Fresh radical leadership for the indigenous movement

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Last March, Australia’s conservative Prime Minister, John Howard, celebrated ten years in office. The same month, Indigenous people and their supporters held two weeks of protests to highlight that the Commonwealth Games are really the Stolenwealth Games.

The Howard years have been disastrous for Australia’s first nations. The government describes its approach to Aboriginal affairs as a “Quiet Revolution.” A paternalistic failure would be a more apt description.

After a campaign of racist vilification, the government abolished the national representative structure, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC), and replaced it with the National Indigenous Council, a handpicked group chosen to provide government with the advice it wants.

ATSIC was branded a “failed experiment in self-determination,” yet numerous audits confirm that this body was better at delivering services to Aboriginal communities than mainstream departments.

The government also fiercely denies past injustices, refuses to acknowledge Indigenous differences, and rejects claims that Aboriginal people have special needs. Yet Aboriginal people are the most disadvantaged Australians. They die 17 years younger and are imprisoned at a rate 13 times higher than non-Indigenous Australians. Mainstreaming is worsening this divide.

Participation in education is falling. Last year the government spent just two-thirds of the funds it allocated to Indigenous education. Meanwhile, school children in many remote communities are without desks!

It’s a grim picture, but one that could change fast. In the 1970s, the Indigenous movement raised radical demands and mobilised mass support. Governments responded by co-opting some of the best leaders, who then pacified and demobilised the struggle.

Now, the government’s savage attack on Aboriginal rights has virtually eliminated even these well-heeled bureaucrats — and created an opportunity for new leadership to emerge.

Stepping up to the line. The rise of an Indigenous collective to organise protests coinciding with the Games put key issues back in the spotlight.

Indigenous rights activists have always contested Britain’s claim over Australia and insist that the Crown must be held accountable for 218 years of atrocities. A group calling itself Black GST — Genocide to be stopped, Sovereignty to be recognised and Treaties to be made — called for Indigenous and non-Indigenous people to come to Melbourne for a protest during the Games.

On March 12, activists assembled in a park where embers from the fire at the Aboriginal Tent Embassy, outside the old Federal Parliament building, were used to light a ceremonial fire. Camp Sovereignty was born.

The day before the Games, hundreds of Aboriginal people and their supporters converged in Melbourne for a day of action. The focal point was a protest against the Queen, and a march through the city at rush hour. International media interest was high. This was all a win.

Still, many participants were disappointed in the turnout. Given two years of organising and the level of popular support for Indigenous rights, there should have been thousands, not hundreds.

Ray Jackson, President of the Indigenous Social Justice Association, who travelled from Sydney, said, “The demands raised by the Black GST were spot on and put sovereignty squarely back on the political agenda.

But the protests did not reach their full potential, due to a lack of resources, last minute decision-making, and the failure to establish clearly in advance how Indigenous and non-Indigenous activists would work together.”

A decision midway through the action to limit camping exclusively to Indigenous protesters fuelled tensions and highlighted a lack of clarity.

Whether a camp is multiracial or Indigenous-only is a tactical question. But switching policy midstream without properly preparing everyone caused disunity and confusion at a time unity was needed.

Advance planning and political education are crucial to developing the cohesion that a multiracial Indigenous rights movement requires.

Fanning the flames of protest. After the Games, supporters of Camp Sovereignty decided to stay put. For two months a showdown unfolded between the Melbourne City Council and activists who declared Camp Sovereignty Aboriginal land and a sacred site.

Supporters — Indigenous and non-Indigenous — mobilised to defend the Camp, sparking the interest of local TV crews. The meaning of sovereignty was again a topic for popular discussion.

On 10 May, the City Council evicted the Camp and extinguished the flame. But its embers, a powerful symbol of sovereignty, were used to light other fires throughout the state.

Marjorie Thorpe, from the Black GST Collective, said, “We want non-Aboriginal people to walk forward with us and we want young Indigenous people to speak up and say what is wrong.”

Indeed we must go forward united. The working class won’t win its liberation living in a colonial settler state, with a government that refuses to recognize the rights of a people whose land it has stolen.

First nations have a key role to play in the struggle for human emancipation. In Latin America, Indigenous people are providing inspiration with their leadership in the battle against the neoliberal agenda. Aboriginal people can play a similar role in Australia.

Robbie Thorpe, a leader from Camp Sovereignty, explains why Indigenous activists retain their radical perspective: “We own very little in this country so we have nothing to lose.”

At the post-Games evaluation, Thorpe inspired everyone when he said, “If we stand together and stand strong, then we will have a brand new day for all of us.”

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