An account of the Spanos Supreme Court Action 8 May 2000

A convoy comprising the Peace Bus, “Lady Penelope" the former fire truck of Lismore City Council, all painted luminous pink and graffitied, a 10 tonne, long wheel base, Hertz hire van with pull-back-tarp sides concealing the 10,000 watts PA system, the Nimbin HEMP bus, a former kindy bus and assorted vans and cars rolled out of the Graffiti Hall of Fame at 7 am. It had rained all night and was still raining.

Thirty minutes later we had seized Queens Square, a small plaza beside the Supreme Court building in Macquarie Street, locked the vehicles in a grid and were putting up the rainbow flags and mounting banners. Military precision. These guys had done it before. A pair from a French photo-journalism agency, who had stumbled upon us the previous day and come for the ride, were amazed at the smooth coordination.

The action was in support of Tony Spanos’ appeal to the NSW Supreme Court to overturn a judgement in favour of the South Sydney Council which aimed at closing down the Graffiti Hall of Fame.For the past ten years Spanos, an heir to his father’s meat export fortune, had been operating part of the old meat works in Botany Road,Alexandria, as a youth centre.

Like his father before him, Tony has been a godfather to many poor and needy families in Alexandria and Redfern. But Tony had chosen to do it with spray cans and dance party technology. Since the early nineties he had fostered many graffiti artists and resourced rebel club functions, rebel street dance parties and groups like Ohms Not Bombs. His Peace Bus had carried street kid to the protest actions against the Timbarra cyanide leech gold mine at the headwaters of the Clarence River (near Tenterfield) and had come to the rescue of the Nimbin HEMP Embassy’s Cannabus when it broke down at Coffs Harbour enroute to the NSW Drug Summit in May 1999.

Tony had cemented his relationship with the eco-activists and drug law reformers of the NSW Rainbow Region by giving them a second hand Toyota Coaster bus to assist in transportation to actions. Coincidentally the Timbarra Protection Coalition had Supreme Court appearance that day so a crew from Nimbin had rallied to be with Tony in Queens Square on 8 March 2000.

The crew at Graffiti Hall of Fame had worked for days preparing for the action,painting the truck and banners. Tony was calling in favours but very few of the young people and kooris whom he had helped, some of them regulars,showed up. Most of the workers were ferals from the Nimbin/Timbarra connection. I joined them and spent Tuesday painting a beautiful "End Drug War/Release prisoners" banner. I also helped by putting out an after-midnight media release about the action.

It took about another thirty minutes for Council officers to discover the occupation. By this time Tony had disappeared for coffee and for a while they could find no-one who would talk to them. You should have seen the jaw drop when I told one of them that we would be there for at least the day and maybe two. The Police arrived 30 minutes later and it was much the same- a stand off.

The rain was relentless and we were about 20people, mostly from Nimbin, with about ten vehicles making a confused and bedraggled spectacle. Citizen ascending into our midst from the St James subway were genuinely puzzled by our presence.There were so many different banners, flags and issues on display. Imagine stepping out of a blandly tiled subway into a used car yard owned by fluoro lunatic.

Rusty Harris of Barkers Vale made a dramatic entry, swerving across the traffic lanes mounting the gutter with a bump and then bouncing down three steps into the plaza. (He must have been missing Lillian Rock Road.) His timing was bad however because the cops pounced on him, the first person they been able to nail as being in charge any of the vehicles.

Rusty began at once to berate the young officer who was writing the parking tickets - all vehicles were booked and Tony had agreed to pay all fines -and the officer walked away with his driver's licence when Rusty refused to answer a question which would guarantee another ticket. Rusty took off his shoes and started cart wheeling around and kicking air. The cop was appalled.

I empathised with him. "How does he expect to win support for his cause? Less than 1% look or talk like him” he exclaimed "But the other 99% don't do anything about cyanide gold mines poisoning our water", I counted. Soon Rusty was up on the roof of his van with the PA system he had brought delivering demagoguery in the rain. Bo Kahn too. Timbarra passion. One has got to admire the defiant spirit. I got to do some spruiking too on the prisoners of the drug war amnesty campaign with a pair drummers responding from the roof of the pink fire truck.

The officer trying to book Rusty was eventually drawn away by a more senior officer taking him under his arm like an uncle.

Three video cameras were held by ferals but otherwise there was very little media interest. When the much vaunted PA was turned on it was revealed as being vastly over rated. About twenty people had good quality sound to dance to within the enclosure of 10 metres square created by our wagon trains, music from the Timbarra CD playing behind enemy lines.

There was not much else to do but sit in the bus and blow joints, dance in the rain or go watch the show in the court room. There three bewigged beaks were looking down on a gallery full of ferals, colour and variety where normally suits prevailed. Justice O'Keefe tore apart Tony's barrister for wasting the court's time and, by implication, his client’s money.The barrister was near gibbering. There were no grounds for the appeal.Tony didn't get to speak and the South Sydney Council officers were not subjected to cross examination.

By contrast the Timbarra Protection Coalition had a win. Al Oshlack and Burri Jerome were jubilant when they returned to the action. Ross Mining lawyers had failed to front and the judge had willingly agreed to an extension of time to raise the bond money require to proceed with a Native Title action which will prevent the mine pumping water from creeks outside its lease.

As fate would have it, the Spanos appeal was in the court adjacent to the one hearing the Marsden case. The Spanos crew have a hatred for paedophilia deriving from their work with homeless and abused boys. Tony tells of a story of being about to nail a group of Housing Commission managers involved in a paedophile ring in their area only to find that they had been tipped off by the police and had disappeared. Over night, one office closed down, staff changes in the other.

Rusty Harris entered the Marsden court by accident.“Hullo” he said and, when asked to leave, began his Timbarra rant. Shock horror. Security was called and Rusty was obliged to leave the building cart wheeling and crazy talking all the way. When the court adjourned, the ferals spilled out into the lobby co-mingling with Marsden court suits. Marsden was recognised and personally abused a mother of three boys. A visceral response, she said.

The Hon Peter Breen MLC, who was a witness to these events, tells me that while Marsden is a high profile gay, he is no paedophile. Subtleties like this and the rules for Supreme Court appeals,were beyond this crew however.

Tony gave an impassioned defeat speech about injustice to his small faithful feral following at the ground floor door of the Supreme Court building. He referred to mandatory sentencing saying now, if a kid gets caught dancing at the Graffiti Hall of Fame, he, Tony, goes to jail. He said he had spent about one million dollars on the appeal and associated frustrations and would have to sell the Hall. An expensive way to have a day in court, hey?

Later in the evening I sat with Tony in the fire truck. The rain was heavier, the wind stronger and a big tarp rigged over the PA truck was billowing and snapping like a sail on a boat run aground. In the bleakness of his defeat Tony Spanos loved the wild eruptive chaos of it, a metaphor for his own passionate nature. Peter Pumpkin and I reckoned it dangerous and, ignoring Tony, cut it down.

Tony had been raving for 8 hours, repeating his stories of injustice, repetition keeping denial in place and truth at bay.The cops had told him, reasonably enough, that they were cool about the protest during his court appearance but they wanted the heavy vehicles out before the next morning. But Tony wanted the police to tow the vehicles away and arrest him. I could see nothing to be gained by this. I collected my flags, banners and tools from the Peace Bus and went off to his Blues Point boatshed for a hot shower and a quiet nights sleep.

Next morning at 7.30 am the Police did as they promised. In a planned and coordinated action, the police broke through the plywood over the rear window and three officers carried a screaming Tony away. Under clear blue skies, the vehicles were defected and tow trucks dragged off the Peace Bus and Lady Penelope.The Bus's brakes were locked on and $2000 worth of damage was done to its rear tyres in the 3 km drag to the pound.

Tony's exit plans to the promised land at Station Creek were in disarray but he was gratified because the arrest had got a page three photo and story in the afternoon edition of the Daily Telegraph (9 March 2000). Tony said it was the most sympathetic story he had ever had in the Tele and everything and all the costs had been made worthwhile for that.

The Tele piece was headed “Unhappy Campers - Police move in on hippy protest” and a coloured photo showed “Mayoral candidate Tony Spanos”, screaming like a banshee, being carried off by two officers. There were two other smaller photos, one of Lady Penelope, the other of ‘French’ Sam, proprietor of the HEMP Embassy Kiosk, appearing to evade arrest. The protesters were described as “a group calling themselves the Nimbin Crew" and the Timbarra cyanide threat got three paragraphs.

And so "the Nimbin Crew" became the mobile bane of civilised society, the irritant that wakes the sleepers, in-your-face truth bearers to the ignorant.

There was good humour, good effort and a willingness to confront injustice in the Spanos action. But in review I realised I have been a collaborator in, and witness to, a tantrum on a mega scale of self indulgence. So much money thrown away for so little gained.

The foundation of the action had been vanity and the gods had pissed down upon us mightily. But then who knows what seeds have been sown, what inspiration given, what new friendships and tactics will come out of this extraordinary adventure? In this time of great despair and inertia, any justice action is good action.

Graeme Dunstan 9 March 2000


The burning of OLD MAN TIME 

Timbara and making the earth a garden

The day General MacCaffery came to town.