Asserting the right to protest: the Waterdale Road marches
Fifty years ago, on 11 September 1970, a group of 70 students at La Trobe University assembled on their campus for a protest march against the American war in Vietnam. I was one of the organisers. It was an unusual protest march in that its route was along a suburban street in West Heidelberg, Waterdale Road, which ran off the campus grounds. The street consisted of a light industrial section and residences, including housing commission homes.
The 70 of us were a motley crew of Maoists, anarchists, and Christians and our objective was to march five kilometres to the Ivanhoe shopping centre, give out leaflets promoting the second Vietnam Moratorium scheduled for the 18th September, and then march back to the campus. The first Moratorium, on 8 May that year, had been a resounding success, with about 100,000 participants in Melbourne.
History is full of surprises, twists and turns. We had no idea that our poorly attended, local march would become a cause celebre - thanks entirely to the violent behaviour of the police.
The march had not progressed very far when police cars arrived and blocked the street. A plain-clothed Special Branch policeman jumped out and gave the order: “Batons! Break it up!” The police laid into us, not just with batons but with fists and boots too. We tried to flee back to the campus and made it to a wide paddock (today the asphalted carpark of Chisholm College) but the police pursued us on foot and in their cars.
It was a shocking and frightening experience and I think it’s to our great credit that we were not intimidated. Instead, we rallied in the central square of the campus and, with our trusty megaphone, informed students who gathered from the library, cafeteria and colleges about what had just happened.
A general meeting resolved to organise another march along Waterdale Road, this time from Northlands shopping centre, two kilometres away, to the campus. We figured that the police would let us march, given that we were marching to the campus. We were not out to block the street and welcomed independent observers, such as the university chaplain, Ian Parsons.
The second march, attended by about 400 students, took place on 16th September, and on this occasion the media were also in attendance. Everything seemed fine – until we came to a section of the street that narrows at the industrial area just before the campus.
There is no doubt that the police had made a decision to attack the demonstration at that part of the route. They were well prepared with larger numbers and with particular student leaders as their targets. In a letter to the dailies, Ian Parsons expressed his ‘disgust at the behavior of the police’.
A conservative group, the Moderate Student Alliance, reported that, ‘There had been absolutely no provocation’.
The inspector in charge of the police riot, Platfuss, told a reporter: “They got some baton today and they’ll get a lot more in the future”.
Such violence on the part of the state was not new to those of us who, by 1970, were seasoned protestors. But what was surprising was that it was so openly political. They could have just let us march back to the campus, as we had nearly completed the route. Instead, they waited in ambush just a block from the university grounds. Nineteen students were arrested that day, on 16th September, and many were punched, kicked, batoned and injured by police.
Another surprising, and worrying, aspect was the use of guns to make arrests. I know of no other protest marches of the Vietnam period in Australia where police made arrests at gunpoint.
Again, we sought refuge by running to the campus but again the police pursued us. I was running across the paddock slightly ahead of a comrade, who I will call ‘Peter G’, when suddenly I heard the exclamation “Stop or I’ll shoot!” I glanced back and in the distance saw a policeman aiming something in our direction. I kept running but Peter G stumbled and was arrested.
Larry Abramson was arrested at gunpoint before the march had scattered. He describes what happened in the brief audio excerpt accompanying this article.
It is with a sense of pride that I recall how we again refused to be intimidated. A huge student general meeting resolved to organise a third march, an assertion of our free speech and right to protest.
The third march, on 23 September, received wide support and included representatives of trade unions. About 800 people marched defiantly along Waterdale Road, to the campus. The police were fully prepared to attack, with two busloads of constables, two carloads of Special Branch and mounted troopers. But they had clearly been given orders from on high not to do so.
On the third march, as we approached the campus, we took over the whole width of the street. The police tried to move us over but we stood our ground. The power of the people had won something vital to democracy, something that is not guaranteed in any laws but must be asserted: the right to march.