Last year a small group of graduates got together for a very special reunion. Barry York, Brian Pola and Fergus Robinson – or ‘the La Trobe Three’ as they were known – reunited outside the former Pentridge Prison to commemorate the 40th anniversary of their ‘graduation from Bluestone College’ in which they were incarcerated.
In the late 1960s and 1970s, La Trobe University students were part of the considerable tide of activism on campuses in Australia and internationally. It was a period of turmoil when students worldwide campaigned for an end to the Vietnam War and abolition of apartheid in South Africa.
In the US, four protestors were killed and nine injured when shot by national guards during a demonstration at Kent State University in 1970. In Australia students took part in growing campus demonstrations and street marches. Some were expelled for their activism. A handful, including the La Trobe Three, were jailed.
After a period of intense student protests, the climate on the Bundoora campus became increasingly fraught as the radical students saw a link between the Vietnam War and apartheid in South Africa and the University’s then Chancellor Archibald Glenn’s position on the boards of Imperial Chemical Industries.
Supreme Court injunction
The University secured Supreme Court injunctions to restrain four of the rebel leaders, who by now had been expelled from entering the campus.
For the crime of ‘entering the premises of La Trobe University’, they were lodged at Pentridge jail for an indefinite period, without trial, bail rights or appeal.
The indefinite imprisonment of three expelled university students aroused opposition among civil libertarians (including Amnesty International) and trade unionists. There were demonstrations outside the jail and protest rallies.
Vice-Chancellor David Myers visited the trio in jail and offered to seek their release on condition that a statement repudiating violence was signed. A truce was reached which resulted in both the students and University representatives signing the statement collectively.
On August 4 1972 the La Trobe Three were released. Fergus had served four months, Brian three months and Barry served six weeks.
All are now historians with postgraduate qualifications. They have written books and been published in academic journals. Dr York has also been awarded the Order of Australia for his work on migrant history.
While 40 years have passed, the spirit of 1970s student activism continues today with the current generation of La Trobe students, who like their predecessors, share a strong commitment to issues of social justice and human rights. – Rebecca Camilleri