The 26 January is a public holiday nationally known as Australia Day, however, for decades, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have protested against this day, as it commemorates genocide and dispossession. Last year’s Invasion Day rallies were attended by over 61,000 people around Australia. This year’s rally had around 80,000 people marching across all capital cities, including 60,000 people in Naarm (Melbourne) and between 15,000 to 20,000 people in Gadigal (Sydney).
This year marks 230 years since the British invaded Australia, leading to the decimation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, with inequities continuing to this day. It is also the 80 year anniversary of the Day of Mourning protests, organised by the Australian Aboriginal Progressive League.
Today’s post reflects on the protests on the lands of the Gadigal people of the Eora Nation (Gadigal is the city now known as Sydney). I then provide a visual sociology of the culmination of the protest march, which ended at the Yabun Festival.
Rally in Redfern
Two rallies were held in Sydney. The other march focused on issues of treaty, recreating the 30th anniversary of the 1988 Long March for Justice Through Treaty. I attended the Invasion Day rally organised by the grassroots group FIRE (Fighting in Resistance Equally), at Redfern’s iconic community known as The Block. Redfern has a relatively concentrated Aboriginal community. The Block is famous for many reasons, not least of which is that it is the site of the Redfern Aboriginal Tent Embassy, co-founded by Jenny Munro, Wiradjuri elder, who also helped to broker a Government deal for public housing and various community and health services for Aboriginal families. The Block is also a site of over-policing of Aboriginal families.
The Block march focused on community responses to ongoing injustices, especially deaths in custody, and removal of Aboriginal children from their families at alarming rates. Speakers emphasised the historical significance and present-day resonance of social justice protests led by Aboriginal people. Speakers noted that genocide was part of how the nation was founded, which was one of the key reasons why Australia Day could not be a day of celebration. One speaker said: “By marching under banner of Invasion Day, we’re on the path to telling the truth about history.”
Three of the founders of Grandmothers Against Removals, with Sue-Ellen Tighe speaking, discussed the “Friday night special” where officials would come and take Aboriginal children on a Friday night or a public holiday to stop Aboriginal families from exercising their rights, when courts are closed off to them.
Other speakers emphasised the resistance by Aboriginal people, who battle to have their history and culture recognised. Some speakers were sympathetic with the national movement to change the date of Australia Day to a more inclusive time. Others resisted the move to change the date as no day could celebrate the nation while Aboriginal people remain dispossessed, under threat, and facing high rates of state violence.
One speaker talked about how the Government is constantly engaged in reclassifying Aboriginal people as well as the events and issues important to their history. Most shamefully, Aboriginal people were officially categorised as “flora and fauna” and not recognised as citizens until the 1967 Referendum. Some speakers emphasised that ongoing patterns are tantamount to ongoing genocide, with the greatest threat being over-incarceration and deaths in custody. The latter issue has been well-documented in a Royal Commission which began in 1987 and finalised in 1991. Twenty-six years later, the numbers are worse than when the report was tabled, with few of the 339 recommendations implemented.
Deaths in Custody
Speakers and banners focused at the Invasion Day protest commemorated local deaths in custody, including David Dungay, a Dunghutti man who died on 29 December 2015 whilst receiving medical treatment under police care. Gavin Stanbrook, from Gumbaynggirr country, spoke on behalf of the Bowraville Three (Clinton Speedy-Duroux – aged 16, Evelyn Greenup – aged 4, and Colleen Walker – aged 16). These Aboriginal children were murdered in their sleep in 1990. The man believed to be responsible has not been brought to justice, with the case reopened in November 2017.
Speakers also remembered Eric James Whittaker, a Kamilaroi man who died whilst in a coma, wounded in police custody. Like many Aboriginal people who are imprisoned, Whittaker was arrested on minor charges at the end of June 2017. He was transferred from one hospital to another on 29 June suffering head injuries from unexplained reasons. He died on 4 July, one week after being taken into custody.
Other Aboriginal speakers discussed environmental justice and land rights, including Scott McDimmi who flew in from the Northern Territory. He spoke of the negative fall-out of the so-called “Northern Territory Intervention.” In June 2007, the Howard Government sent the military into remote Aboriginal communities under the guise of “child protection.” This was revealed to be a lie, with no evidence to back the severe changes that are still currently in place. This includes restricting the income of Aboriginal people. The policies have been found to be a violation of the human rights of Aboriginal people. McDimmi believes this policy was tied to fracking and other environmental greed for natural resources which his community fights to this day.
Other non-Aboriginal speakers showed solidarity, including a Palestinian religious leader, Greens ministers and the Maritime Union.
All the speakers at The Block emphasised that the colonial mindset is alive and well in social policy. One speaker summarised this pain: “Stop killing our people. Stop taking our children.”
Despite the fact that Aboriginal people had created space for non-Aboriginal people to speak and attend, non-Aboriginal people showed cultural insensitivity. Aboriginal people around me were upset that non-Aboriginal people were standing around the centre, taking photos and holding large flags that obstructed the view of elders and children. At Aboriginal community events, people are expected to sit down, and to leave room for others to enjoy themselves. This theme was raised again after the march, at the Yabun Festival, where the non-Aboriginal crowd had to be repeatedly told to sit down and stop obstructing the views of others.
Marching for justice
The march moved from the main street in Redfern, through the outer CBD in Broadway and ended at Victoria Park in Camperdown, where the Yabun Festival is held.
The protest organisers emphasised that Aboriginal people have always resisted injustice and that their protests are always peaceful, despite the media and politicians making out otherwise. Various organisations carried flags and signs in solidarity. One crowd of DJs pushed their speakers in colourful rubbish bins made to look like faces. Other organisers gave the megaphone to children to help them lead chants.
There were chants about the eternal connection between Aboriginal people and Country (“Always was, always will be Aboriginal land”) and the ongoing horror of genocide and state violence (“no pride in genocide;” “too many coppers, not enough justice). The atmosphere was passionate, engaged and empathetic with the human rights and leadership of Aboriginal people.
Yabun Festival is an annual event celebrating the survival and ingenuity of Aboriginal cultures. Yabun means “music to a beat” in the Gadigal language. The festival features a large stage for live music and dance, a corroboree ground for traditional Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander dancing, a talking tent for community dialogue, an elders’ space, dozens of stalls, food trucks, and much more.
It was an especially warm day, but not as relentlessly hot as last year. The atmosphere is always very relaxed at this family event.
It is solely due to the leadership of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people that the Invasion Day protests continue to grow in broader public support. These protests have greater ethnic diversity than every other major rally in recent years.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are showing yet again that human rights need to be fought for.
Complacency by all of us who are non-Indigenous will never achieve national inclusion and unity. We need to listen. We need to respect the various ongoing discussions led by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people about national change, justice, treaty, healing, truth-telling and reparations. We need to follow when we are called. We need to act. And above all, we need to keep pushing for change, on the terms set out by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
As Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people say: the rest of us need to pay the rent.