Karl Marx, writing in 1852, noted “the tradition of declaring freedoms and rights while ensuring they are limited by appeals to ‘order’, the ‘rights of others’ ‘conditions fixed by law’, ‘public safety’ and the like”. In 2020 we see cops attacking protests against Black deaths in custody and attacks on education, under the guise of dealing with the threat of COVID-19. Marx explained why democratic rights are never safe: “The bourgeoisie had a true insight [by 1848] into the fact ... that all the so-called bourgeois liberties ... attacked and menaced its class rule at its social foundation”.

The formation of a broad left campaign to defend civil liberties in New South Wales follows a rich history of such struggles in Australia. This is a sketch of some famous, or infamous if you like, campaigns in Australia.

In 1906, the Victorian Socialist Party held street meetings at 8pm every Saturday in inner-city working-class suburbs, where they sold their newspaper and signed up new members. Their campaign in Prahran against police harassment exhibits many of the tactics all such successful campaigns employ.

They highlighted the hypocrisy of authorities, who railed against the “Prahran bumbledom”, permitting the Salvation Army to hold its street meetings unmolested. They highlighted a socialite ball that caused traffic mayhem as cars and carriages dropped off “their cargo of butterflies ... the parasites from the aristocratic slums of Toorak and St Kilda”. Tom Mann, a British syndicalist trade union organiser, proclaimed that their rallies caused obstruction only because of the excitement generated by the police.

They emphasised that workers need the right to public gatherings of all kinds because, as they told the ever larger crowds of hundreds, “the daily press is often a mean, partial, and malicious press, a serious danger to the continuance of free institutions”. And, like all serious civil liberties campaigns, they accepted arrests and even jail time for their speakers, consisting of eighteen women and 22 men.

They published hugely popular postcards bearing photos of the “socialist rebels”. A supporter made prison clothing for the freed jail birds, which they wore at meetings where they spoke about their experience in jail. Some posed for photos for the cards.

Court appearances provided anti-establishment propaganda. In one of the court hearings, Mrs Anderson asked the magistrate why free speech was granted to others and not socialists. He replied that the distinction had nothing to do with the case. When Mrs Leah Jarvis tried to address the courtroom, she was unceremoniously hauled out of the dock and sent to jail. They made hilarious fun of a magistrate who, trying to avoid the odium attached to convicting them, pleaded for them to appeal against his sentence to a higher court!

To build and broaden their campaign, they held “indignation” meetings in places like the Prahran Town Hall, crammed to overflowing. The meetings were not just full of indignation but included arguments about why workers should become socialists. Typically, the Geelong Town Hall was crammed with 2,000 workers, and a branch of the VSP was established.

After 24 arrests, mounting fines and the toll taken by having speakers in jail for up to the month spent there by Tom Mann, they adopted a new tactic. When instructed to decease, the speaker would loudly proclaim that they had just heard of a meeting happening around the corner and invite the crowd to follow them there. The ensuing march drew in ever bigger crowds with their renditions of songs such as “The red flag”. Their persistence paid off, and the cops eventually stayed away.

During World War One, women workers, denied the use of halls to campaign against the war and conscription, stormed meetings of upper-crust pro-war women. They often won the right to speak by stamping and singing to drown out the posh warmongers, often taking over their platforms.

In the Great Depression, the Unemployed Workers Movement, influenced by the Communist Party, moved its street meetings to the suburbs to avoid police harassment in the city centre.

The victorious Brunswick free speech campaign of 1933 employed tactics of innovative stunts, radical speeches and street rallies to resist their suppression and arrests. The Brunswick Council refused to ban their rallies in Phoenix Street, a space used for rallies since World War One. So the cops took matters into their own hands, constantly attacking and arresting speakers. They used an offence in the traffic act of “potential obstruction”, particularly laughable given that Phoenix Street was a dead end with no traffic.

Scores of workers, trade union officials and ALP politicians were arrested in the ensuing mass campaign of civil disobedience. The government agreed to amend the traffic act to define obstruction clearly. And, what’s more, it encouraged the cops to “simmer down”!

Instead, the chief of police, General Thomas Blamey, also the head of the fascist White Guard, instructed his officers to drive up and down Phoenix Street to establish that the rallies caused obstruction. But mounted police and skulduggery just provoked the activists to come up with a dramatic stunt, which clinched their victory.

“Shorty” Patullo mounted the top of a van and kept the cops entertained with a long speech while activists wheeled a lorry into Sydney Road. Patullo suffered a shot in the leg. A cover was pulled off the lorry, revealing Communist Party artist Noel Counihan locked in a steel mesh lift, bolted to the lorry.

He spruiked through a megaphone for 25 minutes as thousands counted down the cops as if it were a boxing match while they struggled to batter open the cage. Fearing for his own safety, Counihan surrendered. Patullo spent a month in jail but Counihan’s fine was overturned on appeal. After this humiliation, the cops kept away from Brunswick.

In the 1960s, an increasingly restless population found that civil liberties had to be won, usually by exercising them to oppose South African apartheid or the Vietnam War, or to support Aboriginal or women’s rights.

In May 1971, five women, founders of Save our Sons, were charged with trespass for daring to hand out anti-Vietnam War leaflets while on government property. The Fairlea Five, as they became known, were sentenced to fourteen days in prison with no option to pay a fine. The severity of this shocked people into action. Eight hundred stood vigil every day outside the jail.

In solidarity, people deliberately trespassed to point out this was suppression of free speech, not trespass. They publicised the fact that they were arrested only after one of the men visiting the recruitment centre refused to enlist after getting their leaflet. Clergy preached about their bravery and workers embargoed the docks. Even the Australian and the Herald supported them. The publicity and their notoriety built Save our Sons and added to the general anti-war sentiment.

I will end with my own experience in the Queensland Civil Liberties Campaign of 1977-79. On 3 September 1977, Premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen declared “the day of the street march is over, don’t bother applying for a permit”. It was widely seen as an attempt to stifle the emerging anti-uranium-mining movement.

Being new to activism, I was influenced by those who argued to try to get around the ban. We printed slogans on smocks for people to wear to get around the ban on placards and banners. And, if we couldn’t march, we would “get the word out”, by walking in small groups around the footpaths.

On a hot, sunny afternoon, an anti-uranium rally of 4,000 tried this tactic. But, as socialists had predicted, the cops attacked us, causing chaos. We couldn’t “get the word out” unless we asserted our rights. After a huge debate about the pros and cons of civil disobedience back at the assembly point, we voted to march. We lined up and hurled ourselves into the 700-strong sea of blue, and 418 arrests propelled uranium and civil liberties into the headlines nationally.

At small protests about anything and everything, we raised the demand for the right to march. We attended union rallies and asked to speak on the platform. In those days, we could visit workplaces and talk about the uranium movement and its link to this ban. Workers knew their rights were under serious attack and gave generously after letting us take up their precious lunch time. And trade unionists across the state were proud of the strikes they held in solidarity when the city marched.

Typical of such struggles, we highlighted the farcical hypocrisy of the government’s justifications for the ban, such as traffic chaos, which militaristic Anzac Day parades certainly caused. We chanted at the cops, “The police are blocking the streets!” and argued to the media that, if they let us march, it would be far less disruptive.

We made jokes about everything we could to highlight the absurdity of the situation. April Fools’ Day was the only time a rally didn’t march. The joke, of which we made great play, was that the cops stood for hours in torrential rain while we debated. The vote was close enough to call it lost because no-one really wanted to wade through the rivers on the streets.

On International Women’s Day, the women leading the march realised that the cops (we debated later whether they were idiots or just plain sexist) had only blocked the way we said we’d march. They whirled the march around and we raced onto the road. It was a source of pride that IWD was the only day we managed to defy the ban, even if we got only a few hundred metres before the cops reorganised.

We made propaganda about the absence of arrests elsewhere around Australia in bigger rallies. Hundreds travelled to the New South Wales side of the border at Tweed Heads. The New South Wales cops just directed the traffic, taking the moral high ground (contradicting their usual brutality). We mocked the Queensland thugs in blue sweltering in the summer sun while we occupied the street in New South Wales with thousands of spectators and supporters adding to the carnival atmosphere.

The publicity added to the sense that this was a campaign that would not go away. The turning point came when arrested seamen refused to pay their fines and Queensland ports closed until the shipping companies paid the fines to get them out of jail and their profits flowing again.

Petersen offered to allow a legal rally on a Saturday, a sign his MPs and the bosses were tiring of the situation. Against the right wing of the campaign, we convinced Trades Hall officials to back a rally on a weekday, when workers would strike to attend. The Communist Party leader of the building workers moved the successful motion to march. That was always the format: a debate and the crowd voted.

On 7 December 1978, 4,000 protesters confronted 1,300 cops. Ten thousand building and metal workers were on strike, every coal mine closed for 24 hours, Collinsville staying out for an extra day over the arrests. Building workers, hospital and transport workers, wharfies and seamen made up most of the 204 arrestees.

By early 1979, the cops quietly started granting permits. So we won back the right we’d lost, though we failed to win our goal of ending the permit system. We won because it was a militant, defiant campaign. The jokes, the stunts, the clever tactics would have been meaningless without the constant rallies, large and small, the 1,800 arrests, many with multiple charges, and some jailings.

We never had a policy of blanket refusal to pay fines. A mass campaign could not expect workers, parents and the like to keep going to jail. The necessary fundraising provided an avenue for wider layers to give important support even if unwilling or unable to risk arrest.

Contrary to the fears of some, the civil liberties campaign strengthened the anti-uranium movement. The militancy showed that we were serious and, as a result, we won respect. So if we formed even a small picket outside the wharves, workers felt a sense of solidarity and did what they could to delay shipments of yellowcake. We put ALP MPs and trade union officials on the spot, a number of whom led marches and were arrested.

Workers and the oppressed have always had to fight for free speech and civil liberties to make their voices heard. Legal rights have to be made actual rights. So defending the democratic space won previously is an important part of being activists committed to combating the crimes of capitalism.