Tent Embassy protests: Keeping the fight alive

BY AMY MCQUIREFEBRUARY 13, 2012

Originally published in Tracker Magazine.

Two children sit around the sacred fire at the Aboriginal Tent Embassy.

NATIONAL: AMY MCQUIRE* speaks to three veterans of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy to find out the way forward for the next generation of black activists.

The young warriors of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy are older now. They’ve seen governments come and go, they’ve seen race relations worsen, and they’ve seen issues like land rights fall off the national agenda.

But the tents remain. The battles they fought as teenagers still stain those lawns.

Today they hope that legacy will be taken up by the younger generation. Because, they say, very little has changed.

On the 40th anniversary of the Tent Embassy, Tracker sat down with three of those fighters.

Tiga Bayles is a prominent activist known for helping pave the way for our First Nations community radio stations around the country. Currently, he runs a popular political talkback program on Brisbane’s Radio 98.9 fm and is chairman of the National Indigenous Radio Service and General Manager of the Brisbane Indigenous Media Association.

But back in 1972, he was a 17-year-old living in Brisbane and working as a builder’s labourer. His first contact with the embassy came through television footage of police officers trying to pull down the tents.

It was a couple of weeks after Michael Anderson, Tony Coorey, Bertie Williams and Billie Craigie, first pitched their umbrella opposite Old Parliament House. But when he saw the cops trying to tear down the embassy, he knew he had to act.

“We saw that on the news, around 6 pm. This was mid-week but we did a bit of running around, organizing for petrol money and we were on the road by probably 10 pm that night.

“… We threw a change of clothes, and a few blankets in (the station wagon) and hit the road, not knowing how long we would be there, not sure what we would be confronted with or challenged by. We had no idea what it would turn into.”

But they were already accustomed to police brutality in Murri country.

“(In Brisbane) the political climate was hard-going, it was heavy. So it just seemed a natural thing to do to go down there and support those fellas,” Mr Bayles says.

“We were in demonstrations up there, we were in marches, we were getting bashed, we were getting locked up. 
We had to be down there.”

Mr Bayles says at the time he was struggling with his identity as an Aboriginal person, a struggle that compelled him to become more politically active.

“I had a pretty severe sort of identity problem because I grew up in a small town, Theordore, and I didn’t know anything positive about being black.

“I copped s**t. I wasn’t allowed to ride on the school bus in 1968 because it was for whites only, then I’d fight with the blacks still living on the riverbank as I walked home from school.
So I was pretty mixed up as far as identity goes. I wanted to be able to feel good, strong and proud about being black.

“… I wanted to be able to articulate who I was, and understand and articulate those issues. There was also something that puzzled me all the time. It just didn’t set right how the way life was, how blacks still lived on the riverbanks, the way police would confront the likes of my mom…

“I saw police going down to the riverbank and cutting the tent ropes so the tents would fall down. “

Sam Watson also made his way down from Brisbane in 1972. Today he is renowned as a strong Murri activist and academic and is still on the frontlines of protest.

Back then he was 18, and was invited down to Canberra as a Minister for Information about the Black Panther Party. He had helped set up the Australian branch of the movement with Denis Walker.

“(Denis and I) imported a large amount of (Black Panther) material through the networks we had. We studied their material, the writings of people like Huey P Newton, Bobby Seale and Angela Davis.

“We adapted that and we reached the conclusion that this was certainly the ideal sort of ideological framework to present to our younger blacks who were seeking to establish that hardline political spearhead.

“We had been through a period of time, from the 60s to the 70s, where young Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people were seeking a way forward, but really wanted to focus exclusively through that political lens.

“Denis and myself spent quite a lot of time importing that material, studying it and adapting it to the Australian situation. “

The result was their own Ten-Point program which they circulated through the community. Mr Watson describes it as a “visionary document” that he was very proud of.

After that was released, Mr Watson was invited down to the embassy.

“The embassy was driven by a political structure and political vision which was wholly unique,” he says, “The five point platform (which called for mineral rights, Aboriginal control of the NT, reparations and preservation of sacred sites) which was released in early 1972 encapsulated exactly what the embassy was about.

“It was a living document. As we went forward, great intellectuals like Uncle Kevin Gilbert came forward as well and had us thinking about sovereignty and treaty.

“It was an exciting time and I was very fortunate to be around some of the greatest thinkers that Aboriginal Australia has ever produced.”

Sol Bellear was also 18 at the time, and had previously toured America to study the Black Panther movement.

Today he is a well-known Aboriginal activist as well as chair of Tranby Aboriginal College and of the Aboriginal Medical Service in Redfern.

“I went to the tent embassy on the second weekend, because I was out of town (Sydney) on a break as were most I think,” he says.

“It was a slow news time anyway, so this had captured the imagination of the Canberra press, and we all got wind of it.

“There were no mobile phones back then so that’s all we had. When we got back to Sydney we said ‘we’ll go down’.

“It was the political climate of the day that really got us involved. Our number one thing at the time was national land rights. (Prime Minister William) McMahon and the Coalition government were really in that racist mode.

“The ALP were making overtures saying they were going to do this, that and the other when they got in. But what we wanted was a forum where we could highlight Aboriginal issues nationally and internationally.”

Mr Bellear says land national land rights was a uniting issue that helped drive the tent embassy movement, and the young people involved in it.

It was a legacy left over from the fights of past land rights legends like William Cooper, William Ferguson and Jack Patton.

As the Gurindji Walk-off made news down south, Aboriginal people took to the streets to support calls for land rights across the country.

“In the beginning, only about five Aboriginal people were marching. The protests were really led by the trade unions,” Mr Bellear says. “When the Gurindji battle started heating up, more and more Aboriginal people started getting involved politically.”

He says even back then, there was wariness around the emergence of a Black Panther movement.

“There were people that would cross the street when they saw us walking across because they didn’t want to see them black power people. I saw some of them at the tent embassy (on the 40th anniversary).

“… We had a chapter of the Black Panther party out there because it was the only way we could get our message across. It was urban guerrillaism. Now they’d call it terrorism.”

One of those activities involved vandalising Captain Cook statues under the cover of darkness.

Mr Bayles says he wasn’t involved in the Black Panther movement, but differences of opinion did not splinter the tent embassy.

“There was always difference of opinion, and sometimes we couldn’t reach an agreement,” Mr Bayles says.

“There were fellas who wanted to put on black berets and take to arms, and there were others who didn’t. I was guided by my elders who were saying ‘that’s not the way to go, we don’t have the numbers, let’s just stay as we are, we organise, we build our agencies, we build our strength in community.
“… Regardless of the difference and conflicting views, we could agree we needed to stand together.”

Mr Bellear says there was opposition amongst older generations.

“They never said it, but I don’t think my mother and father particularly liked the way I was going. You know what its like in the press, they looked at the violence of the Black power movements in the US and some of the violence in South Africa and said it was going to happen here.

“A lot of older people were concerned we were going to be hurt.
A lot just couldn’t embrace the militancy or radicalism of what we had to do.”

Mr Watson agrees that although there were differences, they were only minor conflicts.

“These were young men and women from around the countryside who came here because they were searching for that political vehicle, that political outlet, platform and opportunity.

“And the only thing that bound us together was our Aboriginality, our culture, our background and our common motivation, a common desire to support the tents, stand by the tents and make this political process work,” he said.

Now that younger generation has become the older generation.

And Australia has changed.

We are no longer discussing national land rights, while our Aboriginal teenagers aren’t leading widespread protest movements and influencing public debate.

But Bayles, Bellear and Watson are all still hopeful about the next generation.

“I think the youth have started to realize there are a lot of opportunities, but they are still being denied them because of racism,” Mr Bayles says.

“There are more of them that are culturally strong, there are more of them that are educated and have degrees. So those numbers are growing and the ranks are swelling there. 
I think we’ll see growth in this area, where there’ll be a lot of political activity.

“There hasn’t been a lot of political activity where the young people have been involved for a long time.

“A lot of it does come down to us older ones not making way for them, not making them feel that there is a place beside us.

“I think that’s been a big problem.”

Mr Bellear believes the youth have to again take up the mantle of national land rights.

“We’re all going in as a splintered groups with different issues. That’s the one thing that’s missing today – a central issue that brings Aboriginal people together.

“What we need to do is revisit and start putting pressure on federal government for land rights.

“… It’s the one thing we won’t argue about. It’s the one defining issue that everybody knows we have to have.

“And we need to get to that. Land rights in New South Wales is probably the best we have, but it’s no good saying we have really good land rights in New South Wales if they don’t have it in Victoria or Queensland or Western Australia or Tasmania.

“We have to have national land rights legislation.

“… We have to put that back on the agenda and give the young people something to focus about. Give them one solid agenda item.”

Mr Bellear thinks the time is coming where the youth will rise again.

“I see this happening and I see it being lead by Aboriginal young people. I think the young Aboriginal people will get up and start being more forceful and more militant.”

Mr Watson believes that the new generation will bring change within the next two decades.

“We will succeed. If I didn’t have hope, I wouldn’t be here.”

He believes young people have to start using their anger at injustice.

“Maintain that rage. Maintain that anger. But channel it,” he says.

“Have our rights acknowledged and asserted so we can lay the pathway forward for our children, grandchildren and great grandchildren.

“These struggles have to be fought now, so future generations of our mob receive the fruits of the sacrifices that decades of our elders have fought and struggled so hard for.”

Those sacrifices also extend to those young men and women who camped on those lawns now sacred to Aboriginal protest.

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