The Good News in Glen Innes
When Peacebus.com rolled along the main street of Glen Innes, we were coming in cold. Literally cold because we had climbed 1100 meters up the Gibraltar Ranges into winter through rain which was close to sleet. And cold too because we had no friends pre-arranged to welcome us.
There had been a debate amongst the crew enroute about whether we should tarry at all in this small town or roll on to Tamworth which has 8 times the population and is the media and administrative centre for the central west of the state.
So while the crew warmed themselves by a fire in a diner - Peacebus.com parked prominently by the highway - I went for a walk to see what was possible. The Police Station was the first call and Sgt Gary Page, greeted me with a warm smile for he had been expecting our call. Our police liaison was working well.
Sgt Page told me not to expect much in Glen Innes. "It's one big retirement home," he said.
The next call was to the local newspaper, the Glen Innes Examiner, to check media receptivity and there I met journalist Lisa Williams. Tall and strong, (a former police officer I was later to learn) she exuded an air of competence. She loved our story and dismissed Sgt Page's analysis.
"Sgt Page is in retirement mode himself," she said. "Glen Innes has a very active political life and a political protest about trees took place outside the Town Hall just last week."
She gave me pointers on how and when to run an action. In particular she pointed me to Badja Sparks who owned an old wares and antique shop up the street, and his partner, Squirrel, who had a healing centre, Essential Remedies, next door. Just the aroma of essential oils wafting out of the shop convinced me that we had found friends.
Badja and Squirrel lived at Wytaliba, an intentional community (a multiple occupancy or M.O. as they are called) of 3,500 acres and 100 adults and children 50 km back down "the hill". Wytaliba had been founded in 1978 and Badja and Squirrel had stumbled across it while on a trekking expedition with donkeys and their two small children in 1980, and made it their home. Squirrel, a midwife, had recently delivered a grand child there.
Badja had noticed our first pass up the main street and he embraced our cause and our company at once. The arrival of Peacebus.com, we are discovering, brings to long time cannabis users the happiness a meadow feels when it hears thunder, the good news of coming rain.
We parked Peacebus.com out front and made ourselves at home. "My (mull) tin is always open," said our gracious host.
After the initial struggle with local government to establish their community, the Wytalibarians had maintained a low political profile happy to build their houses, raise their children, grow their cannabis and be ignored.
But recently Badja, the treasurer of Wytaliba, had taken an interest in local politics and as a candidate in the last local government elections he had out polled the sitting mayor on primary votes in the last elections. In the rural local government area of Severn, which for the most part is forests, mountains and gorges, the 60 registered voters of Wytaliba represent a major power block.
Badja coached me on for the meeting I had set up with the Mayor of Glenn Innes, Bob Dwyer. For many years, Bob had managed the sawmill at the Glen Innes Correctional Centre, a minimum-security jail 40 km back down the hill. When I shook Bob's hand I noticed a missing finger and, yes, it had been a milling accident.
Mayor Dwyer was aware that most of the 110 inmates in the Glen Innes were in there for drug related charges. He was by nature a decent and honest man and he was happy for us to exercise freedom of speech and to speak out for justice in his town. He too was concerned about the heroin epidemic and we almost had an agreement that he would chair a debate on drug policy in the town hall come next Friday, until the General Manager, Col Fraser, joined the discussion.
Col is a very proper bureaucrat and a natural born prohibitionist. A man of many agendas he has the mouth of someone that has drunk from life's cup and found it bitter. He steered the Major away from any engagement with us. In our dialogue Col revealed that he wanted to ban tobacco too. "What about alcohol?" I asked. "No, I enjoy alcohol," he said and laughed.
Glen Innes is another rural town, which stripped of government services, local manufacturing industries and markets for its rural produce, is experiencing the impoverishment of globalisation. Its main street is grand with Victorian era brick and stucco edifices, which tell of a once prosperous era when Australia was riding on a sheep's back and wool was selling at £1 per pound. Now it is steadily depopulating, exporting its youth and vigour, and losing its capacity for enterprise and renewal.
Badja told me that economic futures were very much on the agenda in Glen Innes. The Council had recently distributed a survey to residents which in essence asked: "To create more jobs, would you support (a) the building of a McDonalds (b) the building of a maximum security jail? or (c) other, please specify."
Badja had suggested a toxic waste dump. "Let's bet on the full trifecta of disasters," he said.
In my Drug War rap, I have been saying that the Drug War is the pointy end of globalism. The fear mongering of prohibitionist, together with the fear that illicit drug users (and there are lots of them - the figures from the Alcohol and Drug Council of Australia are that 44% of Australians admit to trying cannabis, and 21 % are regular users) have of being informed upon by their neighbours, divides communities and prevents any common ground forming upon which local solutions to jobs and prosperity might be found.
In this climate arming our police with new guns, surveillance technology and rights of search and harassment, and offering towns new jails makes good sense to the old closed down conservatives who inherit local government in towns like Glen Innes. The banality of evil - this is how our civil rights are being eroded. This is how we are slipping into becoming a convict colony of US drug prohibition policies.
But there were also stories of resistance to be celebrated, victories in the struggle to end the Drug War.
Back in September 1997, the Wytalibarians were having a community work day, building a straw bale house together - and videoing themselves doing it - when they noticed a helicopter hovering over head. They were speculating that it must be the National Park Service because September was way too early for the annual cannabis harvest raids. Then two Robocops in camouflage fatigues, wrap around sun glasses and no visible identification, arrived to bust the hippies.
The video camera was recording as the Wytalibarians asked to see their ID and search warrant. The cops refused, arrogantly pointing to the chopper. "That's our warrant!" After a scuffle they confiscated a box with thirty seedlings and charged two people. The case went to appeal and the charges were dismissed.
Using the video evidence the Wytalibarians sued the NSW Police Service. They have already knocked back an offer for an out-of-court settlement of $500,000. Their QC, Alex Shand, who yearns to cross-examine the cops in the dock, reckons they can expect at least $2 million from a court ruling. For two years now the cannabis air pirates, NSW Police Service Plantation Eradication Squad, have steered clear Wytaliba.
Badja urged us to stay and speak out for drug law in Glen Innes. Squirrel made her healing room, a beautiful wood paneled former optometrist's office, available to us and we set up office.
We rigged Peacebus.com with banners and flags and set up in front of the Glen Innes Town Hall, which is a proud, three towered, Victorian era monument to civil government and democracy. The Australian flag was flying paramount and lower was the Aboriginal flag. And under it were our banners and me on the roof of Peacebus.com with mike spruiking up a public meeting for the following Friday.
And so the call for freedom and justice was heard in Glen Innes. A couple of big boys on small bicycles, unused to passion in public place, grumbled about the noise. But the elderly citizens who came by loved it and stopped to talk and give us encouragement.
The paddy wagon cruised by twice with the young officers inside refusing to make eye contact and ignoring our gestures of goodwill. Alcohol abuse in Glen Innes is a major social dysfunction, the general manager had informed me, particularly amongst the kooris. Here were the guys who had to contain it and it had made them hard and cynical. Cowboys in uniform, I was grateful to be negotiating at area commander level.
Badja invited us to visit Wytaliba and so we were feted at a community dinner of rough dressed, bush pioneers and their babies and vibrant children. Badja invited me to speak and opening my mouth, tears not words came forth. It was like a homecoming and I had a sense of walking in the footsteps of the ancestors who had gone before on other journeys for justice.
When there is corruption at the centre, truth and justice finds first voice and following amongst the poor, the fringe dwellers in the far away plains, forests and mountains.
12 July 2000