Memories of 1968 – My Student Rebellion

May 1968: Perhaps I wasn’t your average head prefect, organising a school ‘Be kind to Mao month’, but that was the year that was.

The Guardian – Comment Is Free – 14 May 2008

In 1968 I was a 16 year old student at Mount Waverley High School, in Melbourne, Victoria, Australia. My home state was, in those days, Victoria by name and Victorian by nature. The federal government was also ruled by a suffocating, authoritarian right-wing government. Abortion and homosexuality were totally illegal. Plays, books and films were subject to ruthless censorship. Protests were heavily repressed and it was a crime in the city of Melbourne to hand out political leaflets in the street. Anyone with even vaguely liberal views was denounced as a communist, which carried serious social stigma and potential career derailment in sensitive professions. The Victorian state premier, Henry Bolte, was Franco lite.

At school, we’d already won the right to elect a Student’s Representative Council and, through the SRC and a progressive headmaster, secured reforms in the school administration. Instead of prefects being appointed by the teaching staff, as was the norm in many schools, ours were elected by all the pupils. Despite my left-wing politics and suspected gayness, I was voted head prefect in 1968.

Other pupils teased me about being gay, with playful taunts of “poofter Pete” and “Peter pansy”. They joked that I had the “best looking legs in the schools.” Lots of the girls were jealous. But despite these jibes, I was nearly everyone’s best friend. I laughed off the teasing because I was, at the time, secure in my heterosexuality and genuinely had my sights on girls, marriage and family life. My homosexuality only dawned on me a year later, after I left school.

My election as head prefect was in some ways quite surprising because much of Australia was, at the time, viciously homophobic, gripped by McCarthyite-style anti-communist witch-hunts and by gung-ho pro-Americanism. Australia had the draft and young Aussies were being conscripted to fight alongside the US, in a murderous war against the people of Vietnam; justified in the name of ‘saving the Vietnamese from communism.’ We were the poodles of the US in Vietnam, in the much the same way that the UK acts as Washington’s flunkey in Iraq today.

On American independence day, 4 July 1968, in protest at the war, I made a US flag and organised its symbolic burning in the school yard. Later, I went on my first protest march: to the US Consulate. To my shock and horror, we were charged and beaten by truncheon-wielding police on horse-back. What happened to democracy and the right to protest, I asked naively.

At around the same time, I helped organise and fundraise for a scholarship scheme to enable children from poor Aboriginal families to stay on at school. We coordinated pupils from many different schools to stage a sponsored Long Walk along Melbourne’s beaches. It raised a huge sum of money. This Aboriginal rights activism, together with my opposition to the draft and the Vietnam War got me into hot water.

By 1968 our progressive headmaster had been replaced by a right-wing old fogey. He summonsed me to his office and warned me about my “subversive activities,” demanding to know if I had any connections with “the communists” who, he said, were “manipulating” young people like me to overthrow Australian democracy.

The May ’68 rebellion in Paris was inspirational. Students, none much older than me, had taken over the city. The mighty French state was under siege. We read about the outpouring of school and university newspapers in Paris. This prompted some of us to produce an underground student magazine. Apart from school gossip and local issues, it also poked fun at the ultra right-wing Australian Prime Minister and the State Premier. When draft copies of the magazine were discovered by teaching staff, all hell broker loose. I had to use all my persuasive power to make sure the headmaster did not proceed with expulsions. The deal was that we had to fold the magazine. Although we had managed only a partial circulation of the draft copies, we agreed and later went on to successfully complete our exams and fight another day.

Paris was far away in what we saw as ‘Old Europe.’ Closer to Australia and more influential were the Red Guards and Cultural Revolution in China. Despite their dogmatism and terrible excesses, which we were not aware of at the time, they made legitimate demands like “question authority” and “it is right to rebel.” This had great appeal for those of us who rejected the stifling conformism and authoritarianism of the long years of unbroken conservative rule Down Under. In response to the Australian media’s deranged and often racist anti-Chinese propaganda, a few of us organised a “Be Kind To Mao Month,” where we promoted the “good” aspects of the Red Guards rebellion against what we saw as the privileged, arrogant and authoritarian communist elite in Beijing.

I remember being engrossed by the nightly TV news footage of the communist Tet Offensive in Vietnam, which even if only briefly shattered the proclaimed supremacy and invincibility of the mightiest military superpower in history. The communists weren’t angels, but nor were they devils, as was claimed by the US and Australian governments. Their demand for the right to self-determination, free from US diktat, was a just cause. Even at 16, I realised that Tet was an historic event – a major challenge to the global hegemony that the US imposed on the rest of world post-1945.

1968 was also the year of the joyous TV images of the Prague Spring. I was so excited by the prospect of a democratic, libertarian communism under Alexander Dubcek. Soviet-style ‘barbed wire socialism’ was an inhuman betrayal of the communist ideal of a compassionate, classless society. It discredited socialism worldwide. I wanted to see it come crashing down, in Czechoslovakia and in the USSR itself. Seeing this peaceful, democratic, people-power revolution crushed by Soviet tanks was heart-breaking.

The assassinations of Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King were tragedies and crimes that pushed me towards more militant, revolutionary politics, arousing my sympathy for the Black Panthers and the Students for a Democratic Society.

I had not long joined my local Waverley Amateur Athletic Club, and began running competitively 5,000 and 10,000 metres and cross country. By sheer coincidence, and to my delight, the club’s mascot was a black panther. We wore it on our running vests. When I pointed this out, at a time when the Black Panthers were branded enemies of the state by FBI boss J Edgar Hoover, one of our athletics bosses suddenly announced that the mascot wasn’t a panther after all. It was a jaguar. He didn’t fool me. It was a panther and I was running for Huey Newton and Bobby Seale.