Folk hero or ratbag Sydney opera house

Folk Hero Or Ratbag?

By Mark O’Brien

Do you remember those days prior to the start of the Iraq war, when hundreds of thousand of Australians marched in the streets, demanding and pleading with the Howard Government to not commit our country to a bogus war in Iraq, and Howard simply dismissed those throngs as being unworthy of attention.

Do you remember how it felt to be ignored?

Do you also remember how fabulous it was to turn on the TV news and see, in big bold red letters, NO WAR emblazoned on our greatest man made icon, the Sydney Opera House?

On 18th March, 2003, at around 8am, Dave Burgess and Will Saunders climbed to the top of the highest sail of the Sydney Opera House and painted No War in bright red paving paint.

Folk Hero Or Ratbag?

They were quickly arrested and charged with malicious damage and wilfully marking a building with chalk, paint, etc.

At the trial, they were prevented from presenting their defence, that their actions were a desperate attempt to prevent a misguided and illegal invasion.

Folk hero or ratbag Sydney opera house two

Dave Burgess and Will Saunders were convicted of the charge of malicious damage.

The final bill presented by the Opera House to clean off the paint was $151,000, and this amount was awarded against them as a compensation order.

They appealed the conviction, the denial of parole, and the size of the compensation order. The appeal was heard in July 2004 and they are still (as of Dec 2004) awaiting the ruling.

Dave referred to the sympathy that the officers of the law had for their action, and the general good will they had for them, even if the matter of defacing the Sydney Opera House could not be ignored. I am sure Howard would have wanted to throw away the key.

At Woodford, Dec 2004 I met Dave Burgess.

Only when I spoke with him did I really appreciate how much that ‘act of naughtiness’ (as Dave would say) meant to me and presumably the hundreds of thousands of other Australians whose objections to the proposed Iraq war had been completely ignored by Howard.

I remember feeling incredibly supported when I saw that paint job, that someone had the guts to do such a thing in support of the average person who went on the peace marches.

In a sense these people became heroes that day to all those who Howard made feel disenfranchised, and were simply ratbags to those too afraid to question the headlong race to an illegal war in Iraq.

Remember Iraq was a country we were very happily trading with, and had a regime our Wheat Board had been happy to pay large ongoing bribes to in order to access their markets.

Some days later we met for coffee in Mullumbimby and we spoke for some time about the whole story.

Since that day almost 2 years ago (2002) Dave and his mate, Will Saunders, have been busy raising money to pay the fine and clean-up bill.

All along they realised they would get caught, be arrested and have to pay the resulting fine/costs.

They have created a whole bunch of ‘quality kitsch’ such as No Wardomes, fridge magnets etc, to raise money.

‘I have written millions of words in my life, and now I want to move on from having written 5 letters on the Opera House.

I am so ready to get back to my life, to move on, to get back to what my life is about.

We actually flew an Australian flag. I am not really into flags, but it was right to do this under that flag.

I actually felt less radical than I ever have been.

If the UN had agreed, had WMDs been found, had the Parliament voted to go to war, I would not have been up the Opera House that day.’ 
Dave Burgess

Folk hero or ratbag Sydney opera house close

Dave told me that one of the amazing things to come out of this was the diversity of support they received afterwards.

When they were arrested, the police were very friendly, with sheepish grins, and once they climbed down the Opera House the Sydney Symphony Orchestra stopped rehearsing and gave them a standing ovation.

One of the groups that wrote letters of support for the trial was a logging group that Dave had fought hard with over years as an activist.

Mostly they have encountered support, with the odd person becoming very angry, violently objecting to the defacing of a landmark like the Opera House.

Individuals have international duties which transcend the national obligations of obedience … Therefore [individual citizens] have the duty to violate domestic laws to prevent crimes against peace and humanity from occurring.’
Nuremberg War Crime Tribunal, 1950

‘Never forget that everything Hitler did in Germany was legal.’ Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

‘We are in the process of destroying an entire society, it is as simple and as terrifying as that.’
Dennis Haliday, former UN Humanitarian Co-ordinator to Iraq.

If, like me, you were touched by seeing No War on the Opera House that day, and wish you could do something to help out, make a donation to some other peaceful project, support the earth and its people.

Published in Feb 04 issue of Here & Now magazine, Byron Bay

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