Human rights activist charged, then acquitted, for telling the truth about colonial massacre

July 6, 2022
Stephen Langford outside the Downing Street court. Photo: Leigh Howlett

Human rights activist and Socialist Alliance member Stephen Langford has finally been acquitted on the charge of “malicious damage” in the Downing Street Centre Local Court on July 4, after two years of hearings before Magistrate Vivien Swain.

Langford was charged in June 2020 with “intentional or reckless damage” of a statue of Governor Lachlan Macquarie in Hyde Park.

Macquarie was New South Wales’ fifth Governor, from 1810 to 1821. Despite reportedly expressing a desire for First Nations peoples to be treated well, in 1816 he gave orders that led to the Appin Massacre of Gundungurra and Dharawal people during the Hawkesbury and Nepean Wars.

Langford had pasted an A4 sheet of paper, using water-soluble glue, to the statue with the text of Macquarie’s infamous 1816 order to kill.

The text quoted Macquarie’s order that: “From Sydney onwards are to be made prisoners of war and if they resist that are to be shot and their bodies hung from trees in the most conspicuous places near where they fall, so as to strike terror into the hearts of surviving natives.”

The colonial government said 14 Aboriginal people had been killed, but the actual death toll was later revealed as much higher.

Langford has been fighting the “intentional or reckless damage” charge, that carried a maximum sentence of two years in prison.

Around a dozen supporters held a rally outside the court before the hearing. Langford read a poem about Julian Assange, the Australian journalist and political prisoner in London's Belmarsh Prison facing deportation to the United States for revealing its war crimes.

Musician Patrick Harte sang the Ballad of Lachlan Macquarie, written by United States singer songwriter David Rovics about the case. Vivienne Porzsolt from Jews Against the Occupation also spoke in support of Langford's actions.

Journalist Paul Gregoire's message emphasised the need for truth telling of the Australian state’s genocidal origins. Filmmaker Alfred Pek, who made Freedom Street about 14,000 asylum seekers stranded in Indonesia because of Australia’s anti-refugee policies, sent a message describing the expense involved in getting non-mainstream subjects into the public. 

Filmmakers Mandy King and Fabio Cavidini sent a message of solidarity, as did Broome writer and activist Pat Lowe, who said freedom of expression is a fundamental right “whether it is in the Constitution or not”.

After he was acquitted, Langford thanked his lawyer Mark Davis, who is also assisting Blockade Australia protesters charged under NSW new draconian anti-protest laws. He read messages from the Blue Mountains Refugee Support Group and Blue Mountains for Assange activist Brendan Doyle and activist Gordon Kennard.

“I am glad the charges were thrown out,” Langford said. “But we need real, legislated human rights protection — a Human Rights Act — and a culture that goes with it to fight for the human rights of the most vulnerable and for freedom of political communication.”

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