In 2002 and 2003, tens of millions of people across the world took part in demonstrations against the United States’ launching of a second Gulf War against Iraq. On February 14th the largest protest in human history took place, with rallies occurring in approximately 800 cities. In Australia, up to one million people took part in demonstrations calling on the Federal Government to withdraw from the “Coalition of the Willing”.
The Howard, Blair and Bush governments pushed ahead with their war plans and although huge rallies continued to be held, an increasing sense of futility overcame the global anti-war movement. One small light in the gloom occurred on the day on which the first bombs fell, 18th March 2003, when two activists climbed the sails of the Sydney Opera House to paint the words No War in bright red paint. In the following interview, excerpted from the book How To Make Trouble and Influence People: Pranks, Protests, Graffiti & Political Mischief-Making from across Australia, Dave Burgess explains why he and his friend, Will Saunders, felt compelled to take such action, how they pulled it off, and how they dealt with the court case and incarceration that followed.
What had been your involvement in the social justice movement before the action?
In the lead-up to doing the Opera House I’d had fifteen years ‘experience in social change movements, whether it be for the environment or human rights issues. So I guess there was no ignorance of what we were doing, as such. I’d been through a number of campaigns, primarily involving forest protection, in Australia, Papua New Guinea and in Africa. I’d also campaigned around human rights issues concerning Bougainville, and also in Africa with the oil drilling in the Ogoni region of Nigeria.
How did you come up with the idea to paint No War on the Opera House? What was the impetus for this action and why that particular target?
I don’t think that the justice system ever fully believed us, but it came about very haphazardly. It began with Will telling me that he had a tin of paint which he wanted to paint an anti-war message with somewhere. I guess I didn’t want to be involved in just another bit of political graffiti down some back alley. He asked where the most effective place to put it would be.
I jokingly said, “Well, the most effective place would be on the sail of the Sydney Opera House.” Almost to my horror, I guess, I saw him scientifically calculating the possibilities. I said, “Go away and think about it. Ring me if you’re serious.” Two weeks later I got a phone call.
Had he mapped out how to do it? What were the logistics involved?
No-one had planned anything. I lived outside Sydney. So I had to get myself into the city and go and have a look at the building. I guess the logistics first got planned at a pub on a photo of the Opera House which was on a cigarette machine.
We could roughly plot an angle which might be possible to climb up, from the photos. It then involved Will having a look and thinking about what we needed. All in all, it took three days of careful planning, with a couple of days’ delay from rain.
How did you go about getting up there? Was it hard to scale the building?
The first 15 metres out of the 67 were the hardest. It involved a pretty serious incline, also a drop off to one side. So it was a case of getting as much momentum up that first bit and then flattening out onto the surface and crawling sideways for a few metres to get onto a gutter where there was a foothold. But we decided that it was possible and reasonably safe and we decided to go from there.
So you just climbed it. You didn’t use any equipment?
No. No equipment whatsoever. When looking at the building I put one cautious sandshoe on the tiles and I decided I needed something better. I purchased a pair of Dunlop Volleys and they held on very well.
I heard there’d been a recent banner drop off the Opera House and that security had been beefed up in response, were there many security guards around?
No. In fact, one of the reasons for looking at the building before we did the action was to see what the security was like. I went back to Will and said, “It’s not an issue. So long as we walk directly towards where we want to go to there won’t be a problem.” Once on the building there wasn’t actually much that security could do. They certainly weren’t going to chase us up the tiles and we had some access to the roof.
At the hairy point on the climb this voice below me said, “Come down now mate.” I was fully focused on not falling off. I remember just looking over my shoulder and saying, “I just might so don’t talk to me, “then I just kept going. In fact, what we found out later was that there was a dispute between the security at the Opera House and their employer. Numbers had actually been cut despite a major State Election promise that security would be beefed up to provide the best protection on any building in Australia.
I guess your experience put a lie to that. The timing of the action was quite important, wasn’t it?
We ended up doing it just as George Bush was addressing the American people on television, in the same 25-minute window. That was a fluke on our part. We postponed it for two days running — one because we thought we might need some shoes with a better grip, and two because of a rain event. So it was just random that we happened to go up there that day.
It carried a lot of heat beyond what we had thought about or what we were really concerned about. The State election was just four days away so it was quite delicate timing in New South Wales politics to be doing that kind of thing, but our main game was to get a message to the world that Australians were against the war, not to play domestic politics. So we went ahead.
What sort of paint did you use?
It was paving paint, which is paint that you apply to concrete and other surfaces. I didn’t know too much about it scientifically. Will said, “I’ve got some paint which is used for hard, concrete surfaces,” and I replied, “That sounds like the right paint.” It was a mix of choosing the right paint for the surface and a hippyish, amateurish decision. I think I gathered the full consequences of it when I was reading someone’s blogspot and the words said, “Oh, my God, they used paving paint.” A lot was made of it during the trial. Also we had tested acrylic paint on tiles before the action and it hadn’t particularly adhered well so we did have our reasons …
You didn’t want dripping-blood letters that would quickly disappear?
How did the police react? Did they take very long to arrive?
The first thing I did was type a big note in probably 64-point font saying, “Give us a call,” and put my mobile phone number on it. I made it clear that we had no intention to be violent or to do anything but paint the message. I left that down at the bottom with a friend who handed it to the first policeman who arrived. I got a call from the police maybe 15 minutes after we’d started. The first question he asked was, “Why did you give me your number?” and I said, “Just so we can communicate and make sure nothing bad happens. You guys are paranoid at the moment.” He said, “But you’re peace protesters aren’t you?” And I said, “Yeah… that’s good.”
From that point there was, I hesitate to say it, a pretty good working relationship between us. There was a good communication going. He said, “Don’t come down. We’ll come to you.” And I said, “That suits us fine because we’re just gonna keep on painting until you get here.” By the time the rescue squad got up there they had to use one of the hatchways further down the roof because we had padlocked and shut the two at the top. That never came out in court.
It bought you some time obviously?
Yes. It was essential. By the time they were coming up I had taken it off and put it back in my bag. The first words they said were, “It’s water-based, isn’t it?” I just shook my head and they said, “Oh, you are in trouble.” By then we were all very tired from climbing and painting. We took a minute to look at the view and then we headed down inside the sail.
How did the Opera House staff react?
It was quite spontaneous. While coming down through the sail with the police there was a moment where we actually crossed the Concert Hall catwalk and the full sounds of an orchestral rehearsal hit us. I turned round to the policeman behind me and said, “Oh, that’s lovely,” and he nodded.
By the time we’d got down to the paddy wagons a number of Opera House staff and a number of the orchestra had stood in a line by the paddy wagon. They applauded us in. That was done behind closed doors.
The reaction publicly from the Opera House management was a lot more hostile and we found it a lot more difficult to engage with them as the court case progressed. The police were very easy to talk frankly to, whereas the Opera House was quite difficult.
How long did the slogan actually stay up?
Initially, rather than remove it, they added an additional layer of white paint to it to prevent it from drying. There was a big report produced about the clean up. It did appear that the initial reasons for covering the message in white was not to remove it, but to cover it up whilst they came up with a plan to remove it.
We weren’t allowed near the building so we weren’t allowed to go and see what was happening as it was being removed, but I’ve seen various photos of the paint running down the sail as they applied high-pressure hoses to it. However, there are also references in the report to it being there two weeks later. For four hours it was quite readable.
Being in the centre of Sydney gave the graffiti a lot of visibility. Then, of course, you got a lot of national and international coverage in the media about it?
I’m often asked about what we wanted to achieve and really the most important thing was that we wanted the message to be seen on a building that was immediately recognisable as Australian, and for it to be seen by a Middle Eastern audience.
The Australian Government had just joined part of a coalition that was about to go and attack another country for reasons that were untrue and fraudulent. The real motivation wasn’t stated truthfully until [then Defence Minister] Brendan Nelson admitted in 2007 that securing oil supplies was a major factor. The most important thing was that those people in the countries directly affected saw it.
The action also had a whole lot of other impacts. One of the things was the disbelief from some that we’d have done that to what was seen by some as a holy monument. At the same time, the paint washed off. What’s a holy monument in Australia compared with the treasures, apart from the human life, that were destroyed in Iraq?
There was a bit of a challenge there for people to deal with. Even though that wasn’t the intention I think it was good that that element was there.
What sort of support did you receive immediately after the action? Were either of you at risk of losing your jobs or anything like that?
Will was at immediate risk of deportation. Because I was working in the environment movement and engaging with politicians, I’d almost immediately made my position untenable. As far as his work went Will got great support from work, including the support his colleagues gave him at the trial. I also received good support from my colleagues although I was unable to continue in the position I was in. As far as support from other sources, friends, unknown people and others, it was great, but not always predictable as to where it would or would not come from.
Did you receive any harassment from people? Outside the media and so forth?
There were numerous threats, some of which were serious, others not. Various letters. Someone sent our email addresses around American military bases and that led to a flood of crazy emails. The key thing was to try and not be bothered by them and not reply.
I guess occasionally someone would recognise you during the time it was going to court and we were on television a bit. Most often those interactions were really good. Occasionally it was threatening. Overall we received a positive reaction.
When you faced court the prosecution’s position was that what you had done was an act of malicious damage. How did you respond to that?
We defended ourselves in court on the grounds of self-defence, which was probably a suicidal thing to do as far as the law goes, but it also seemed to be the correct thing to do. If you read it that way and took international law into account then you are committing an act of self-defence if you are trying to prevent criminal trespass on your or other people’s land. It also applies if you are attempting to prevent injury or death to yourself or others, damage to your or other people’s property and a couple of other clauses. We certainly believed that with a bucket of paint and a brush we were trying to do that. The situation was desperate.
Interestingly, with running a defence like that, you have to prove a link between what would be your victim — in this case the Opera House — and the issue.
Previously there had been an action in the 1970s during one of the Springbok Tours when a man went to the Sydney Cricket Ground and chopped down the goal posts with a chain saw. He won his case on the grounds that he was able to prove a nexus between the goal posts at the SCG and the apartheid regime in South Africa.
Unfortunately we couldn’t prove that there was a nexus between the war in Iraq and the Opera House. So it’s a fine line. But we felt it was worth saying that this was the only building that was going to carry that message and everyone who saw it would instantly know where it was. Funnily enough the question of whether the Opera House was going to get up and attack anybody was raised.
You weren’t allowed to present that defence the first time around, were you?
That’s right. The jury was sent out of the room while it was debated whether we were allowed to present it. So it was a bit confusing when the jury came back into the room as we continued to plead not guilty, but then had to say that we had no defence case.
Later on, in the Supreme Court, the Appeal judges ruled that it was not a valid defence and didn’t need to be heard.
It seems a bit bizarre that one of the Supreme Court judges claimed that your defence was tantamount to justifying any act of terrorism?
Yeah. I thought that was pretty harsh, in many ways, given that we had gone out of our way to let the police have our phone number and to explain to them that there was nothing more sinister than what they could already see. But I guess that if we had succeeded then the legal system would have had to have dealt with just about every activist using the same defence to get off for things they’d done and the legal system couldn’t have that!
What sort of protests happened around the court cases?
There were numerous rallies that the Stop the War Coalition in Sydney held for us. They were very supportive and were probably the key element in making sure that we weren’t forgotten and were assisted throughout the whole process. They usually conducted rallies outside the court on the major days of the case.
A lot of other people also backed us publicly. Most notably the former Defence Minister, Bill Morrison, and Andrew Wilkie, who had just left his job in the Office of National Assessment because of the hypocrisy he felt Australia was indulging in by taking part in the Iraq War. He and Bill Morrison spoke up on our behalf, which interestingly went totally unreported.
There were also spontaneous things. On the day of our appeal a big billboard on Victoria Road, one of the main arteries into Sydney, was graffitied. It was a Channel 9 News one and it had the News crew, with the Opera House and the city skyline in the background. Someone wrote No War on it on the day we got sent back to jail.
Following the loss of the court case you wound up having to spend time in weekend detention. How difficult was that and how did the other prisoners respond to you guys being in there?
We were put in a special category and were there with [corrupt businessman] Rene Rivkin on weekend detention. It was called Ramp which is Risk Assessment Management Program. It’s applied when you are considered a risk prisoner. In our case that was on the basis of media exposure. There was a fair bit of intrigue. Certainly when I arrived everyone knew we were coming.
We were in separate jails, mainly because of where we lived. I lived in the Hunter Valley and Will lived in Sydney. There were people waiting to hit you with a verbal barrage to see how you reacted. The first night I was in there I went to watch television for a bit and I came back and my sheets had been strung up in the shape of the sail of the Opera House with No War written on them, in tomato sauce. I took that as a compliment and went on from there. Like in the outside world there were those who were for and against the action. Generally we had a good laugh about it. Once the gates are closed there you are all in the same boat.
Were you shocked by the amount of compensation you had to pay?
Yes, we were a bit. We figured it would be high. We understood that it did require abseilers and a fair bit of logistical work getting it off. At the same time, it did come off. We were concerned that they had added another material over the top of what we’d done.
They were seemingly more intent on hiding the message that was there rather than removing the paint in the most efficient way. At the same time, the victim does have the right to determine how to respond to the crime against them.
I was actually disappointed with the way that compensation claim was dealt with in court. If we’d been allowed to discuss it a bit more I think it would have been considered in more lenient terms. There did seem to be some awfully huge costings in there.
The total was $151,000. Initially it was $166,000, including’s, until we pointed out to the court that the Opera House, being a government body, doesn’t pay GST. That was very quickly withdrawn. $15,000 was taken off, like that. That was probably indicative of how the Opera House behaved as far as the clean-up bill was concerned.
How did you go about raising the money? I know you made some snow domes and postcards and other interesting items?
The money was raised by everything from a person on the pension sending us $5 right through to creating our own versions of awfully tacky Opera House souvenirs. We had art shows and benefit concerts. Slowly it all came together via a combination of things that would rarely be in a handbook of fundraising! It really spoke volumes for how people responded to that action, with their hearts. You asked before about where I wanted that action to be effective. In some ways the most amazing thing was when people came up to us and said, “You made me happy on what was a really sad day.” Many people responded in that way. It was almost like a last insane little piece of defiance against an inevitable disaster.
I guess the remarkable thing about the various merchandise was that it helped keep the message rolling on, long after the action?
Yeah. It was funny with the snow domes because numerous examples went into the Opera House itself without anyone admitting that they’d got one. I believe that there are snow domes in about 40 countries now.
What happened in 2006 when you were forced to sue the police in order to get your brushes and paint can back?
Just when we thought it was all over we received a notice that the police had applied to destroy our paint brushes and pot on the grounds that we might sell them and make a profit. In one sense we might have just let them do it, but in another sense, it was like a red rag to a bull. They had done everything else to us that they could and now they wanted to destroy our paint pot too!
We applied to have it back. After a series of bungles over getting the date right we finally went to court early in 2006, and the police applied to have it destroyed.
We were armed with letters from a couple of museums asking what would happen if you destroyed the Eureka Flag or Ned Kelly’s armour or some other rebellious relic? They pointed out that it wouldn’t be a very interesting country.
After an adjournment we found that the Police Prosecutor had been replaced by a Department of Public Prosecutions lawyer so they were obviously taking it very seriously. Will spoke well and made a very clear case for giving us the pot back. We were prepared to make an assurance that we were not going to profit from it and we thought we could find a home for it so that it could, at least, live on as some small part of protest history in Australia.
Interestingly there were two paint pots. I had put mine in the rubbish and the paint brush in a juice bottle! Another one had been auctioned off, but it was an imposter pot. We knew nothing about it. It was auctioned for some cause, somewhere down the south coast of New South Wales. It definitely wasn’t the pot. The pot is safe and we think we have finally found a home for it.
So they did return it?
Oh yes. We won. It was quite an incredible thing. After all that defeat of not stopping the war, of losing a court case and then an appeal case only to see the final battle won with us asserting the right of the paint pot to exist.
How To Make Trouble and Influence People: Pranks, Protests, Graffiti & Political Mischief-Making from across Australia can be purchased from PM Press.
- Australians block cricket and impede rugby tour of apartheid South Africa, 1971
- Australian Actions at Different Points of Intervention
- BUGA-UP – Billboard Utilising Graffitists Against Unhealthy Promotions
- How to Make Trouble and Influence People: Pranks, Protests, Graffiti and Political Mischief-Making Collection in the Commons Library
- Items of Mass Instruction Posters, Stickers, Memes and More
- A Better World is Paintable: How to make banners, stencils, street murals, parachute banners, and more!
- Creative Activism: Start Here
- The 1972 Sydney Opera House Work-In
- From Little Things Big Things Grow: Events That Changed Australia
- Court cases
- Creative activism
- Movements_Campaigns - Anti War
- Movements_Campaigns - Anti War - Iraq (2003 - 2011)
- Street art
- Sydney Opera House