High school students: a radical history

Issue 

By Jacquie Moon

On July 21, 1968, the Sydney Sunday Telegraph reported that "a well-organised youth movement is recruiting school children in NSW with slogans like 'Support the NLF'. The organisation, Resistance, openly supports the opposing forces in Vietnam, the National Liberation Front, and holds leaders like Ho Chi Minh and Fidel Castro as its heroes ... Using an anti-Vietnam war platform, Resistance held a meeting ... last Sunday, inviting Sydney's high school students to attend. The 500 teenagers who attended were asked to give their names and addresses for the Resistance mailing list."

These were the early days of Resistance's high school activity. As nightly television reports vividly presented images of the slaughter the US military was inflicting in Vietnam, young people began to say "no" to the Australian government's involvement in the unjustifiable war.

The threats and intimidation from school authorities only helped to create mass student opposition to the war. Students began to rebel against their lack of rights and the authoritarian rules which governed schools. It was a time of political and cultural rebellion.

Student Underground

In September 1968, Resistance and High School Students Against the War in Vietnam published the first issue of Student Underground. It advertised a march to the US consulate, followed by leafleting of US and Australian service personnel at Kings Cross. Two thousand people, half of whom were secondary students, participated.

The first issue of Student Underground announced: "This news sheet is an attempt to make students realise that there is another attitude to the war besides that of the government and their great and powerful friends, that some people, including high school students, believe that thousands of innocent people are being killed pointlessly in a senseless and totally unjustifiable war".

The word spread quickly about Student Underground, and it was soon distributed in around 100 schools. Students were ringing up and complaining that they had heard about it on the radio or TV but hadn't got a copy yet. Politicians called for Student Underground to be banned, and Resistance was denounced in the NSW state parliament.

1972 national strike

By the early 1970s, protests within schools reached huge proportions. Resistance was at the forefront of many of them. In 1972, numerous strikes took place in individual schools across Australia. In June, Resistance called for a national secondary student strike, the first nationally coordinated secondary student strike in Australia.

Endorsements for the strike were received from the Australian Union of Students and other student unions, trade unions and Young Labor Associations. The media went on another rampage, with headlines such as the September 4 National Times' "Marxist at 13, and spreading the message — the left invades the playgrounds".

On September 20, tens of thousands of students were involved in strikes, walkouts, meetings in schools and rallies after school. The protests were far and wide: 500 students staged a sit-in at a Nowra high school; 200 students from Kingsmeadow High in Launceston protested about the lack of a gymnasium.

In 1973, Resistance members in Melbourne organised pickets of beauty contests and Resistance secondary students were involved in the development of the gay liberation movement. In the late '70s, Resistance was involved in high school student campaigns against uranium mining. In the 1980s, Resistance was active in Young People for Nuclear Disarmament.

The 1990s

In 1992, the federal government banned a Family Planning Association booklet on safe sex education for young people. The booklet was considered controversial because it contained information on gay and lesbian sexuality and asserted that one night stands "were OK".

In response to the ban, Resistance distributed 5000 copies of the diary. The solicitor general threatened Resistance with a restraining order over "violation of copyright". Resistance announced that it would issue its own diary, with the same information as the banned one.

In 1995, Resistance led high school walkouts across the country against French nuclear testing in the Pacific. In Brisbane, 6000 students walked out of high schools in protest at Australian uranium sales to France. Resistance then called a national week of high school actions in which thousands of high school students walked out of school in Melbourne, Sydney and Canberra.

Last year, the most significant high school campaigns in Australia's history took place. On July 24, 14,000 high school students throughout the country walked out of class against Pauline Hanson and John Howard's racism.

Restrictions

While high school students are more likely to radicalise than other groups in society, given the oppression they face as young people, there are also many limitations to high school students getting active.

Families and school make political activity for young people taboo. At school, uniforms, disciplinary action, ridiculous and degrading rules and regulations, formulaic lesson structures and subject choice restrictions all repress and deny high school students' choices.

The content of school curricula reflects the sexism, racism and homophobia of capitalism, and continually reinforces the family unit as ideal. But these alienating and repressive experiences also mean that many young people quickly grasp the hypocrisy of the capitalist system.

The high school walkouts in July and August last year showed the willingness of many young people to take a stand against racism and injustice even in the face of condemnation from school authorities, politicians and the capitalist mass media.

The walkouts were an important learning experience not just for radicals in Australia but around the world. When Resistance members went to Indonesia earlier this year, they were continually asked about the walkouts by student activists wanting to know how Resistance managed to mobilise high school students.

Contrary to the claims that young people are apathetic and apolitical, high school students have a radical history in Australia and have been at the forefront of many campaigns for justice and equality.