Being a communist: Unemployment, Poverty, and Crime
Nick: Part 2 of 5
In this post, Nick discusses relationships between poverty, unemployment, class, the black economy and crime, being a communist, the Communist Party and crime, policing, and the crimes of capital and its institutions.
Mark: Which takes us to the next question, which is about the black economy in relationship to unemployment and poverty. What sorts of activity were involved in the black economy and in terms of living unemployment and living poverty how important was the black economy for yourself and your friends?
Nick: Well, there’s a lot in that question. So, I'll start and see how we go. When I was in my mid-teens I started to get involved in petty crimes, things like shoplifting and other petty theft, as well as taking illegal drugs, vandalism, minor crimes. Then when I went on the dole, I became involved in low level Social Security fraud, informal work, and navigating around the ‘work test’. I also hung around and was good friends with people who dealt drugs, committed more serious robberies, which I wasn’t involved in but knew about, and I was involved in a fairly serious crime that I don’t want to talk about here, but it only involved property damage and financial harm. I do have a criminal record for providing false information to police, for theft from a building site and from David Jones, and for assaulting three security guards, even though I was the one that ended-up in hospital having my head scanned due to the injuries they inflicted on me when they beat me up.
I was also around quite a lot of drug related violence, so alcohol, speed, acid, facilitated or induced violence, and mental health violence. During those years, when I was taking quite a lot of drugs and hanging around people who were taking a lot of drugs, there was conflict going on around drugs, personal things, but also political stuff that we were involved in. This included street confrontations and I’ve had bricks thrown through the windows of my home, I’ve been involved in fights where knives and other weapons have been used, and even a couple of times guns have been brandished, but not used.
When I stopped working for the CPA, I became unemployed in a more overt way, as I wasn't as busy doing Party stuff, and that led to me helping to form the Wollongong out of Workers Union, which was a union of and for unemployed people. WOW incorporated a whole range of outlaw cultures, so drug cultures, crime cultures, poverty cultures of various types, punk cultures, as well as other sub-cultures, and there were union members involved in the theft of cars, of white goods, shoplifting, more serious theft from shops, doubling of dole cheques, scamming, ‘ducking and weaving’ in different ways, a range of cash in hand work, some of which was really dodgy and some of which was less dodgy, there were people dealing drugs, and so on. This, at times, included people in the union who were dealing smack, although that was generally not tolerated, but we weren't the police and weren’t policing that. It wasn't the sort of thing that was socially acceptable within the union, but you knew that some people were associated with it. Whereas people who dealt pot or acid or other ‘softer’ drugs - that was generally accepted as okay.
During this time, I had some friends who were heroin users and were involved in an armed robbery drug deal that they had set up. Basically, they arranged this big drug deal but didn't intend to turn up with money but instead with sawn-off shotguns. Well, they got busted on the way there by the cops and did some serious prison time. The union also had a few young members who were doing, or had been doing, illegal sex work, some of whom were involved in catering to local paedophiles. At this time, there were powerful people involved in a well organised local paedophile network who would target street kids and other vulnerable young people. This network included at least one Wollongong Mayor, some local church leaders, senior police officials, and so forth. So that's some of my own involvement in and connections to crime in relation to poverty and unemployment and these black economies were very important to myself and my friends in many ways – financially, socially, culturally - and much of our activity revolved around our engagement with these shadowy worlds.
Mark: Is there anymore that you wanted to say about your own specific participation in crime beyond what you have alluded to?
Nick: In relation to my own motivations and why I was doing crimes, in general, it was a combination of being angry, poor, and redistributing wealth, but also breaking the rules, defying the rules, and going ‘I want freedom and I don't accept the way that society is structured, so I have an idea of where the lines are, and wherever I can I'm gonna step over those lines.’ I'm going to test the limits as much as I can, but also I'm going to think about what the impacts of that are? Am I just concerned about myself, what about other people and how I’m impacting them when I do these things? And thinking about my social collective responsibility. What helps and what doesn't help? That's always difficult because, like when I got beaten-up by the security guards, well obviously that wasn’t good for me, but it wasn't good for my family either. So, there's a whole range of questions about how useful the crimes I was involved in were. Was I actually doing what I wanted to do? Was it just about being angry and lashing out and acting out? Or was there something more going on than that?
Mark: I do have some questions I want to ask about that, because there's the question of the ethics of what crime actually is and then there's a question around what builds class power, and those things aren't necessarily the same thing. So perhaps we can we return to that as we go. But I also wanted to ask a question about drugs and drugs being a significant part of my life and your life story as well. So, could you speak to anything about drugs in relation to the issues of unemployment, poverty, and crime?
Nick: Drugs were a crucial gateway into the criminal underworld and my immersion in it. I used to be an alcoholic and when I stopped drinking every day, I instead started smoking pot every day. I was a chronic pothead. Then I got turned onto acid and became a regular user of acid, as well as legal/prescription drugs like Avils, which were over-the-counter hallucinogenics. I spent so much time in the drug milieux and there's so many stories, but it's always interesting to me how they're related to different forms of politics. For instance, I remember back when I was around 18 or 19 and there was a lot of hash around. Much of it was coming from Lebanon, where the civil war was going on. I was quite interested in the civil war and read a lot about it and a friend of mine managed to find somebody who was a good contact for getting Lebanese hash who turned out to be a supporter of the PLO. We ended-up, at one stage, buying a fair bit of hash and received PLO T-shirts with our purchase. So, we thought we must be helping to fund the PLO. At the time, I thought that was awesome, because a concern I had was ‘who the fuck am I giving so much of my money to when I buy this stuff?’ ‘Am I funding fascists, gangsters, people who are doing really bad shit?’ I'm not saying that wasn’t necessarily the case here, it could have been, but I felt better about it thinking it was going to the PLO.
I had friends, close friends, who became addicted to smack, who became illegal sex workers to fund their drug addictions, who engaged in armed robberies, who became drug dealers, who ended up in prison, and who died from heroin overdoses. I remember when WOW was formed and we got a cashbox 'cause we actually had some money coming in. We had it in the union’s offices and it went missing within a couple of days. It turned-out that one of the union’s members had stolen it, put it up his arm, and was found dead in the toilets at Wollongong station.
And I remember when WOW got some government funding and we scammed the funding body, because they funded this service that required a vehicle, but we hadn’t put that in the application. So, when the funding was granted, we said ‘well you have to give us thousands more for a van’. Which they did. So, we bought a nice new vehicle, but for about $1,000 less than the money they'd given us. Then we spent the remaining money on putting this kick-arse stereo in it. It was fucking awesome, especially when the union loaded the van up with people to head-off to protests and other events, and any union member could use the van for free, which many people found quite shocking. However, eventually that stereo ended-up being ripped out by a member of the union and going into their arm as well.
Being unemployed, poor, and being involved with drugs connected me to all sorts of crimes and also to things like suicides, crime gangs, bikie gangs, and so forth, you'd find out the money you were giving to drug dealers was going to some fascist inspired bikie gang. The impacts of having friends and comrades die, getting harmed, continued to pose serious questions about criminal activities. Family members and friends were often using hard drugs and you wondered how to deal with that, along with the concern that you're involved in and funding violent global capitalist industries which you could see were a serious threat to the people you cared about, to the class, and often worked to police and discipline people. It gave me insights into that dark underbelly and made me think more deeply about my complicity with that.
Mark: Picking up on that point about violent, global, capitalist industries, and local connections to global criminal networks, could you elaborate a little more about those connections? What that meant, what that made you think about, and how that perhaps informed your understanding of what crime meant?
Nick: Since my teenage years, I'd been reading a lot about various undergrounds. So, I'd read about the 60s underground, about the communist underground, I had some understanding of local movements that were connected internationally, that there were links between both the dominant machinations of capital and the struggles against capital that are part of those hidden worlds, and that both labour organisations and capitalist organising involve traditional crimes, with illegal drugs being an obvious one, but also a range of other ones. I found this really interesting and I already mentioned wanting to understand the civil war in Lebanon, for instance, or some of the stuff that was happening in Australia in the 1970s and early 1980s around the CIA bringing drugs into Australia, their involvement in the heroin trade, the Nugan Hand Bank, the role of the Labor Party, the relationship between the NSW Wran government and crime bosses like Abe Safron, the Hawke government and people like Sir Peter Abeles, the Royal Commission that discovered ‘The Goanna’ crime kingpin was Kerry Packer, the involvement of police, the AFP, and Australian intelligence, in moving drugs and using drugs to fund criminal operations, the Nixon war on drugs and how it was used to target the left and the black power movements, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency running drugs and how they facilitated the heroin and crack epidemics to both make covert money and to fuck us up, all that sort of underground counterinsurgency stuff. Then, as time went on, I became more aware of how things went down locally and how these processes were connected to the international crimes of capital.
For a while, during the late 1980s, I worked as a journo for the Socialist Party, and investigated stuff that connected my own circumstances, the sort of things I knew about from the past, research I was doing at the time, and the stuff that was coming out of the Royal Commission into the police and more general revelations about police involvement in criminality. At that time, it was obvious that cops were running drugs down here and elsewhere, they had been involved in armed robberies, etc. It was commonly believed that ‘the vice squad ran the vice, the armed robbery squad ran robbery, the drug squad ran the drug trade’, and that was in some ways true. In a place like Wollongong, which is a relatively small city, where people can more easily get to know what's going on, that became clearer, and how that was run, how that worked for the benefit of some, and how that was used by the police and others to oppress and repress people, at this time, was more exposed.
At one stage, around the time of the Royal Commission into the Police, I had a long-term friend who worked for Triple J radio as a producer, and a crew came down from Sydney to ‘unearth’ Wollongong. The station used to regularly choose a local band in a regional part of Australia and explore the place as well. So, my friend, who was from Wollongong and a former WOW member, came down and did a special broadcast on Wollongong's ‘underbelly’. He and his crew took me around Wollongong in the Triple J van and interviewed me about local unemployment, poverty, and the connections between local cops and the drugs trade, and so forth. This brought me a bit of extra attention from the local police and I was reminded of where the lines are when you take too much interest in such things. Around the same time, I also wrote a little bit about corruption in the trade union movement. This was motivated by, again, the more obvious links between some local union officials, organised crime figures and practices, and the police.
During this period, I spent a lot of time thinking about such things and I also wrote a feature article titled ‘The Real Drug Offensive’ which was about the connections between the Labor Party, the local and international drugs trade, and the assassination of the head of the Federal Police, Colin Winchester. So, things like that. But I was getting a bit too much attention from the police and I felt they were letting me know I was walking a fine line and should be careful. So, it got to the point where I didn't really want to know any more details about the connections between quite powerful people, global criminal networks, and my own safety or vulnerabilities.
Mark: I did have a question about the police and the Commission itself, so it is really interesting to hear what you’ve just shared about that. Shifting tack a little bit, you spoke earlier about the significance of your communist education from childhood, but also more specifically the Party itself and the relationship between the Party and a sense of class power, and then beyond that also the Party in relationship to the law and defying laws. So, how significant was the Party, what did you mean by the relationship between the CPA and defying laws and also how did the Party in Wollongong relate to these issues, to these experiences, of unemployment and poverty?
Nick: I'm not sure how I'm gonna go with the last bit, so maybe I'll need to give that some more thought. But I'll touch on it while answering the other parts of that question. I suppose it harks back to the initial stuff I was talking about. Although there were a variety of views within the Communist Party, which was so eclectic at this time, the comrades I tended to hang around were the ones who I had the most in common with regarding views on there being bourgeois capitalist crimes and law and there being communist proletariat crimes and lore and that there was a reasonably clear distinction between them. Now it's more complex than that, but that was a general sense we had. The common view within the Party was that we defy unjust laws and those are private property laws, the laws that protect the social order, capitalism, capitalist states, etc. We defy them, that's what we're here to do, we're a revolutionary party seeking to overthrow all of that shit. That would involve different ways of looking at the history of class struggle and the sort of big questions that we will be talking more about later, but it's also the smaller questions about what we do from day-to-day.
For example, when I went to work in the local Party rooms, there was one of the comrades, a wharfie, who would come in every week and he’d give me advice on how to shoplift. He used to dress very dapper, carry an umbrella, and a nice bag, and he looked respectable. He would go into company shops and would take whatever he could get hold of. He didn’t steal from sole traders, from small businesses, and there were moral tales woven throughout his advice. So, it was like ‘this is something that is perfectly legitimate to do, this is wealth redistribution, this is how to do it well, so you don't get caught’, that sort of thing.
Then there were comrades like Sally Bowen, the President of the CPA on the South Coast, who would pass-on morality tales from the depression era, about the need to break unjust property and other capitalist laws in order to survive, and the connections between that law-breaking and those understandings and breaking other unjust laws to help defend the class from oppression and repression, to protest injustice, and to help make unjust laws unenforceable. Sally had been involved in actions like hiding union funds from the law during the 1949 miner’s strike, she’d helped the CPA to prepare to go underground when it was being banned by the Menzies Government, as well as being involved in civil disobedience campaigns during the Vietnam war. She was a lovely, strong and determined woman and I remember how impressed I was when she and other comrades from the Miners’ Women’s Auxiliary commandeered some pit top buildings during the Kemira stay-in strike, just up the road from my family home.
Another friend and CPA comrade, Joy Janaka Wiradjuri Williams, taught me important lessons about Aboriginal lore, about the theft of the land and stolen Aboriginal children. Joy’s mother had been stolen from her parents, Joy had been taken from her mother, and when Joy had her first baby, that child was stolen, her second daughter was also taken from her. She was the main organiser of the local ‘Black Deaths in Custody’ campaign, exposing the racist institutional murder of indigenous people. She had a deep understanding of the hidden crimes of the ‘Secret Country’, was a fierce fighter for justice, and keen to share her knowledge.
The CPA itself engaged in illegal activities, like one of the ways the Party was funded in Wollongong was we ran a numbers game. We would print up these tickets with numbers on them and sell those, mostly at the mines and the wharves, and we used to sell hundreds of them every week. Then when the state lottery was drawn at the end of the week, if you had the same last three numbers on your ticket then you won the weekly prize. Well, that's illegal gambling, but it helped keep the Party going. There were also people within the Party who would sometimes sell pot to raise funds. Pot smoking was pretty common especially among the comrades who became active during the 1960s. I also got to know a poor family in the Party, one of whom was addicted to heroin. He went to gaol a couple of times for armed robbery and was involved in a prison rebellion, was shot in the back during the so-called ‘riot’ and was then thrown in his cell with the shotgun pellets still in his back. That was a real insight into what goes on in the gaols.
So, there was a widespread rejection of bourgeois law, which was part of Communist Party culture, and that involved all sorts of things, including even more serious law-breaking activities, such as supporting armed struggles overseas in places like East Timor, the Philippines, South Africa, etc., and that could involve smuggling people, guns, money, and so forth. The wharves were a contested space, where the Party had a great deal of influence, and through the struggles to support those fighting overseas you interacted with other parties and comrades around the world. I became friends with comrades from Chile who were involved in the armed underground and some of the comrades over there did bank robberies to fund their cause. These practices also hark back to common revolutionary traditions, like the Bolsheviks who were involved in armed robberies and appropriated stuff from the wealthy, or the state, to fund struggles.
It's also interesting to me that the relationship the local CPA and the labour movement had with the police was one where the cops often understood what I mentioned before, the contestation over who runs the city, whether it was capital or labour. Someone like Merv Nixon, a CPA member and the Secretary of the South Coast Labour Council, the most influential representative of the local labour movement, could wield a lot of power, was widely respected, and had friendly relations with local senior police. Sometimes the labour movement would contact the police and say, ‘okay this is the situation, there are scabs in the steelworks, we're gonna go and get them out and we don't want to see you anywhere around’ and they wouldn't be there. I remember when National Action said they were going to protest against the Vietnamese refugees living at Fairy Meadow hostel and the cops were contacted to say ‘we're going to have a busload of wharfies, they're going to go and deal with this’. The cops never showed-up. But nor did National Action, so perhaps the cops let them know it's not gonna end well.
These examples indicate that the Party and the labour movement were involved in their own forms of policing and the enforcement of certain rules by the class and not by the police and that the police would at times let that happen, because their sympathies, or perhaps interests, sometimes coincided with the class. I've experienced that myself in some of my interactions with the police. I know police often try to win you over and pretend they’re your friend and all that sort of stuff, but I've also had a number of experiences where some police in different ways have indicated that they’re going to do things to make it easier for me to avoid getting punished, or not get as hurt, or win court cases, because they’re sympathetic at certain times and to certain struggles, and that's how it's panned out. These were usually local people, those who grew up here and had been influenced by the labour movement and the struggles of the class down here. For instance, one of my best friends at high school, a lovely bloke, who lived a couple streets from here, became a cop after he left school, because he thought he’d be helping people. He soon discovered that there was a lot of criminal activity going-on within the force. So, he started to provide information to those inquiring into police corruption, what eventually became the Royal Commission, and he received death threats and was forced out of the force. He became a truck driver instead, and not long after that was found dead beside his truck, his neck had been broken in an apparent industrial accident, which I believe may have been a murder. His widow ended-up giving evidence to the Royal Commission into Police Corruption. So, I think for some cops, who had grown-up in Wollongong and had been immersed in the moral cultures of the class, then sometimes they chose to be on the right side of moral or ethical concerns.
The next post picks up on the themes of, ‘For the Cause’: Unionism, Crime, and Work Refusal. It will be posted in about a week.