Defying authority, challenging the system: 50 years of high school activism

“Professional activists” were “orchestrating” an “appalling political manipulation” of school students, federal education minister Dan Tehan told the Daily Telegraph on 17 February. He was referring to the 15 March Strike for Climate Action. Tehan asserted:

“What is most appalling is [the Australian Youth Climate Coalition] is organising their protest on March 15 when all schools and students across Australia are being asked to take part in the National Day of Action against Bullying and Violence to stand up to bullies and support the victims of bullying.”

Tehan seems oblivious to the irony: his own government is intent on bullying high school students into submission. Last November, prime minister Scott Morrison called for “more learning” and “less activism” in schools, while federal resources minister Matt Canavan claimed that “the best thing you'll learn about going to a protest is how to join the dole queue”.

Of course, Tehan, Morrison and Canavan can rely on the corporate media to amplify and further sensationalise their warnings about the grave danger radicals pose to young minds. 

Last 30 November, Herald Sun columnist Andrew Bolt accused student protesters of having “a deep ignorance, shielded by an impenetrable and arrogant sense of self-righteousness”. Rather rich coming from a Murdoch hack found guilty of breaching anti-discrimination laws for his racist commentary on Indigenous Australians.

Another Herald Sun columnist, Tim Blair, accused the students of being “hysteria babies” and argued they should be publicly humiliated. In the Australian, Kevin Donnelly – an Australian Catholic University academic and Cold War relic – declared that the strike was just the latest attempt by neo-Marxists to control Australia’s educational institutions and indoctrinate children. 

This fear mongering is not new. Indeed, Australian politicians and their media mouthpieces have a long history of patronising and condemning students determined to challenge conformity and conservatism.

Protesting the war in Vietnam

In 1968, as Sydney high school students began to organise against the war in Vietnam, the capitalist media went into a frenzy: “a well-organised youth movement is recruiting school children in NSW with slogans like ‘Support the NLF’”, reported the Sunday Telegraph on 21 July 1968. 

“The [socialist youth] organisation, Resistance, openly supports the opposing forces in Vietnam, the National Liberation Front, and holds leaders like Ho Chi Minh and Fidel Castro as its heroes”, gasped the tabloid. At a Resistance anti-war meeting attended by 500 teenagers, participants “were asked to give their names and addresses for the Resistance mailing list”, complained the columnist, scandalised by the prospect of young people receiving anti-war material in the post. 

High school students responded to the taunts with a publication of their own. In September 1968, the first issue of Student Underground declared: 

“This news sheet is an attempt to make students realise that there is another attitude to the war besides that of the government and their great and powerful friends, that some people, including high school students, believe that thousands of innocent people are being killed pointlessly in a senseless and totally unjustifiable war.”

The broadsheet advertised a march to the US consulate, followed by leafleting of US and Australian service personnel at Kings Cross. Two thousand people, half of whom were secondary students, participated.

Soon Student Underground was being distributed across dozens of NSW high schools: its anti-war message resonating in classrooms. Politicians called for the publication to be banned, and Resistance was denounced in the NSW state parliament.

In May 1970, when thousands of Sydney and Melbourne high school students skipped school to join Vietnam moratorium marches, Victorian premier Henry Bolte threatened to expel students. Former Sydney high school activist Chips Mackinolty recalls that he was “lucky” to be suspended for only two days for daring to display a Vietnam moratorium sticker on his school bag. Others were suspended for longer or even expelled. 

Australian students were not alone. In Paris, in May and June 1968, students challenged the authoritarian rule of the French president, general de Gaulle. They occupied lycées (high schools) and established committees with teachers and other staff to run schools in a radical democratic fashion. In February 1971, more than 10,000 French secondary students defied government bans to demonstrate for the release of a fellow student activist. 

Former high school student leader Diane Fieldes recalls that by 1971, protests, school walkouts and playground demonstrations had become increasingly common in Australia: “Our demands were around issues of hair length and uniform, corporal punishment, crowded classrooms and poor infrastructure”, she recalls.

Like France, Australia had experienced a massive expansion in the number of students enrolled in and completing secondary education during the 1950s and 1960s. However, state budgets failed to keep up with the demand for teachers and classrooms. 

A sit-in at Watsonia High School in Melbourne’s north-east, at the beginning of the 1972 school year, dramatically demonstrated the new rebellion. The Trotskyist newspaper Direct Action reported that hundreds of Watsonia students and teachers held a nine-hour protest in an unsuccessful attempt to prevent the removal of a portable classroom. Teachers parked their cars in the path of a truck sent by the Education Department to remove the classroom, only to have them towed away.

Meanwhile, at Eltham High School, “parents, teachers and pupils have combined with barricades etc. to forestall the possibility of losing their classrooms”, Direct Action reported. “The condition of the state education system is now at a critical point, and an explosion is very near.”

National Student Strike

In 1972 there was a dramatic “explosion” of student protest around the country.

In the middle of the year, Resistance initiated Australia’s first ever national high school student strike, held on 20 September. The Australian Union of Students, student unions and some trade unions backed the strike. A Sydney leaflet outlined the strike’s demands: freedom of appearance for all students; freedom of expression; no corporal punishment, complete listing of all school rules; an end to all segregation in schools; more finance for state education, more teachers; and equalisation of education opportunities.

The capitalist media again went into overdrive.

On 4 September, a National Times report focused on the youngest of the organisers, North Sydney Boys High student Dennis Garnsey. “Marxist at 13, and spreading the message: The Left invades the playgrounds”, declared the Times’ headline.

On 17 September, the Sunday Telegraph featured a full-page report, including photos of coordinators in Melbourne, Sydney, Adelaide and Canberra under the heading: “These are the ringleaders”. All four were Resistance members.

The day after the strike, the Daily Telegraph continued the red-baiting, accusing “playground radicals” of “being led by the nose by a handful of extremist political groups”.

This “handful of extremist political groups” mobilised thousands. In Sydney, one thousand student protesters marched from Town Hall to Hyde Park. After speeches from state parliamentarian and socialist George Petersen and radical Aboriginal activist Gary Foley, several students burned their school ties in symbolic protest. Thousands more took to city streets around the country. Some students were forced to protest on school grounds, locked in by hostile principals.

From the mid-1970s, the student radicalisation waned. Nonetheless, high school students continued to play a part in radical politics, protesting sexism, homophobia, the nuclear arms race and school funding cuts. 

In 1992, when the federal Labor government banned a Family Planning Association sex education pamphlet for young people – dubbed the “Sex Diary” – Resistance responded by distributing 5,000 copies of the banned publication to secondary students around the country. Sunday Telegraph editor Roy Miller expressed his disdain: “The premier and his wife didn’t like it, nor did the prime minister and his wife, and they are family people”.

Protesting nuclear testing, racism and war

From 1990, high school students emerged at the forefront of a new movement responding to global warming created by capitalist industry. They formed Environmental Youth Alliance groups around the country and organised sizeable demonstrations to mark World Environment Day.

In October 1995, Brisbane lord mayor Jim Soorley invited a select group of private high school students to join him at a meeting at Brisbane’s Town Hall to voice polite opposition to French president Jacques Chirac’s decision to resume nuclear testing at Mururoa atoll in the South Pacific. The invitation attempted to coopt a bourgeoning high school movement committed to stopping nuclear testing. Resistance responded with a call for a mass walkout of state school students, amplified by a front-page headline in the Courier Mail: “Youth group calls for mass walkout at schools”. 

On 5 October, high school students from 45 Brisbane high schools rallied in King George Square. Security guards were placed at the entrance of the adjoining Town Hall to prevent “uninvited” students from “gate crashing” the Town Hall meeting. The guards began confiscating Resistance placards, leaflets or badges from students trying to enter. 

4,000 angry students rallied in King George Square and defiantly marched on (or rather ran towards) the French consulate. One student, Jaay Taylor, captured the mood of the cheering crowd: “Pigs can fly, kids don’t have sex and nuclear testing is safe ... not!”. Another exposed his bum on stage, declaring “this is a message for Jacques Chirac!”

In 1998 and again in 2003, high school walkouts protested racism and war in their thousands. On 25 June 1998, Victorian high school students marched against the racist policies of Pauline Hanson. The Herald Sun reported the walkout on its front page, urging students to remain “apolitical and respectful of the diversity of opinion in our wider community”.

Walkout spokesperson Jacquie Moon responded to the Herald Sun’s hypocrisy: “We’re sick of being told to be passive and apolitical, and that we can’t think for ourselves. It’s totally hypocritical; it comes from people who themselves support the very parties that enact racist policies, including Liberal and Labor, and who’ve done nothing to stop Hanson”.

On 5 March 2003, in the lead-up to the US invasion of Iraq, 30,000 high school students marched across the country. A further action on 20 March was coordinated by Books not Bombs, a high school student coalition. Again, Books not Bombs students faced school lock-ins and the threat of suspension. 

Bec Hynek, then a 15-year-old Sydney high school student recalls: 

“I had the hated science teacher the period before [the walkout] — so we jumped out of windows and a couple of other students held the teacher up while we let everyone else out the door. We got cheers from the rest of the students for our ‘daring escape’.”

Today, high school students are once again at the forefront of a global movement to prevent runaway climate change. And, like their forebears, they are defying authority and the patronising words of their so-called leaders to make their voices heard. As Swedish high school student Greta Thunberg told last year’s UN climate summit:

“We have not come here to beg the world leaders to care for our future. They have ignored us in the past and they will ignore us again. We have come here to let them know that change is coming whether they like it or not.”