Not for as long as it takes to blink were Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott so much as threatened, even less endangered, on the 26th of January by demonstrators from the 40th anniversary Aboriginal Embassy camp in Canberra. Vision footage from activists and mainstream media almost inundating the internet makes irrefutably clear that it was police who were violent and caused the bedlam. At one point uniform was even roughing up plainclothes. For at least 10 minutes after Gillard/Abbott had been driven away, when there was nothing and no one left to “protect”, the police line kept pushing us back, some punching, shoving, throwing people on the ground and “f”- swearing at demonstrators.
Tent Embassy statements: Aboriginal Provisional Government statement | Declaration of Independence for a Sovereign Union of First Nations | Press conference | Comment: Embassy more relevant than ever | I see no riot or attack | Media paints black as white and might as right | Protest speaks for itself | A lesson in over-reaction and social context | No apologies are due to either politician, nor to anyone else |Forget the race card, they're playing the whole deck | Michael Anderson explained the importance of the Embassy on Radio Australia | First hand accounts: Chris Graham: fact v fiction, black v white | From field notes and footnotes | “You shoe’da come!” | Video | Photo essay by Green Left Weekly (what the media didn't show) | ABC’s Media Watch: An Australia Day beat up | AFP to review officers' conduct | Kim Sattler, Secretary, Unions ACT, to Barbara Shaw: "And Abbott's just made a statement to the press that the tent embassy should be pulled down ... he's over there." | Gerry Georgatos’ source: Multiple calls from Gillard’s office, awards ceremony not disturbed | Bob Carr: “The Tent Embassy in Canberra says nothing to anyone and should have been quietly packed up years ago.” | Solidarity actions: Solidarity billboard in Melbourne | Banner drop in Canberra
Isn’t it great that photography- and vision-capable phones have made it impossible for the media to bullshit us! Yet still they try to. Many of us have a feeling there is more to know and it will come out. There is talk now of both Gillard’s and Abbott’s offices being involved and it is beginning to appear that the flying wedge “rescue” was staged. When they were planning it they probably figured there would be a lot of people around. At the restaurant exit there was only a handful. The only ones on the road outside were media, cops and a couple of protesters trying to get in the way of the government cars.
Rumours are floating around - bits and pieces - comments here and there. Some people are now claiming Gillard knew about the plan beforehand. Maybe that’s why she is smiling in so many news photos?
Violence? How about this for potentially lethal violence from rattled police? One published photograph shows a cop in the line pushing us back unclipping his gun holster. A video published online by the Sydney Morning Herald newspaper shows a cop unclipping his holster and then losing his gun on the roadway. The others have to let go of him so he can bend down and pick it up. They had their guns free after the cars were gone when there was no one to protect. Another copper had his hand on his taser weapon. A third had his truncheon extended. We heard no order given for any of this. One young copper punched and choke-gripped a young painted up Aboriginal man, a young Aboriginal woman, an SBS cameraman and I believe one other person standing harmlessly near the restaurant side exit through which clumsy security men rushed Gingeralla out, causing her to lose that now famous blue suede shoe. We saw a lot of frightened young faces in that blue-black line advancing on us. The Australian Federal Police said its officers lost control and had no choice but to bustle Gillard and Abbott away in the prime minister’s car. Lost control over 50 noisy but otherwise peaceful demonstrators with almost the same number of police there? Nothing would have been easier than to just form a corridor of two lines of coppers for the PM to calmly and with dignity walk through to her car. One wonders how they’d handle a real threat on political leaders.
The only “violence” from the demonstrators I’m aware of was a punch by an activist to the copper who had needlessly roughed up the woman. “I won’t stand for any man doing that to a woman,” he told me, showing me bleeding chapped knuckles that must have connected with something metallic on the copper. It went the rounds of the protest encampment that that choke-gripping copper is the son of Canberra’s police chief. True or false – I don’t know. But one can imagine that someone from such a stable might think they’re above the law and can do anything with impunity.
Violence from us? Rubbish. I stood close to a handful banging for a while with their hands on the about 2cm-thick glass walls of The Lobby restaurant, part of a group of about 50 making a lot of noise. A bit of noise is enough to spook our two top political leaders and their minders? No wonder the Americans commented gleefully, ‘can’t they even protect their prime minister?’.
And how about this: The day before the camp got into gear, as an activist stepped out of a rent-a-shower cabin, two men fitting Hollywood’s depiction of enforcers – you know, the dark suits, white shirts, short-back-and-sides hair, trim, clean-cut, obviously fit – accosted him: ‘Listen mate, you can have your three days of fun here but after that you and that bastard Anderson [last surviving founder of the embassy] shut up or we’ll make you disappear.’ Government? Miners? Fanatics? White supremacists? Pranksters? Assimilated Aborigines who abhor what the embassy stands for or others who want to lead it? Who’s to know. Days prior Michael Anderson had received death threats other Elders told him emanated from Sydney.
So why all the mainstream media lies about violence and comment on how disgraceful it all was? Is it disgraceful to demonstrate for a fair go 224 years after you’ve been savagely robbed of your land, your culture, your livelihood, your children and you’re still living in Third World deprivation? And why the double-speak by Gingerella first saying in a media release she did not feel threatened, then changing her tune to “we mustn’t have such violent demonstrations”. What violence, Juliar?
Anyway, Aboriginal people at the anniversary encampment are delighted at how it all turned out. No-one could have scripted it better in their favour. A junior Gingeralla spin doctor sent packing for putting the word out where the PM was – mischievously or on orders?; Abbott claimed by some to have gate-crashed (unconfirmed) the gig for honouring emergency service workers 150 metres down the road from the embassy encampment, and blamed by everyone there for inciting the incident with his deliberately vague “move on” statement (it’s how Abbott speaks, always leaving himself an out); Gingerella’s shoe getting world coverage. At one point on Thursday night Google News had tracked more than 2,000 stories about it globally.
I see two possibilities. The first: Whoever booked the medals-awarding ceremony into that venue is plain stupid because the embassy camp had been notified and publicised for months. So, oops, just tough luck?
Possibility 2, my conspiracy theory: Before you read on, grab some of the news photos and study closely Gingeralla’s and Abbott’s faces. Smirking, laughing, grinning. Afraid? I don’t see that except on the one of the PM almost on the ground, just before she’s bundled roughly and unceremoniously into the car, banging her head. What are they so chuffed about in this oh-so-violent, ever-so-dangerous situation?
From its beginning the Aboriginal Embassy has been a thorn in the flesh of governments, regardless of their stripe. It constantly attracts the attention of Australian and foreign visitors. The perpetrations of Libor and Laberal governments against Aborigines are as alike as peas in a pod. So, let’s together incite some angry reaction from Aboriginal people, we can be sure the media will play it up our way, we both get those pesky stirrers off both our backs because the redneck majority across the country will favour the embassy being removed. Polls run by media and a petition are already showing a majority for that. Maybe it’s far-fetched and my scepticism is getting the better of me.
Anyway, not for ages have Aboriginal affairs been gifted such a feast of publicity still boomeranging on our illustrious leaders. And in among the absurd shoe theatre, the media lies and the egg on the faces of “jacky-jacky” Aborigines, who rushed to condemn the “disgraceful behaviour”, the campaigners for sovereignty and land rights from far and wide across the country, assembled around the always burning sacred fire in the bora, were able to broadcast their grievances to readers, viewers and listeners like they haven’t been able to for decades.
Regular visitors to this site will know the issues. So what’s new? Teams are to visit Aboriginal communities across the country to explain sovereignty and to warn that proposed constitutional changes are just another rip-off. A team of lawyers working for free has been put together in London to challenge the Crown and British government in a High Court action over breaking their own laws since Queen Victoria and the English parliament of the day ordered that Aborigines should keep their lands, waters, resources, law and leaders. That process might head to the International Court of Justice in The Hague and/or the European Court of Human Rights in France, both of which have jurisdiction over Britain, which has lost several important cases in the European court.
The International Trade Union Federation, whose General Secretary is Australian woman Sharan Burrow, born in the small western NSW town of Warren, has promised support, possibly to stop ships carrying cargo from Australia being unloaded overseas. A think tank is to be set up to produce legal and political strategies, including an Aboriginal parliament. A top flight international jurist has come aboard as a pro bono consultant. Communities are to be fired up to the idea that tribes treaty with each other to form a federation-style union. The camp heard about two examples already established, one by more than 20 nations to negotiate cultural water allocations in the Murray Darling Basin. In the Northern Territory Elders from far flung mainland and island communities have been meeting to talk unity.
The embassy site is to be used for more activities and its security is to be beefed up. ASIO will no doubt have picked up how, but no point in reporting that here in case they haven’t. I heard some of it but left when obliquely asked to do so. Several times suspected ASIO agents were said to have been spotted and outed among the hundreds of people in the camp.
My personal impressions after four days are in line with those of a couple of Aboriginal people I spent some time with. We felt like we had seen the same film the umpteenth time. “People are carrying a lot of pain,” a leader explained to me, “they’ve got to let some of it out before you can get down to brass tacks.” Discussion sometimes fracturing along tribal, regional, urban-rural, intergenerational lines and then being pulled back together with exhortations for unity. An activist disappointed that she could not take home more to her mob. You heard around the camp of some groups feeling short-shrifted over not being able to tell their stories. It looked like a lot of time was being wasted, though groups were constantly yarning all over the place and probably doing business that way. A written agenda was soon out the window. The down side of the media frenzy was its gobbling up a lot of time that could have been focused on nitty gritty.
What did I take home? Deep contentment from the vibes in the camp, the tremendous energy in the march through Canberra, the strong belief that somehow, perhaps invisible to me as yet, the Aboriginal cause is moving forward.
An Elder from north of Cairns, relayed to a small crowd of us us through a mobile phone held to the microphone of the public address system. A rambling, sometimes emotionally incoherent story of his family’s and his mob’s suffering. I was getting more and more frustrated, urging him inwardly to ‘get to the point mate, get to the point’. I looked around me. Rapt attention. Some tears. I felt ashamed at my whitefella impatience.
I learned later that this old man had earlier told an organiser of the anniversary corroboree that the tent embassy site should be named the central bora for all Australian Aborigines.
It’s a magic place. Go there.