There is a long and proud history of rioting in Australia. It is a legitimate form of struggle that working class people and sections of the oppressed have resorted to time and again to defend their interests. Indeed, they have found them an exhilarating experience – a brief moment of liberation.

This is not to say that all riots have been progressive. Australia has had more than its fair share of racist or other outright reactionary riots. Riots, just like street demonstrations or protest meetings, are a method of struggle that can be used by both left and right.

Struggle for democratic rights

The 1854 Eureka Stockade is famous for its role in winning the right to vote and other democratic reforms in Victoria. What is less well known is that the revolt was preceded by a series of riots and disturbances across the whole of the Victorian goldfields.

The riot that burnt down Bentley’s Eureka Hotel in Ballarat in 1854 had much in common with the 1853 riot at Reid’s Creek, where the police, according to historian Bruce Kent, were “disarmed, beaten and pelted by the enraged crowd”, after which 3,000 diggers “stormed the Assistant-Commissioner’s camp, smashing to pieces all the arms they could find there”. 

The combination of these revolts on the goldfields and the widespread support they evoked in Melbourne forced the authorities to grant major concessions. Subsequently, on 28 August 1860, 3,000 rioters demanding the vote and grants of land battled police in an attempt to destroy Melbourne’s Parliament House. A month later the government passed legislation to unlock the land.

It was not just in Victoria that riots played a major role in winning democratic reforms. Terry Irving, in The southern tree of liberty: the democratic movement in New South Wales before 1856, makes the point that, at a time when most people could not vote, rioting was an important expression of popular power.

On election days, for example in 1843, there were continual riots that spread from Sydney to Windsor, Campbelltown, Melbourne and Wollongong as workers attempted to impose their will on the middle class electorate. Reactionary mobs organised by William Wentworth – who attempted to whip up anti-Irish and anti-immigrant racism – were countered by well-organised Irish rioters and their supporters.

There were hundreds of riots in NSW in the course of the 1840s. By 1848 there had been 10 highly destructive riots in Sydney in seven years. One typical riot was started by sailors outside the Victoria Theatre in Pitt Street in October 1841. The sailors were quickly joined by a crowd in attacks on police, who were hated by workers because they were brutal, undisciplined and corrupt.

“Armed with bludgeons and iron hoops”, writes Irving, “the crowd, swollen to over 200, now took possession of the streets, attacking police wherever they could be found. There were many injuries, including to onlookers, and much destruction of windows and lamps.” The next night they attacked again to free their arrested comrades.

Historian Raymond Evans notes hundreds of riots in Queensland during the course of the 1800s around innumerable issues, from basic democratic rights to a major food riot by retrenched workers in Brisbane in September 1866, who raised the slogan “Bread or blood!”

Strikes are the means by which workers assert their power at the point of production and shut off the flow of profits. Mass strikes threaten the rule of capital. But demonstrations, sit-ins, boycotts, mass meetings, hunger marches, mutinies and riots can also play a role in a successful struggle. Marxists are for workers and the oppressed standing up and fighting back, not meekly accepting their lot.

Riots are not counterposed to strikes. Riots have been an integral part of many major industrial upheavals in Australia. Importantly, riots drew support for the strikers from outside the workplace, from other workers and, in particular, from working class women, children and the unemployed.

1894 shearers’ strike

Shearing is noted for violent strikes. As the saying went, the outback squatters were tamed by Bryant and May (deliberately lit grass and woolshed fires). The 1894 shearers’ strike was the most violent strike in Australian working class history.

With their backs to the wall in the face of mass unemployment and the consequent widespread availability of scab labour, the shearers made a heroic and desperate stand against the graziers’ attempt to drive down wages and working conditions.

The strikers set up a series of armed camps, and there were shoot-outs and riots on innumerable stations. At least eight woolsheds were burned in Queensland, and of the 175 “apprehensions” listed in the annual report of the NSW inspector general of police, nearly half were for riot or riotous behaviour.

In western NSW the strikers imposed control over all movements into and out of the area. The high point was a daring raid on the riverboat Rodney, which was transporting scabs up the Darling River. In the middle of the night armed shearers captured the Rodney and set it on fire. When crown witnesses arrived in Broken Hill for the trial of those charged with burning the Rodney, they were assaulted in the main street and refused accommodation in any hotel. The jury acquitted all those charged.

The outcome of the shearers’ strike was a stand-off. In Queensland, the shearers went down to a bad defeat, but in NSW, as a correspondent for the Pastoralists’ Review conceded, “no one can claim to have gained anything. There have been losses on both sides.” 

In western NSW, where the strike was most militant, the shearers fared best, maintaining their union membership and fighting spirit much better than any other section of the union. Far from rioting being counterproductive, it was in the region where the rioting was most intense that the shearers were most successful.

1919 Fremantle wharf riot

In May 1919 a major riot that became known as “Bloody Sunday” drove out the scabs who had been introduced to the waterfront during the course of the 1917 general strike.

“The attempt by Premier Colebatch to restore order by means of police and bayonets”, writes Robert Bollard, “was defeated by a mobilisation of much of the population of Fremantle, led by returned soldiers, for whom the amateur bayonet practice of policemen was not much of a deterrent. One wharfie [Tom Edwards] was killed … but the police, the premier and the scabs were driven out of Fremantle.”

Bobbie Oliver writes that police numbers were “insufficient to stop a crowd of 600 to 700 lumpers re-entering the wharf when they saw launches arriving with volunteer [scab] workers. The lumpers began throwing iron bars and other missiles at the police.

“They also stoned the launches carrying the Premier and some members of the volunteer labour force. The crowd soon swelled to about 1000 men, women and children, including several returned soldiers in uniform.

“The battle for possession of the wharf went on for over an hour, by which time the crowd had increased to three or four times its previous size … for the next few days, Fremantle was for all intents and purposes, controlled by the lumpers. Twenty-six police and seven lumpers had been injured.”

As Tom Edwards lay dying from a fractured skull, “a series of riots involving returned soldiers and lumpers rocked Fremantle … a large crowd, several thousand strong, gathered between the Federal Hotel and the post office. Two constables had been set upon in High Street. The armed officers who went to their aid were also attacked and savagely beaten.”

1923 Melbourne police strike

Probably Australia’s most notorious riot occurred in the course of the 1923 Melbourne police strike. Police are not part of the working class, and police strikes can often be reactionary affairs in support of tougher law and order measures.

However, the 1923 strike against the appalling working conditions of rank and file cops, who were all summarily sacked for “mutiny”, did not have such right wing connotations and won official trade union backing and significant working class sympathy.

On the first night of the strike, Friday, 2 November, the small numbers of scab police were attacked with fusillades of bottles and eggs and driven back to the Town Hall, which came under a virtual siege. Meanwhile, in the liberated streets a carnival atmosphere prevailed. It was a joyous occasion.

The mass of workers were now asserting, at least briefly, their own power. They were winning back control. “These are our streets.” That is why, even in the face of severe repression by the state, few rioters subsequently regret the experience.

In 1923, the rioting reached its crescendo on the Saturday night, as vast crowds poured into the city after the Derby Day races. When the glass of the Ezywalkin building in Swanston Street was smashed, looting began in earnest. More than 30 shops were attacked and looted.

Much destruction occurred in Elizabeth Street between Bourke and Flinders Streets. Women used their skirts to carry the goods. Small boys hid cans of fruit up alleyways, returning with more as they scavenged the streets.

Just as in recent English riots and the US ghetto uprisings of the 1960s, “the authorities quickly blamed the looting on the city’s criminal element, [but] most of those arrested proved to be perfectly ordinary working class people”, write Jeff and Jill Sparrow in Radical Melbourne.

The Herald observed: “A remarkable feature was the number of women and girls who took part in the demonstrations against the police.”

As Marxist Chris Harman wrote about the 1960s riots in the US: “The rioters came from a complete cross section of the younger population of the ghettos. They were not, by and large, the ‘marginal types’ – those who dropped permanently out of the job market and were attracted to hustling and petty thieving. In the case of Watts ‘the great majority’ of rioters were ‘currently employed’ …”

1917 food riots

The most sustained and concerted rioting in Australian history was carried out by working class women during World War I. Wednesday, 19 September 1917, was Melbourne’s “night of broken glass” as thousands of working class women and male supporters took to the streets to oppose rising food prices and harsh wartime austerity.

Initially, 2,000 assembled at the Yarra Bank, but the torchlight procession quickly swelled to 10,000 as it marched through the city. The police attempted to stop the march in Spring Street.

Judith Smart relates: “Two women carrying the red flag at the head of the procession were quickly arrested … Road metal picked up in Batman Avenue was hurled at police … Under cover of darkness (the city’s lamps had been put out because of the coal shortage) the demonstrators now began smashing shop and office front windows.

“The trail of damage extending along Collins, Russell, Bourke, Flinders and Elizabeth Streets … The police were on the defensive, unable either to see what was happening, or to predict the demonstrators’ next moves … about five to six hundred men and women ran down Flinders Street across Queens Bridge … and started breaking windows at Sennitt’s Ice Works.

“Mounted police were unable to reach them behind a barricade of rabbit crates … The crowd then surged … to the Dunlop Rubber Company’s factory at Montague. It was alleged that sabotage of Dunlop’s had been planned by unionists … and that workers from the factory had been specifically invited to attend the demonstration at a stop work meeting the day before.”

Five days later it was Richmond’s turn, when the Victorian Socialist Party (VSP) organised another march from the Yarra Bank against the unfair economic burdens of the war. According to the daily papers, leading VSP member Jenny Baines “did not tell them to break windows, but she advised them to do what they thought best. She said that if people wanted food they should go to the cool stores or to the bakers and the butchers and take it.”

The police were stationed on the wrong route, giving the demonstrators free rein. The first plate glass to go was at the shop of William Angliss. Dimmey’s and the furniture stores Tye and Co and Maples suffered extensive damage.

The protest campaign had been initiated by the VSP in August 1917, with VSP organiser and former British suffragist Adela Pankhurst in the vanguard. It coincided with the outbreak of the NSW general strike, which dimmed the city’s lights, and ongoing industrial action by waterside workers against rising food prices.

These violent street protests reflected growing disaffection with the war, as the slaughter dragged on year after year and working class women and men were forced to shoulder a disproportionate share of the burden while capitalist profiteers made hay. In particular, working class women reacted with hostility to calls from respectable middle class women’s groups to substitute “macaroni for meat” to help win the war.

On Wednesday, 15 August, a crowd of 2,000-3,000 led by Adela Pankhurst gathered outside Melbourne’s Parliament House (then the federal parliament) in defiance of a War Precautions Regulation prohibiting demonstrations in the area.

In wild scenes, Pankhurst was abruptly seized by police. Subsequent speakers called on women “to attack the cool stores and forcibly seize the meat.” This was the first of a series of demonstrations led by long-term socialist activists Lizzie Wallace, Jennie Baines and Adela Pankhurst, which grew bigger and bigger.

The second major demo, on Wednesday, 22 August, mobilised 7,000-8,000, and the crowd sang “The Red Flag” as they marched. Pankhurst was again arrested, along with Wallace and three male supporters. There were daily demonstrations during the last week of August, Pankhurst calling on the crowd to break into Parliament.

The protests had temporarily blindsided the authorities, who had particular difficulty coping with the militancy of the working class women. However, rioting and window smashing, in and of themselves, were never going to be enough to defeat a determined government.

There was broad working class sympathy for the aims of the rioters, and they were able to forge links with unionised workers, mass meetings being organised in their support in many workplaces, such as the Dunlop factory. But to win the campaign, the industrial action by wharfies against high food prices needed to have been generalised to much wider sections of the working class.

1973 Ford Broadmeadows strike

The riot and nine-week strike at the Ford Broadmeadows plant in 1973 was an iconic revolt. Ford was renowned as an absolute bastard of a company. Wages were low. The speed of the assembly line was relentless. There was the humiliation of begging a foreman to give you a toilet break. Add to this pressure cooker a widespread hostility to union officials, and something was bound to blow.

Ford had been dragging out negotiations over a union log of claims, and the workers were becoming increasingly frustrated. The Metalworkers Union officials did not want serious strike action, and the more conservative shop stewards went along with the officials.

But after one meeting between shop stewards and management, a more militant Greek shop steward had had enough and decided to stir things up: “I know how to address a crowd in Greek. ‘While you’ve been working’, I said, ‘we’ve been taking tea and biscuits with the management. This was to pay us for telling you the following bullshit on their behalf’.”

The Greeks in the crowd erupted and carried the meeting to strike. Then, on 11 June, Laurie Carmichael, the Communist Party leader of the Metalworkers Union, chaired a mass meeting at which the officials and stewards recommended a return to work. Carmichael declared the close vote carried. There was uproar. On the day they were supposed to return to work, only a minority of workers attempted to enter the plant, where a large crowd gathered and tried to block the way.

One of the leading migrant stewards was arrested, and all hell broke loose. Workers stoned the factory and the plate glass windows, pushed over a brick wall and invaded the plant, spraying offices with a fire hose and using steel poles as battering rams. Cars belonging to management were smashed and offices trashed. The police were repelled again and again by showers of bricks, stones, cans, fruit and horse manure.

There was a feeling of jubilation among the workers and, remarkably, no one was arrested. The Melbourne Herald was incensed that the workers were smiling and laughing as they attacked the factory, declaring: “That Ford affair was not funny.” There was considerable support for the strikers from other workers. An amazing $100,000 was collected in donations. The Furnishing Trades Union banned repair of the broken windows, and wharfies banned the handling of all Ford parts.

Ford had to shut down the assembly plant; the strike continued for another two months. However, there were no picket lines and no serious rank and file organisation to stand up to the union officials. To get the workers back to work, the union officials organised separate meetings in separate meeting halls for separate ethnic groups.

Nonetheless, the workers won some gains – tea breaks, toilet breaks and a pay rise. Most importantly, in the aftermath of the strike, better shop steward organisation was established. More militant shop stewards, most of whom were migrants, were gradually elected. This laid the basis for the next major strike at Ford in 1981.

Not just powerlessness

Riots are not simply the province of the poor, the marginalised or the “powerless”, as they are commonly portrayed. From the waterfront to the mines to the outback to Ford Broadmeadows in 1973, riots have been part and parcel of the resistance to capital by sections of the working class. At times they have been successful, at other times not. But that is true of every other form of working class resistance.

Riots, along with strikes, picket lines, demonstrations, student protests, soldiers’ mutinies and factory occupations, will continue to be a feature of social life into the future. As long as capitalism exists, the exploited and the oppressed will fight back in one way or another. Riots will not go away. They are an elemental form of revolt.