The first Drug War Freedom Ride

Carried as if by a River on a Tide of Blessings and Goodwill

We set up in Railway Park, Byron, Saturday 1 July (the day that Goods and Services Taxation was intriduced to Australia) and discovered that we need to be very resourceful finding access to power and phone lines in public space. (We pray for a satellite phone, or maybe a mobile phone link and sponsorships in phone cards!) But set up we did and, borrowing the Byron Environment Centre's phone line, our first live to web show went out. Banners flags and lanterns in a Byron Bay sunset.

We rallied no large crowd that day but a lot of people walking and driving by noticed us for we had had good media on BAY-FM and ABC Radio 2NR, on both regional TV news services the night before plus a page 7 photo in that morningÕs regional daily Northern Star. We even got a bit of Sydney media with piece in the Daily Telegraph and a drive time interview of 2GB.

A steady stream of people came and engaged us in dialogue. The most often heard sentence was: "ItÕs a good thing you are doing." The second most heard was: "Can I buy some?" "Happy to share a joint with you but we are not dealing," we replied.

Amongst the visitors who did NOT utter the second question was the Local Area Commander of Police, Inspector Gary Kerry, who had come all the way from Tweed Heads to see us and check to see things were okay. He looked at the computer hardware, and the banners said he thought we were very professional and genuinely wished us well.

He was good man and a dedicated peace officer. His memories of the Wood Royal Commission, its revelations of the endemic police corruption that had been created by the Drug War, and the purging the NSW Police Service suffered after those findings, was undiluted.

In our request to the NSW Police Commissioner, Mr Peter Ryan, for over-all police liaison for the Freedom Ride, we had said: "Unless the Drug War is ended, it is only a matter of time before corruption will again pervade the NSW Police Service. Our political leadership has shown itself to be incapable of the courage and leadership needed for the change. So task ahead for us is to build a popular movement for reform. Hence the Freedom Ride."

We appealed to Mr Ryan "and the best of the NSW Police Service to help us manage this political protest in the most effective and peaceful manner possible."

And so it was that we got to meet the best. After Inspector Greg Kerry left we were not to see another police officer for the rest of the day.

In the evening we lit a fire and the fire brought out music and performance. Robin Harrison, long time actor, did his drug war rap a drumming, dancing and story spinning performance magic one imagines to happen in the bazaars of Arabian tales.

A young musician named Jason came by on his way to a gig in a Byron bar and, standing by our fire, sang us a powerful song he had composed: "I am a freewheel citizen of the universe", (Shades of Pete Seger! A theme song for The song had come to him after being busted for a few grams of cannabis on Main Beach, Byron. He had been sleeping on the grass, beard long hair and funky clothes such as gigging musicians wear and was "obliged" to submit to a bag search by two policemen, one plain clothed and the other a uniformed officer.

As serendipity would have it, Jason had introduced himself to us earlier, while Inspector Greg Kerry was visiting, so he got to say his story of injustice directly to the Area Commander. Truth is that another cost of the drug laws is that it oppresses and inhibits the troubadours, the freewheeling citizens of the universe.

We camped overnight at the Byron market site in order to be early for the set up and were rushed into wakefulness by a the convoy of regular market stall holders rolling in upon us at 6.30 am, just as a rainsquall swept in from the sea. Many stallholders were discouraged.

But not us. We got to set up the rig at the end of an avenue in the market. Our banners, flags and presence were the most colourful thing in what must be the most colourful market in Australia.

Still sorting out bugs, we didnÕt get out Blues Brothers horns working, but we did raise an audience spruiking without PA. After my first effort, one of the listeners approached me. "I am a speech therapist," she said. "The anger in your voice is holding people back", she advised. So it was that in Byron Bay, land of healers, I was given a voice coach and next time I tried spruiking, my more heart centred voice held a crowd of about 30 people as I rapped about the Drug War making Australia a convict colony of globalism.

Many, many people came Š old friends, new friends and total strangers - and gave us their blessings. Further inquiry of the most vehement usually revealed that they had been busted (or at least hassled by the police) at one time or another, for cannabis possession or cultivation. The presence of was transforming the oppression and stigma of a criminal record into fraternity and common ground for reform. "End the Drug War; release the prisoners; and wipe the record clean", we said.

We heard other voices too. Voices of parents fearful of the drug future facing their children, worried about the drug abuse epidemic and wanting the assurance of controls. "Prohibition is a proven a failure as a safe controller of drugs because it puts corrupt police and criminals in control of drug distribution and quality", we said. But this does little to assuage the fear of cannabis psychosis and all the other aberrations and demons that the demonising of NatureÕs healing herbs has brought upon us.

One story that bothered me was that of a nurse working in emergency at Byron Hospital, under-resourced, suffering 'compassion burn out', and reporting that emergency admissions were 80% drug related.

She railed against the self-indulgence of these drug abusers and their ingratitude. The Byron emergency room now had security grills and was plastered with notices warning against abusive behaviour. Thanks to the damage done by the Drug War, this small town hospital was no longer the friendly place it used to be, nor nursing the profession what it was when she started out in the service.

Over the two days Rubin and Felix raised $193 rattling an orange drink container or proffering a hat and asking for donations. In the process they got to meet and talk to many wonderful strangers, some of whom were street performers who did magic tricks for them, such things as making peace badges appear at the tap of a thimble. For these boys the street will always be a place of enchantment rather than fear.

The star of the Byron Market day was Robin Harrison, who costumed with his hair tied up in a vertical plat, grey suit coat, white shirt, green pony club tie, Bali pants and tai chi shoes ("One has to be extra bizarre to be noticed in Byron", he explained), held about 60 people entranced in front of with his Drug War rap.

The rain showers that begun the day returned with rainbows in the afternoon as we packed up the computers and brought in the rig. With the practice of just one de-rig, we worked smoothly as a team and within 30 minutes we had it all packed away and were celebrating our success with an end-of-the-day, on-board spliff.

Byron Bay had been a test drive and we had done very, very well. Next stop Grafton and our first jail gig Saturday 8 July.

Graeme Dunstan
3 July 2000


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