
Smoke poured from the windows of the cardboard Whitehouse / Jailhouse which had been set up in Railway Park, Byron Bay, and arrayed about by flags of resistance. Cardboard flames danced about.
Atop the Whitehouse / Jailhouse and under a cardboard flag, was a cardboard effigy of Australian Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd .
"Rudd the Dud" said the text. And "End the Wars. End the Lies, End the US Alliance."
About 50 people watched the curious spectacle, most of them friends associated the HEMP Embassy, Nimbin, and the rest tourists who happened upon it by chance.
Across the road participants at the Activating Peace and Human Rights Conference watched from the balcony of the Byron Community and Cultural Centre and cheered.
It was the 4 July and we were celebrating Independence from America Day, the eight annual, and we were burning an illusion.
No real flames came near the effigy because a deal had been made.
It was a mock burning; the smoke came from a distress flare and the cardboard art is now to be seen, preserved in the Nimbin Museum.
For the previous three years we had been celebrating Independence from America Day on the first Sunday of July because this was also Byron market day.
Key to the success of that celebration in previous years had been the support of Samba Blisstas, the street drum band led by drum master, Paul Barrett. All volunteers these and their drumming skills the product of weekly drumming workshops and rehearsals run by Paul.
But they have also got day jobs, Paul too, and Friday daytime is not a drum day for such people. I put out a call for drummers but none responded. Not one.
Sign of the times and another lesson in impermanence.
Thanks to a combination of the dole reforms of Howard which has locked the dole recipients into case management and escalating rents caused by real estate speculation and holiday rentals, there aint no free floating activist arts community living in and around Byron like there used to be.
Despite fifteen years of the popular resistance to prevent development that would make Byron just another suburb in the coastal strip city of the Greater Gold Coast, just another hot spot tourism and property development zone, and despite a Green majority on Council, by making itself so exclusive, pacification (as in "make passive") and gentrification happened anyway.
Recent rallies against a Woolworths development by Mullumbimby show that hippie anarchism is still in them there hills, no protests now in Byron against development.
But the struggle against Woolworth is likely hopeless as that against Becton development of the Byron Beach Resort because the Minister for Planning, Frank Sartor, has usurped all power over development from local government and the NSW ALP is corrupt. Just as Becton got the nod and so too Mullum Woolies. One wonders how fat is Frank's secret Macquarie Bank account.
Sign also of the times was the non acceptance of Green Byron Mayor, Cr Jan Barham, of my invitation for her to speak at the Independence Day rally. She had done it before but now she faced an upcoming election and a challenge from developers who were naming her, the "Do nothing Mayor".
Association with me and my cannabis comrades seemed to be an even greater challenge for she could even bring herself to reply to my invitation.
Visibly supporting the Independence Day Rally however was Cr John Lazarus and his partner Marie Hayes, custodians of the Byron peace flags, a bunch of which they brought and rigged at our assembly area.
John had been elected to Council on the Greens ticket but when I introduced him to the mike as a Green councillor, I learned he was no longer. Seems John was marching to the beat of a different drum and since last time we met there had been a fall out in the Green caucus over his truculent challenges to developers and his outspoken representation of the poor.
The Mayor and her supporters judged his dreadlocks and his activist manner as bad for their image and electability and wanted to censure him and expell him from The Greens. John chose to resign from the Greens but continue on Council as an independent. As such he has little sway in terms of votes but he has regained his voice as a public orator and a spokesperson for the poor. At that rally he spoke powerfully.
Given that activism is the soil from which the Green movement sprung, it is likely Jan and her fellow Green councillors, by putting image before integrity, will soon wither and die as a political force in Byron. So it goes in Byron, its once bright Green is fading fast.
And so it was that the only drums to answer the call was the loyal cannabis activists of Nimbin, the outspokenness of Cr John Lazarus and a single djembe which was carried by Rusty Harris. And that was appropriate because it was in support of Rusty's sniffer dog bust in 2000, that the first Independence from America Day was rallied.
In previous years our flag bedecked parade through Byron and into the market ground had been amazing to see and its drumming an uplift for the spirit. Truly people had danced for joy in the streets.
This year we were few on the ground and our presence muted. But we were visible and undaunted none the less.
To visitors to Byron that day, maybe 90% or more of the street crowd on any day, we must have looked like hill tribes people come to town to protest, say clear fell logging; curious, colourful and weird.
When it comes to political activism in the Rainbow Region, the cannabis economy of Nimbin, the ongoing popular opposition to cannabis prohibition there and the creative culture of dissent so fostered, make Nimbin the leader in artful sustainable resistance.
But being few did not mean we were altogether unnoticed in the local media at least.
The Byron Echo published letters and a photo on its back page during the lead up and the Nimbin Good Times carried the flyer and my media release on its front page.
Along with other notorieties from the concurrent Activating Peace and Human Rights Conference, Nic Jeanes of BAY-FM interviewed me on the much listened to Friday morning environment show. He also got together an extraordinary 4 July play list of the "Fuck America" variety.
When Paul Barrett signaled that because of another booking on the night before, Samba Blisstas would not be available for this year, I knew I would not be able to get other drummers to match them and had considered cancelling the celebration.
But my friend Michael Balderstone urged me not to and promised me support.
"The Law is the Crime" had been our reform slogan back when we created the first Independence Day celebration together.
The point we wanted to make back then was that those bad laws, those prohibition laws, had been foisted onto all states of Australia and stuck in place by international treaties insisted upon by the US government.
Amongst other evil outcomes of US imposed prohibition policies had been the escalation of the prison population, the main beneficiaries of which had been US corporations who built and managed privatised jails with our taxes.
Prohibition policies had also brought huge profits to pharmaceutical corporations by ensuring them market dominance for patented synthetic pain relief medications. Not only were we denied access to natural pain relief herbs (opium, cannabis and cocoa) that had been proven efficacious over centuries, we were also denied the right to make choices and self mediciate.
This, the HEMP Embassy says, is a breach of human rights.
The HEMP Embassy had not been invited to the Activating Peace and Human Rights Conference but Independence from America Day represented an opportunity for that band of activists to be a voice for human rights and peace from the streets.
From the beginning, burning cardboard effigies had been a central ritual of the celebration but there were difficulties in this regard with the Byron Market organisers and I left off it off for few years.
But without any expectation of drummer support, I decided to resurrect the burning, part to fill out the ritual and part for the pre-publicity such a photo would bring.
In past years I had worked out of Byron to prepare the event and this had helped engage local support.
This year I found myself based in Nimbin because I had been engaged in other community event organising there, because the HEMP Embassy that season was such a convivial place for me to work, and because it put me near Elspeth Jones who had undertaken to paint a new mural for Peacebus.com. Stop the War/End the US Alliance.
Elspeth is far and away the best brush person I have met when it comes to combining words and images and her vibrant art makes both the HEMP Embassy and the Nimbin Museum such an extraordinary tourism attraction.
She painted up the Independence Day panels very publicity, in the Rainbow Lane beside the Nimbin Museum, her work observed and acclaimed by the Lane boys. All good publicity.
"You must not burn it," declared Balderstone spokesperson for the Embassy and also proprietor of the Nimbin Museum as he watched the cardboard effigy come together on the back verandah of the HEMP Embassy.
"It is art and ought to be in the Museum," he said.
"It is cardboard and ephemeral," said I.
In my memory was another cardboard Whitehouse which I had made for a burning which had been prevented. Subsequently it had become a cardboard condominium for rats in the HEMP Embassy and had to be trashed.
"Burning it is the point of the exercise and that spectacle will be preserved digitally and for next to forever," I maintained.
"More people will see it in the Museum," said Michael.
Eventually a deal was struck. In return for a half an ounce of buds, my cardboard art would be preserved and displayed in the Museum. Well at least for a while - the Nimbin Museum is not exactly a place of rigorous conservation.
So it was that the i sold out on my burning principles and symbolically accepted a bag of herbs at the conclusion of the mock burning.
You can see it in the YouTube which Jamie, the Embassy's graphics man, video-ed and posted. There you will also hear the laughter and the general goodwill of the event.
The deal didn't stay with me for long however.
That same afternoon after packing up the flags and putting the cardboard Whitehouse/Jailhouse in the back of Michael's car, i got on the highway south heading for Newcastle SoS and Climate Camp.
During the Stop Coal rally of 13 July, the cops searched Peacebus.com and seized the stash. Though arrested and released without charge, the herbs were not returned and this old man was separated from his medicine. Bastards!
Artful and defiant we were, and devil may care, at the celebration of Independence from America Day in Byron Bay 4 July 2008.
Courageous and uplifting friends, occupying public place, speaking truth and laughing together.
4 August 2008