The Battle of Hawthorn Town Hall

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Last night shortly after I started this the battery in my modem melted down. It just stopped working, and on inspection it felt as though the interior of the battery had turned to mush. So today I will be spending the day without internet access until I can collect a replacement, hopefully tomorrow. This is somewhat disappointing, as I had intended to publish this story today, as it is a significant anniversary. Twenty years ago, on the 19th of July 1998, an incident took place which has become quite famous, or infamous depending on your point of view, in Australian political history. Or possibly mythology.

 

Pauline Hanson, the neo-fascist Queensland politician, was prevented from addressing a public meeting in Melbourne at the old Hawthorn Town Hall by a counter demonstration and picket. Much has been said and much has been written about the events of that day, both at the time and in the years since, absolutely none of it accurate. Despite the fact that at least 2,000 people were there that day, with some estimates saying as many as 3,500, only around a hundred people, half of them demonstrators and half of them cops, know what really happened. I am one of them, and I think the time has come for the story to be told and the record corrected.

 

 

In researching this story I have read a number of accounts of the events of that Sunday afternoon, from both left and right, and of course numerous media reports at the time, none of them remotely reflecting the true story. Of course this is in part because many of those discussing it didn’t actually see it, and tend to have an axe to grind, the Hanson apologists wishing to portray it as left wing thuggery (poor, misunderstood little fascists), a dastardly plot by the ALP or the Greens or, even less plausibly Militant, who had a negligible presence in Australia at the time and the leaders of the organised left wishing to paint it as a great victory for their tactics and strategy. In fact it was neither. The first point I have to address is the violence that really did take place and the reason for it. As with the fact that Hanson was prevented from speaking, everyone has sought to impose their own interpretation of this violence. For the Hansonites it was an outrageous victimisation, for the left a heroic stand against oppression and for the police, well they painted themselves as the victims too. Again, they are all wrong, and the truth is far more mundane, and far less flattering to all concerned.

 

 

For those who remember the incident, have you ever wondered why, although there were a number of injuries that day, there were no arrests? There’s no great mystery about it in fact. The simple truth is no arrests were made because no offences were committed. Not by the demonstrators at any rate. Unfortunately I can’t say the same for the police. The violence was on their part, and was entirely the responsibility of the sergeant in charge of the contingent of mounted police attending. Without orders, acting on his own initiative, he led his unit through the crowd in front of the town hall, riding down demonstrators and causing all of the injuries. The incident commander, who was inside the building at the time, was heard to be furious when he was informed of what had happened. He demanded they be called off, but this was not done for, again, one simple reason – the police comms failed.

 

 

But I’m getting ahead of myself, that was later. I haven’t arrived yet. The meeting was scheduled for 4pm, and I got there shortly before that in the company of two friends, a couple in fact, who were relatively inexperienced with demos and who were somewhat apprehensive given the trouble that had attended earlier One Nation events in Geelong and Dandenong. I was 33, and a veteran of numerous demos in Glasgow and London, so I’d sort of taken them under my wing. When we arrived most of the demonstrators were already there, the vast majority at the front of the town hall on Burwood Road. I suggested we take a walk around the whole block before joining them. This was basically a scouting mission to identify all the access points to the area, to work out where we could go if things turned ugly.

 

 

Now the geography of the place is key to this story, and building work means it no longer looks the way it did, so in the absence of an accurate diagram I’ll have to describe it as best I can. The town hall complex was on a corner. The cross street was Glenferrie Road. Part of the complex is, or at least was in 1998, the Hawthorn Police Station, which was around the corner and behind the town hall. Between them was an open quadrangle in use as a car park, with a larger car park taking up the diagonally opposite corner of the city block. There was access to the rear of the complex from that car park, across a wide area, and also by two narrow passages on either side of a smallerbuilding (not sure what that was, gone now) which occupied the actual corner, one along the side of the town hall and one along the side of the police station. At the rear of the hall there was a passageway along the back side of the building, about 12′ – 15′ wide, contained by a wall around 4′ to 5′ high, which allowed access to a side door. This wall had a gap of around 15′ – 20′ right at the back. To access the hall you would enter the passageway there, turn left and walk around the corner to the side door.

 

 

Much has been made of this layout by the Hansonites. According to this document, which appears to have been online since shortly after the day, the police were either weak or in league with the protestors, because it should have been easy for them to bring Hanson in by that side entrance. And it might have been, because I believe that had been their intention all along, if it hadn’t been for my scouting mission. Yes folks, confession time, I was the one who thwarted that plan. You see, when I saw that layout it was immediately clear to me what they intended to do. There were hardly any demonstrators at the rear of the town hall at this point. Adjacent to the gap in the wall someone had parked a Nissan Civilian, directly facing the wall. A Civilian is a small bus, bigger than a minibus, smaller than a city bus or a coach, holds about 30. It was dusty, white and unmarked. A bit like this:

 

 

 

It occurred to me that it would be the simplest thing in the world to bring up another similarly-sized vehicle to take the corresponding position on the other side of the gap, creating an easily defensible area into which they could bring her by car. Of course they didn’t want the demonstrators to realise what they intended to do, so they had left just one young cop to keep an eye on it. There were no demonstrators near it. When I figured out their plan, I went to the first stewards I could find and asked for a couple of dozen people to go and block the passageway. People who heard this started volunteering and soon we had what I estimated to be an adequate number, so I led them round there. As soon as we got there the single cop on lookout duty got on the radio, which was still working at that point, and cops started arriving from everywhere!

 

 

We were able to get roughly half way along the rear of the building before they mustered sufficient numbers to link arms and block our progress. Now I didn’t do a careful head count, but I’d estimate there were roughly 50 of us, and a similar number of police, some of whom arrived behind us so we were hemmed in. That was fine, because we had successfully blocked the passageway, and the police presence was effectively helping us to do that. Indeed at first they were pushing us in both directions at once. At that point I stuck my head up and loudly pointed out that this was what they were doing, and suggested they make their minds up. “Which way are you trying to push us?” They didn’t know. I’d rumbled their Plan A, and they clearly didn’t have a Plan B. But they stopped trying to push us from behind. Because of the wall there was nowhere for us to go anyway.

 

 

In this article, written by someone involved in the organisation of the demo, they claim that demonstrators linked hands all the way around the town hall, and bravely held out in the face of mounted police charges. The earlier document indicates that the Hansonites believed that too. Didn’t happen. In fact there were effectively two separate actions that day. The first, and the one that everyone saw, including the TV cameras, was at the front of the hall. Over 2,000 people participated there. The ill-disciplined action by the mounted police unit took place there, and those who faced that charge were indeed courageous. I want to be absolutely clear about that. I didn’t see it personally, but I know they stood their ground, and that deserves acknowledgement and credit. The decisive action however, the reason the police incident commander advised Hanson they could not guarantee her safety if she attempted to enter the hall, was carried out by me and my brave 50 out the back.

 

 

Once we and the 50 or so police who responded to us settled into our allotted roles that afternoon, we began to communicate. This is very important. If you ever find yourself on the front line of a demo, this is what you do. You keep up a dialogue. Now it fairly quickly became apparent to me who the natural leader amongst the police was. He was being extremely vocal, and was yelling, “Blood rule! Blood rule!” when I first noticed him. Remember, this was in the days when people were still fairly paranoid about blood, fully effective treatments for HIV/AIDS were not yet available, and all sports were rigidly enforcing blood rules whereby the slightest sight of blood would immediately see the player sent to the sidelines to be patched up. The pre-eminent sport in Victoria was of course Australian Rules Football (AFL), hereinafter referred to as ‘footy.’ So I looked where this guy was pointing.

 

 

He was right. There was a young guy on our side who was bleeding from a head wound. It wasn’t a particularly serious-looking one, and he almost certainly got it before he joined our number, but the blood was clearly visible. I worked my way through the crowd to reach him and told him to go and get medical attention. There was a first aid tent in fact, not more than about 50 yards from our position at the near corner of the larger car park. St. John’s I believe. He didn’t want to go, so I spoke to him in the voice I inherited from my father (the one that allows me to do gigs without a mic or busk in busy streets), making sure everyone on both sides heard me. I told him he was injured, that he’d done his bit, and that now he needed to go and get medical attention. I got the rest of my 50 behind me, and by moral suasion we prevailed on him to go. I took care to let him do so without losing face, and we even gave him a few cheers and a round of applause as he went. I then turned my attention to the vocal cop.

 

 

His name (and this alone shows that it was a more innocent time, the fact that many of the cops were still wearing their name badges, you don’t see that any more) was Constable N. Smith. I’ll explain the reason I remember that like it was yesterday in a minute. Now for my non-Australian audience, I should explain that police ranks in Australia are a little different to those you’d find in Scotland or the UK. Constables are obviously the same, but you also get Senior Constables. That’s sort of equivalent to a Sergeant. They wear two stripes. An actual Sergeant is equivalent to a UK Inspector, and a Senior Sergeant is equivalent to a Chief Inspector. The group who faced us were mixed, Constables and Senior Constables. So although Constable Smith was not the senior officer present, nobody seemed to be formally in charge, and he emerged as the natural leader. So once our wounded soldier had departed I got his attention.

 

 

I can’t remember my exact words, but basically I communicated to him, in far fewer words than I’m about to use, that our enforcing of the blood rule, at his request, was a good faith gesture, and proposed that we agree to broaden the understanding and adopt footy rules more generally. That meant a bit of push and shove, a bit of the old hip and shoulder, was fair game but there was to be no striking, no kicking, no tripping, no eye-gouging, no hair pulling, etc. Once that understanding had been reached, Constable Smith and myself kept up a continuous dialogue, with a bit of friendly banter, for the rest of the afternoon to ensure its enforcement on both sides. I soon nicknamed him ‘Norm’ because of the medal. The Norm Smith Medal is awarded to the player adjudged best on ground in every AFL Grand Final. It’s named for some legend of the game from way back. I want to say 1920s. That’s why I’ve never forgotten his name. Anyway, the dialogue worked and where we were there were no injuries and no arrests that day.

 

 

They did try to bring a couple of people through. One made it, albeit looking as though he’d been dragged through a hedge backwards (which he had really, a human hedge), the other didn’t. Nobody struck them, but we were completely hemmed in, forming a solid phalanx. There simply wasn’t room for anyone to move. Not that we were trying. Our intention was to put our bodies in the way and to block access. In this we succeeded, at least insofar as having seen the results of their attempts to bring people through our cordon, the commander recommended to Pauline Hanson not to try it, and told her, I would imagine, that he couldn’t make any promises once she was in the middle of the crowd. Due to the extremely restricted space there was no chance for either side to reinforce our numbers once the block was established. Would she have been unharmed if they had tried it? I don’t know. That was certainly my intention, but she does tend to attract a lot of hostility. I do know that in the case of those two of her supporters they tried to get through, they were not harmed, however we carried out our stated intention of doing our best to block their path.

 

 

So given all the above circumstances I am quite prepared to take responsibility for preventing her from addressing the meeting. I’d do it again in a heartbeat, and I’ll tell you why. I do believe in freedom of speech, as a general principle, with one vital exception – no platform for fascism. No right can ever be absolute, not in the real world. The reason for this is that there are overlapping rights, some of them a priorirights. All such judgements are a balancing acts. So where does your right to freedom of speech end? That’s not a rhetorical question. It ends with hate speech, because that infringes on certain a priori rights of others. Even Americans, who have more legal protection for the absolute right to freedom of speech than pretty much anyone, ought to understand this. The first rights their fledgling nation ever asserted for its citizens were life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. In that order. And that is entirely right and proper, isn’t it. The most fundamental right of all must surely be the right not to be killed. Hate speech leads to killing, it’s as simple as that.

 

 

That is why in countries not quite so obsessed with free speech there are laws constraining what you can and cannot say. Incitement to racial hatred for instance has long been a criminal offence in the UK, and that is entirely appropriate too. The problem is, and this is certainly the case in Australia as well as the UK, that allowances do tend to be made for politicians that would perhaps not be made for the rest of us (think of Donald Trump – much of what he says would be illegal in the UK or Australia, some of it probably is even in America). Stephen Yaxley-Lennon* is, in my view, one such politician. He is in jail for contempt of court, for defying a judge, not for the disgusting things he says, although arguably he should be. Pauline Hanson, who as you may have heard has called for his release, is another. She is a racist, a proto-fascist, what she says (some of which she has got away with under parliamentary privilege) is hate speech, and although she is not physically attacking people herself, views like hers legitimise and enable such acts in the minds of others, of her followers. Once you set out down that road it’s only going to end one way – badly.

 

 

And it’s impossible to escape the reality that fascism is a problem for us, the working class left, to deal with. Nobody else will do it for one thing. Remember in the 1930s none of the Tories, apart from Churchill famously, wanted to oppose the Nazis. They wanted to reach an accommodation with them. In Spain only the International Brigades, working class, left wing volunteers, went to the defence of the Republic. It’s our clothes they’re trying to steal and our people they are trying to recruit for another thing. The reason these ideas are so insidiously seductive is because they marry some left wing-sounding economic populism, which they invariably fail to deliver on when given the opportunity by the way, with the deeply rooted human tendency to out group hostility, xenophobia and scapegoating. It’s the worst part of our nature, and we know where it can end up go in an era where technology has made us far more dangerous than we ever were in the days when being that way conferred, presumably, some sort of evolutionary advantage. The price of freedom, as they say, is eternal vigilance, and the only thing a tolerant society cannot tolerate is intolerance. For these reasons we must be eternally vigilant not to tolerate this poisonous ideology ever taking root or thriving again. It is not within the boundaries of legitimate political opinion. The ordinary protection of political speech does not apply to it. It understands only the language of force and as our grandparents knew, it must be opposed, unconditionally and at any cost. Never again!

 

*the fuckknuckle who goes by the alias of Tommy Robinson

By Derek Stewart Macpherson

 

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