The first Drug War Freedom Ride

Taking it up to the US Embassy

The Aboriginal Tent Embassy on the lawns out front of old Parliament House is Australia's most enduring protest. Here the fire of social action has been burning for 28 years and it was here that the Freedom Ride agreed to meet after our independent journeys from Bathurst.

The Tent Embassy squats astride the civic design axis which aligns the brooding architecture of the Australian War Memorial with the commanding architecture of the Australian Parliaments, old and new. Thus the blood sacrifice of the past is a constant and visual reminder to those with the responsibility of public office. Always wuz, always be, Aboriginal land" reads a small rough painted sign against a poly-tarp windbreak wall.

The endurance of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy comes from the perennial poetry of its presence as much as from the perennial denial by the rich landed elites of Aboriginal sovereignty, the attempted genocide and the oceanic injustice the indiginees have suffered under white man's law. "Not reconciliation: human rights and justice" sez another hand painted sign.

By contrast to the calculated monuments, the Tent Embassy is the chaos of a poor people's camp, comprising a couple of site sheds serving as information offices, a couple of unregistered buses and beat up caravans serving as bunkhouses, and a dirt floored, kitchen/ meeting place shelter made up of poly-weave tarps that (we soon discovered) leaked like a sieve when it rained.

A weathered sign on one, once-mobile home had a rough painted sign to remind those whose eyes were made sore by observing "squalor" in the heart of grandeur that, at the fringes of towns all around Australia, there are indigenous people living in such conditions.

The Prime Minister John Howard's "can't say sorry" government tried to evict the Tent Embassy five years ago but decided, in the roar of the reaction to that rose to their attack, that ignoring it was easier. Ignorance and denial of the injustice served upon Aboriginal people had worked before, hadn't it? So they prance and stagger from election to election, witnessed by eyes of a culture that have watched the seasons pass in this land for 40,000 years.

Fire is at the centre of the Tent Embassy. Two fires in fact. One was the Peace Fire, perpetually smouldering on an ash mound, sited exactly on the War Memorial-parliament axis framed by a rough bush timber structure and focused by an inviting avenue of message sticks coming away from the parliament. Tending this fire was the first responsibility of every visitor and resident of the Tent Embassy. A local tree surgeon drops off a regular supply of sawn logs to keep it fuelled.

The other was the campfire set about with windbreak tarps under gum trees at the edge of the lawns. This was the fire about which many meetings had taken place. A sitting down place, everyone was welcome at this fire but there were rules: no alcohol; no racism; no aggression; Embassy business takes precedence.

No Aboriginal Ambassador was there to greet us Isabelle Coe, the current custodian of the Tent Embassy was in Sydney at another Aboriginal Tent Embassy which had been set up in Victoria Park, Glebe, Sydney, in anticipation of Aboriginal protest action during the Sydney Olympic Games.

An epic meeting took place around the meeting fire none-the-less for here the Freedom Riders shared winter warmth and broke bread with the advance team of a parallel, Olympic Sydney bound, journey for justice. It was Aboriginal elder, Kevin Buzzacott's "Walking the Land" mission which set out from Kevin's country at Lake Eyre in central Australia eight weeks ago to restore sovereign rights to Aboriginal people "a peace walk for healing of ancient rights". The advance crew were rainbow people like us except that for the most part they were feisty young feral women.

They told us that their journey had a changing crew of, on average, 30 - 50 walkers with support vehicles and they literally walked the land carrying a ceremonial firestick - about 70 km per day - in teams. They had had some confrontations. A desert pastoralist refused them access to the road across his land, which was vast and made detouring a major obstacle. They left the road and went cross country following an old stock route, physically hauling their two wheel drive vehicles out of sand bogs. In the Flinders Rangers they had been harassed and beaten up by the South Australian police.

The young woman telling me the details of this was still in shock and disturbed by the event. When I offered to help with police liaison for Walking the Land passage through Canberra, she was cautious and distrusting and declined the offer to join me in a meeting with officers of the Australian Federal Police Demonstration Liaison Team. Here was karma cycling: bad experiences with police leading to poor police liaison, leading to more bad experiences with police and for police.

By contrast the Freedom Rider's good experiences in police liaison had created optimism and trust and the further our journey for justice proceeded the more respect we were giving and getting. And being, Canberra, city of planners, and a place where I had had many adventures past, I had no doubt that our protest would be well managed and received.

I love Canberra for its openness, its backdrop of monuments and the wonderful opportunities they offer for outdoor theatre. I felt exhilarated just to be camping near that axis of power, free to speak out for justice in the open spaces of the capital. I loved the way we could wander into Old Parliament House and be assisted to use the public phone there. I loved sitting in the warmth of the former offices of the Prime Minister, lounging where the nation's leaders had once done their business, calling up the US Embassy on my mobile to seek a meeting with the Ambassador.

In 1981 when Malcolm Fraser was Prime Minister and I was part of the Sydney based Drama Action Centre, we brought a stilt, mask and drum, street theatre show, The Parliamentary Men, to Canberra. Each character wore a mask moulded to Malcolm's granite visage. Outside the window from where Malcolm would have witnessed the show, and where I sat negotiating the Canberra actions of the Freedom Ride, we staged the "Fall of Malcolm Fraser" in which we paraded up the avenues to Parliament House and, as climax, I fell screaming from my stilts. He probably thought we were weirdos but whatever he thought, he fell from power nine months later. One should never under estimate the magic of theatre.

On the phone agents of the Australian Federal Police were most courteous and delighted that we had contacted them and given them two days notice to negotiate an action for International Prisoners Justice Day outside the US Embassy on Thursday 10 August. Two hours later Federal Agents Bob Edwards and Shan Rice from Security Intelligence and Diplomatic Liaison, were standing with us about the fire of the Tent Embassy taking down the details.

We showed them photos of previous actions and pointed them to the website. I cannot overstate what a boon is for negotiating the peaceful progress of the Freedom Ride. All praise and gratitude to our web-master, Max Stone. The very existence of the website gave the Federal Agents confidence and it saved them from unnecessary note taking.

They gagged somewhat when I told them we intended to burn a jail outside the US Embassy. The idea of fire in public space has this fear reaction for many people I meet. A bit of cardboard on cleared, often concreted, ground and burning to ashes in 5 minutes. No big deal. But such is the evocative power of fire.

The way was soon cleared. In fact the only difficulty I was to have negotiating the Canberra action was balancing the needs and expectations of our ally, Justice Action. Dealings with friends always require more finesse than dealings with enemies or strangers.


Unlike the Australian cities planned and built in the nineteenth century like Grafton, Goulburn and Bathurst, in Canberra, twentieth century architectural pride of the nation and mostly constructed post WWII with the socialist vision of the welfare state, no jail was built. Maybe Canberra planners expected to plan crime out of existence. Maybe they just put prisons at the lowest priority for capital expenditure on public buildings. Monuments and government offices came first.

Either way, up till recently, Canberra (pop. about 320,000) has had only a 25 bed remand centre and convicted criminals were contracted out to NSW jails, usually Goulburn, 90 km away.

We went searching for the Belconnen Remand Centre and it was next to invisible a roller door in an unsigned Besser brick wall, the continuation of the Belconnen Police Station. I later met a man who had spent time there and he told me it was well run, that he got work there and was able to use his time on remand to learn new skills.

I also heard a story of a relatively recent tragedy that gave insights into the workings of the jail. The Drug War and the heroin plague have stretched the resources of the Remand Centre and it is over crowded like it never used to be or was planned to be. About two years ago a prisoner was admitted who was in great distress and a suicide risk. The special observation cells were occupied and the prisoner was locked in a less supervised cell. He necked himself in the night and died in hospital the next day.

The coroner found that the officers had conspired in perjury when they had claimed to have regularly checked the prisoner in his cell - medical evidence established the prisoner had hanged for a period longer than the claimed check cycle. Five officers were dismissed and the Superintendent, a good and honourable man, resigned fell on his sword.

Apart from the Belconnen Remand Centre, ACT Correction Services has two other recently built facilities, a Periodic Remand Centre and a Youth Justice Centre, both of these at Symston, in North Canberra.

And adjacent to these, Canberra's first full blown prison is to be built. Thus the Drug War has eroded Canberra's achievement and vision as a prison-less city.


Brett Collins had an understandable desire to speak to prisoners and be a presence outside a jail on International Prisoner Justice Day. He wanted to visit both the Belconnen Remand Centre and the Symston facilities (present and future). He also wanted join in the burning of the jail outside the US Embassy.

The Freedom Riders wanted to keep it simple and focus our energy on the US Embassy, the Canberra jail facilities offering very little by way of visuals to work with and, besides it would mean too much road time and rigging, de-rigging and re-rigging. We could only expect media at one site and the best shot would be the US Embassy.

The compromise was that the Justice Action crew would drive directly from Sydney to the Belconnen Remand Centre, meet up with us at Symston and we would go together to the US Embassy.

So the media release was negotiated between us. To get it out I spent most of the day in the library of the Australian Institute of Criminology where the staff kindly provided me with the latest research on the drug-crime connection, a desk for my trusty iBook "the Jewel of the File" and a phone line too. Zip, zip - out went the media release. I also dropped 100 photocopies in the boxes of the Parliamentary Press Gallery. Media to the max!

Then it was time to build the promised jail from cardboard scrounged from the Fyshwick Harvey Norman store. The Tent Embassy became a temporary jail building workshop and "Walker" Greg, a friend from the Graffiti Hall of Fame, and I cut and fashioned cardboard late into the windy winter night, retreating to the fire regularly to warm our fingers.

As we cut and glued we meditated upon the appropriateness of our prison making workshop and the role of prisons in the suppression of Aboriginal Australia, the consequent Aboriginal deaths in custody and the ramifications of the Royal Commission into those custodial deaths. Aboriginals, about 1.5 % of our population presently make up about 30% of the NSW jail population. More can be expected now that the heroin plague has reached rural Aboriginal communities of NSW via, I understand, boys "snow coning", that is smoking a mix of cannabis and heroin.

Prohibition has made cannabis, the preferred recreational drug for many boys, scarce and expensive in rural communities. Meanwhile heroin has become increasingly more available and cheaper. Powders are easier to deal and conceal because they are less bulky and don't smell like good buds. Prohibition creates a black market that puts cannabis and heroin together, off the same shelf as it were.

But the Drug War has always covered a race war. In the USA today two out of every three African American men are either is in jail or has been in jail. Drug prohibition laws began in this country over 100 years ago as part of a campaign to drive Chinese out of Australia by prohibiting and demonising their opium smoking. The contemporaneous use and abuse by the white middle classes of the opium tincture, laudanum, was ignored. The same drug but different in usage by race, class and delivery mode.


Come the morning the cardboard jail looked great - a White House with prison bars restraining a very down caste and unhappy Australia. The sight of it, and the prospect of its fiery destruction, inspired the Freedom Ride crew to action. Dave Cannabis who, wearying of the waiting and the cold comforts of Tent Embassy living, had been sinking into depression and grumpiness, came to life, a funny man again.

We loaded up and arrived at Symston at 11.45 am for the promised action at 12.30 pm the police arriving only moments after us. While Jab, Dave and John prepared the rig, I had time for a shave and a costume change.

A very concerned Superintendent of the Youth Justice Centre asked us not to do the action outside his facility. "I have 12 year olds at school in there," he said. We were happy to oblige and quickly negotiated a space to set up beside the signage of the adjacent Periodic Remand Centre.

Once set up we stood around waiting for Justice Action crew who had been delayed leaving Sydney. In contact via mobile phone, the Belconnen action got postponed and they redirected to Symston expecting to be 30 minutes late for the action there.

Some five supporters had heard our radio media and rallied to our call. About eight uniformed police officers stood in a line between the Detention Centre buildings and us. While we waited we chatted to the media (an NBN crew and an AAP reporter) and the police. We tantalised the camera crew with a preview of the cardboard jail.

Federal Michelle Loveday accompanied Federal Agent Shan Rice to the action. Shan wore a smart Italian suit and Michelle, a long black coat. Together they looked like larger than life versions of the X-Files Agents Mulder and Scully. Both were smiling, respectful and genuinely interested in our cause and our rainbow ways. Shan, amused by Dave Cannabis' rainbow striped pants, jokingly threatened to arrest him for bad dress sense. Dave responded by labelling the AFP as the Australian Fashion Police.

Brett Collins arrived and leapt into spruiking. Wearing a red beret he looked magnificent, exuberant with good news International Prisoner Action Day was being celebrated in Australia with actions at jails as far north as Fanny Bay in Darwin and the south, Risdon in Tasmania. A prisoner strike, he told us, was in progress at Lithgow Jail. Prisoner action was alive and well this day.

The spruiking done we rushed to de-rig and load up for the US Embassy action promised for 1.30 pm. Confused by the circles of the Canberra grid, Agents Rice and Loveday obligingly went ahead and became guides to our Freedom Ride convoy.


The US Embassy in Canberra is a red brick and white mortar New England mansion, the vernacular architecture I understand, of the rich and idle of Cape Cod. It stands overlooking State Circle and the Parliament House from the west.

In early sixties when I was staff cadet at the Royal Military College, Duntroon, and Canberra was a third the population size and Lake Burley Griffin a dust bowl, two precocious 15 year old daughters of senior US Embassy staff, smuggled a fellow cadet and I into the Embassy for a kind of pyjama party. To do this, I recall, they only had to sweet talk one marine guard.

Times change and the more powerful the US becomes, the more the US Embassy fears for its security. A three meter white picket fence with a ha-ha wall behind now surrounds the Embassy and the occupants are not so welcoming to me.

Our arrival in Canberra coincided with the arrival of a new US Ambassador to Australia, Mr Edward "Skip" W. Gnehm. Mr Gnehm is a career diplomat who had recently served as the State Department's Director General of the Foreign Service and Director of Personnel. He had previously served in the Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Syria and was US Ambassador to Kuwait at the time of the Gulf War.

Learning this I immediately rang to seek an audience. I wanted to tell the Ambassador that Australians no longer wanted to follow the US down the drug prohibition road that leads to more drug abuse, more drug deaths, more corruption of our police, more crime, more guns, more prisoners and more prisons.

Having read Professor Pennington's account of dealings with Embassy officials, I was under no illusions about US interventions in Australian drug policy. In about 1994 the US Embassy officials had summonsed the Professor to Hobart for a meeting in which he was warned that, if the drug law reforms recommended by the Victorian Inquiry which he had headed proceeded, then the plug would be pulled on the Tasmanian opium production licensed by International Narcotics Control Board.

Thereafter the Victorian Government backed off from the cannabis law reform Premier Kennett had promised and Prime Minister Howard pulled the plug on the heroin trials proposed for Canberra.

I also rang the Australian representative of the US Drug Enforcement Agency at the Embassy, Mr Gene Sokimoto, who recalled me from the Sydney reception I organised for the visit of so-called Drug Czar, General Barry McCaffrey, head of the US Office of Drug Control Policy last February. Unfortunately Gene was too busy to see me for at least a week. The Drug War in Australia must have been keeping him very busy indeed.

When our Freedom Ride convoy and escort arrived at the US Embassy we were greeted by a line of eight uniformed officers and, behind and between them and the picket fence, a line of four or so uniformed Embassy security. In front of them was a bevy of media including a news crew from WIN Television, a photographer from the Canberra Times and Federal Agents Mulder and Scully.

A barricade of star pickets and plastic fluoro-orange barrier tape had been erected along the kerb opposite. Detective Sargent Mark Cobham introduced himself and told us that we were to stay and park behind the barrier. The orange tape would have detracted from the vision of the White House burn but Mark was happy to negotiate a compromise, which would allow us to take it down for the burn. We rushed to butterfly banging star pickets and tying up banners, a well practiced team.

The White House/Jail House was set up on a stand directly opposite the Embassy gate. "USA number 1 Jailer of the World" and "End the Drug War/Release the Prisoners" it proclaimed. Over the White House dome a cardboard Old Glory sported dollars signs rather than stars.

Brett spoke passionately and called for an end to the Drug War. My call was a more personal one to Ambassador Skip, a welcome to Australia and its proud traditions of freedom and justice. I spoke of Eureka and the struggle of our forbears to transform Australia from convict colony to a one-time global leader in democratic reforms. I asked that he let Australia find its own way out of the heroin plague that the Drug War had precipitated. Local solutions to local problems. No way would we become a penal colony again.

From my view standing on the roof of on this shining day and speaking across the fence, the US Embassy looked besieged. There was no aggression from the protective ranks of police and security officers who made up our immediate audience. In fact many were smiling, infected with our colour, logic, good humour and lightness of being. Freedom was certainly on our side of the picket fence.

Thirty minutes behind the promised schedule, the news camera men were urging us to get the burn happening. Brett deferred to "Saint" John who set the sculpture in flames as the cameras clicked and whirred and Robin Harrison beat up a celebration on his djembe. The flames leapt up, the mock flag fell, the cardboard turned to ashes and only the curious words "rug war prisoners" survived.

Robin Harrison had flown in that morning to join us. On the roof of he blew a joint and performed his full Drug War rap to the delight of the listening police officers. A grinning Det Sgt Mark Cobham relayed a question from one of his officers: "Do you do weddings?" Weddings, parties, anything, replied troubadour Robin.

The action all over in 45 minutes, we cleared up the ashes, packed, expressed our gratitude, shook hands with the police and media and returned to the Tent Embassy.

May Ambassador Gnehm, a man who has represented the US in many conflict situations, find peace in Australia. May compassion and justice prevail. May we all walk in peace.

Graeme Dunstan
13 August 2000


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