Above: "The Police Chief's Car" taken the night of the Star Hotel riot in Newcastle, Australia.

All photos and media on this blog are copyright by Bernadette Smith. For permission to use please contact

Saturday, December 18, 2010

The Star Hotel Riot 30 Years On

by Bernadette Smith

One aspect of my work as a local artist in Newcastle has been to photograph the ordinary things that I find in the streets of our town. I have tried over the decades to look at the social context of protest and youth subculture as it is happening. I've also documented many trade union and environmental protests in the region as well as unemployment and its effects for over two decades.

I see my role as bearing witness to another side of Newcastle - one that is absent from the tourist guides and official histories. These include the iconic faded glory of Hunter Street, the colourful car culture found along the foreshore, the endangered Newcastle skate park, and the communal areas of our coast line which are all local public spaces under threat from privatisation. This impetus to tidy up the rough edges of our town and airbrush from view those living on the margins has suppressed the hidden history of dispossession and dissent of the working-class. I look back on these social documentary photos of Newcastle with the passing of 30th anniversary of the Star Hotel riot. In my youth I took photos on the night of the Star riot and in the weeks leading up to it.

Day of the Star Riot

On September 19th 1979, 2 police cars were burnt during a riot involving 10,000 people (including onlookers) at the Star Hotel in Newcastle. About 40 local police without any riot gear attempted to control the crowd. There were no serious injuries. The Newcastle mayor Joy Cummings during the subsequent trials begged for clemency citing the frustrations of high unemployment and poverty as extenuating factors for those accused.

Recently our youth fought to save Newcastle Beach skate park and grafitti wall. We've gone from “Save the Star” to “Save our skate park”: plus ca change. In 2009, with Geraldine Bobsien, I co-curated the Star exhibition at the Lock-Up Museum in Newcastle. In this 30th Anniversary commemorative show I wanted to reveal the Star Hotel in its heyday and demise and re-present a legacy of lower socio-economic culture, diversity and resistance. There are institutional constraints which prevent one from fully articulating this radical perspective and reclaiming our town's past. Must history always repeat "...first time as tragedy then as farce"?

Below: 1979 University of Newcastle Student Representative Council president Greg Holding with a copy of that year's September/November Opus newspaper featuring the the Star riot article which I authored. This issue shown above has now been added to the university's archive.


In the late 1970’s the Clash released ‘London Calling’ a song that was a call to arms for anyone who dreamt of changing the world. Much like Dylan’s “The Times they are a-Changing” we who lived through this period perceived a need to challenge the powers of repression that propelled all of us to uncertain presents & dystopic futures. On 19th September 1979 Newcastle went calling, the Star Riot let the world know their was unrest in the colonies & the antipodean young where prepared to challenge any & all authority. The police were not amused especially when the rioters burnt their cars & paddy-wagons as well as driving the them from the streets, at least for a short while. The riot was not a victory yet things were defiantly different after this, a political message resonated & history changed. Despite the media joined by the local luminaries who could jump on the bandwagon condemning the rioters you could tell…they where sweating.

I wasn’t there that night I’m not a Newcastle boy though the northern beaches of Sydney are just a southerly extension of the same geo-culture. But while this white boy son of the bourgeoisie watched the riot on TV, my partner Bernadette was there the night of the riot and her grainy, stark, black & white photos reveal a before and after of tense drinkers in the infamous back bar, burnt paddy wagons & shocked police after the event. A situationists dream Debord would have thought, a little bit of burning Paris in 1967 transported momentarily to the antipodes.

And this is the point, this event was not an isolated one, Australia does not have a quiet history, blood has stained the wattle & its not all defeats either. Who remembers Darwin where twice workers uprisings forced out the government men onto waiting navy ships & as recently as the eighties a pitched battle occurred between police, politicians & workers on the steps of the old legislative assembly. For a while the workers won & changed history but its suppressed, a secret history of resistance & struggle that can produce victories the greatest of which is to remain standing.

Greil Marcus in his ‘Lipstick Traces A Secret history of the Twentieth Century’ charts the roller coaster progressions of dissent & direct action across the cultural, social & political spheres. From CafĂ© Voltaire to the Situationists to S11 and Punk anarchy it’s been in the air we breathe of the last two centuries. Direct action, Spanish Civil war popular fronts name it what you will, resistance & what Debord called ‘constructed situations’ of disruptive possibility that change histories & challenge the thin skins of reality are still around us even in today’s dreary materiality, 9/11 showed us that reality. Raoul Vaneigem in his book of dreams and strategies of occupation says that ’daydreaming subverts the world’. So did the Star, just for a moment acting as history’s hinge & it was Newcastle calling.

From guest writer


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