City News

Lanz Priestley Remembered – A Memorial Tribute

Lanz Priestley outside 24/7 Homeless Kitchen, Martin Place in 2013. Photo: Bernadette Smith.

By BERNADETTE SMITH

On November 2nd the death of Lanz Priestley was announced by his family on Facebook. He will be remembered as a tireless activist for social justice who fought for the rights of homeless people in the city as well as drought-ravaged farming communities out west.

I first met Lanz at Martin Place in Sydney’s CBD during Occupy Sydney while working as a photographer for Stop CSG Sydney. In 2011, Lanz was prominent in the worldwide movement against economic inequality and would go on to organise the Martin Place 24/7 Homeless Kitchen and Safe Space, providing food, clothing and blankets 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Donations and volunteers were sourced through crowdfunding and social media rather than official charities because Lanz could see there was no government-funded organisations getting the job done.

The safe space was set up with shelters under hoardings around Martin Place after homeless women complained of being molested when they tried to sleep. Eventually, this led to the famous homeless tent city in 2016 that earned Lance the nickname of “Mayor of Martin Place”. This temporary solution brought visibility to Australia’s homelessness and captured international attention.

Paul Watmough, resident of Martin Place Tent City in 2017. Photo: Bernadette Smith.

But legislation to evict the Martin Place homeless was introduced by State Parliament and raids by police finally shut down the tent city in late 2017, although the street kitchen continues to this day. This movement also spread to Perth in Western Australia and according to their social media posts, “Lanz has helped us with a lot of supplies for WA homeless and domestic violence victims. We fed people, we’ve given blankets and sleeping bags, we’ve extracted domestic violence victims all with the support and help from brother Lanz, Freo Street Kitchen and Blanket Patrol Perth”.

Beyond Sydney

The homeless crisis in Australia is far from over and has climbed to around 290,000 people in 2019 according to the Australian Homelessness Monitor, so there continues to be a great need for the work that Lanz started in providing nutritious meals and warm blankets and clothing through volunteers and public donations.

Lanz campaigned for the rights of the marginalised not just in Sydney but well beyond. In 2013 when Queensland’s former LNP government introduced harsh new laws against bikies with the Vicious Lawless Association Disestablishment (VLAD) Act, Lanz brought rival bikie groups together to protest these laws fearing it would be used to suppress all human rights. Eventually, these laws were overturned but at the time Lanz was concerned that they would spread to the rest of Australia so he helped organise protests around the country, including outside the New South Wales parliament. He made the public understand that taking away the human rights of people to interact socially even within motorcycle clubs would weaken constitutional protections for everyone, not just bikies.

As well as being a human rights and anti-poverty activist Lanz was active in fighting the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement and was also an environmental justice warrior who set up Dignity Water. This continuing project brought regular deliveries of fresh drinking water to desperate households in the lower Murray Darling River and dry west communities using volunteers and crowdfunding. Denied normal water flows by big agri-businesses upstream and exacerbated by a drought that killed millions of river fish, these communities were largely abandoned by government and officials. Long before it hit mainstream news Lanz tried to draw public attention to the plight of the Darling and help dry inland river towns at a time when no one else would.

His family in breaking the sad news of his passing said on Facebook, “Lanz was a thoughtful, selfless being. His work has helped, inspired, and united so many people throughout the world. Although it is time for Lanz to finally rest, his contributions will continue to live on”.

A memorial celebration to commemorate his life and work will be held at Martin Place on the 21st of November, 2021.

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