Two Hundred Years of Oppression Sparks Resistance - and an Unexpected Controversy

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“Celebration of a Nation” is the theme blaring out from constant TV, billboard, newspaper and radio commercials in an attempt to sell Australia’s Bicentennial commemorations to the majority of Australia’s fifteen million people: Aborigines, migrants, single parents, lesbians and gay men, youth, the poor, the homeless, the unemployed and welfare recipients. Those being further squeezed by capitalism’s recession are  realising that two hundred years of oppression and exploitation is what the Bicentennial really means: two hundred years of the murder and rape of Aboriginal people and the theft of their land, two hundred years of back breaking toil to make a small élite wealthy, two hundred years of  immigrants being brought to Australia to do the dirtiest, toughest and lowest paid jobs, two hundred years of being sacrificed on the battlefields of imperialist wars, two hundred years of struggling to survive. 

Millions have been spent by the government in its ongoing attempts to generate mass bicentennial enthusiasm but the January splash had petered out to a mere whimper before the year of “celebration” was even one third over. There is nothing for ordinary people to celebrate in 1988.

Invasion Day

A spectacular display of fireworks lighting Sydney Harbour; a well publicised visit of ‘Charles and Di’, the royal parasites; a re-enactment of the First Fleet which brought its convict cargo to Australia’s shores two hundred years ago, a cavalcade of ‘tall ships’ from all corners of the globe descending upon Sydney, free public transport: these were a selection of the official activities to mark January 26–Australia Day–in Sydney. It was all accompanied by an orgy of flag waving nationalism – multinational corporations lit their city buildings with neon signs proclaiming “Happy Birthday Australia” while the US post office got in on the act with an official joint issue Bicentennial stamp!

However the government got more than it bargained for when the Bicentennial sparked a huge upsurge in the struggle for Aboriginal rights. Aboriginal people see a unique opportunity both to draw world attention to their third world status in an advanced capitalist country and to further the struggle for recognition of sovereignty. The two hundred year sham was also exposed by promoting the message that Aboriginal people have lived on this continent for at least forty thousand years.

On Australia Day, now dubbed Invasion Day, 15,000 Aboriginal people from every state marched from the inner Sydney suburb of Redfern to Belmore Park where they were greeted by twenty five minutes of sustained applause and then joined by over 20,000 supporters for the March for Justice, Freedom and Hope. The march was the biggest demonstration for Aboriginal rights in Australia’s history and was much larger than organisers had expected.

Censors Among Us

The demonstration could have been an even greater triumph if the Bicentennial Protest Group  (BPG), a coalition of left liberals who organised the supporters rally, had not attempted to censor socialists who attended.

The BPG wanted a “respectable” demonstration, limited to lobbying the government to “meet its responsibility to Aboriginal people.”

Stupid tactics to use on a government based on anti-Aboriginal genocide!

Nevertheless, despite the militancy of the early morning Aboriginal march, which challenged and broke police lines along the route, the BPG would only allow demonstrators to walk in silence for one block in the deserted west end of the city. Meanwhile, a potential audience of three million people crowded in the centre of town for the official bicentennial events.

Then at the solidarity rally, the BPG said that only “approved” literature and banners could be displayed, so as not to “cloud the issues” and “confuse” the Aborigines. All socialist papers and leaflets were banned.

The ban, racist and patronising toward Aborigines, was a bureaucratic outrage. But bureaucratism, racism and censorship are hallmarks of liberal accommodators to capitalist sensibilities.

Socialists were appalled and many organisations, including the Freedom Socialist Party, ignored the ban, and sold hundreds of papers. Far from being “confused”, many Aborigines expressed delight with the literature and the outpouring of support, a great contrast to the brutality against them which has led to over 100 deaths of Aborigines in custody in the last eight years.

No Peace Without Justice!

In Melbourne on 27 April Kooris and their supporters formed a militant contingent to participate in the annual peace march organised by the Palm Sunday Coalition (PSC). The Koori march assemble in Fitzroy and joined the main rally at the Treasury Gardens.

The Palm Sunday Coalition had approached the Victorian Coalition of Aboriginal Organisations (VCAO) and proposed that the 1988 march reflect the Aboriginal community’s opposition to the Bicentenary. The PSC offered VCAO the right to determine the theme and design the poster for the  rally and march. However it seems the VCAO was too radical for the faint hearted liberals of the PSC. VCAO proposed a theme of “No Justice, No Peace–White Australia Has a Black History”. PSC went ahead with their own slogan “200 Years of Waiting–Peace and Disarmament by 2000”. They failed to explain why we should wait 12 more years! The PSC also produced a poster for the march that  took no position on the question of the bicentenary.

The lack of vision by the PSC is a real blow to multi-issue unity. The Aboriginal Rights Solidarity Group Newsletter  summed it well when they said “it was stressed to these ‘leaders’ of this PSC that perhaps they should be showing some sense of adventure and attempt to convince their membership that the issues of peace, Aboriginal rights and opposition to the bicentenary celebrations are actually linked”. We agree wholeheartedly!

The Aboriginal march and contingent was successful and injected a sharp political edge into an annual rally which has become more like a Sunday school picnic than a demonstration.

Protests Roll On

The Bicentenary has provided plenty more opportunities for raising the demands of the Aboriginal community through protest.

On May 9 the new parliament house was opened in Canberra amidst much pomp and ceremony. Once again a royal parasite, this time the Queen, was brought in to try and attract the crowds. Over 100,000 ‘patriotic Australians’ were expected to turn up and celebrate the “glories of Australian democracy”. Yet less than 20,000 “flocked” to the occasion.

Over 2,000 Aborigines and their supporters demonstrated at the opening against the treatment of Aboriginal people in Australia’s great “democracy” and demanded the recognition of Aboriginal sovereignty. Tiga Bayles, an Aboriginal activist, pointed to the nature of Australian democracy when he said “in 200 years there has been no reconciliation and no treaty. We are not in the Constitution and we have no legal rights”.

Once again the nature of the protest was a real issue. Local organisers had advertised the event as a silent presence but Aborigines and their supporters from out of town had not travelled to Canberra to stand in silence and had no intention of keeping quiet! “Pay the Rent” and “Murderers” were the chants that filled the air as the Queen and the Prime Minister tried to speak.

Despite quite obvious attempts by much of the media to try and ignore the protest the militancy and volume of the demonstration ensured that the Aboriginal message got to millions.

The opening in May of world capitalism’s extravaganza “Expo ’88” provided another brilliant focus for multi-issue protest. Many ordinary people have been disaffected by Expo, especially the workers, unemployed, students, Aborigines and pensioners who have been forced out of their inner Brisbane rental accommodation to allow for a massive Expo price hike. Police brutality has increased and harassment against Aborigines, gay men, lesbians, prostitutes and the homeless has escalated to alarming proportions.

Once again it is the Aboriginal community which has been spearheading the protest. An Aboriginal Cultural Survival Festival took place from April 27 to May 4 to coincide with the opening of Expo. The week saw activities take place every day to celebrate Aboriginal survival and protest Expo and the bicentenary.

On April 30, 5,000 took to the streets in a very militant demonstration, while on May Day the largest ever Aboriginal contingent took part in the Brisbane May Day march. Disgustingly, some May Day organisers and union bureaucrats opposed the political prominence of Aborigines and their supporters.

A protest during the week outside the entrance of Expo lead to the arrest of 21 Aboriginal activists. Activists were also harassed by police and publicans on the streets and in hotels for wearing Aboriginal land rights colours.

What’s needed now in Brisbane is to strengthen the unity between Aborigines, trade unionists, feminists, lesbians, gay men and all the poor and disaffected by organising a militant united front against police harassment and the development forces who are out to get their hands on the Expo site once the extravaganza is over in a few months time.

Breaking Barriers, Making Links

Protest against the bicentennial has provided a catalyst for Aboriginal demands to be discussed throughout the community. The 175,000 strong Australian Teachers Federation responded to pressure from rank and file teachers and the Aboriginal educators when it passed a resolution at its annual conference  instructing members to boycott all school bicentennial activities that do not include an Aboriginal perspective. The union’s resolution also included a commitment to defend any member victimised for pursuing the policy. The Melbourne-based Trade Union Aboriginal Rights Solidarity Group had months of hard work pay off in February when the state’s peak union body, the Victorian Trades Hall Council, unanimously endorsed a resolution recognising Aboriginal sovereignty and calling on affiliates to support the movement for Aboriginal rights.

Sydney’s annual lesbian and gay Mardi Gras adopted an anti-bicentennial theme with organisers advising all participants that pro-bicentennial floats and costumes would be in bad taste. For the first time ever group a lesbian and gay Aborigines entered a float in the parade. The float was given prominence in the parade. Many International Women’s Day and May Day marches around the country also adopted anti-bicentennial themes. The Aboriginal contingent led the IWD march in Hobart. The Melbourne IWD Collective held a successful anti-colonisation dance with speakers from the Koori and migrant communities. The annual May Day Ball in Melbourne became instead a vibrant Rock Against Racism organised by the Trade Union Aboriginal Rights Solidarity Group.

A Real Basis to Celebrate

Protest against the bicentenary has brought the Aboriginal fight to centre stage in all progressive movements and now it is time to deepen the mutual ties.

The basis for unity is embedded in Australia’s history: the theft of Aboriginal land, subjugation of workers, super-exploitation of migrants and women, the divisive stigmatisation of lesbians and gay men are all rooted in the drive for profits. United action against the profiteers is the key to liberation for all.

Aboriginal women, workers, lesbians and gay men have a key role to play in making the political connections. Already Aboriginal women and elders are playing such a vital leadership role. In Melbourne it was Aboriginal women and children who held the first protest for the bicentennial year. Winnie Quagliotti, an elder of the Wurundjeri people who are the traditional owners of the land upon which Port Melbourne now stands, led a mourning ceremony to greet the arrival of the tall ships. The group sent a traditional message to Aboriginal people in Sydney warning of the arrival of the tall ships later that month. 

The campaigns which Aboriginal women lead for land rights and for the health, education and welfare of their community are feminist and trade union issues par excellence. Aboriginal unemployment and the capitalist rape of Aboriginal land are top working class priorities and must be treated as such. This is key to building lasting multi-racial solidarity and overcoming the single-issue politics that has dominated the Aboriginal movement. Also key is the fight by the left against BPG-style bureaucratism which would maintain this single issue segregation of the movement.

Common priorities make for common struggle. The emerging common struggle will make the Australian ruling class sorry that they ever held their big birthday party!



Statement to Bicentennial Protest Group

Members and supporters of Radical Women and the Freedom Socialist Party had the privilege of traveling to Sydney in January this year to participate in the Anti-Bicentennial Aboriginal march for Justice, Freedom and Hope. However the issue of political censorship reared its head at the march. We reprint below correspondence with the Bicentennial Protest Group in Sydney.

Congratulations on the success of the historic January 26, 1988 March for Justice, Freedom and Hope. The march was thrilling in its demonstration of the Aboriginal Movement’s power and the massive support it draws from a broad range of trade union and social issue struggles. The Freedom Socialist Party (FSP) and Radical Women (RW) were proud to be a part of this exciting event because we are in full support of Aboriginal demands for genuine sovereignty.

Unfortunately, however, the march was marred by a devastating policy of censorship of left and lesbian/gay supporters that, if continued, could seriously damage the struggle for Aboriginal rights by driving away some of the movement’s most stalwart advocates.

This misguided policy was unprecedented, and very dangerous. It is at odds with our past experience in working around Aboriginal issues. We have always found the movement open, democratic and solidarity-minded. We agree with Aboriginal activists like Lilla Watson, who has said, If you come to help me, you’re wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together. That’s the basis on which we work for Aboriginal self-determination.

Without justice for the most oppressed in Australia, there will be no justice for others. A society based on the theft of Aboriginal land and culture and resources, colonial-minded racism and police torture and murder directed at an entire race can never mete out equality to other people of colour, women or workers.

Because we feel so strongly about the importance of the Aboriginal movement to all other struggles for social justice, we cannot overlook the exclusionary policy of the march, since we feel it weakens all our movements by raising the spectre of red baiting and gay baiting– two of the bosses’ favourite tools for dividing the oppressed against each other.

The FSP and RW raise this criticism on the basis of a long history of collaboration and support to the liberation movements of native peoples throughout the world. Let us tell you something about our organisations.

The FSP, a socialist feminist party, was founded in Seattle, Washington, USA in 1966. Radical Women, the FSP’s sister organisation was founded one year later. From our very inception both organisations were a key part of the people of colour movements, including the Native American movement. This continues to be true today.

In the US, FSP and RW are currently working with many Native and non-native groups to defend the sovereign fishing rights of the Columbia River fishing people in the Pacific Northwest; to prevent the forced relocation of the Dine and Hopi Indians from Big Mountain, Arizona; and recently to defend members of the American Indian Movement (AIM) from continuing legal attacks by the government. And we have built solidarity around these issues in this country as well.

We alone on the left internationally have written extensively in defence of the Miskitu Indians in Nicaragua and called on the Sandinistas to abandon their disastrous violation of the Indian’s sovereign rights.

In Australia, RW and FSP were active in the struggle to stop the desecration and flooding of Welatye Therra to make a recreational lake. In Melbourne, we held a very successful benefit to raise funds for this struggle and generated support overseas by publishing an article in our newspaper, the Freedom Socialist .

The Melbourne chapter of Radical Women was among the founding organisations in the Aboriginal Rights Solidarity Group (ARSG). We continue to support the work of ARSG in many areas. In particular, we played a very active role in organising the Melbourne leg of the national tour of relatives of Aborigines who have died in custody. In fact, it was Radical Women members who took on the task of media and publicity coordination for the Melbourne end of this important tour.

Radical Women has also raised funds for several important campaigns. We held a joint benefit with Women Against Racism and Women’s Liberation Switchboard which raised a considerable amount of money for the ARSG and the Aboriginal Freedom Fund for 1988. The Freedom Socialist Party held a benefit to raise funds for Helen Boyle and the Committee to Defend Black Rights’ political campaign for the seat of La Perouse.

We have also been prolific letter writers to politicians and newspaper editors. Just a few of the causes that we have taken up are: increased funding for Aboriginal representation before the Royal Commission into Maralinga; the call for a Royal Commission into Aboriginal deaths in custody; police harassment of Victorian Aborigines while celebrating NADOC; and the use of DepoProvera on Aboriginal women.

No matter where we work, we try to connect Aboriginal demands to all the issues of the oppressed, whether it be in the women’s liberation movement, the lesbian and gay movement, the trade union or any other struggles. In the Australian Teachers Federation (of which I am a member) our pressure along with hundreds of other rank and file teachers, both black and white, has brought some important results.

In all of our long history in the fight against racism, we have found the Aboriginal movement democratic and welcoming. So we were particularly appalled at the Bicentennial Protest Group’s ban on distribution of left literature and attempts to censor lesbian/gay banners at the March for Justice Freedom and Hope.

BPG marshalls demanded that we censor ourselves out of “respect” for the movement! But no movement that respects itself and knows its own strength calls on its supporters to hide their affiliation or turn off their minds when they express solidarity. If the feminist or labour movements attempted to censor Aboriginal demonstrators in public marches and told them not to “confuse the issues” by raising their banners and demands, this would be instantly and rightly denounced as racism of the worst kind. Why is the censorship of radicals and gays any less repugnant?

Furthermore, censorship of “embarrassing” allies will never win acceptability for Aboriginal sovereignty in the eyes of the very government whose genocidal policies we are protesting. It will only stifle some of the strongest forces that exist in support of the struggle for Aboriginal self determination.

We urge you to reconsider this disastrous gag rule for the rest of the Aboriginal support actions throughout 1988. The FSP and RW will continue to support Aboriginal Rights, but at the same time, we insist that respect be accorded the broad range of serious and committed supporters of Aboriginal liberation, among whom are socialists, feminists and gay liberationists like ourselves. Real solidarity is always a two-way street. It strengthens and enlivens, moralises and educates the movements because it stands in direct opposition to all the old divisions and prejudices so carefully manufactured, taught and manipulated by the ruling class.

We hope that you will find time to answer this letter. If not, perhaps we could speak by phone (we don’t have a branch in Sydney) with a representative of your organisation to discuss this matter further. This matter is of crucial importance to us all.

In struggle

Alison Thorne

for Melbourne Radical Women and the Freedom Socialist Party

BPG Replies

Thank you for your letter of 4 June this year. We were very pleased to hear about another group so active in their support of Aboriginal people.

With respect to the question of so-called ‘censorship’ you seem to have gained a certain amount of mis-information. The BPG did not, and does not have, a policy of censorship, nor did it or any of its members ‘demand’ that anyone censor themselves. On the other hand, the BPG was asked by the National Coalition of Aboriginal s and by the March 88 committee if it could, and if its members would, respect the wishes of Aboriginal people that at the demonstration of  26 January and at demonstrations around that time no papers of any sort other than the Land Rights News  (produced by the Northern Lands Council) be sold or otherwise distributed. Aboriginal people consulted amongst each other many times prior to the events of January; one of their decisions was that the 26th of January was their day and that they felt that they did not want this feeling of energy to be dissipated by other groups. The hoped that Land Rights News  would be the paper of their day. This was not of course, to denigrate the support and participation of left groups, lesbian and gay groups or any other s. It was, however, a recognition that the Aboriginal people who were on the march came from many different countries across Australia, also a recognition that many of these people did not speak English, had never been to the city before and would be greatly confused by the trappings of big-city life. (many of these people even asked that their photographs should not be taken, they felt this as an intrusion). The BPG was asked to communicate with others about this wish on the part of Aboriginal people to not have newspapers sold. We wrote to many groups: perhaps, as you are a Melbourne based group, you did not receive this letter. We are sorry if you did not.

Several left groups were at the meeting in which this “directive” from the Aboriginal people was first discussed. They agreed, or at least did not dissent, when a consensus motion was passed that we respect the wishes of Aboriginal people. However these same people were amongst the paper sellers on the 26th of January. They were asked, as all paper-sellers were asked (again, following the guidelines given by Aboriginal people) if they would cease selling their papers. Many people were happy to do this, some were not, and BPG members, both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal were threatened. No-one at the BPG is aware of nay attempt to ‘censor’ lesbian/gay banners and no-one except yourselves has mentioned anything to us about this so I can make no comment on this at all.

The whole matter would probably have gone no further, except that again the National Coalition and the March ’88 Committee asked the BPG to do something about the fact that papers had, in fact, been sold on the 26th of January. Hence a motion was passed, after many hours of discussion in the BPG with members who had sold papers, requiring that those individuals and groups who were not willing to respect the wishes of Aboriginal people be no longer members of the BPG. We can only surmise that the people representing various left groups “censored” and manipulated information on what had been said by Aboriginal people and other members of the BPG at meetings before and after the 26th of January. Otherwise this rumour of censorship could not exist.

We agree that this issue is of vital importance to all of us. Many members of the BPG are in left groups, lesbian/gay groups, migrant groups and other political/solidarity movements. We hope that one of the many things we have learned in our participation in these s is to give respect as well as to expect it ourselves. The wishes and rights of Aboriginal people have long been, at best, ignored; in support and solidarity with them we feel it is time that those ‘small’ wishes, such as not taking photographs, not selling papers, be respected whilst we are working towards greater goals.

This is not to say, of course, that differences of opinions and perspectives should not be voiced. Many different voices and opinions are heard amongst Aboriginal people and at BPG meetings. We hope that your voice may be amongst those that will continue to be heard in support and solidarity with Aboriginal people.

Ann for the BPG

Reply to BPG

Dear Friends

Thank you for your reply to our June 4 letter protesting censorship at the January 26 March for Justice Freedom and Hope.

There are a few points you make which we must answer, the most notable being the suggestion that we protested on the basis of rumour and deliberately manipulated information. We wrote to you to express our concern about what we saw and experienced on January 26. We were told by people who identified themselves as members of the BPG that we could not sell our paper. We also witnessed people who we assumed, possibly wrongly, were BPG members, telling participants with a lesbian and gay banner that the banner was inappropriate and was likely to ‘confuse and offend’ Aboriginal people. 

In your letter you explain some of the behind the scenes ‘toi-ng and fro-ing’ which took place around this matter of literature distribution. We believe that the BPG should have rejected the request from the National Coalition of Aboriginal Organisations and the March 88 Committee to implement such a policy and should have explained that this was an unnecessary, undemocratic and divisive policy. 

You also raise the argument that energy would be dissipated by other groups raising issues and distributing literature. We fail to see how and believe that exactly the opposite is the case. The energy on the day was generated because of the size and obvious diversity of the march and the important links and connections that were being made.

You emphasise respect, an ingredient we agree is an important part of any political movement. Respect is a two way thing based on solidarity and a willingness to discuss issues and take each others’ struggle seriously. Respect will not be ‘taught’ by a expulsions, censorship and physical confrontations with people who support the Aboriginal struggle.

We pledge our continued support and solidarity for the struggles of the Aboriginal nations of this continent. However we cannot guarantee that we will not raise criticisms or debate issues within any movement in which we participate. To do so in this case would be to work in the Aboriginal movement motivated by liberalism and white guilt rather than genuine solidarity and respect for a struggle that is not only just but is intertwined with the liberation of all the oppressed of this   continent.

In struggle

Alison Thorne

for Melbourne Radical Women and the Freedom Socialist Party

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