The battle for Redfern: ISJA stands firm against campaign of police harassment

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There’s a new park in the inner Sydney suburb of Waterloo. It’s the park adjacent to the fence line where Aboriginal teenager, TJ Hickey, was impaled in 2004. After a long struggle, the movement named it in TJ’s honour. TJ, who lived in Redfern, a community subjected to racist policing, died on 14 February 2004. He would not have died if the Redfern police had not pursued him. For 11 years, TJ’s mother, Gail, has been demanding justice in honour of her son’s memory. The Hickey family and their supporters continue to face sustained harassment as the NSW State attempts to whitewash events surrounding this death in custody.

In 2005, on the first anniversary, Aboriginal students from the NSW University of Technology donated a plaque to be laid at the fence line. It states that TJ was impaled “arising from a police pursuit.” These five words have Redfern police enraged. They demand it be reworded to describe the death a tragic accident. Meanwhile, the fight to affix the plaque continues.

In the lead-up to the 11th anniversary, supporters declared the rally assembly point TJ Hickey Park. The evening before, a beautiful handcrafted sign proclaiming the new name appeared, anchored by sturdy concrete foundations. Six weeks on, the sign remains. But sign or no sign, the mass movement to stop Aboriginal deaths in custody has broad support, giving it the power to make the new name stick, whatever the authorities do.

The battle to march. After the 2014 rally, on the steps of the Redfern police station, Superintendent Luke Freudenstein declared, “There will be no more Hickey marches.” The movement had other plans!

Under the NSW Summary Offences Act, rally organisers must lodge an application, including the route, if they wish to march. The Indigenous Social Justice Association (ISJA), organisers of the 2015 event, complied. In an extraordinary response, Freudenstein made sweeping demands, including that the march be confined to the footpath, that there be no “offensive language” on banners or placards and that traffic would not be “obstructed.” Ray Jackson, the President of ISJA, refused these conditions, characterising them as “a full frontal attack on the right of the Hickey family and their supporters.”

Jackson appeared in the Supreme Court on the eve of the rally to show cause why the march should proceed. During the hearing one of the “police experts,” officer Cullen, stated that “if ISJA marched, then the outcome would be similar, but maybe even worse than in Ferguson, Missouri!” Justice Schmidt ruled that the march through central Sydney was “prohibited.” Outside court, Jackson said “spurious claims of safety held sway.” The decision, which was not appealable, impacts on the broader right to protest.

The next day, 200 people rallied in TJ Hickey Park, and the march proceeded along another much shorter route. The police presence was massive, with one cop for every protestor. The police tore down a flag bearing the words, “Cops killed TJ,” provoking a scuffle. After the rally Jackson declared that in 2016 ISJA will again apply to march, predicting “it will be rejected by the police and another court case will probably ensue, whereby I will once more go through the foul process of outright lies, spin and innuendo.”

Defending big business. On 21 March, the Redfern police again attempted to prevent a march organised by ISJA. This time it was a protest to save The Block, which had been set aside for affordable Indigenous housing in the ’70s. The Block is now under threat from developers, Deicorp, in collaboration with the Aboriginal Housing Corporation, which long ago lost the support of the grassroots, having morphed into a private company with capped membership.

On Sorry Day in May 2014, Jenny Munro and four other Aboriginal grandmothers established the Redfern Aboriginal Tent Embassy to oppose the theft of this communal inner city land, and to stop the bulldozers—a stand that has gained wide support.

Redfern police command has made its position plain, stating they “do not want the return of a ‘black enclave’ at The Block.” The police set out to defend business interests when ISJA planned to protest an event at Redfern Park, cynically called “Dreaming Beyond — Colours of Redfern,” hosted by the Chamber of Commence to support the development in “a celebration of local enterprise.” The aim of the ISJA rally was to assert that “the colours of Redfern include Black” and will do so forever.

Faced with the Redfern police again having “problems” with the ISJA march application, Jackson said, “it is more than evident that Redfern police are, again, attempting to stop us marching to places where the public are present. This is just another heavy-handed attack from the ‘bully man.’ We will resist their attacks upon our freedom to rally and march.”

2015 Hickey protest: Ray Jackson asserts the right to the march!

Jackson also linked the fight to save The Block to the struggle to prevent the closure of remote Aboriginal communities in West and South Australia, stating: “Aborigines live in Redfern and Waterloo and we have every right to remain here. That right, however, must be jealously protected from those who dare to dream our suburb as being ‘no Blacks in Redfern’!

“If they are allowed to get their corporate way, The Block will be the first Aboriginal community, remote or otherwise, to be shut down in NSW and our land taken from us. In WA and SA the shutdown of the communities will be for the extractive industries, whilst for The Block it will be for the benefit of Deicorp and to the great satisfaction of the Redfern police.”

2016: Stronger next year. Redfern police are engaging in systematic harassment of ISJA, which, at the same time, weakens the protest rights of everyone in NSW. It is vital for the broadest possible forces to mobilise to provide support to the next TJ Hickey march.

The cops must learn that racist policing will not be tolerated and that they will be held to account for their actions. We must honour and remember TJ—a teenager with a cheeky grin who died too young. We must support his family and build a strong, purposeful, disciplined movement with steely determination and clear objectives to stop deaths in custody.

The Indigenous Social Justice Association – Melbourne will mobilise a Victorian contingent to travel to Redfern next year. We will not forget TJ, and we will not be silenced.

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