c) Activism and social change
An activist's tale
This interview was published in 'Activist Tales' in late 2008.
PETER JONES: Anyway, talking about the old Testament reminds me that our next guest is Rodney Croome. If you’ve read the book Leviticus you’ll know what I’m talking about. Rodney really is a rogue. He featured in the Top Ten Protestors of Tasmania that John Briggs featured recently in the Tasmanian and having had that honour, and the fact that I’m pretty sure everyone in this room knows Rodney, Rodney welcome to the forum, hope you’ve got some good stories, in fact I’m sure you have.
RODNEY CROOME: Thanks very much Peter for that introduction of biblical proportions. Of course today is a very important day. Today, October 22nd, really is my activist birthday. It was on this day seventeen years ago in the auspicious year, 1988, when I was arrested for the first time and also faced the possibility of jail. Some of you might remember the circumstances that prevailed back then. The Tasmanian Gay Law Reform Group had set up a little stall at Salamanca Market and only three weeks after that, after we first started gathering petition signatures there, the Hobart City Council found out about us, through one anonymous complaint, and banned the stall. It didn’t want any homosexuals in its family market. We defied the ban and the Council brought the Police in, and on October 22nd, 1988, the Police moved in and dismantled our stall and arrested everyone who refused to leave the market. That first week there were nine of us, I think. I was amongst that nine. In subsequent weeks there were another one hundred and twenty-odd people who were arrested defending our right to have a stall at Salamanca Market. Gay and Lesbian people, straight people, people from all kinds of backgrounds who were defending the right to free speech and free assembly. And as many of you will remember, it was because of the bravery of all those people that eventually in December 1988 that we were allowed to have that stall. Hobart City Council gave in and since then our little stall has been a fixture at Salamanca Market.
I cite October 22nd for a couple of reasons and not just because of the coincidence. The Salamanca arrests are an example of the way that activists’ skills are transmitted across generations. Many of the people who were arrested at Salamanca Market had already been arrested and already learnt the disciplines and the rewards of civil disobedience in environmental campaigns in Tasmania through the nineteen eighties, particularly the Franklin. Some of them were gay and lesbian, some of them weren’t. And they were able to transmit, their activist skills to a new generation of people, including myself. I remember – I don’t know if he does – but I remember going to Bob with the very first press release that I’d ever written about the fact that the Council had banned our stall . As an essay in basic democratic rights it was great, but as a press release it was hopeless. I gave it to this man here and he went, hmm, fine, and just scrawled across the top: “Shock Shop Council Ban” . I realised then what the whole thing’s about.
There were many skills, many campaign techniques that were transmitted to a new generation of people at that particular moment in time. But perhaps the most important inheritance that we received at Salamanca Market was the knowledge that Tasmania can change and change for the better. That’s something that I, and my then young friends, had also learnt again from the Green movement in Tasmania. We’d grown up as teenagers seeing the protests at the Franklin, we could see that things could change, and that we could make that change.
The Salamanca arrests taught me that change, profound change, is never the result of one person’s activity. It’s always the result of a group of people working together. Even if the issue is personified by one person, still one person can’t achieve anything alone. And that was something that I took with me as did the other people who emerged out of that successful struggle into the subsequent years of campaigning for the decriminalisation of homosexuality in Tasmania, which of course was also a successful campaign, almost ten years later. That campaign taught me that there’s no point asking for justice, you have to demand it. And demand it defiantly and with a great deal of discipline. And you have to be prepared to take the consequences of demanding change. One of those consequences is that you see the very best in people and you also see the very worst.
Now we all have stories about awful, things that have happened to us. The death threats. The abuse. We also have very funny stories of course . I’m sure we’ll hear more of these soon. When I was hunting around for this T-shirt this afternoon, I was reminded of one such funny story. “I’m here, I’m queer, I’m not going to the Mainland” is the slogan. We got a little donation once of five hundred dollars from someone who said “This has to be spent on stickers and T-shirts”. And, I thought, okay, fine, and we thought what sort of slogans can we use? All that we could come up with were the boring old ones like, you know, “Gay Rights Now” and “Lesbians are everywhere” … And then as we were getting more and more tired thinking through these slogans, someone said – I won’t say who they were, they probably don’t want it to be known – how about something specifically Tasmanian like “I’m Here, I’m Queer, I’m not going to the Mainland”? And we all just fell about laughing. We’d never heard such a silly slogan. It was so long and so clumsy. Anyway, we printed up a few T-shirts and stickers as a joke and they sold like that, they just went, and people started coming to us saying “Can we have more of those T-shirts please?”. I still run into young gay and lesbian people now in Tasmania who say that the thing they remember most from the gay law reform campaign is seeing a T-shirt with a sticker with this on it. That this is what meant most to them. I It summed up for them what it meant to be gay and be Tasmanian.
But perhaps the most compelling stories for me from the past are those that combine both the lows and the highs. And it’s two of those stories that I want to finish with tonight. In 1994, again some of you will remember, we appealed to the United Nations Human Rights Committee against the laws that then prevailed in Tasmania. And in April, ’94, the Committee found that our old anti-gay laws were in fact a breach of human rights and needed to be repealed. As a result of that ruling there was a big national discussion about gay rights and also about the Constitution and the power of the Federal Government to intervene and to override State criminal law, etcetera, etcetera. By May we felt the debate had gone off track a bit onto these constitutional issues and we wanted to bring it back to what we thought the core issue was; the fact that gay men in Tasmania could still go to jail for being in loving, consenting relationships. So we decided to do this: we would fill out statutory declarations of our illegal private consenting adult sex and hand those to the Tasmania Police and say to the police “What are you going to do?”. From our point of view, it was a win-win situation. Either the police would arrest us and the weight of world opinion, hopefully, would come down on top of the Tasmanian Government’s head. Or the police would say, Go away, and then of course we could say “Well, what’s the point of having these ridiculous laws if you’re not going to enforce them?” That’s all fine in theory but in practise of course, it was terrifying. As gay men we spent our lives avoiding the police and now here we were walking into the lion’s den. I remember the night I was called in, I handed over my statutory declaration on my sexual activity with my then partner, Nick Toonen, and I was called in for an interview. I remember very clearly it was a Saturday night because it’s the same night that The Bill’s on. And in the Bill there’s always one of those interview scenes and here I was in an interview scene - in this windowless room with bright lights and a one-way mirror and a video camera behind it, and a burly older male sergeant and a younger female constable. And it was such a bizarre interview. “Mr Croome” – the sergeant said, “Mr Croome, we have your statement here. It says here that you were woken by your alarm clock at seven-thirty am and then proceeded to engage in – er- criminal activity. Can you please tell us what you were doing before [Bob Brown “you were reading the Examiner”] the alarm went off and then what you were wearing at the time?” And I said, “Well, I was asleep and I wasn’t wearing anything.” “It says here that you committed the offences with the co-accused Mr Turnan(?). Can you please tell us how often you have committed these offences and where?” And I said, “Well, I tell you, I could give you the addresses that we lived at in Hobart if that’s what you want and as for the number of times –“ I thought to myself, “well, we’ve been together about seven years. Let’s say about three times a week, that’s about a thousand times.” And here’s a really good lesson in what to say and what not to say to journalists. The next day I had a call from the then correspondent of The Australian in Hobart, Bruce Montgomery, and we got chatting, you know, he was saying, “What happened last night, you know, at the police station?” And I said, “Well, blah-blah … “ He sort of put me at ease and I just happened to let drop that they asked me how often this had happened and I’d replied “a thousand times”. Next day, in the Australian, big headline: “Activist admits to sex a thousand times”. It onlyoccurred to me after that interview why the police had asked such strange questions. In their eyes, I’d admitted to an offence which in the Tasmanian Criminal Code carried a penalty which was even more serious than rape or armed robbery. To them I was worse than an armed robber or a rapist and these were the questions they’d ask of any serious offender. I It was only really then, after that episode, even though I’d been campaigning for those law reforms for six years, that I realised what a tragedy those laws were.
As an aside, I wasn’t the only one who felt that way. Many years later I met a woman, a Lesbian woman, KAOSCafé. She said to me “Rodney, you don’t know me but I was the person who was operating the video camera that night.” And she said, she said, “I couldn’t see what happened because I was crying the whole time. The next day I quit the Police Service and could never go back.”
The second story brings us back to October 22nd, 1988, my activist birthday, and to Salamanca Place. After we were arrested we were taken in police vans rathercircuitously. They took us all around the city, I think just to soften us up. They went around the corners very, I remember very roughly ………….It was pretty unpleasant. We got to the police station and all the young constables handed us pens to fill out our forms with rubber gloves on. They all had rubber gloves on. And they were pretty abusive, it was very unpleasant. But that didn’t worry me. What worried me was when I was put into a cell, a police cell, by myself. Everyone else was in police cells or they’d been sent home. And I didn’t know how long I was going to be there and I had my shoes taken away and my belt. You’ve got to realise I was a twenty three year old, middle class boy from Devonport, who never thought that anything like this would ever happen to him, who’d been brought up to be very respectable and who was absolutely terrified.
Remember that I said that I’d learnt at Salamanca to be hopeful, fearless and dauntless. Well, that’s not what I felt in that cell. Cells are designed to intimidate and they intimidated me. And I really began to wonder whether I had what it took to do this kind of stuff. I didn’t feel calm and resolute, that’s for sure. What rescued me that day was a memory. I studied history at University and it was a memory from then. Where Liverpool Street Police Station is, used to be the site of the Campbell Street Gaol. I It was where an ancestor of mine, I think he was also an ancestor of Christine’s, was incarcerated in the 1830’s. He was a convict, he was a machine-breaker from England. He was transported to VDL and was always a bit of a troublemaker. He wouldn’t play by the rules and he found himself at one stage walking the treadmill in Campbell Street Gaol on almost exactly the same spot that I was kept on October the 22nd, 1988, in a police cell.
He survived that. He went on to sire a whole heap of kids, he had a little farm out near Colebrook. He still defied the police by distilling and selling brandy despite the fact that it was illegal and strictly policed by the colonial government. . We have a picture of him, one photograph taken when he was 97, just shy of his century and just shy of becoming a citizen of a new nation. In that phot he looks incredibly contented and happy. And I thought to myself if he can defy that awful system which denied his humanity, and survive and thrive, then I can survive and thrive despite what’s happening to me now.
I guess that’s my final point about activism. What keeps me going. Despite everything else I’ve mentioned, all the highs and the lows, what matters most, is that when you step outside society to try and change it, you get a deeper insight into that society and into yourself than you can expect any other way. I It’s that knowledge of yourself and of those around you, their limits and their strengths, that really makes the whole thing worthwhile. Thanks.
PETER JONES: Well, thanks Rodney for those wonderful stories of the highs and lows. From this story about being processed reminds me of an occasion when I was arrested in Paris with an international Greenpeace march. And there are a dozen different nationalities. One of the problems of being arrested in a situation like that is the police didn’t speak anything except French. And I think the police were extremely startled when I and a couple of others actually helped them by translating everything about why we were being arrested and they told us this has never ever happened before. The tradition in France is the activists fight with the police and we’ve never been in a situation like this where you’re actually helping us. And it gave us a chance to tell the police that we were there from all over the world, to support the boats that were sailing into the South Pacific, and we were there to disagree with their government and not the police. And that’s a real dilemma for activists: who are the police? How do we deal with their prejudices? Rodney’s told us his story about the impact his action had on a policewoman and that’s a real issue for many of us, in these situations. How do we relate to the police? And everyone associated with the whole jail system.
In May 1997 Tasmanian became the last Australian state to decriminalise same-sex relationships. Thanks to a shift in community attitudes prompted by the gay law reform debate, Tasmania now has Australia’s most comprehensive anti-discrimination laws, its most developed school anti-homophobia policies, and the nation’s first civil union registry for same-sex and other partners.
The gay and lesbian rights stall has had a consistent weekly presence at Salamanca Market ever since the controversy of 1988. In June this year the Hobart City Council resolved to apologise for its behaviour in 1988 at a special civil reception to be held to mark the 20th anniversary of the arrests and protests.
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