The first Drug War Freedom Ride


Talking Justice in the
Drug Free City of Tamworth

Before we broke our Ben Lomond roadside camp we had a visitor, a local poet no less. There was something magical about this encounter. It was as if we had waited all day for a messenger and now he had come. We welcomed him to our fire and set up another round of tea.

Chris Wharton is a performer who loves an audience and he often gets it on regional radio challenging drug prohibition madness. We had met at Glen Innes Town Hall meeting. He had seen our camp in passing and had come to finish some business. An extraordinary man, Chris sat with us and gave us poetry, stories and passion for three hours.

Like many men we meet, Chris was enmeshed in a custody tangle and much of his life seemed to be a search for justice that bound him like an Egyptian mummy in wraps upon wraps of legal technicalities, legal documents, legal argument, dealings with lawyers, battles with "fat lesbian social workers" and court appearances. This was not the first such Mummy we had met on our journey. The sweetness of our justice talk seems to attract them like bees to honey.

Many, many people, it seems, want to have their day in court and are frustrated when they can't get it and frustrated when they do. It is a particular a hell realm: one comes to consciousness aware of a hurt for which someone else is responsible. Frantically one searches for justice amongst others doing likewise.

Like a great school of fish, everyone darting this way and that, looking for justice in a great uncaring ocean. Circling around them, and herding them in, are beaks and lawyer sharks that graze on them and their misery. Although the mass of misery never diminishes, each fish has its day and disappointment, dies and is reborn with a sense of hurt and injustice. And so the cycle goes on and on.

We urged Chris to write a Drug War poem and bring it to Tamworth. Chris said he would come and perform with us and arrange an air stunt over Tamworth Jail as well. (Amongst his claims to fame was the building of Australia's first ultra-light.) Go for it, we said.

Before departing Chris suggested a place for us to camp outside Armidale. It was the message from magic land we had been waiting for. Strangers in a stramge land and the possibily of hospitality, we hit the road.

At last light we rolled into an opening in a pine forest and in the silver moonlight, we could see a thatched long house and other rough huts. It was a Vikings Village built by the New England Medieval Arts Society (NEMAS), a re-enactment group, on a plot of State Forest 10 km outside of the university town of Armidale.

Up in the pines a tallow candle was burning and a person watching our arrival from the shadows. I hailed him in respectful speech, saying we had been sent by a poet, and begged his hospitality. Andrew Paul, the lone caretaker, welcomed us to his hearth, a fire on the floor of an imitation 10th century Vikings house - a high-ridged thatched A-frame structure with the smoke going out the open eves at either end.

NEMAS gets over 500 people to its re-enactments and prides itself in its Dark Ages research, great battles, feasts and dressed up derry doing.

Andrew feted us with fine wine and stout from the cellar. Overflowing with words and wild passions, he was a warrior of many adventures and he showed us the scar of a Serbian bullet wound in his leg. He told us he had led the NEMAS charge at the last great clash of arms.

He told us many stories about Norse gods, Dark Age ways, the rules for re-enactment, and odd information like "Q: why did Norse villages have palisades? A: To keep the animals out. In particular to keep the cows from eating the roofs." I had noticed that outside the thatch had been ravaged to cow head height.

He also told us how Iceland had been settled by free men and women who had chosen to sail across the sea, with their children and chattels to settle in an unknown land of ice and snow rather than submit to tyranny in their homeland.

The sense of walking in the footsteps of the ancestors and all those that have gone before and spoken up for justice has been a theme for me and now I was dropping into my Saxon/Celtic ancestry.

Framed by pines and woozy with fine booze and cannabis, that cold, clear night I watched the lunar eclipse and saw the moon turn red in the shadow of the Earth. And I felt ancient.

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Rolling down the Moonbi Ranges next day (Monday 17 July) Peacebus.com was pulled over by highway patrolman, Senior Constable I B Mason, whose sharp eyes had detected that Peacebus.com registration had run out two days previous.

It was carelessness on out part, we knew it was coming due but had neglected to check the date. We were living through time on this journey for justice rather than in time. And so we were brought back to road reality with a jolt.

Snr Constable was polite but punishing. "Please sit in your vehicles out of the cold while I write the tickets", he said. "Give us a break," I said. "What you mean tickets?"

Twenty minutes later I found out. Jab, the bus driver, got two tickets at $413 each for driving an unregistered vehicle and driving an uninsured vehicle. Cannabis Dave, the registered owner of Peacebus.com, who was sitting in the passenger seat at the time, got a ticket for allowing an unregistered vehicle on the road ($413) and another ticket for allowing Jab to drive his unregistered vehicle ($68).

A total slug of $1407 in fines for what amounts to the same offence. Constable Mason was gracious enough to allow Peacebus.com to proceed into Tamworth. He also did not persevere with the threat to book Jab for driving in NSW with a Victorian license. It was bastardry, a twist of the knife delivered with that kind of smile that one associates with news readers, air stewards, false consciousness and sadism. Thus we were welcomed to Tamworth.

The only contact we had in Tamworth was a woman had called in response to my ABC Radio interview the previous week. She had told me she had been in jail and knew all about jails and injustice. We were in dire need of money, a place to park Peacebus.com off the road, a telephone line and a place to camp. We were clutching at straws when we called in on Florence Vorhauer and her daughter, Lisa.

Florence lived in a tiny two-roomed house with a high fence and a gate with a lock. We had called ahead so she was expecting us and opened up to invite us in. The garden was a maze of empty chicken wire pens and the walls of the house inside were stacked high with documents.

Florence was a pear shaped 65-year-old, and Lisa was about 30 years old, even more rounded and walking with difficulty (she had been infected with polio, she told me, from a vaccine at 14 years of age and had been bed ridden for many years). Poor and thrifty people, Lisa's clothes were home sewn and she looked some how medieval in her voluminous, patched dress and her hair covered in a bonnet.

Florence had suffered vast injustice. The shell-shocked crew of Peacebus.com drank the hot tea and munched on the cinnamon toast she offered and listened patiently to her story while she piled document upon document in my lap. She told us she had had her Walcha house sold up from under her for refusing to pay rates which she had argued, local government imposed in direct contravention to the Australian Constitution.

It transpired that Florence had spent 2 months in prison on remand for resisting arrest and lacerating two police officers with a Stanley knife. Last September, she told us, 16 police in riot gear had come with an ambulance standing by, to remove her chickens. Florence and Lisa told us that they had been afraid for their lives and were thrown to the ground and assaulted by the police who had invaded their property without warrants. Amongst the documents were photos of big dark bruises on Lisa's soft white flesh.

Florence said that while being held down by the police officers and choked, she struck out with her Stanley knife that she said she carried as a gardening tool to cut the twine around the bails of straw mulch.

"How many chooks did the police take?" John asked. "Two hundred," said Florence. "But most of them bantams, no bigger than your fist," she hurried to add.

I tried to imagine 200 chickens in that tiny front yard. I tried to imagine 16 cops in riot gear rounding them up!

Here was epic folly but we crew of Peacebus.com had our own follies to worry about. We were broke and Peacebus.com had run aground.

We took our leave and Florence's directions to a road side rest area about 10 km out of Tamworth on Werris Creek Road. We set up camp in the dark, gathered firewood and sat silent and glum about our fire.

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Next morning Jab and I had a long discussion about his obsession with getting justice through the courts. Two years previous he had been cuckolded and his pursuit of vengeance had cost him his job, divorced him from his much loved wife, alienated him from his children and plunged him into madness - a nervous "breakout" during which he lost the ability to read and write. Peacebus.com, we agreed, was a healing journey for us all.

I made a scrambled egg breakfast for the crew and we had a crew meeting sitting about our fire under clear skies in park of red gums. We were in plains country now.

We affirmed our mission and agreed that we would hang out in Tamworth until we had the money to get Peacebus.com registered and rolling again.

We agreed to tell all our friends and supporters that we wanted more than cheers from the sideline. We needed help - cash support - to keep the show rolling. We are, after all, the only voice for drug law reform in regional NSW at this time. The first in years and years.

"Saint" John was a leader in this discussion, coming out of himself for the first time in the journey - he had suffered a long depression after his nervous "breakout" from prison counselling - and took on the responsibility for organising catering.

The name of Tony Spanos, mayoral candidate for South Sydney, great benefactor of direct political action in that town and donor of Peacebus.com to our cause, was mentioned more often than any other. I rang him as we rolled back into Tamworth and within an hour he had rung back from the Aboriginal Tent Embassy he was supporting Isabel Coe to organise in Victoria Park, Glebe.

Tony had been following our action and had our posters up at the Tent Embassy. "Graeme, my hero," he said. "I will transfer $1,000 today."

We booked Peacebus.com in for a rego inspection and I went about Tamworth seeking meetings to talk up media and action. At the end of the day when she came on duty, I met the Tamworth Duty officer, Inspector Pat Bailey, with whom I had spoken by phone the previous day. Pat was not fussed about our presence. She apologised for the zealousness of Highway Patrolman Mason and assured me we would not be hassled moving Peacebus.com around in search of repairs.

I asked about the chickens and she was plainly embarrassed. "Don't assume Florence is a little old grandma", she said. "I was there and saw how strong and dangerous she can be." She said there had been many complaints from neighbours and Council about the smell of the chicken yard. In full-blown paranoia and backs to the wall, Florence and Lisa had defended their gate with iron bars and lobbed Molotov cocktails over the fence, something Florence had not mentioned that in her story. The Stanley knife had been tied to Florence's wrist with elastic (hardly a thing one would do for the occasional cut of bailing twine) and did permanent ligament and nerve damage to one officer.

Florence, who is university educated and persistent with words, is suing for false arrest and compensation. Ruefully Pat said she had learned at lot about the dangers of paranoia and next time she would do it differently. Less zeal and more conflict resolution.

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I was eager to find resolution to my public conflict with the Acting Mayor of Tamworth, Cr Warren Woodley. I left phone messages and called in at his office personally. No call back came.

As serendipity would have it I met him in a coffee shop the next day. I found Jab and Dave, who were on a different mission, sitting at pavement tables near the Council offices and, when I went inside to order, I guessed the distinguished grey haired gent in suit and tie might be him. While my coffee was being made, I rushed off to his secretary and asked to see a photo. Sure enough it was he so I rushed back and introduced myself. As I went passed Jab he began to sing the ABC TV Play School theme: "There's a mayor in there ..."

Cr Woodley was reading a Council report but put it aside to give me five minutes to talk about his drug prohibition passion.

Warren is a proud Christian, a natural born moral improver, and genuinely concerned about the escalation of drug misuse and the break down of civil society. He believes that drug law enforcement could work to contain and reduce drug misuse if backed up by effective drug education and rehabilitation services. He had been on the case for 10 years and had spent much time and thousands of dollars of his own money, researching and pushing his case. The owner of a successful, multiple car franchise which included Volvo, he had travelled extensively studying the problem and the solutions tried in many other countries.

He pointed to the success of prohibition in Sweden and Singapore.

"I am angry and frustrated", he said. "Australians these days are greedy and only care for themselves and their own backyard. Our governments are into quick fixes. What we need is a 20 year, coordinated generational approach." He said that although we would have to be tough in the beginning, it was based in compassion, would stamp out drug misuse and be for the greater good in the end.

But the chances of achieving that goal, he readily admitted, were remote given the cynicism of government, the multiple and conflicting views on the problem, the self-interest of Australians generally.

He said legalising and releasing prisoners was a stupid idea and so were harm minimisation approaches. "They give the wrong messages to our young people."

"Giving the wrong message to youth" is a commonly heard theme of prohibitionists resisting reform. The authoritarian worldview of moral improvers assumes that everything not forbidden must be compulsory.

I felt humble in the face of his passion and long term commitment to Christian community service. He was a good and intelligent man, an upright citizen giving good and selfless service in many public and private ways.

When he dismissed me to go on with his Council business, I was confused about how best to respond with an action in Tamworth. I too was concerned about the breakdown of civil society and the escalation of drug misuse and I did not want to offend him. We had so much in common - grey hair, passion, a commitment to service and an agreement that there were no simple solutions.

The local media were waiting my call. How to do it given the present off road status of Peacebus.com?

I wondered what messages youth were getting from current prohibition practices. Hypocrisy, fear and ignorance. Drug education under prohibition has been a spectacular failure. Repeating actions that have failed in the past with more resources and intensity, is what most people call stupid.

Although Cr Woodley spoke of compassion, the consequence of his prohibitionist advocacy more and more people in jail and a withholding of health services, which could reduce drug deaths. His vision of society was focussed on those who wanted to be productive strivers for moral purity and he was happy to protect them and their drug purity with walls, razor wire, guns and "axe handles" in my case. Okay if you are blessed to be on the inside of this moral vision, but punishing if you become its unsightly nemesis - the poor, the mad, the wounded and the dispossessed. Or simply do not agree with the assessment of the danger, physical or moral, of the substances we freely choose to put in our bodies.

Those who did not want to live the protestant moral improvement vision were to be brutalised and tortured in prisons that he knew offered no effective rehabilitation or healing services. Prisons were another governmental quick fix, he had agreed. Out of sight, out of mind. Seeds of wrath planted now to be harvested by future generations. There was a moral blindness here. And I didn't want to offend or be arrogant or judgemental. For sure I know I don't have all the answers.

So I asked the ancestors, and the herb, for guidance and went for an evening stroll down town. Before I had gone a block, it came to me as clear as a voice telling me I must burn a jail outside the Tamworth Council offices next Friday 21 July and bear witness to the suffering created by his "try harder" drug prohibition campaign.

Prohibitionists need constant reminders that the consequence of their advocacy is more people suffering in jail, the inexorable rise of a privatised incarceration industry, and a roll back of our rights and liberties in this land.

Graeme Dunstan
19 July 2000

 

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