Students defiantly protest war

April 2, 2003


On March 26, around 25,000 students skipped classes to hit the streets and protest against the horrendously unjust war on Iraq. Students braved police violence, and threats of it, parental disapproval and school repression to get their voices heard.

"How can we expect young people to sit in class and pretend to behave while people are being slaughtered. Every young person in the world should have the fundamental right to go to school", protester Amy McDonell explained to the Adelaide strikers. "That is why we must continue to use our right to protest."

And so they did. From the large marches in Australia's major cities — 10,000 protesters in Sydney, an amazing 7000 in Adelaide, 4000 in Melbourne, 1500 in Perth, 1000 in Brisbane — to the 30 students who rallied to support a hunger-striking student in Burnie, Tasmania, the protests indicated the depth of anger among young people against this war.

Rallies in the regional centres also attracted considerable support — 700 students protested in Lismore, 350 in Newcastle, 300 in Geelong, 300 in the northern NSW town of Mullumbimby, 150 in Launceston and 100 in Hobart.

In Canberra, where 700 students had walked out of school to join anti-war protests on March 24, a rally at the Australian National University on March 26 attracted 200 protesters.

The students who turned up to the protest were different ages (although most were at high school), came from different backgrounds and went to different schools and universities, but they were all angry at the hypocrisy and murderous intent of Australian PM John Howard and US President George Bush.

"USA, please explain, why did you install Hussein?", chanted students in Melbourne, while across the country, "Howard's a wanker" remained a favourite. One Sydney student had written, "How did our oil get under your sand?" on her T-shirt.

Thousands of students sported peace symbols, and/or anti-war slogans scribbled on school uniforms or clothing. Many carried signs that simply said "peace". Some young women wore hijab, and many students sported the checked scarves identified with the Palestinian struggle for freedom.

The passion and anger of many of the protesters was carried onto the speaking platforms. "At election time people get to choose between the pathetic and the dangerous", a 12-year-old protester told the Melbourne crowd. "We thought Howard was pathetic, but now we find out he's bloody dangerous!"

Some unionists addressed the rallies, including Stuart Bunt, the secretary of University of Western Australia National Tertiary Education Industry Union branch, who spoke in Perth, and Australian Manufacturing Workers Union activist Craig Johnston, who addressed the Melbourne protest.

Like previous student anti-war protests, the marches were exuberant, energetic and fast-paced. Protesters lay down at one of the busiest Adelaide intersections, for example, symbolising the deaths of Iraqi people. At the next intersection, they formed a huge peace sign and chanted "Peace is possible, war is not the answer".

In Hobart, protesters marched to the Anglesea Barracks, where they held a speakout, several students climbing on a cannon waving banners and cheering cars that honked in support.

The enthusiasm of the protesters, however, was met by brutal police repression in a number of cities. In Perth, the violence against the young protesters began shortly after students spontaneously ran towards the US consulate, which was not part of the agreed march route. Students then began a sit-down in St Georges Terrace.

While rally marshals were negotiating with police, police horses suddenly charged the seated students. Marshals were arrested. "Police began removing their badges, and then started beating the crowd with batons and horsewhips", protester Kiraz Janicke told Green Left Weekly. A high school student's leg was broken when he was trampled by a horse, other injuries included a broken ankle and smashed bones in one protester's hand.

One arrested man had his face bashed into a wall while restrained. He was told "this is from the WA police". A 15-year-old woman's pants were pulled down when she was

grabbed by several officers, and, left down, despite her pleas, while she was carried through the consulate and into a paddy wagon. Several women reported being called "whores" by police, and racist slurs were also reported. There were 18 arrests, and 100 complaints about police assault were reported to legal observers.

A detailed account of Sydney's police violence is on page 9. There were 45 arrests, including one 10-year-old protester. Hundreds of protesters were forcibly detained by police for two hours.

In Brisbane, police also used brutal tactics on the protesters. Refusing to let the students march on parliament, the police would not negotiate an alternate route. Five students were arrested in the confusion, including one who was simply appealing on a megaphone for police to release his brother, who had been arrested.

The police also attempted to intimidate protesters in Newcastle, where police called school principals and warned them not to let students attend the protest (which had a permit); and in Wollongong, where police unsuccessfully attempted to force students to march on the footpath, instead of the road.

But students were determined to protest, sick of being told their views were not important. "We are students, hear us roar, we don't want your racist war!", chanted the 20-strong contingent of Kyogle High students at the Lismore march, for example. "It is finally time for local youth be heard as the decisions our 'leaders' make today are creating the world we live in tomorrow", Surya McEwan told the Mullumbimby rally.

Resistance member Zoe Kenny summed up the mood at the Melbourne protest. "[The media, police and politicians] want this movement dead.", she said. "but are you ready to give up?" The crowd answered with a prolonged and emphatic "No!"

From Green Left Weekly, April 2, 2003.
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