Feature Mark Walker June 22, 2024 (Comments off) (181)

The Bathurst Riots: The 1980s War

Come the 1980s, the battles between the patrons and the police at the Easter Bathurst motorcycle races ramped up to the next level.

Multiple parties were involved in the drama, from a minority of trackside fans to the police and the media – it was a complicated melting pot of conflict.

Further Reading:

Part 1 – The Bathurst Riots: A History of Conflict

Part 3 – The Bathurst Riots: The BYOG Ban

Checkpoints that encircled the town were the first point of tension, which in 1980 nabbed five .22 calibre rifles (which were to be returned after the weekend), while among the arrests were five for outstanding warrants.

Forever a critical pinch point in transiting to the top of the hill, Barry Gurdon Drive, the side road for spectators that funnels spectators up to Reid, Sulman and McPhillamy Parks – it was here year after year, police could place one final roadblock on the way to the races.

That year, 10 policemen and a young female camper were injured after a bloody riot on top of the hill on the Saturday night, the worst conflict the meet had seen since 1977.

A total of 300 police were in Bathurst that weekend, with the scuffle lasting four hours.

A contemporary report noted that some missing drum kit from the band that was scheduled to play may have kicked off the fracas.

More than 120 people were detained by police during the weekend, 70 of them during the riot at the camping area at Mount Panorama on Saturday night. (The riot) began when the 14 police stationed at a concrete control centre attempted to break up two incidents. In one, two groups of people were throwing bottles and cans and other missiles at each other; in the second, a number of bikies were conducting a competition in which they rode their motorcycles in ever-decreasing circles until they crashed. As the police moved in, about one thousand people in the area retaliated, forcing the officers to take refuge in the control centre. Rocks, cans and bottles rained on the centre, and the telephone pole was set on fire as the police phoned in for reinforcements. The barrage of missiles and abuse continued as the reinforcements rushed to the area. A young woman stripped naked on top of a toilet block and cheered on the rioters. A bike was driven into the crowd. Two cars were set on fire in the mountain caravan park. Ambulancemen were kept busy tending to dozens of minor wounds. The police force in the camping area quickly swelled to 90, but it took them four hours to quell the riot. The ten police who were injured, three of them receiving suspected bone fractures, were hit by flying bottles and cans, many filled with sand or gravel. Superintendent Andrew Gallagher, in charge of the 300 police in Bathurst for the weekend, was one of the officers hit. He fell to his knees when struck on the back of the head with a bottle but stayed in command, urging his men to exercise as much restraint as possible for fear of inciting more extensive violence. Superintendent Gallagher said last night he was bitterly disappointed with the crowd’s behaviour. “It was the poorest display of crowd conduct I have ever witnessed,” he said.

The Canberra Times, 7 April 1980

An ABC documentary covering the on and off-track facets of the 1981 event.

Police noted at the time that it wouldn’t alter its methods in future, however, 1981 saw a rinse and repeat of the violence.

This time, 62 police officers were injured in making 130 arrests on Saturday night, with a further 47 arrested elsewhere over the weekend, resulting in at least $14,000 worth of fines.

The wild 30-minute riot began just after 9pm on Saturday after the drunken crowd began throwing missiles into the police compound in the camping area at Mount Panorama. The 20 policemen on duty stayed in the relative safety of the small low-roof brick police building as the bikies hurled house bricks, pieces of concrete and beer cans and bottles onto the roof. More than 100 police reinforcements from the 250 volunteers drafted for the weekend, headed for the mountain top in a convoy of paddy wagons, followed by ambulances. The police formed up behind the wire gates of the compound, batons drawn. Several of the police wore crash helmets, and most had taken off their police number badges as the gates swung open, and they rushed into the crowd, grabbing suspects. The police retreated into the compound with their suspects and reappeared three more times for similar charges before the crowd began to disperse.

The Canberra Times, page 1, 20 April 1981

It was also noted by the event organisers, the Auto Cycle Union, that it was a small hardcore element that started the fracas, with the individuals noted as not having an interest in the sport.

Later, an anonymous police officer reported to the Canberra Times that there was a lack of riot gear available to the officers on the ground.

“We stood there with cloth caps on while the bikies threw bricks and stones and anything else at us. I guess they thought it would look like we were provoking the situation, but that doesn’t help protect us,” he said.

The Victorian president of the Motorcycle Riders Association of Australia, Damien Codognotta, said that members of his group were arrested while trying to pacify the situation.

“Some of my members had their backs to the police and were telling the crowd to calm down when they were arrested,” he said.

Subsequently, the New South Wales Police Minister, Mr Crabtree, threatened to stop the Easter races unless event organisers implemented measures to stem the violence.

He (the Minister) had ordered an inquiry. He was sick and tired of police being used as punching bags for larrikins and louts. He had discussed the matter with the Police Commissioner, Mr Jim Lees, and had been told groups of “bikies” had instigated the attack on the police compound. Police advice indicated the violence was largely caused by “boredom and booze”. Any future motorcycle race meeting at the circuit would have to include adequate facilities and a program of other activities which met government approval. He had been told that this year’s event lacked supervision of spectators, entertainment, food and a properly planned program. “They (the organisers) just seemed to have dumped a whole lot of people on a hill,” he said. A special tactical support squad would be set up to help police facing civil disturbances such as the rioting on Saturday night. It would have special equipment such as helmets and “tactical vests” and would be trained in martial arts.

The Canberra Times, 22 April 1981

The Tactical Response Group (TRG) would become a reality and were key to this story moving forward.

Outside of music acts, other suggestions put forward included different motorcycle activities after hours around the city, including flat track racing, arena trials or motocross, although none of these avenues were seriously pursued.

Campers meanwhile pointed a finger at the third-world conditions served up for them on top of the hill. Disgusting toilet blocks were complimented by a lack of decent fresh water. There were no showers and no hot water, and damaged facilities went unrepaired.

Elsewhere, in a letter to the editor of the University of NSW newsletter, the Uni’s Motorcycle Club noted:

“Many of our members observed the hapless rider of motorcycle P1-18, otherwise known to us, become the first victim of unjustified police violence. He was sitting upon his stationary vehicle when two constables set upon him with truncheons and pushed his motorcycle (weighing some 200kg) on top of him when he fell. He was then dragged into the police compound and arrested. These constables, and many others, were not wearing numbers, why not? In another incident, a person being arrested asked the constable for his number, and the reply overheard was, “Come off it, I’m not going to tell you that.” He, too, was not wearing a number. It is the feeling of those present that for every one troublemaker arrested, at least five innocent people were also arrested, including people in the telephone booth, and entering or leaving the toilets opposite the police compound.”

The former police compound on top of the Hill in contemporary times…

In 1982, there was a complete about-face in terms of police tactics, with the police refusing to intervene as wild scenes enveloped the camping areas on top of The Mountain – no arrests were made on the Saturday night.

From the estimated crowd of 24,000, only 40 arrests were made over the weekend, mostly for drunk driving; however, two assault charges were laid – one for a Friday stabbing and another for throwing a spear.

Superintendent Jack Broomfield, the officer-in-charge of the 290 police officers on duty at the weekend, was “extremely happy” yesterday. Superintendent Broomfield, who told his men to mingle with the crowd as things looked like getting out of hand on Saturday, praised his men for displaying “extreme patience and tolerance”. Their patience was stretched to its limits after a member of the 86-strong Tactical Response Group – the specially trained so-called riot squad – was knocked unconscious when a beer can filled with gravel hit him in the face. Superintendent Ted Lloyd, the officer-in-charge of the TRG, described the situation at times on Saturday as “volatile and explosive”. He offered thanks to members of the NSW Motorcycle Riders Association, who had appealed to the crowd to remain calm and disperse. “We gave what I would describe as desperate-looking characters access to the police loud-hailer when things looked like getting rough, and they did a top job urging the crowd to stay calm using the kind of language motorcyclists would relate to,” he said.

The Canberra Times, 12 April 1982

The Siege of 1983

The events of Easter 1983 proved to be a tipping point in the bloody battle of the bikes at Bathurst.

It was estimated that 3,000 to 5,000 motorcyclists held 100 police officers under siege for about five and a half hours – and the casualty rate was high.

Bricks, large rocks and other weapons had been stockpiled prior to the evening.

A total of 81 of the 91 members of the TRG riot unit were injured, with 16 requiring hospital treatment and a further 100 from the crowd hurt in the melee.

From the battle, 77 people were arrested on 134 charges, with one individual arrested after he allegedly rode his motorcycle into a line of police, knocking them over.

Downtown, police were pelted with rocks as they attempted to breathalyse motorcyclists.

From the motorcyclist’s perspective, there was significant frustration with how they were treated – they were all breath tested entering and leaving the circuit, with almost all subjected to extensive searches.

They also pointed to provocation, especially from the dressed-for-battle TRG.

The police, on the other hand, pointed to the drunkenness of the crowd and individuals who had a grudge against the police.

Some officers also pointed out the aggressive nature of some TRG members, especially when they were instructed to keep a low profile. At the same time, insufficient police officers on the ground were also identified as an issue.

“The men in hospital said that this year it was worse than previous years. They said it was terrible, it just didn’t stop. The men would go outside and try and calm things down, then they would be forced back inside by a barrage of projectiles. They made repeated requests to the bikies to stop things, but they just didn’t listen. They’re a strange breed, you just can’t reason with them. We’re convinced that the whole thing was a deliberately planned exercise, but it just makes no sense at all.”

Sargeant Mark Edwards

The timeline that weekend was chilling, as per the Canberra Times:

Friday – 280 police arrived in Bathurst, including members of the TRG, a breath-testing bus and a squad of cars and bikes, with the crowd noted as being one of the smallest in years. A VW Kombi was torched after its driver mistakenly entered an impromptu drag race after driving through a flaming petrol wall, knocking over two of the competitors.

Saturday Morning – By 9am, 22,000 fans had entered the racetrack, a new record.

Saturday Afternoon – Police were warned of trouble with some motorcyclists angry at being harassed, for instance, being pulled over and breath tested multiple times during the day en route to Bathurst.

7:30pm – While 3,000 watched a Cold Chisel/Choir Boys concert, which had a $7 cover charge for racegoers, away from the show, trouble was afoot on top of the hill.

8:00pm – A VW was set alight after it had crashed through tents and a motorcycle in a crowded part of the camp, with the police arresting the owner of the crashed motorcycle. A scuffle broke out, with the police taking the occupants of the VW and the arrested motorcycle owner back to the compound. A crowd gathered around the police compound chanting “pigs suck”. The burning Beetle was rolled through the fence of the police compound, as the police attempted to calm the situation. Their pleas were met by a hail of missiles, including Molotov cocktails, with around 120-130 officers on the scene in the compound.

8:15pm – Police made their first baton charge; however, they were encircled.

9:15pm – The first of two sticks of gelignite exploded near the police station door. There were no injuries, but the door was damaged. The police again made repeated charges but were once again outflanked.

9:30pm – Police receive a call that the crowd had rolled a car close to the edge of an embankment that was threatening to topple onto a house. It was too dangerous for police to respond from the compound, with police and ambulances en route to the top of The Mountain coming under missile attack.

10:00pm – Electricity to the police compound was cut, forcing emergency generators into action. Another stick of gelignite exploded, with a police officer noted as breaking his foot when he kicked the device away. The blast knocked those nearby to the ground. The TRG officer who was injured was noted as a motorcycle enthusiast in his spare time.

11:00pm – The police compound remained surrounded on three sides. The president of the NSW Motorcycle Riders Association, Ross Goodman, stepped in front of the police line to appeal to “responsible motorcyclists to disperse”. He was pelted.

Sunday 1:30am – The last incendiary was thrown, although it was about an hour before the situation was calm enough for the officers to break and be taken over by the night shift.

From a motorcyclist’s perspective, it was argued that the crowd was dispersing before the first of the baton charges, a view backed up by a Channel 7 TV crew.

They also claim that arrests were being made at random, noting the brutality that ensued once offenders were placed in cells.

Local Bathurst police were also critical of the action of the TRG, although they denied brutality or falsifying evidence.

The TRG meanwhile claimed they were responding to the Molotov cocktail and gelignite barrage, that they only arrested those hurling projectiles, and they had the authority to charge those involved with greater charges than were ultimately laid.

An immediate reaction from the NSW Police Minister was to ban future events, while police officers once again complained about being under-equipped: the 25 permanent members of the TRG were properly attired, while 65 who were fully trained but worked in suburban stations only had normal uniforms, batons, helmets, and shields.

It was noted that the other 200 police in Bathurst at the time of the siege could not be sent in to support the operation because they were not properly equipped to handle the situation.

Early the next week, the Bathurst Court began hearing 257 charges laid on 163 people.

Included in the defendants was Dr Allan Nivel Randell of Latrobe, Tasmania, who was charged with acting in such a manner as to cause a reasonable person to be seriously alarmed or affronted. He failed to appear in court, citing he was one of only four doctors who worked at the Mersey Hospital, and he needed to resume work in the morning.

Post-event, the media’s sensationalist reporting was criticised, and banning alcohol was suggested as one possible solution to the confrontation.

The Bathurst City Council noted that it was discussing how to handle such issues with events such as the Indianapolis 500 and the Isle of Mann.

A Final Fracas

The 1984 Easter meet came and went without major incident – the police took a ‘soft policing’ policy – let boys be boys and self-regulate themselves, a tactic that appeared to work.

With neutral observers on hand, the police weren’t keen to poke the bear.

For ’84, the fence around the police compound was extended to include the power supply, the woodpile was moved, and the road past the station was sealed.

However, after a quiet event, 1985 blew up once more.

Petrol bombs, bricks, stones and bottles rained down, with 106 people injured after seven hours of fighting that kicked off at 8pm and went on until the early morning.

All told, 140 people wound up in hospital, split between police and civilians, with a finger pointed at 500 hoodlums from a total crowd of 30,000 going up against the 250 police.

During the melee, 74 arrests were made, with the night initially turning sour when police went in to break up a fight between brawling bike gangs.

Collateral damage in the mess was a Channel 7 news car, which with its equipment was torched, with $40,000 worth of kit allegedly going up in smoke.

That said, other parties have pointed to the burning being a setup, with the important gear already removed from the vehicle. Many suggested it was a rental car parked adjacent to the police compound—as if to prove that point, Channel 7 filmed the car blazing away with the footage leading its Sunday night bulletins.

It was later noted by one party involved from the spectator side, that 1985 was the first time that Methamphetamine had been thrown into the cocktail mix fueling the protagonists, a factor that may have prolonged the affair.

“I believe the police tried to adopt a soft approach as they had last year, but the troublemakers wanted a confrontation,” told Bruce Bolam, Bathurst Mayor, to The Canberra Times on April 8, 1985.

Such was the mess on top of the hill that the cleanup threatened to delay Sunday’s racing program.

The end result of the carnage was 164 people charged with 429 offences, with the court cases telling: on two separate occasions, police officers were engulfed in flames after being struck by petrol bombs.

Organisers of the race meeting placed the blame on the police for overreacting in controlling the crowd.

The media teed off. The Daily Telegraph led with “Hell on the Mountain” and “Bikie Mob in Drunken Riot Orgy”, and The Australian with “The Night Mad Max Came to Bathurst.”

Bathurst’s resident magistrate required outside assistance for five weeks to clear the backlog.

The last of the court cases were heard before juries in April 1987, with two individuals sentenced to six and seven years for their part in the siege, although by May 1988, the pair won their appeal after a sheriff’s officer had allegedly interfered with jury deliberations.

Despite this, ahead of the 1987 event, the police used the original ruling as a warning to attendees to behave or face the consequences.

That particular battle with authority was a drawn-out one.

Away from the race, hostility towards everyday motorcyclists was up, with the Motorcycle Riders’ Association pleading with the media to get their terminology right – the name “bikie” was associated with gang violence, pillage and murder, not everyday riders.

The portrayal of everyone on top of the hill being feral was somewhat off the mark.

Police provocation was also questioned – with 14 motorcyclists pulled over en route to Bathurst to every car, many being searched.

The Bathurst Mayor also noted that the two annual races in the city each brought in around $7 million annually—which forever had been the counterargument to cancelling the races entirely—they were a big deal to a regional centre.

At a state level, however, the future of the races came under the spotlight from both sides of politics, with the opposition pointing to the elimination of football hooliganism in England as a blueprint.

Banning alcohol was one solution, but prohibition would not be easy.

Next Up: Banning booze and the death of an Easter tradition, plus the changes that shifted the needle for the AGP at Phillip Island.

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