Wednesday, November 5, 2014

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It Was 1972 And Time For a Change - Draft Resistance And Living Underground.

Steven Katsineris with a piece about a time in his life that was touched by the action of Gough Whitlam, the recently deceased former Australian Prime Minister. Steven Katsineris is an Australian freelance writer of articles on Palestine, Cyprus and the rest of the Middle East region, political prisoners and human rights, environmental and social issues. He has been actively involved in the Palestine solidarity movement for over forty years. Steven Katsineris lives with his family in Melbourne, Australia.

In 1972, the Vietnam War was still raging and Australian military forces were still fighting there. Some of these troops were 20-year-old conscripts who were called up after registering for national service (their birth dates had been put on a marble and been pulled out of a barrel). Other young men, including myself believed the Vietnam War to be unjust and refused to be conscripted and didn’t register for National Service or comply with call up notices and became draft resisters. The National Service Act imposed a two-year jail term for draft resisters or others trying to avoid the draft. I was liable to register for National Service in 1972, but I wrote a letter to the N.S. Department on May 1, informing them that I did not register in the last call up period, explained my reasons for this stand and said I would continue to refuse to co-operate with the National Service system. I wrote several further letters to the N.S. Department and refused to attend court cases I was later summoned to go to. 

I had already been very involved in the anti-war movement in Hobart and Melbourne for several years, while at high school and helped form the local Draft Resisters Union in Tasmania, which actively urged young men not to register and sought to make the system unworkable. It was an incredibly distressing, busy and fulfilling period for me, I wrote articles and letters for publications, printed leaflets, went to and spoke at meetings, distributed leaflets and attended numerous rallies and marches. 

The DRU published leaflets and booklets on the Vietnam War, the Draft and the various ways to oppose it or avoid it. The DRU also wrote letters, ran information stalls and held film sessions, meetings, teach-ins, marches and other demonstrations. We also challenged the draft by having campaigns to fill out false registration forms. We held so many sit-ins at the National Service Department in Hobart that the government would shut down the N.S. Department office when they found that a protest was planned for that afternoon or morning. This showed how effective our actions were and of course was exactly what we wanted. 

After that whenever we wanted to occupy the building, we planned our actions by word of mouth. The N.S. Department also stationed guards outside building with two-way radios, so they could quickly lock up the place and thwart our surprise sit-ins. We started assembling away from the building in different spots and sent a few people ahead to block the gate at the entrance and doorways inside. I took part in this action several times. This also proved to be a very successful tactic. Eventually the police would arrive and carry and drag us from the building to the footpath outside. Occasionally, things could get a bit rough and police would throw protestors down the stairs. Sometimes they would put us into police trucks and vans and take us to the police station. Usually we were all released without charges being laid. This was probably because there were generally 50-60 people or more at these sit-ins. 

My family lived in Warrane, a working class neighbourhood on Hobart’s Eastern Shore. One evening in 1972, while I was at home with my family watching TV our dog started to bark. Through the window we could see a car parked outside the front gate and two men approaching the house. I thought they were plainclothes police and as they knocked at the front door I quickly left the house by the back door and stood in the dark alcove under the back steps, where we stored the firewood. The police informed my parents that they had a warrant for my arrest and searched the house for a few minutes looking for me. After they left my oldest sister Julie came to tell me they had gone. Now I knew that a warrant had been issued for my arrest, I wanted to at make it as difficult for them to find me as I could. It was my intention to try to avoid arrest until a time of my choosing, when it get the most exposure for the issues and to cause the most trouble for the government. So I decided it was time to disappear, by going underground. I had already discussed this option with several friends and had a network of supporters to rely on. Most of these people where not well-known anti-war activists and contacts and were therefore less likely for the police to identify them and find me. 

Early he next morning I packed a bag and discreetly left by the back door and walked through the bush to the local shopping centre and caught a bus to town. I moved into a three-story group house in South Hobart with three old friends from my Matriculation College days. They all worked or were at University, so I had the house to myself during the day to read and write. Up to this time I had been very politically active, but now stayed out of most of the more public involvements, writing articles and letters for publication. While I still went out, I was careful about where I went and when. For instance I visited my parents at night, by catching a bus and getting off at the top of the hill a few stops before their house. From there I walked across the golf course and through the bush. I then knocked at the back door and entered the house, while plainclothes police sat in a car in the street outside the front of the house. The police also kept a close watch on my fathers’ shop. And occasionally searched these premises and questioned my family.

One day while I was sitting in the sun in my upstairs bedroom near a window reading at the house in South Hobart, I saw two overweight men in suits open the back gate and start looking around the yard. I thought straight away that they looked like plainclothes policemen. I then remembered that I had left the back door of the house open to let in some fresh air and sunshine downstairs. I quickly left the room and started down the stairs, but by the time I got half way they were at the back door. So I stopped and asked them who they were and what they wanted. One of them said they were police and were investigating a report of an unidentified car, that might be stolen, that was allegedly parked in the laneway outside our yard. I told them, I knew nothing about any strange cars and had not seen any cars parked there, except for one belonging to the man in the downstairs part of the house. I stayed in my position on the stairs and spoke to them from there.

While I was talking and listening to them, thoughts run through my head, that if they tried to rush at me I could run into the bedroom and close the door and then get out the front window on to the roof and climb down to the street from there and get away.

They said they would check with the neighbour downstairs and when they left I went and locked the door. A few minutes later they left the yard. I was convinced they were looking for me and reasoned that they were checking the house to confirm if it was in fact me living there.

I packed all my possessions in a backpack and another bag and rang a friend, Harry to see if I could stay the night at his place. He said that was fine and would arrange for me to stay at another place in the country for a while. I waited until one of my friends, Max returned from work and I told him what had happened. He thought I was being paranoid and that I should forget about it. But my mind was made up so I left by the back gate and walked through a number of back streets and lanes to Harry’s flat in Sandy Bay. I got a phone call the next morning to say that the Commonwealth police had raided the South Hobart house during the night. My friends had denied knowing me, but the police found a card with my name on it and my friends were questioned for a while before the police left. 

That morning I bought a bus ticket and left Hobart for a farm on the East Coast of Tasmania. After that I divided my time between this place and various safe houses in Hobart. I also visited Melbourne and attended several demonstrations there. In the period of the lead up to the Federal Election of 1972, I came out of hiding and moved back home to campaign for the Labour Party in the election. I thought that if I were arrested during the election period it would be a great benefit towards the anti-war effort. It seemed though that the police were inclined to wait for the electoral outcome before bothering with us, as none of the draft resisters were bothered in Tasmania during this time. 

On December 2, Gough Whitlam and the Australian Labour Party were elected to Government and Conscription was ended on December 5, draft resisters were released from jail and pending prosecutions for draft resistance were dropped. I received a letter from the Australian Government telling me there was no longer a warrant for my arrest and that my court convictions and fines had been quashed. Sometime later the last Australian troops were withdrawn from southern Vietnam.

It was an amazing day and I was overjoyed, as it was the end of a long and hard campaign to defeat an unjust system. I also felt our actions were contributing in a small way towards ending this immoral war and the foreign intervention in Vietnam. I hoped it meant a further step on the way to peace and much better days for the struggling and long suffering Vietnamese people. It was however another three years before the last forces of the US Army were driven out and the war finally ended. Thanks and farewell Gough.


AM said...

Great piece Steven. Thoroughly enjoyed it.