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Byron Shire
September 26, 2021

The ghost in the archives #4: Searching for that rainbow at the end of conformity

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Michael McDonald

Locals fought long and hard against Club Med in Byron Bay and eventually won through the courts. Photo Jeff Dawson.

The art of the peaceful protest has been a staple of Byron Shire life since the ‘new settlers’ arrived in the 1970s, searching for that rainbow at the end of conformity. It has taken on elements of theatre and of humour, often expressed through costume, dance, music and that ubiquitous medium, face-painting.

In 1991, as well as protests against indiscriminate government logging mentioned in Archive #2, some 400 people took to the streets of Byron Bay in January to protest against ‘the current crisis in the Persian Gulf’. Various luminaries addressed the rally at Main Beach, backed by a large banner, ’No Bloody War’.

‘The Gulf Crisis’, as it was then known, was part of the ongoing crisis in the Middle East, helpfully established by colonial powers, such as Britain and France in the 19th century – or we could go back to the 11th century Christian Crusades – and brought to a later climax in 1998 by the USA bombing the crap out of Iraq.

In that same week in 1991 a group of artists and poets staged a piece of performance art at Cape Byron. The Echo reported the claims that war in the Gulf ‘could ignite oil reserves, resulting in further exacerbation of the greenhouse effect and damage the marine environment by leaking oil’.

(It wasn’t until 2015 that the US military lost its ‘emissions exemption’ under the Paris climate accord, with a Brown University report noting that US military greenhouse gas emissions totalled 59 million tons in 2017, 11 million tons more than the nation of Sweden in the same year! So many different ways a large army can kill people.)

I had the privilege of covering many different protests in the nineties and into the noughties. In general the local police were helpful and hands-off, unlike some American police forces clad in military gear and all too willing to wield a baton and spray the mace – or to just shoot people.

Rusty gets crucified on the front lawn of the Byron Bay police station. Photo courtesy of Graeme Dunstan

The patience of the Byron Bay police might have been tested when a 2001 Good Friday protest against the use of sniffer dogs ended up on their doorstep. Fortunately that perennial activist, Graeme Dunstan, had a way of establishing rapport, or at least some agreement, with senior officers before the protest took place.

The parade wandered through the Bay to the police station, accompanied by the blaring music of the Baha Men’s 1999 cover of ‘Who Let The Dogs Out’. The patience of the Christian cops present must have been further tested by the ‘crucifixion’ on the station lawn of Rusty Harris, who had been busted earlier in the year after being sniffed out by a labrador named Thor. A colourful and somewhat coloured report of the drama, complete with photo containing Rusty and the banner ‘Sniff Butts Not Buds’, can be found at peacebus.com/Rusty/easter2001.html on the site still held by Graeme on an insecure connection, according to the Firefox browser.

A side effect of a protest by Mullum identity Rhonda Ellis, a Byron councillor and later a Southern Cross University academic, saw my first appearance in court as a witness. Rhonda was arrested for interfering with the progress of the XPT train as part of general dismay at the closure of rail services.

Naturally The Echo had covered the protest and taken many photos. These were produced during the Mullum local court proceedings and the police prosecutor asked why I had brought them along.

‘I didn’t’, I replied. That put a dampener on the prosecutor’s line of enquiry and was about the extent of my testimony.

Rhonda is also the author, with Fiona Martin, of a 2002 report in the Transformations journal on the evolution of the alternative press in Byron Shire from 1970 onwards. The Echo gets covered, of course, in itself initially a protest at the media’s failure to cover the police’s 1983 marijuana raids called Operation One-Up.

‘There we were, bailed up in Main Arm for three days by gun-toting police and low-flying helicopters,’ Nicholas Shand told filmmaker David Bradbury. ‘Biggest bloody story in Australia probably that week and the local press wouldn’t report it.’

The 1979 Terania Creek protest. Photo David Kemp

Some 12 years before the 1991 Byron Bay peace protest there was the famous ‘Battle For Terania’ rainforest in August 1979 at Terania Creek. In 1999, to mark the 20th anniversary of the successful blockade, Byron Bay activist Dailan Pugh noted, ‘The Terania Creek protest was the precedent for taking direct non-violent action to protect forests. The political effect of the blockade was inspirational for a range of future environmental confrontations around Australia.’

And, unfortunately, the confrontations must continue.

The film Mullumbimby’s Madness – Activism & Politics, by Sharon Shostak for the Brunswick Valley Historical Society, covers many of the protests of the ’70s and ’80s that informed the ’90s, and includes interviews with several of the participants.

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