Thinking Globally and Acting Locally to Roll Back the US Drug War

The campaign to oppose the police use of cannabis detecting sniffer dogs in the Rainbow Region of NSW Australia has brought a victory to cannabis users and civil libertarians there. Police sniffer dog patrol routinely harass the poor using public transport and public places elsewhere in NSW but in the Rainbow Region the dog patrols have been withdrawn and the local police have said there are no plans for their return.

Let us celebrate this success of the people's movement to roll back the global US Drug War, small though it be. Seen in the context of the dominance of pro Drug War corporate media, cowardly compliance of the corporate courtier politicians state and federal, and the TV induced passivity and job protecting fears of the mortgage bound, it is a modern miracle of sorts, a restorer of faith in the power of the people.

Central to the campaign has been sniffer dog resistance hero Rusty Harris and the support he has had from the Nimbin HEMP Embassy and Peacebus.com.

The struggle continues and what follows is the background story for the continuing trials of Rusty Harris and the continuing resistance of Rainbow Region activists to the US Drug War imperialism that confronts them in their own backyards and public places.

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It was late Friday afternoon 9 March 2001,and Byron Bay was laid back, the weather mild, the sky overcast with the promise of rain, backpacker tourists were on the streets wandering, local people were winding up the day's business and friends were hanging out in the bars and coffee shops.

Nothing special for Australia's most fashionable beach resort; a bit slow really for a place that hosts in excess of a million visitors a year. But that's the mood the visitors like, to lay back amongst lots of beautiful young bodies, lots of bare flesh, smiles and a sense of ease is what they come to do.

Certainly no crime wave was breaking in Jonston Street Byron Bay that afternoon; no guns visible or gunshots audible, no sense of threat to personal safety, no criminal belligerence in the air, no crime happening at all really.

But looks can be deceiving for there were a bunch of people moving stealthily through the crowd bearing concealed firearms (super hair triggered and lethal Glock automatic pistols) and wired up with two way radios. The US Drug War had come to town and this night was the first operation of the newly formed, Sydney based Drug Dog Detection Unit which had come to Byron Bay at the invitation of the local police command.

The NSW Police have yet to reveal exactly how many undercover and uniform police were engaged in the operation. We know that there were at least five and these included local Sergeants Paedric and Powell, Drug Detection Dog Handler Senior Constable Colleen Bolton and Detector Dog Thor, a Golden Labrador, which for the purposes of the operation was endowed with the rights and protections of any other on duty police officer.

The NSW Police were later to make conflicting claims and give contrary reports about Thor's training but it is clear from the outcome that he had been trained to detect cannabis and cannabis only, and that this he did with a friendly intimacy. When Thor got the scent of pot he would amble over to victim as if he was an old friend. The victim reaching to fondle the friendly creature would be surprised by the aggression of the hard faced blonde woman holding the leash as she commanded: "Empty your pockets!"

Neither have the NSW Police revealed how many people were sniffed by Detector Dog Thor that night, nor how many were searched and released without charges. The official tally was 55 detections of cannabis, which translated into the issuing of 30 of the newly introduced cannabis cautions and 25 charges for possession.

Dog Handler Bolton was having field day. Most of her victims were visitors many from overseas, not wanting any trouble, just a bit of pot to mellow the mood. They were surprised and compliant, easy busts, as easy as taking a dog for a walk and collecting State revenues along the way. But the mood changed when Detector Dog Thor came upon Rusty Harris, primary producer and permaculturalist from Barkers Vale (see www.nimbinaustralia.com/rusty/bio.html) and resistance hero of the Timbarra campaign (see www.peacebus.com/graeme/timbarra.html).

Rusty was talking with two friends and sitting at a pavement table outside a Jonson Street café called Fast Eddies. He was in mid 'Earth must be a Garden' rave (available now on CD) when Detector Dog Thor surprised him with his intimacy. Friendly Thor had gone under the table and put his nose in Rusty's crutch. Rusty sat bolt upright with surprise, speechless for the briefest of moments.

An account of the episode as dictated to the author by Rusty on 27 March is posted at www.peacebus.com/Rusty/RustyStatement.html.

Sufficient here it is to say that Rusty neither complied nor co-operated. Rather he stood his ground and from the outset challenged the legality of the search and the morality of the police. Since none of the police officers carried any insignia, he asked Constable Bolton to produce identification, and too the other police officers who came hurrying to her aid. She and they refused. He asked that they produce a search warrant. They told him they didn't need one.

Rusty was subsequently manhandled to the police station without a formal arrest by five police officers, physically and verbally abused along the way, body searched (later his vehicle was also searched) and charged for being in possession of 30 g of cannabis and a dangerous weapon, to wit a pen knife on his key ring. But unlike all the other people charged that night, he refused to plead guilty.

The first sniffer dog operation caused outrage amongst the good citizens of Byron Bay, which until that moment had prided itself in its exemplary community policing. Five years previously the New Years Eve riots had been provoked by inappropriate and unsupported policing and a recurrence of the riots had been prevented by intensive community police consultation and cooperation. But the police sniffer dog operations, totally inappropriate to the culture and the practice of a beach resort town, had proceeded without a word of community consultation.

More outrage followed as the Drug Detection Dog Unit strutted its Drug War tactics in other towns in the Rainbow Region. The further they extended their operations the more people they offended, the more outrage they evoked.

In Lismore the sniffer dog team had first up gone to the offices Centrelink (the privatised name of the former Department of Social Security) to sniff the poor as they lined up in the dole queue. In Mullumbimby a 16-year-old boy was stripped searched down to his underpants in his hometown main street. Bad misjudgement by the police for his mother was a subeditor on the Byron Echo whose offices were just up the street. The Byron Echo blasted the police with front-page headlines and editorial.

The Nimbin HEMP Embassy took up the defence of liberty for cannabis users calling the sniffer dog operations "an act of cultural war". (See www.peacebus.com/Rusty/CulturalWar.html) The local Greens took up the call and agitated by asking questions of the NSW Police Minister in Parliament.

In the context of statewide efforts at cannabis law reform, the sniffer dog operations signalled the betrayal by the NSW Labor government of the promising optimism that had arisen at the NSW Drug Summit in June 1999. The Nimbin HEMP Embassy had sponsored the mission of the Cannabus (precursor of Peacebus.com) from Nimbin to the NSW Parliament to put the case (uninvited) for cannabis law reform. (See www.nrg.com.au/~hemp/bigjoint/bigjoint.htm)

The mood of the Summit had been reformist but the corporate courtier and Murdoch media toadying Carr government had rejected all but the most trivial of the recommended reforms (cannabis cautioning was implemented for example) and used selected Summit recommendations as an opportunity to strengthen its prohibitionist stand with new police powers (sniffer dogs for example).

The official police response to local community outrage was: "Get use to it. Sniffer dogs are here to stay."

The National Party of course, representing old money, rural conservatism and the US Alliance, backed the police and put out coordinated media releases endorsing the sniffer dog operation as appropriate and necessary policing. The member for Lismore, Thomas George MLA, and the local police commander were challenged to a public debate. Brave with media releases but afraid of being confronted in public by real live cannabis users, they declined. (See www.peacebus.com/Rusty/Georgechallenge.html)

A local action group GRASS (Grass Roots Against Sniffer Squads) formed around the leadership of Sam Leonard, a regional Greens activist, and a local hemp trader named Sky. Together with the Nimbin HEMP Embassy they set Good Friday 13 April 2001 as the date for a public rally to protest the sniffer dog policing. Good Friday is a Byron peak tourism time with lots of visitors in town for the Byron Blues and Roots Festival, lots of media too.

Peacebus.com was also rallied and in collaboration with Rusty Harris, the author began work producing the event as a passion play. First up I set up a liaison meeting with the Byron police commanders, Inspectors Fitzsimmons and Gary Cowan on 6 April (see the report at www.peacebus.com/Rusty/Policeliason.html). Sitting beside him at this meeting was Peacebus companion, Robin Harrison, a Vietnam vet and Byron Shire performance artist, who was to become major player in next act of the Byron Bay sniffer dog saga.

Second he set to work on painting up signage for Peacebus ("Call off the Dogs of War") and on the manufacture of a cardboard sniffer dog to burn and a crucifix that was strong enough to hold Rusty. Ironically this latter was another police liaison but of a different order. The welder was a Nimbin friend; to wit Neville Plush, at the time still the Nimbin Police sergeant though on stress leave and committed to retiring from the NSW Police Service.

The Good Friday Byron Bay Passion Play was a big success with a crowd of maybe 1500 participants and lots of colour. It was the biggest cannabis law reform rally ever in Byron. Rusty played his part with élan, dressed in a white caftan with a crown of cannabis buds, he dragged his Cross of Prohibition through the streets to the Byron Police station, there to be crucified while the cardboard sniffer dog burned. Peacebus led the parade through the streets with the PA playing the pop song of the moment: "Who let the dogs out?"

Rusty looked magnificent on the cross. The author had attempted tpo brief Rusty on his role in the passion play, reminding him that very Easter all over the Christian world this story is told and acted out and there are some key words: "Father, forgive them for they know not what they do." In the event Rusty played it his way and up on the cross these are the words that issued from his mouth: "How come the cows have got all the best land around here?"

The cameras went wild and the image was carried far and wide. Naturally enough there was some flak from offended Christians in the letters to the Byron Echo. Here is the response drafted in collaboration with Rusty www.peacebus.com/Rusty/RustyonJesus.html.

(More photos at www.peacebus.com/Rusty/Easter2001.html and www.peacebus.com/Rusty/SurangaPics.html).

Byron Police however dismissed the protest as the work of a noisy minority of out-of-town, Nimbin cannabis radicals. They claimed they had oodles of local community support from Byron citizens ringing in their endorsement. Escaping their attention it seems were the hostility of the most popular local newspaper, the Byron Echo, the hostility of the high rating community radio, the fact that the elected Mayor of Byron Shire, Tom Wilson, had spoken at the rally and that the former chair of Byron Safety Committee, Rory O'Halloran, was in the crowd.

Instead of moderating their stand, the police again promised more sniffer dog operations. Then things got nasty. A couple of days after the Good Friday protest, a car belonging to one of the on duty police officers was torched in the Byron Police station n car park, a sniffer dog slogan marked upon it.

Though the author had no knowledge of the arson and the arsonist he was called in for questioning and so he got a first hand experience of the anger amongst the Byron police officers. (See www.peacebus.com/Rusty/PoliceCorrespondence.html). No one was ever charged for this arson, but it had sobering effect on the author.

The Byron police made good their promise of further Sniffer Dog operations with a second operation, which began in Byron on 21 June. The Carr government also demonstrated its prohibitionist hardline and the breath wasting futility of negotiating with its Ministers (see www.peacebus.com/Rusty/DellaBoscainNimbin.html ) by busting Nimbin's community supported cannabis café trial. (See www.peacebus.com/Rusty/cannabiscafebust.html)

Now sniffer dog operations depend on undercover surprise for their effectiveness. They need the context of an alienated, none-of-my-business attitude on the streets so that the interception and search of one person does not lead to a general alert to the presence of undercover operatives. But the public protests and the general outrage generated by the first sniffer dog operations had blown that condition in the streets of Byron Bay.

Community Radio BAY-FM was alerted soon after the sniffer dog patrol hit the streets and it began broadcasting warnings of the patrol's whereabouts based on phone-ins from listeners. Robin Harrison, in the Bay for a spot of busking, was carrying his djembe when he spotted the patrol. He followed them, dogging the sniffer dog with his djembe.

Apex Park at Main Beach is a popular place for stoners to hang out and when the patrol entered the park, Robin, 25 years a professional actor with a great voice projecting skill, went into full performance and delivered his Drug War Rap. The crowd in the park applauded his performance and jeered the police who left the park without making any drug detections, their tails between their legs.

Robin later reported that some of the police officers became aggressive towards him when he followed the patrol into a lane where there was no public witness. But the public outing and derision had done its job. The patrol retreated to the police station and that was the last time Byron and the Rainbow Region suffered sniffer dog operations. Public derision is more effective sniffer dog deterrent than arson, it seems.

Meanwhile Rusty had appeared before the Byron Court where he entered his not guilty plea. Maybe 20 of Rusty's friends gathered at the courthouse to support him at the first hearing. Peacebus.com was there and we dressed the courthouse gardens with our flags and banners and did a bit of spruiking from the PA in support. The police stayed away and we sat around while we waited for the courtroom outcome, a bunch of friends picnicking on the courthouse lawns, smoking pot and discussing tactics.

The case was adjoined for a hearing, which was set at 4 July 2001. The date was a gift and Independence from America Day was set as the theme for Rusty's the next courthouse protest.

Also a gift, we realised, was Rusty's determined challenge to the legality of the sniffer dog operations. In Rusty's principled stand we protestors had a rallying point and the local police had a face saving device for suspending further sniffer dog operations. "Until the law is clarified, there will be no more sniffer dog patrols", is what they told us then. As of July 2003 the official line is: "None for the foreseeable future."

We realised that the longer Rusty was before the court, the longer Byron and the rest of the Rainbow Region would be without sniffer dogs and the more our resistance movement would grow in confidence and number.

So began the drawn out saga of courthouse appearances, protest gatherings and adjournments that have extended into over two sniffer dog free years. With each gathering we have refined our style and improved our working relationships. The public speaking improved with practice and so did our confidence and skill in mounting the actions. Ever respectful of the functioning of the court, the courthouse staff became our friends, welcoming the colour and music we brought to their working days and helping with services and advice.

By the 12th adjournment the protest had become a Sniffer Dog Free Festival with 300 participants and a PA and bands occupying the public reserve beside the Byron courthouse. For the 13th adjournment on 17 October 2003 the rally went up town and became a Free Hemp Awareness Festival, in which 400 or so people occupied Railway Park in Jonson Street. (see www.peacebus.com/Rusty/RustyMedia.html)

Rusty Harris has put huge personal effort into these gatherings and significant personal expense. His reward is that he is very well known, much loved and respected as a local Drug War resistance hero.

For two successive years (2001 and 2002) adjournments were set to 4 July and the opportunity was used to celebrate Independence from America Day. In 2003 Independence from America Day was celebrated as a standalone carnival of liberation in Byron Bay and a local vehicle for expressing local discontent with US global corporate piracy, the US Alliance and the Australian entanglement in the Iraq War. (See www.peacebus.com/FourthJuly/)

So we have gone from adversity to solidarity, occupying public place and asserting our resistance to US Drug War policing. This is people power!

Graeme Dunstan
19 January 2004  

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