The first Drug War Freedom Ride

Talking Justice in the
Drug Free City of Tamworth - part 2

At 11.50 am with its flags flying and its speakers firing, the Freedom Ride rolled along Peel Street, the main drag of Tamworth, home of Oz/US country music, centre for country and western conservatism and citadel of "try harder" drug prohibition advocacy.

Happy Wheels had speakers, of the kind used in army camps, wired to its roof racks. "Citizens of Tamworth, this is the Freedom Ride. We have come to speak for justice. We have come to end the Drug War and release its prisoners."

As we approached Jab was on the roof watching for overhead cables and shouting advice while inside Happy Wheels, St John and I were singing: "Hi ho, Hi ho, it's off to work we go " Another action and another day of being fully alive.

We backed into the circular court in front of the Council building and were parked central by 11.55 pm. Council officers instantly challenged us. "Sir, you may not park here and I am asking you to leave." "What will you do it about?" I asked. "Call the police."

"Go for it!" I said because the Freedom Riders certainly were.

I leapt onto the roof, passed down our banner rig to Jab, Dave and John, who flew into the set up with fast teamwork. In front we set the 1.2 x 2 metre cardboard jail, an impressive recreation of the Tamworth jail gate built in 1875. It bore a big crown and the slogan: "The Law is the Crime!" About the boundary we set the four "hand sign" banners - power, prayer, peace and perfection.

The butterfly was complete, the PA fired up and I was ready to speak, all within 5 minutes. The civic clock chimed noon ("high noon in Tamworth" had been our media hook) as Jab knotted the last banner in position .

Our cardboard jail was on the brick pavement; I was on the roof of "Happy Wheels" because was in dock for repairs, knocked out of this action by the Moonbi police raid. Our banner "Freedom Ride/" was above and behind it all was the towering glass and concrete, corporate/fascist architecture of the Council. Absolutely splendid vision!

We are such a slick show. I salute Tony Spanos, passionate Sydney urban activist and the street Mayor of South Sydney, for teaching us the arts of free speech occupations of public place.

All the regional media was represented - two TV camera crews (Prime and NBN) and the Northern Daily Leader had sent a photographer.

We had promised to burn a jail in Tamworth that day and challenge the "try harder" prohibitionism and the anti harm minimisation advocacy of the Acting Mayor, Cr Warren Woodley.

Mayor Woodley came down personally to tell me I had to go. We were on first name basis now. "Graeme," he said. "You cannot be here. You did not apply in writing." "I asked you personally to grant me the right to free speech and you refused. Now I take that freedom," I said. "Jump up on the roof and share it with me." He demurred.

A call from Duty Officer Inspector Pat Barley earlier in the morning had assured me that we were to have the space to spruik without contention. "We are a laid back, friendly people in Tamworth", she had said. I thought she was being optimistic but was too busy building a cardboard jail to spend more time on the phone. The police officers that answered the Council call certainly had other ideas.

In front of the assembled media, Detective Inspector Dick Lechford arrived with six officers and demanded we move on. Truth is that the Duty Officer and I had not walked the ground and negotiated the detail of the action. And I had taken some latitude driving "Happy Wheels" all rigged with banners and speakers into the courtyard. In this business of public advocacy surprises create bad feeling.

As I began to speak, Inspector Lechford reached into "Happy Wheels" and pulled the plug on our PA. (Sorry, Tony. Lesson 2 in the Manual for Free Speech Occupation of Public Space, to wit, always lock the vehicles and refuse to answer questions about them, had been neglected.)

Pat was late arriving on the scene and by then her officers were doing their own thing, the Tamworth suppress free speech thing.

With her I was able to negotiate 5 minutes speaking time. By booming my voice I was able to carry the message of our mission for drug law reform to the assembled crowd of camerapersons, news interviewers and scribblers, police, councillors and council officers and a few curious passers by too.

We had announced in our media release that we would burn a jail. But we had not loaded our cardboard jail with the accelerant, (mineral turps) before the cops arrived (Lesson 3. etc). It stood at the centre of our gathering, an obvious invitation. Brave St John calmly walked over and tipped a full bottle on to it. At once the cops took him aside and began questioning him.

Now the invitation was even more electric! Lighters at the ready, Charge! If only.

No-one followed John's example and went forward to burn the jail. I yearned for a box of matches so that I might have pelt it with lighted matches from my perch. Too soon an ordinance officer came with a bucket of water and poured it onto our art. Hey ho! We do best we can.

Our five minutes of free speech up, with the assistance of police and council officers we packed the rig, reloaded the cardboard jail, did media interviews, shook hands and rolled out. All over in 30 minutes.

But Inspector Dick Lechford had not finished. Leaving the civic courtyard, Constable 67682999 directed "Happy Wheels" to pull into a lane and there proceeded to defect it on nine counts (broken mirror, no horn, etc, etc, - the kind of things you can find on an old work horse owned by an old hippy who drives the back roads of Nimbin. "Happy Wheels" now carries a big yellow sticker that says it is not to move on public roads until repaired.

Before I left that courtyard I hailed Mayor Woodley who had been watching, and said my goodbyes. I said I expected to leave on Monday. "The sooner the better", he said with feeling. But that was before the defect notice was applied. Now two of our vehicles are off the road and we may have to extend our time in an around Tamworth. Tut tut.


To prepare for registration, we set up camp into a derelict former steelyard at the west end of Peel Street where the rail viaduct crosses the Peel River, just across the road from the levee. Don McBean, the part owner, was retiring and had wound down the yard. Don has steady quiet speech and kindly face, silver hair and eyebrows, nostrils and ears, which are festoons of black hair. We explained our mission and said that we were stranded travellers. Don kindly agreed to let us set up in his front yard to do the repairs.

Good people in Tamworth. Everyone we met - Dick Lechford and Warren Woodley, not withstanding - was friendly and helpful.

Don McBean's yard was wonderfully convenient. On one side was a BP servo where we were working the pink slip rego business. On the other side was a junk yard whose owner gave us sheet steel scraps to repair rust in, plugged us in to his power and brought us a forklift load of broken pallets to cut up for firewood.

We parked along the Peel Street frontage and Jab flew into it with spanner and angle grinder. We were about 4 blocks downtown from the Council Chambers with lots a traffic going by so we seized the opportunity to be visible and rigged our banners. Behind and under a carport we set up our kitchen and cardboard cutting workshop.

Also convenient to our camp was the Tamworth Police Citizens Youth Club and across the road, a well used skate ramp. It was not long before the lads called over to inquire about our cause and sit about our fire. Mayor Woodley's worst fear, corruption of Tamworth youth by the Freedom Riders, was soon in session. All serendipity. All fate.

I told the lads (16 - 18 year olds) the story of Socrates and his bitter cup. I knew our stay at the McBean and Morris steelyard would be brief.

My work in the men's movement has made me aware of how important, indeed necessary, is the witness of older men to the journey of boys in to manhood. Prohibition has denied and distorted such witness for initiatory experiences in drug use. The folk lore that once surrounded and regulated cannabis use and misuse for the 10,000 years it had been cultivated as a useful crop for food, fuel, fibre and medicine, has now been overridden and lost by the fear mongering of prohibitionists.

Cannabis has been demonised and now it appears demonic.

It is hard to imagine that until 50 years ago cannabis was being cultivated in Australia and growing wild in some places and very, very few Australians ever thought of smoking it. Not part of the culture then. But after 50 years of prohibition "getting out of it" has become de rigour for so many of our boys.

Both TV new channels carried our action as lead story. Prime TV gave it a full minute and aired our cause. Leona Kelly, the Prime TV journalist, who had been in Nimbin covering our departure, was bright eyed with admiration that we had got this far. She referred to us on the news as the "Nimbin Freedom Ride". NBN on the other hand, ran the Council angle "responsible government silences trouble makers and puts out fire" with vision of the council employee throwing water on a not burning cardboard jail. Both ways we had been noticed in Tamworth.

After the action we celebrated at our camp fire with hot ginger tea and a scoob, laughing and undeterred by the defect notice. It just gets more interesting, we agreed. Later I walked back up town and met again with the Tamworth Duty Officer.


While I waited for Pat I watched a contingent of Council officers arrive and go behind the counter, presumably to beat up charges against us for inciting fiery free speech in public places without due authority.

Inspector Pat Barley greeted me and she jokingly offered to conduct our meeting in a holding cell. She took me to her office and we had a long conversation about what had gone amiss and how to do it better at the Tamworth Correctional Centre action the next day.

Pat was the area-training officer who was filling in as Acting Duty Officer until the appointment was made. Pat is a people person, genuinely interested in humans and their welfare.

In regard to the tickets she shrugged and said it was an individual officer's decision and advised that if we were to be so high profile we ought to get our vehicles roadworthy. Good advice. Okay in theory and from the point of view of road safety, but the poor always have beat up vehicles if they have any transport at all. Defecting vehicles of activists is an easy way to suppress the voice of the poor. Tickets, no court appearances, no explanations required. Quiet, effective and ever so reasonable bastardry.

Without being too particular Pat told me her command at the action had been undermined. Other officers she hinted, had accused her of supporting our cause by allowing us to exercise our rights to free speech. I could imagine Mayor Woodley and the Council officers blowing down the phone.

The NSW Police Service with some 16,000 officers is far from homogeneous. Like all human organisations, personalities and politics prevail and here was station with the plumb job up for grabs. I could only presume that Inspector Lechford had put his hand up for the job too. Dick is an upright model of narrow visioned rectitude. He was the first senior officer I had met in Tamworth and when we had talked I discovered that he too was concerned about the rising prisoner population. He was advocating reintroduction of the death penalty.

Pat and I talked at length. She revealed that she was single mum with a nine year old boy, questioning her career options and wanting above all to do what was best for him. She said she was concerned about cannabis induced psychosis and that she was holding a screaming psychotic in the cells, a young lad who went off first after cannabis. Coming in I had heard the screams. None of the other health services in the town would hold him. I wanted to see the youth but she refused.

She was curious about my passion for cannabis law reform. "If it was something for children or stopping cruelty to animals, I could understand," she said.

I told her about my understanding of Mahatma Gandhi and his Satyagraha ("holding firmly to the truth") path. For me drug law reform was about reducing cruelty to humans, in particular men who make up 95% of our prisoners. Imprisonment is a form of torture and it would be a terrible and heartless thing to allow these bad laws to create an incarceration industry, which would prey on the lives of boys of future generations. Prisons are much more dangerous than drugs.

By the time we had parted there was vast mutual respect between us and the action outside the Tamworth Correctional Centre for the next day was firmly planned and agreed.


The Tamworth jail has been many things. Opened as a jail in 1875 it was once a reform school for boys and is now a remand centre. Out back of the Victorian facade and plainly visible from the road and the maternity ward of the hospital across the road, is a modern prison cage about as big as a basketball court with razor wire coils surmounting a 6 meter high wire mesh fence.

St John and I met with the Acting Superintendent of the Tamworth Correctional Centre, Bob Maher, and his Deputy (Security), Gavin Thompson, on Thursday 20 July to negotiate the action. Bob, an internal investigator for the Department of Corrective Services, had witnessed our action at Grafton jail. He had also heard my ABC radio spiel while driving between jails and, from the echoes of phrases and themes, I guessed he had visited our web site. He was waiting outside for us when we drove up.

Bob Maher sat behind his desk with the Corrective Services' Freedom Ride file in front of him. A growing affair, it now 10 pages or so of faxes clipped together. He presented himself as the very model of a tertiary educated, career prison officer - intelligent, open minded and respectful. He was aware of our media potency, amused and very cautious. "Don't quote me on that" and "no comment" were frequent responses.

He read us the riot act and informed us that a "picnic" near a jail had been defined, within the meaning of the Summary Offences Act, as a loitering offence and that his officers had power of arrest and would use it if we came on prison property.

I reminded him that the Nuremberg judgement applied to his "orders is orders" attitude. The Drug War was a great crime against humanity and that we all had an individual and collective moral responsibility for the wrongful incarceration of its prisoners. "We are not Nazis," he protested.

I asked if we could meet the drug war prisoners in his jail. "No!" Why? "It's a decision I, as Governor, have the discretion to make." "Do you have specific orders from Assistant Commissioner Woodham to deny us access?" Smile. "No comment." How many prisoners are you holding? "I refuse to answer that." How many drug war prisoners are you holding? "No Comment" How many prisoners are you holding for cannabis offences - possession/supply/cultivation? "Don't know. I advise you to make a freedom of information request."

So it went in friendly banter, me playing the probing journalist to his straight bat.

But Bob the Investigator was more interested in St John Peninton who is still technically an employee of the NSW Department of Corrective Services, on leave without pay, following ten years of service in drug and alcohol counselling, frustration and burn out that left him seriously depressed.

John had been part of the case management reforms that began in NSW prisons in the early nineties, reforms championed, I understand, by Assistant Commissioner Woodham. Bob Maher saw himself as part these reforms still, for he could remember the bad old days when an admission meant throwing a blanket to a prisoner and locking him up. These days much more paperwork, profiling and understanding of the clientele was required for management.

Bob was convinced that prisons were becoming more and more humane and healing. Incremental change, he said, and he wouldn't be working in the system if it was not improving. He freely admitted that for governments there are no votes in prison reform and they are reluctant to spend any money on jails apart from walls, locks and guards.

He questioned John about his status and his involvement in the Freedom Ride, saying he would be obliged to write a report.

John said he was still serving the best interests of the NSW Department of Corrective Services but from outside the walls. For years he had been frustrated in his case management work, under-resourced and actively undermined by officers who valued case management only so far as it added to their pay packets.

John had believed in case management and cared for his prisoner clients. His colleagues in the field had long since given the Department the finger and left. But John had fought major battles and was locked out of his jail at one time for refusing to leave the keys to the confidential clinical files in the hands of a Governor he could not trust.

"What I am doing now - advocating drug law reform - is the best thing for Corrective Services," he said. "Without these bad laws, there would be fewer prisoners and more resources for case management and healing."

Bob's behaviour was verging on the intimidating, a boundary I could understand prison officers often transgressed.

He inquired why John did not return and accept the treatment and counselling offered by Corrective Services. John said he had tried the medicine and it was bullshit. The cause of the burn out was caring too much about an impossible job in impossible work conditions.

The truth is, drug and alcohol counselling programs in NSW jails are a sham. The programs are well designed and appropriate to inmates needs but they are hopelessly under staffed, under resourced and the implementation of them is daily undermined by the corporate agendas of the prisons - to wit revenue generation through Corrective Services Industries. Inmates for labour always gets a higher priority.

John asked in passing who was the Tamworth alcohol and drug counsellor and neither Bob nor Gavin knew the name. "Someone on contract," they said - hardly a key, or high profile, staff member.

"It's a heart thing," John said by way of explanation. Would the uniformed Bob ever comprehend this, I wondered? One thing for sure, John was no longer depressed. He was clear and shining, active and purposeful. I got the distinct impression that of the two of us, Bob and the Department of Corrective Services were more afraid of John and what he might reveal about the prison system than I.

Talking about it later, John said that he used to journey to Nimbin just to meet and talk to people who cared. He used to take some of that healing energy back to his work and be sustained by it for a while. Now he had come back to his work place with a gang of Nimbinites and felt exhilarated and empowered.


After this meeting, the Tamworth jail action was almost anti climatic. But much funnier.

We Freedom Riders are nothing if not determined in our mission to bear witness to the injustice of the Drug War, We were now two vehicles down and our third, Peter's rust bucket Econovan, we could ill afford to put at risk, Thank heaven the jail was also convenient to the McBean & Morris steelyard - a mere 10 minutes walk away. We resolved to use other means of transport.

Jab organised the skate bowl boys to find us two shopping trolleys. Between them he mounted the cardboard jail on bamboo poles and set flags about it. We put our speakers, amp and battery into the basket of one, our rigging tools and what nots into basket of the other, stacked our "End the Drug War/Release the Prisoners" banner and its poles on top and set forth.

Chris Wharton, our Ben Lomond guide and bard, came with his personal pig nose PA (he is a licensed busker). And so did three local lads from the fledgling Tamworth Chapter of the Australian Cannabis Law Reform Movement.

We had been on the TV news the previous night so we got a lot of recognition from the passing Saturday traffic as our little parade trundled west along Peel Street. Most of it was open mouthed wonder, plus some peace signs and toots. No agro at all. One car pulled up and the driver shook my hand and wished us well.

We set up our banners beside the front sign which said in vandalese: "AMWORTH ORRECTIONAL CNTRE" and took our photos.

A police car rolled up and the officer inside told me: "You can't make a noise because it will disturb the hospital patients."

Acting Prison Superintendent Bob Maher had beaten up this stir the previous day by ringing the CEO of the hospital to warn him. I had checked at the maternity ward that morning and the ward nurse after hearing our mission, told me it would be not a bother. I had taken her name and phone number back to the prison officers. Now this constable was trying it on. I quoted the agreement made with his Duty Officer and he quickly desisted. Pat herself arrived soon after.

And so it was we trundled our shopping trolley rig up the hill to where we could speak, as agreed, through the razor wire. I spoke at length about the Drug War, the failure of drug prohibition policies, the rising prisoner population, the creation of an incarceration industry, the emergence of a new slave class and the failure and moral corruption of the NSW Labor government. "You are not criminals and you are not forgotten. You are pharmo-political prisoners of the Drug War, the victims of unjust laws."

We heard some cries of support from within the jail and a ball came flying over the wall but beyond our reach. Windows of the hospital opened and staff hung out to listen. Patients in dressing gowns gathered in the sun on the grass opposite, Chris Wharton took over the microphone and entertained them with some more with his poems.

A mother and girl friend who were visiting a heroin user inmate joined us. Now 27 their boy had been in and out of Tamworth jail since he was 17 for doing crime to support his habit. They had learned he was being transferred to Bathurst which was a long way from their visiting capacity. "He is acting up. They are sick of him here", the mother said.

As we trundled the trolley rig back to McBean's, Pat Barley gave me a warm wave and wished me a good day. Two police, four prison officers, no confrontation, and no complaints. Pat had also given me assurance that we would not be hassled for moving our unregistered and defected vehicles out of town.

An aboriginal family on their way to the jail waved in recognition as they passed our parade. Then they drove around the block and came by again, calling to us and waving peace signs. We felt gratified.


Back in the camp we began our pack up. The heat was now on. Our camp had become a permanent but changing circle of 6 to 8 of Tamworth lads and their girl friends. Chris Wharton entertained them with a continuous performance of stories and poems as the Freedom Ride crew worked.

What can I say about the Tamworth youth I met around that fire? They wear baseball hats and baggy pants, and are callow, inarticulate and hungry for pot. Hydro cannabis, they said, cost locally between $350 to $500 an ounce, the deals were rip offs and the recreational drug most available in local schools apart from alcohol was "shitty" dex-amphetamine.

Don McBean had come to us that morning to say the Council was threatening to sue if we didn't move on by noon. Illegal camping. Don said he was under pressure too from his partner who did thousands of dollars worth of business with the Council. Graham, the scrap metal man next door, pulled our plug saying the Council had threatened him because our extension lead was on the ground and thus illegal.

After receiving this news we sat around the fire and discussed Satyagraha and its implications. I told the story of Asoka, the king of the first Buddhist state, a huge and peaceful federation of states in fact, about 250 BC. First ever welfare state. One time King Asoka was standing on the banks of the River Ganges and he asked "What power could reverse the flow of the holy Ganges?" Only the power of truth, he was told. "Who has such a truth?" he asked. A courtesan spoke up. She said she lived by her beauty and treated all men as equals regardless of caste or status. Equal vision. The mighty Ganges, seven miles wide, reversed its flow.

Satyagraha and equal vision are our aspiration. May our actions and words cause the enemies of freedom and justice to show their faces.

Here is a prayer that came to me via a T-shirt of a young woman who had been to the 1999 World Summit on Peace and Time and, stuck in my diary, I notice it almost daily and it haunts me:

"Let us move evenly together.
Let us stand as one.
Let evil be cast from us.
Let no man cry for himself
Or listen to those without faces.

Let us move evenly together.
Let us walk as tall trees.
Let fear be crushed within us.
Let no man speak for himself
Or give secrets to those without blood."

As we stowed our gear we had a visit from Troy Yeats, a former Nimbin resident who had never been to the Nimbin "Let It Grow" Mardi Grass and who was now representing the Hallsville and Moore Creek Bush Fire Brigade. We razzed him. He had come in response to a complaint from Council that our fire was too near the LP gas container of the BP servo next door. It was bullshit but a police squad car came by 30 minutes later to reinforce the message. And later cruised passed again. And again.

Our fire was taking on the proportions of a major threat to civil society in Tamworth.

What to do with the cardboard jail? We told the lads we would burn it a 6 pm on the levee wall above the skate ramp and challenged them to find an audience. "Sure," they said and split to find their friends.

We finished the packing and warmed our engines. At 6 pm the jail sat bathed in the yellow of the mercury filament streetlights, looking grand on the levee wall. But there were no lads in sight. Too afraid or too stoned? Prohibition makes cannabis culture a paranoid one. It is a big step for the lonely tokers of the world to become visible.

We debated what to do. Burn it ourselves or leave it to be burned if the lads should return?

At 6.15 pm three boys turned up we had never seen before and said: "Cool!" So we posed for photos and torched it then and there. It was still burning as we ran to our vehicles and drove out of town.

Farewell fair City of Tamworth! May peace and an end of the Drug War be with you!

Graeme Dunstan
23 July 2000


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