Ray Jackson deserves his place in the Celebrate People’s History (People’s History) poster series alongside Malcolm X, Sylvia Rivera, Audre Lorde and Bayard Rustin. Like these giants, Ray led by example, dedicating his life to fighting oppression in its many forms. And he made no bones about its source — capitalism. This was the message of a moving two-day celebration of the life of Ray Jackson, Wiradjuri working class warrior. It was held in Melbourne, in early December.
Mickie Quick, from the Maritime Union of Australia (Maritime Union), designed the 2018 poster tribute to Ray Jackson, marking the third anniversary of his death. The series’ curator, Josh MacPhee, says People’s History honours those “who have moved forward the collective struggle of humanity to create a more equitable and just world.”
Weekend of intersectional salute. Renowned for militancy and internationalism, the Maritime Union (Ray’s union when he was a young waterfront worker) was the perfect venue to celebrate his legacy. Vibrant union banners beautifully complemented the multi-poster display. Hundreds of photos, Ray’s political memorabilia, including well-worn T-shirts, and special treasures such at the Human Rights Award presented by the French government in 2013, lifted the room. Ray’s signature cap — covered with badges solidarising with Palestinians, refugees, the LGBTIQ community and demanding sovereignty for First Nations people — was the centrepiece.
Launching Ray’s poster was Gary Foley, whose activism spans five decades. Foley shares with Ray two granddaughters and proud unionism as a member of the National Tertiary Education Union. He reflected on the continuity of struggle and importance of upcoming generations — such as the young Indigenous women who, last year, mobilised a multi-racial crowd of more than 60,000 that halted Melbourne on Invasion Day.
Lara Watson, a Birri Gubba woman from Central West Queensland, gave a heartfelt tribute on behalf of the First Nations Workers Alliance, one of the five event co-sponsors. “Uncle Ray,” she said, “was a pioneering Aboriginal unionist.” In a message of solidarity, former ACTU Secretary Greg Combet recalled working with Ray to educate about asbestos at Sydney’s Workers Health Centre. He concluded, “Ray has received insufficient recognition for his selflessness and service.”
Debbie Brennan spoke for co-sponsors, Freedom Socialist Party and Radical Women: “Ray was a stolen child, who never reconnected with his mother and siblings whom he was separated from at two years old. He was a Wiradjuri, and he was a worker. So he was stamped with the word ‘Stolen,’ many times over. And he recognised the thief: a system that profits from plunder. This marked him as a leader, not a victim. He knew first-hand how struggles interpenetrate, and this was behind his feminism, socialism and internationalism. He knew that when the oppressed and exploited join together, we have the power make revolution, globalise it and bring an end to theft and injustice everywhere.”
Movement building. Helen Lind, representing another co-sponsor, the Abolitionist and Transformative Justice Centre, emceed the second day. A workshop exploring Ray’s rich theoretical ideas drew on two decades of his writings for the Freedom Socialist Party. Another workshop discussed the unionising of super-exploited workers in remote Aboriginal communities that work in slave-like conditions for welfare payments under the government Community Development Program.
The final workshop was a teach-in about Aboriginal deaths in custody, presented by co-sponsor the Indigenous Social Justice Association–Melbourne. Ray initiated the Association in Sydney. Its Melbourne chapter formed in 2004 when Ray distributed an appeal from Gail Hickey to rally on the anniversary of the death of her teenage son, TJ. Ray was a passionate feminist who recognised Aboriginal women — mothers, sisters, wives and daughters of those killed — as the backbone of the movement.
Indigenous Social Justice continues this collaboration. Today, Latoya Aroha Rule, a Wiradjuri and Maori woman, whose brother Wayne Fella Morrison died two years ago while on remand in Yatala prison, travelled from South Australia for the event. The prison’s use of a head restraint called a “spit hood,” was clearly a factor in Wayne’s death by asphyxia. Like Ray Jackson, Rule, insists that the problem cannot be passed off as a few racist cops and prison officers. Deaths in custody are systemic: the product of a racist state engaged in genocidal practices, perpetrating the theft of land and culture and over-imprisoning First Nations people.
Inspired by Ray’s movement building, a snap action was called for the next day — International Human Rights Day — in the heart of Melbourne. Shoppers stopped to read Social Justice’s large, bold placards memorialising 15 people killed in custody. Their names are known, because their families resist and the movement demands justice.
United against a common foe. Feminist Barbara O’Niell, a Dunghutti woman, Aboriginal support worker and unionist, travelled from Sydney for the event. Inspired by Ray’s example of multi-racial unity she told this author, “He defied the destructive and isolating outcomes of colonisation by aligning with non-Indigenous comrades. This demonstrates that where there is common cause and common ground, we can unite and fight in solidarity against the perpetrators of working class oppression.”
Ray was a leader, thinker and movement builder. He should have the last word: “The liberation and rights of Aboriginal people are tied up with the rights of the working class, because we have a common enemy, a common master — the capitalist system. All of us who are abused by the Establishment — unionists, Aboriginal people, national minorities and all working people — have to eradicate what divides us, like racism and sexism. We have to speak with one voice and strike with one fist.”
International readers can order posters from justseeds.org.. The Celebrate People’s History poster is available in Australia for $10 — all proceeds to deaths in custody families. The collection of Ray Jackson’s writing, Speak With One Voice and Strike With One Fist, is available for $5. Enquiries: firstname.lastname@example.org.