Escaping school to protest the war

Books not Bombs protest in Sydney, 2003. Photo: Peter Boyle

In year 10 at age 15, everyone was talking about the imminent Iraq war at school. I remember arguments in the playground about it. I got into [student anti-war group] Books Not Bombs when some year 12 students started advertising it around the school.

There were only a handful of people at the first meeting and I was really upset with the turn out. The next day though, a few of us who had been distributing anti-war material got in trouble from the universally-hated science teacher, and then everybody was in. We had the next organizing meeting on the grass, and it seemed everybody was there, or watching on. 

I remember getting in trouble for putting up posters for the big rally at school, and a few of us were taken off the Student Representative Council, because in the eyes of the school, it wasn't supposed to be a political body. It was also around that time that I got suspended (I think for having political arguments in class).

The next obstacle was getting permission notes from parents to allow students to attend the rally. I remember most of those notes being fake — one supportive parent did a bunch of them and I knew my parents would never give me a real one. 

The first massive protest was on a weekend, and big numbers of people from school joined the thousands strong student feeder march into the big rally. I was amazed at the size already in Town Hall, but when we reached Hyde Park it was bigger than I could ever have imagined. I thought we were about to overthrow Howard or something, everyone was there — unionists, Christians, peace groups and others. We all took to swimming in the fountain after the rally, with a taped up sign over it saying something about smart bombs and dumb leaders. 

After that I really got into the notion of “people power” and “against the system” type ideas. I remember the next rally of Books Not Bombs in March. It was mid-week so it took quite a bit of organising. I had the hated science teacher the period before — so we jumped out of windows and a couple of other students held the teacher up while we let everyone else out the door.

Some students cared more about giving the teacher a hard time than the upcoming protest, but eventually our class joined the other students at the bus stops. We got cheers from the rest of the students for our “daring escape”. Eggs may have been involved. 

There were a bunch of rallies then, and controversies about whether we were “nasty” and “violent” and things like that. In the aftermath of that rally I remember there being lots of arguments about tactics,  and what to do about the cops, and things got harder to organise after that. It eventually petered out.

I didn't want to just go back to how things were, and so they kept sending me off to the school counsellor, eventually diagnosing me with “Oppositional Defiance Disorder”. This is a pattern of disobedient, hostile, and defiant behaviour toward authority figures (according to the American Psychiatric Association).

I was pretty isolated politically after that, and went back to the Zionist Youth Movement. Without these protests though, I'm not sure I'd be involved in revolutionary politics with Socialist Alternative today. I felt like we all had so much power that day in February, so much potential.

Some friends of high school say to me today that protest doesn't work because we had a massive rally and the war continued. But since looking at the fight against the Vietnam War, one impressive rally would never be enough to stop the wishes of our rulers in its tracks. We needed years of it, from the streets, from in the army, from workers and everyone. That amazing day just showed us what was possible.