13. Were the police out of control?

Inspector Millar testified that he was trying to contain the revelers when he directed them into Hyde Park and tried to keep them out of the Cross. He claimed that he told them to disperse three times but didn’t have a loudspeaker. He presented himself as strangely passive, saying they kept brushing him aside. It was only when the crowd was backtracking along Darlinghurst Road, that he told his men that he had informed the revelers they were taking part in an unauthorized procession. This authorized them to arrest people ‘if, and where, necessary only’. They went for it and this sparked the resistance. But of course, the revelers were not aware of Millar’s directives.

When GSG’s representatives met with Wran (28 June 1978), they wanted the Police Commissioner to ‘resign’. They tabled 57 questions, including: who authorized the police and who was in charge of the police operation? Why did the police lie when they told the press that they used loudspeakers to disperse the crowd in College Street? Why did the police refuse to read the Summary Offences Act at the El Alamein Fountain? Why did the police refuse to let the organizers use a microphone when they wanted to disperse the crowd at the Fountain? Hearing this, Wran told them ‘they had a bloody good case’. However, he recanted soon after, saying, ’the statement they made is just not true and I will not be seeing them again’ (Campaign July 1978).

40 years on, we still don’t know the answers to their questions. The Police Corporate Records, NSW Police Commissioner, Premier’s and Treasurer’s Parliamentary Secretaries have all failed to answer our requests for access to the relevant records.

Of course, every government authorizes every police officer to assert his authority and to use force, if necessary. Unlike soldiers, who have to obey orders, each officer can decide to keep the peace or enforce the law: ‘the decision is his alone and he alone bears the responsibilities for any consequences’ (Avery 1980 p 64). If he is too soft, his superiors (or public opinion) can say he neglected his duty. If he over-reacts or resorts to physical force, he can be hauled-over-the-coals, suspended or end up in court. Furthermore he has to appear to be impartial to the demonstrators’ concerns (eg Ward & Woods 1972, Avery 1980).

These cops had to meet height and weight standards. They were burly men who used physical force to do their job. They could use sprung steel batons, guns and handcuffs – but they didn’t use them on the night. At least some of them thought the revelers were sick, sinful and illegal deviant-lefties. They believed they were arresting unauthorized demonstrators who were swearing, obstructing traffic, disobeying their orders, hindering their efforts and resisting arrest. On the other hand, some activists thought that the police were establishment stooges. Many activists thought they were corrupt and sadistic, who were curtailing their rights.

We don’t know if the police had an internal review or whether anyone got hauled over the coals for bungling the incident. We don’t know if anyone got a commendation. We still want to know: Why didn’t they mobilize forces at College to contain the crowd? Why did they pull Gowland out of the van and confiscate the sound system? Why did they let so many people run wild through the streets? Why did they exclude them from Darlinghurst Road without an effective blockade? Mardi Gras ’78 was an unprecedented event and the police mismanaged its supervision and over-reacted when the revelers ignored their lame directives.

Authors: Gavin Harris and John Witte.

Click here for more articles on The first Mardi Gras: 40 years on