I met John in the heady days of the late 1970s that followed massive anti-war protests, the new Gough Whitlam government withdrawing troops from Vietnam, then Whitlam being sacked, leaving the country in disarray with a new layer of disappointed activists and communities.
He was a member of the Communist League in Queensland. But when he and Pat Brewer, his then-partner, moved to Sydney they joined the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), of which I was a member.
John had been the head of Aboriginal Housing in Brisbane, a First Nations state-based services organisation. He also worked as an architect and town planner for the Queensland Institute of Technology.
Members of Aboriginal Housing wanted an Aboriginal community school on Palm Island, the biggest reserve in Queensland, rather than being sent to Brisbane.
John approached the Queensland University student union in 1975 to fundraise $10,000 for the Palm Island community school. A few days later he was arrested by the Joh Bjelke-Petersen government on trumped up charges of “conspiring against the state”.
Pat recalled that 15 plain clothes police entered the house at 4am and dragged John out, along with Lionel Lacey and another male Aboriginal friend, who was sharing their house.
John and Lionel were taken to the police station and charged with conspiracy to obtain $10,000 from the student union. John was jailed, but only for a few days. The police argued that he was menacing the head of the student union.
Lacey was 16 or 17 and had already been acquitted of any charges in the Children’s Court, so the police couldn’t put him in jail. But they wanted him charged and sent to an adult prison to serve 14 years. First Nations activist Dennis Walker had flown down to Sydney for an engagement the night before, and was arrested.
John, Lacey and Walker — known as the “Brisbane Three” — were charged with various offences including menacing and conspiracy. The Bjelke-Petersen government was determined to crush the growing Aboriginal rights movement.
Other Aboriginal activists were also raided that night and over the next few weeks, and many others were harassed.
Good friend and Aboriginal activist Sue Chilly was arrested on August 15, 1975, but her charge was also thrown out.
The Brisbane Three campaign became national: it ended with all charges dropped. When the case was finally thrown out, John’s solicitor advised him to leave the country.
John went to Barcelona, Spain, in November 1975, where the dictator Francisco Franco had just died.
As left-wing parties were still illegal, John became involved in organising clandestine meetings, distributing leaflets and educating and mobilising the community.
He was arrested in 1975, held for five days and beaten by the police. He was only released after public pressure. Pat and their daughter Elena joined John in Spain in early 1976 and he and Pat stayed active in anti-fascist campaigns.
John was involved in painting murals throughout Barcelona: he organised communities to support reforms and labour rights. He was arrested again in 1977 for campaigning for the rights of the Basque minority. Even during his five-week sentence, he organised hunger strikes in solidarity with political prisoners; this expedited his release.
The post-Franco government expelled him and John returned to Sydney with Elena. Pat followed soon after.
John’s family had always fought fascism: his Republican mother, pregnant with John, walked over the Pyrenees Mountains to flee them.
John was born in a refugee camp in France for people fleeing the Spanish Civil War. He arrived in Australia with his aunt, Maria Luisa (“Tita”). Tita and her husband Diego first settled in Mount Beauty, Victoria, where Diego worked on the Kiewa Hydroelectric Scheme.
John later moving to Wollongong where Diego worked in the mines. He went to North Wollongong High School, later earning a traineeship with BHP and later still became an architect at the University in Sydney.
He played a key role in setting up the Spanish Democratic Centre in the early 1970s, becoming a general secretary, and bringing himself to the attention of ASIO.
Fluent in French, Spanish and English, his language skills helped forge and build solidarity movements with the peoples of Cuba, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Mexico, Chile and the whole of Latin America.
John was active with the Australia-Cuba Friendship Society and became a national coordinator of the Committee in Solidarity with Central America and Cuba.
He led the SWP’s solidarity work, encouraging a team approach. His creativity was a huge asset to the movement. When a conference was being organised, he would start by drawing up a poster. I remember one based on Pablo Picasso’s Guernica.
John was a great orator and he wrote for the SWP’s weekly newspaper, Direct Action, which later became Green Left. He was elected to the SWP’s national leadership and helped coordinate work in various unions.
He worked at General Motors’ Holden (GMH) car factory in Pagewood for about 18 months. He was astute and cautious, probably the result of years of working underground in Spain. Informers within the SWP ensured that the comrades were all sacked from GMH — except John. It turned out he had used his other name — Andres.
John worked in Newcastle steelworks for a few years, became an organiser in Wollongong and supported the historic Jobs for Women campaign that, after 14 years, managed to make jobs available for women in heavy industry.
He helped build the anti-nuclear movement, the movement against uranium mining, the Nuclear Disarmament Party and various community-based actions around Hiroshima Day. He was also a NSW candidate for the SWP.
He made connections with the Indigenous people of Kanaky (New Caledonia) struggling for independence and translated for Kanak representatives attending labour and solidarity conferences in Australia.
John was also a filmmaker: he worked with filmmaker, writer and director Michel Daeron to make Moruroa: Le Grand Secret, about the French nuclear tests’ impact on the Polynesian people. They developed a script about the Tahitian leader and campaigner for French Polynesian independence, Pouvana’a a O’opa, with Marlon Brando to play the lead role. However, the project never came to fruition.
Two months ago, John wrote an obituary for his friend and Kanak leader Louis Uregei. John wrote: “He was as impressive when addressing his foes as he was gentle and generous with his friends.” The same can be said of John himself.
His life, his love for people, his passion for change made all who knew him so much richer.
Juan Jose Garcia — presente!
[A celebration of John’s life will be held on February 16, 2pm, at the Austinmer Surf Lifesaving Club, Lawrence Hargrave Drive, Austinmer. All welcome.]