New South Wales Members of Parliament Apologize for Brutal Police Attacks June 14, 1978
An apology is better late than never.
That’s what LGBT Australian activists who were brutally attacked by police during the first Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras in Sydney in 1978 have been expressing following the New South Wales members of parliament’s official apology February 25.
The apology is 38 years in coming, but it is only the beginning, say LGBT 78ers who spoke with The Seattle Lesbian.
Openly gay Coogee state Liberal MP Bruce Notley-Smith publicly apologized to the estimated 70 original participants, who are referred to as 78ers, present in the parliamentary chambers in a touching speech.
On that fateful winter night several hundred LGBTs took to Oxford Street in the Darlinghurst neighborhood to march in solidarity with 300,000 San Francisco marchers against the Briggs Initiative. However, within an estimated 15 minutes that June night became Australia’s Stonewall rebellion and created a seismic shifted in Australian LGBT history.
“We recognize that you were ill-treated, you were mistreated, you were embarrassed and shamed, and it was wrong,” Notley-Smith began the apology.
“I hope it’s not too late that you can accept an apology, but also we want to recognize that for all of that pain that you went through, you brought about fundamental change in this society and fundamental change for the many gay and lesbian people like myself, who can be open and relaxed about ourselves,” he continued. “You were the game changers.”
“For the mistreatment you suffered that evening, as a member of this parliament, who oversaw the events of that night, I apologize, and I say sorry,” he said. “As a member of a parliament that dragged its feet on the decriminalization of homosexual acts I apologize.”
The cross-party apology resonated throughout parliament prompting members from both the conservative and democratic parties to approach the podium to personally express their sympathies to the 78ers present and who were watching from home.
It also inspired the Sydney Morning Herald’s editor-in-chief Darren Goodsir to apologize for listing the names of those arrested that night.
However, Goodsir didn’t apologize for the subsequent front page publishing of LGBTQ activists arrested at other demonstrations later that summer.
The Sydney Police Department has finally issued their own apology.
“The NSW Police Force is marching proudly this weekend with the LGBTI community as we celebrate this year’s Mardi Gras,’ Superintendent Tony Crandell told a Mardi Gras press briefing. “This year’s Mardi Gras does have special significance given the apology delivered to the original participants – the 78ers – issued by the NSW Parliament a week ago.”
Crandell added, “I can tell you that I spoke with our Commissioner this morning – and I have his full support in saying that the NSW Police Force is sorry for the way that first Mardi Gras was policed back in 1978. For that – we apologize – and we acknowledge the pain and hurt caused by police actions back then. We do understand the apology issued by the Parliament was on behalf of all NSW government agencies but we felt it important that the NSW Police perspective is well understood.”
Crandell is the New South Wales Police spokesperson on sexuality and gender identity. He stressed that he understood the relationship between the police and Sydney’s LGBTI community has changed in the decades since 1978.
“I work very closely with the LGBTI community and I understand the depth of feeling about the role of police back in 1978,” Crandell said. “Our relationship these days is healthy, positive and progressive. That wasn’t the case back then. Today’s Force is a very different organization. We are diverse and we’re proud of that diversity. We have come a long, long way. We have had our own journey. Last year we celebrated 25 years of our Gay and Lesbian Liaison Officer Program. These officers do wonderful work around the state.”
Watch the video of Crandell’s apology below.
A representative of the NSW Police said a statement of apology from the force was “a matter for consideration by the whole of government,” reported Crikey.
“It is very important for the many women and men who suffered terribly, some physically, on the night and after,” Kenneth “Ken” Davis, a 59-year old gay man who was one of the organizers behind the first Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras, told TSL in an email interview.
A Fateful Night
The summer of 1978 was heated and volatile in Sydney. It was a time of social change. That spring members of the Gay Solidarity Group in Sydney received a letter from the San Francisco Gay Freedom Day Committee’s pride celebration commemorating the Stonewall Inn riots of 1969 in New York. The letter asked the Sydney gay group for support in solidarity for the campaign against the anti-gay Briggs Initiative, which would have banned LGBTQ people from teaching in California’s public schools.
To show support, members decided to host their own nighttime parade in conjunction with the political events earlier in the day on June 24, 1978, said 78ers who communicated with TSL.
To keep with the festive spirit Marg McMann, an activist with the Campaign Against Moral Persecution, suggested to call the parade Mardi Gras and encouraged people to dress up. McMann and Ron Austin, a fellow activist, believed a festive event would bring more people to the movement, said Peter Murphy, one of the original 78ers who spoke with TSL via Skype.
He is also one of the 10 members of the 78ers group that pushed the Australian government to since 1998 to apologize to the parade marchers.
The 62-year old bisexual man was only 25 years old at the time volunteering by handing out fliers around the Darlinghurst neighborhood and up and down Oxford Street, which today is Sydney’s gayborhood, to drum up support for the parade.
Jo Harrison, a 57-year old lesbian, was 19-years old at the time and studying at university she told SLT in an email interview. She showed up late to the parade on the cold evening, but she recalls the spirit of the night was festive.
“It was jubilant as I stood on the corner of Oxford Street and Hyde Park,” said Harrison. “People were dancing and singing. My older sister was in the parade and had fruit on her head and called out to me.”
That joyous moment turned in an instant the 78ers say.
Suddenly a state of confusion washed over Harrison as she watched her sister disappear into the swell of the crowd that grew from several hundred to more than 1,000 while people chanted, “To Kings Cross,” a neighboring red light district. The police had blocked off Hyde Park and wouldn’t let anyone enter the park 78ers recounted the details of the night.
“Suddenly I saw the police trying to arrest Lance Gowland and force him out of the vehicle at the head of the parade. Things were getting very tense,” said Harrison, who holds a Ph.D. in health sciences, her work is focused on LGBTI ageing and aged care and social movements. “I realized the incongruence between the atmosphere of those still coming down Oxford Street in a happy procession and what was going on in front of my eyes as I waited to cross the road.”
The late Gowland was the organizer of the event and was driving the lone truck pumping out the dance anthems with big speakers in the bed of the truck. Gowland died of cancer in 2008 at the age of 72.
“Lesbians had surrounded the vehicle and Lance and stopped him from being arrested,” said Harrison.
Noticing the change in the paraders’ mood and the increasing presence of police, Murphy stepped away to call an attorney.
Harrison also noticed the police lining Williams Street as the paraders flowed up the street toward Kings Cross.
“We made our way still dancing and chanting up William Street,” said Harrison. “I realized that to the left and right of us all side streets were blocked by the police and police paddy wagons.”
“I thought this is seriously terrible, they are going to pen us in,” she continued.
Harrison found an alcove in a shop entryway where she and other paraders gathered to get out of the way of the police, she said.
“There was a lot of screaming and violence and brutality,” said Harrison. “The police had trapped us and there was no way out of either end of the street. It was terrifying.”
“I could see people being bashed and thrown into the paddy wagons, there were just so many police vehicles and cars and so many police, who had taken off their badges. It was a riot,” she continued describing the horror of that night. “Police grabbed a friend of mine’s partner and bashed her head repeatedly against the outside of the police van.”
“The police came along, grabbed me violently. They grabbed me by both arms and they actually also tore the sleeves out of my leather coat. And I’m talking about extreme violence by extremely large men and I was only small at the time,” Sandi Banks, one of the 78ers told ABC News Australia in an interview with Diane Minnis and Murphy.
“The cops were just whaling in – and they were all big men in those days. They were huge blokes. And they were just grabbing people, throwing them bodily into paddy wagons and smashing people up and stuff like that and it was just, it was just carnage,” Minnis agreed.
Murphy returned to the parade. By then the beatings had started. He saw police swinging their batons against people and tossing people into paddy wagons. Before he had the chance to try to help people police grabbed him and shoved him into a paddy wagon along with three other activists. More activists were shoved into the van, but the activists devised a plan to escape when police opened the doors. Two got away while two more were shoved into the van.
Murphy wasn’t one of the escapees. Instead he and others watched in horror through the window as people screamed as police swung their batons, threw punches, and kicked people as they dragged them off to the paddy wagons.
“At one stage I was able to get to the back of a paddy wagon while police were away from it and open the door so several people got out and escaped arrest,” said Harrison, who didn’t get arrested that night. “It was horrific and it seemed to last forever. I was terrified and traumatized by what was happening. I was completely shocked.”
“I was angry, because we had this unprecedented moment of freedom and the police had turned it into a disappointing anti-climax,” said Davis, who was 21 years old at the time.
“The police were very brutally trying to grab as many as possible and throw them into the wagons, but people were wrestling arrestees away from police or opening the wagons,” he said.
The paddy wagon was only the beginning of Murphy’s ordeal. To this day he is still traumatized by the events of that night as he broke down crying a couple of times during the interview with TSL.
After a couple of escape attempts by activists in the van the police stopped opening the door. Instead they took them to Darlinghurst Police Station, which was notorious for being a violent place, along with 49 other detainees, said Murphy. The other three activists were removed from the van, but Murphy was singled out by the two police men. They took him to a solitary room and began to severely beat him to the point where he was convulsing. They beat him so badly that he didn’t recognize other activists when he was rejoined with them, he said.
“I will die here now,” Murphy said he thought at the time. However, the second policeman told the first one to stop the brutal beating.
“I was in a cell by myself and very, very frightened. I could hear people outside the police station chanting and gathering outside calling for everyone to be released,” he continued. “I was in terrible pain.”
An attorney finally found him, but requests for medical attention and to be transported to the hospital were denied. Even a hospital denied Murphy medical attention once he was released, he said. He finally received medical attention and later attempted to bring charges against the police officer, but the case was dropped because by the time it was brought to court, he was out at sea working and couldn’t appear in court. He didn’t see the justice he sought.
Arrests continued throughout the summer at two other demonstrations. On July 15 a protest march drew 2,000 LGBTQ people and supporters. It was the largest gay rights rally to date. On August 27 gay and lesbian marchers joined the “right-to-life” rally following the fourth National Homosexual Conference, according to 78ers historical account on the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras website. Police arrested 14 and 104 people respectively.
Overall 178 people were arrested that summer in connection to the Mardi Gras parade and subsequent LGBTQ rights demonstrations.
People who were arrested saw their names, occupation, and address splashed across the front page of the Herald altering their lives forever. Some lost jobs and couldn’t find work, homes, and were disowned by their families. Others committed suicide.
More Than An Apology Needed
Garry Wotherspoon, a 78er who is one of Australia’s leading gay culture historians, told Crikey that the NSW parliamentary apology was simply the first step, but an apology wasn’t enough.
“It would be great to have a royal commission into the gay deaths at beats, but that would be most profitably pursued after the Scott Johnson inquest, when details of police homophobia and lack of interest in solving those cases gets a good airing. And the suggested federal marriage plebiscite will bring all the issues of religious exemptions to public awareness,” he said.
Harrison agreed, “The apology from the parliament needs to be accompanied by a gesture of redress and reparation.”
“It’s important that it has happened, but it hasn’t gone far enough,” agreed David Urquhart, a 76-year old gay man, adding that the Herald’s apology wasn’t enough either. “I think it’s important but more importantly the Herald should compensate those arrestees whose names, addresses and occupations they published.”
Urquhart didn’t participate in the parade due to being on shift as a taxi driver that night, but he was one of the activists who gathered outside the Darlinghurst Police Station demanding the activists to be freed.
“I want the Police Minister and the Police Commissioner to apologize, offer compensation to those against crimes were committed by the police; and the police responsible to be named,” he continued.
Murphy disagrees about compensation preferring to keep the focus on Australia’s LGBTQ community overall rather than the individuals, like himself, whose lives were forever altered that night.
“It’s much better to keep the focus on the community itself as a whole,” said Murphy.
Harrison agrees to an extent. Like others she would like to see the Australian government to remove religious exemptions from anti-discrimination laws, to halt the decimation of resources aimed at the LGBTQ community, and online educational resources about LGBTQ history and contemporary struggles as well as an LGBTQ history museum similar to museums in New York and San Francisco, she said.
The Path Forward
The night changed everything for LGBTQ Australians who came out of hiding and stood up to demand their rights.
“We had set out to commemorate Stonewall and show solidarity with the movement in San Francisco, but unplanned we had triggered our own version of Stonewall,” said Davis, who noted that there were other protests leading up to the Mardi Gras event, but something change making it a “major political watershed” moment for Australia’s gay and lesbian movement.
“It was a critical turning point – we were brutalized publicly by the police and we fought back and what was done to us was reprehensible,” said Harrison, who said LGBTQ activists at the time called for decriminalization of homosexuality and other rights, not just for themselves but other minorities too.
“We drew a line. That night was the turning point, even though there had been demonstrations and marches and other events prior to that including around Australia and in Sydney,” she continued. The violence was blatant and vicious and disgusting.”
Since that fateful night Australia decriminalized homosexuality in 1984 and the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras has grown to an international event that attracted 200,000 revelers in 2015.
Yet, Australia still suffers from a severe case of homophobia, said the 78ers, pointing to the decades struggle for same-sex marriage and most recently the attack on the anti-bullying campaign in Australian schools, not to mention other issues that plague the movement.
Last week, Australia’s Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull called for a review of the Safe Schools Coalition, which campaigns against bullying in schools, threatening to eliminate the program and Australia’s movement to legalize same-sex marriage continues to be debated by politicians.
“My initial reaction is that it disgusting and disgraceful and if successful runs the risk of giving carte blanche to school bullying,” says Urquhart.
Harrison agreed, adding that the review wasn’t necessary and stressing the program was very important, “LGBTI youth need to know that they will not be bullied or harmed.”
“We did not experience police bashing so that future generations could suffer,” she said. “The Prime Minister needs to step in and put a stop to these attacks” from Australia’s right wing movement.
All Out launched a petition campaign to urge Turnbull to protect LGBTQ and other vulnerable students February 24. The campaign has nearly reached its 35,000 signatures goal with 32,658 as of March 4.