Locked Up for Telling the Truth: Activist Stephen Langford on Rising Authoritarianism  

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Stephen Langford

Sydney activist Stephen Langford was arrested on 2 March, over having stuck several pieces of A4 paper – each with an 1816 NSW governor Lachlan Macquarie directive printed upon it – on a statue of the same man that’s situated at the north end of Sydney’s Hyde Park, using craft glue.

For this rather tame but meaningful protest action, Langford was taken into the custody of NSW police and had some extreme bail conditions imposed, which has been a growing and repeated complaint of activists arrested in Sydney for demonstrating over the last three years.

One of these conditions was a ban on being within a two-kilometre radius of Sydney Town Hall, which the 64-year-old considered a breach of his human rights. And he broke this condition last Friday, when he attended a climate strike held out the front of that same building.

Despite having attempted to disguise himself, the police identified Langford and arrested him. And on arrival at the Goulburn Street lockup in Surry Hills, he was strip searched and then forcefully wrestled to the ground and placed in the prone position by three NSW Corrective Services officers.

However, on his appearing in court last Friday, a NSW magistrate struck down Langford’s bail conditions, agreeing that they weren’t warranted.

Suppressing the historic truth

The message on the pasteup read: “All Aborigines from Sydney onwards are to be made prisoners of war and if they resist they are to be shot and their bodies to be hung from trees in the most conspicuous places near where they fall so as to strike fear into the hearts of surviving natives.”

This directive made by NSW governor Macquarie led to the April 1816 Appin Massacre, which involved a British regiment killing at least 14 Dharawal and Gandangara people. And the British army officer later told his superiors that the incident had been carried out in accordance with his orders.

Langford’s arrest on 2 March was not his first in relation to this action. He was first taken into custody over having pasted the notice at the height of the June 2020 Black Lives Matter rallies. And in going before the courts last year, on a charge of malicious damage, he was found not guilty.

The long-term social activist, who was awarded an Order of Timor for his part in the 1990s Free East Timor movement, considers that the reason he is being locked up has nothing to do with destroying property, but rather he’s causing damage to the whitewashed version of Australian history.

Creeping authoritarianism

Police cracked down on BLM protests back in mid-2020, while last April saw the Perrottet government enact one of the harshest antiprotest regimes on the planet, which had the specific aim of stamping out nonviolent direct actions carried out by climate defenders.

However, as we’re fast learning, the regime applies to all movements not supported by the authorities.

Indeed, four police officers turned up at UNSW SRC education officer Cherish Kuehlmann’s home after midnight on 18 February, to arrest her over having protested the Reserve Bank in relation to the housing crisis. And she too was hit with a similar set of draconian bail conditions.

Sydney Criminal Lawyers spoke with Socialist Alliance member Stephen Langford about the reasons he’s been pasting these messages on the statute, why he considers extreme bail conditions need to be reined in and the increasingly authoritarian approach of government to social justice protest.

Last Friday, 3 March, you appeared before a NSW magistrate on breach of bail, which involved breaking a condition that you not enter within a two kilometre radius of Sydney Town Hall, presumably as this is a prime area for social justice protest.

Stephen, you claim that bail condition and others recently applied to you were extreme, as have many other activists since there was a pickup in climate action in the spring of 2019.

However, on Friday, the magistrate struck down your conditions because they agreed with you.

Why is this particular bail condition, and others that are readily being given out at present, excessive?

The two-kilometre radius around Town Hall is really a political banning order, because it takes in Central, and it’s pretty much impossible not to breach. It also takes in the whole CBD and Ultimo.

I would love to meet the genius who thought of it. Maybe it was a job creation scheme for magistrates. It’s bizarre, and also virtually impossible to comply with.

It has nothing to do with where my supposed offence, or Cherish Kuehlmann’s supposed offence, took place.

But they have a stack of these behind the desk at Day Street Police Station ready to go. Unless you have a car – I don’t – it’s impossible to travel in Sydney, or out of it, without breaching bail.

I appeared in a cunning disguise – a hat, facial hair banished and a face mask – that I thought would put the police off at Town Hall, when I attended the School Strike 4 Climate at midday on Friday 3rd March.

I was taking a risk, but this was a global event, and I am a citizen of the world. And a political banning order sounds a bit too close to what they had in apartheid South Africa.

Another condition imposed on environmental activists involves who they can and cannot meet with. It’s pure apartheid South Africa. We need to think about that and get rid of it.

The restrictions are excessive because they violate the right of free association. They are like being in prison without being in an actual prison. You carry the prison around in your head.

But to hell with it. It is my city, and also Cherish Kuehlmann’s, especially Town Hall.

My cunning disguise, however, didn’t work. And as the rain started, I was arrested. If I had dark glasses, I might have gotten away with it.

As you mention, you went before the magistrate after being arrested for taking part in the School Strike 4 Climate rally at Sydney Town Hall and you were then taken to the Surry Hills lockup for breach of bail.

During your time in the lockup, you were brutalised. What happened?

I was transferred from Day Street police station to the Goulburn Street lockup in Surry Hills.

Day Street had warned me I should take my watch off at Goulburn Street lockup, or I would be hurt and the watch damaged. They were right.

After a strip search at Goulburn Street, the officer-in-charge demanded my watch. But I refused to take it off. It was a present from my two children, and I know you cannot keep track of the time in the cells.

Three Corrective Services NSW officers then took me down. They bent my left wrist back, so it was impossible to take it off without breaking it, which they did.

One was kneeling on my back. I called out, “I can’t breathe. Take it off.”

You were on conditional release last Friday, due to an arrest in Hyde Park a week earlier, for sticking several A4 pieces of paper, with an 1816 directive made by NSW governor Lachlan Macquarie printed on each, to a statue of the man, using craft glue.

What’s the reason you stuck this message on the statue? And why are NSW police reacting so severely to a fairly harmless act in terms of property damage?

Why are they reacting so severely to this act of wanton vandalism: the sticking of Macquarie’s own words to his statue?

The police have been told to. I have been trying to go through other channels and have been getting nowhere.

I have written to Clover Moore, Sydney lord mayor, but no response yet. It is a City of Sydney responsibility.

We cannot look at our history squarely. It was brutal. Macquarie, in doing his job, reacted cruelly, violently and indiscriminately to attacks on farms on the Western Plains.

That’s colonialism: stealing and killing with guns. That’s what it is. Whether it is here, or in New Zealand-Aotearoa or Palestine. It’s why we are here. Let’s be honest, at least.

As David Shoebridge said at the Sydney Belmarsh Tribunal, it should never be against the law to tell the truth. It should be on the statue, or the statue should go.

It is not about paper or craft glue. It is about telling the truth. That’s why David McBride could be locked up for decades and why Assange is being tortured with Australian government complicity.

We can organise and stand up, speak out, and absolutely, change all that. But the media have to actually report that Australians are being locked up and buried alive for telling the truth about what we do, or has been done, in our name.

We need to support noncorporate media and reclaim the ABC and SBS.

Your current Hyde Park arrest for a pasteup, and the police hunting you down at a protest staged by high school students concerned about environmental degradation, come at a time when the Perrottet government has been cracking down on protest.

A draconian antiprotest regime was implemented last April to clampdown on climate protesters in particular, while Cherish Kuehlmann was strategically arrested by NSW police in the middle of the night a few weeks back, in an attempt to stop her protesting the banks and the housing crisis.

What do you think about the current bipartisan attack on the right to protest, which has mainly targeted climate defenders, but we’re fast learning, is applicable elsewhere?

The bipartisanship tells us something about the two parties and our democracy. Funding of both parties comes from fossil fuel companies.

So, that kind of democracy is a sham. But those of us who actually believe in something have to stand up.

Basically, fuck the anti-protest laws. The threats are too serious not to protest. We have to risk something.

We are part of a coming war on China for US hegemony. The climate catastrophe is upon us because of decades of inaction, greenwashing and bullshit.

The real culprits, the corporations that do the major polluting – Shell and Exxon, for example – are never targeted.

We need to get the truth out. I admire what Violet Coco and Blockade Australia did. They’re risking everything. I’m only risking a bit, and basically what I have done is terribly tame.

I admire Extinction Rebellion who make provision for arrest and support those who get arrested.

Really, when you are arrested, everything changes. It has a radicalising effect, which is great. But you absolutely need solidarity from the outside. I have had that. And it changes everything.

You’ve spoken about the lack of rights protections in NSW and at the federal level as a reason why the authorities are able to suppress your actions and those of other agitators.

How would rights protections benefit us? How do you think the outcomes of the incidents we’ve been discussing could be different with such protections?

Whatever rights we actually have are the ones we fight for. They can be overridden in a minute if we don’t fight for and stand up for them. And for each other’s rights, not just our own.

We need a Human Rights Act in NSW and in Australia, before we can get meaningful Indigenous rights. We have to build that foundation first.

It is struggle. Struggle can be a lot of fun. The Timor struggle was that, as well as heartbreaking. But it was being alive, and full of meaning, and we won.

It took decades but we won. Not many of us remember what it was like.

Part of that movement was reaching out to other groups, discussing it and trying to work out how the world actually works. It was serious, heartbreaking and fun.

We can win. We can win on Assange. It’s absolutely doable. And bravo to the Belmarsh Tribunal organisers and Progressive International.

We have to expand the whole rights and responsibilities culture. We have to establish that culture by fighting for basic rights like the right to protest. Even the right to housing.

Cuba is poor but it helps other countries, while Australia is so rich, and it not only does nothing to help other countries, but it has a huge homelessness problem.

And lastly, Stephen, this is not the first time you’ve engaged in this act, and nor is it the first time the NSW police reacted in such a heavy-handed manner.

The first time it occurred was in June 2020, at the height of the Black Lives Matter protests, and you did it again a few months later.

What’s with the repeat offending? And when do you have to face the courts on your current charges?

My court appearance is on Wednesday, 5 April. And we will have a rally outside the Downing Centre at 9 am. It’s really just an excuse to play the ukulele and sing some satirical songs.

I’m 64 and honestly, this seems to have meaning. I have been very lucky and am giving something back to Australia. I don’t expect the magistrate to agree. But that’s what many of us are doing. Violet Coco has done that, as has Cherish Kuehlmann.

By the way, my partner says that even the harsh military dictatorship in Uruguay would not arrest people outside daylight hours.

What the NSW police did to Cherish Kuehlmann, in arresting her at home at midnight, was despicable.

I think about my Dad’s experience as a refugee getting out of Austria when he was 17 in 1938.

Fascism doesn’t always wear a Nazi uniform. The demonisation of refugees in Australia looks a lot like the demonisation of Jews in Germany to me.

Labor is absolutely part of the problem. It always has been. Beazley had something to do with that when he caved in on the Tampa. But it was Gerry Hand and Gareth Evans locking up refugees before that.

We need to remember that the 1951 UN Refugee Convention, signed and then trashed by Australia, was written by a bloke called Paul Weis, also from Vienna, born in 1907.

Weis escaped from Dachau. He became the father of refugee protection. He wrote the convention, which is an antifascist piece of international law.

What does it say about our governments that they have trashed it and driven refugees to suicide? What does it mean when they trash an antifascist convention?

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Paul Gregoire

Paul Gregoire is a Sydney-based journalist and writer. He's the winner of the 2021 NSW Council for Civil Liberties Award For Excellence In Civil Liberties Journalism. Prior to Sydney Criminal Lawyers®, Paul wrote for VICE and was the news editor at Sydney’s City Hub.

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