The Tent Embassy protests – a lesson in overreaction and social context

The Australia Day Tent Embassy Protest – was it one of the Nation’s gravest political security threats? A bit of an overreaction? A media beat-up perhaps? Or was there something deeper going on …

The protests were sparked by comments made by the Opposition Leader Tony Abbott that those at the Tent Embassy ‘move on’ after celebrating its 40th anniversary. Some 200 activists from the Embassy traveled to a nearby ceremony honouring emergency service workers, which was attended by both Abbott and Prime Minister Gillard. After several minutes of chants and window banging, the Prime Minister’s security team decide to bundle both Gillard and Abbott out of the ceremony, where Gillard tripped and lost a shoe in the drama. Both leaders were put into cars, allowing for their departure.

It didn’t take long for the moral panic to begin. The protests were ‘violent’ and a ‘shame’ on the Nation, lead by an ‘angry mob’. Countless column inches were taken up with estimates of how far the protests had sent back the cause of reconciliation. Was it five years? Ten years? Twenty years? Some went even further. David Penberthy called for the closure of the Tent Embassy, as did Menzies House, apparently seeing no conflict between that and their defence of the free speech rights of Andrew Bolt last year. Speaking of Bolt, he saw fit to use the protests as an excuse to call an end to reconciliation altogether. As Amber Jamieson noted in Crikey almost every major paper led with the image of a clearly frightened Gillard in the arms of personal security accompanied by headlines like ‘Prime Threat’ or the offensive appropriation ‘Sorry Day’ (I’ll come back to that). Laurie Oakes seized on a handful of vile comments to label all those involved in the Tent Embassy as ‘morons’. Bob Carr had my favourite piece, seemingly having a brain haemorrhage and going on a bizarre red-baiting rant:

Anyway here we have again the bankruptcy of the old Leftist approach: throw a demo. Every time some respectable body does this – the ACTU or Unions NSW or a pro-refugee group – the same thing happens: on the street the extremists take over. The Trots love a blue, “the worse things are the better they are” and by radicalizing everyone and breaking heads it all hastens the World October, onto revolution, comrades.

Must have been pretty bad right? The black hordes attacking our first female Prime Minister like a scene out of The Birth Of A Nation, right?

Well eyewitness accounts come across quite different to those of the commentariat. Melbourne based writer Wil Wallace was able to interview Embassy activist Sam Castro, who gave a very different account of the days events:

The morning started with speeches being made at the Tent Embassy on a range of subjects until one person stood up and explained to the crowd that Tony Abbott had remarked to the media that he believed the Tent Embassy was no longer relevant and should be packed up and moved on; information had just come through that Tony Abbott was at The Lobby, a restaurant near the Old Parliament House, and the suggestion was made that the group should go there and ask Abbott to talk to the crowd and explain himself.

A contingent of about 100 protesters made their way up the road to The Lobby and surrounded it. Though they were loud and noisy they were non-violent. Security blocked the protesters from getting close to the restaurant for a while but it didn’t take long for a few protesters to break the line and soon the rest had gotten close up against the restaurant’s walls. As the walls of The Lobby are made of glass the protesters could look in and see Mr Abbott and the others pretending not to hear them and, after about ten or fifteen minutes Julia Gillard’s white jacket was recognised and the protesters realised that she was in there along with Mr Abbott.

The conduct of the police and security team is also notably different in Castro’s account:

As more protesters made their way to the restaurant, the riot police charged out the doors, practically dragging Ms Gillard along, while the onlookers began to shout “where are you going?” and “why won’t you talk to us?” As the cars drove off, some people threw plastic water bottles and water at the cars.

At this point things began to get fairly nasty; one protester was knocked into the rose bushes and one gigantic cop started brandishing a can of tear gas or capsicum spray (reports differ on this point) in people’s faces and shoved Sam, another girl and a female photo-journalist in the head. When Sam told him to calm down he reportedly bared his teeth and grinned so widely his eyes nearly popped out of his head; to many on site it was fairly clear that the officer was barely under control.

This account is supported by-and-large by other Embassy attendees like journalist Amy McQuire and organiser Mark McMurtie. Writing in New Matilda, Ben Eltham noted that 3AW’s reporter on the scene, Michael Pachi, reported that the ‘violence’ was in fact mostly loud chanting, whilst participants again reiterated that they only wanted Abbott to make a speech to the crowd. While these claims are obviously subjective, the authors at least have the benefit of actually having been there, something not shared by Penberthy, Bolt, Oakes or Carr.

On top of these accounts is the video of the event. Judging by footage provide by NineMSN, it’s pretty obvious that no protestor ever came close to either leader, and that the only civilians that did were those involved in the media.

Whilst protestors were banging on the restaurant windows, this video shows that it was still far short of anything violent. Indeed, the only video evidence of physical violence is that committed by the police, as was claimed by the eyewitnesses mentioned above. Footage shows police inciting and threatening demonstrators and the media, punching protestors and repeatedly ignoring complaints of abuse.

Considering all of this, it’s difficult to see how the protestors formed a credible threat to either Gillard or Abbott. After all, not a single person was arrested at the protest, and as of yet, no one has been charged with any crime. That says a lot about the nature of the demonstration, especially when you consider twenty people were arrested during the crackdown on Occupy Melbourne, which was nowhere near any National leader.

The reaction to the Tent Embassy protest, by Gillard, Abbott, the police and the media provides a uniquely raw glimpse at how the powerful view and treat Aboriginal Australians. Firstly, serious questions have to be asked about why neither Gillard nor Abbott made any attempt to address the crowd. After all, that’s what Anthony Albanese did when a 500-strong crowd (i.e. well over twice the size of the Tent Embassy protest) confronted him outside his Marrackville office in September 2011 over his comments about the Convoy of No Confidence.

Then there is the question of whether the actions of police and security were even necessary. It is difficult to claim the protestors represented any clear physical threat to either Gillard or Abbott. The threat was at least no greater then the aforementioned Albanese protest, or another recent action against Immigration Minister Chris Bowen by Refugee advocates. Neither protest attracted any where near the amount of police attention as did the Tent Embassy action.

But then again, it’s not like the police have the best relationship with the Aboriginal people. Earlier this month saw the death of Terrance Daniel Briscoe, a 28-year-old Aboriginal man, within police custody in an Alice Springs gaol. The official reason given by the police, that Briscoe had sustained a head injury prior to being locked up, amounts to little more than gross negligence on the part of the police. Sadly, Briscoe is just one of almost 300 Aboriginal persons who have died in custody since the deaths-in-custody Royal Commission in 1991. As Igna Ting has reported in Crikey, deaths in custody have risen by 50% since 1991 despite some $400 million dollars being allocated to implementing (some) recommendations of the Royal Commission. Between 2000 and 2009, Indigenous incarceration rates increased by 50%, whilst non-Indigenous rates increased by 5%. The proportion of Indigenous people in prison system has nearly doubled since 1991, going from 14% to 26%, whilst remaining just 3% of the population. Indeed, based on the raw statistics, Australia imprisons Aboriginal men at five times the rate Apartheid South Africa gaoled black men.

And this brings me to my main point. In almost all the coverage of the Tent Embassy protest, there has been a deafening silence about the social context it undeniably exists in. The fact is that the Aboriginal people have faced historical and systematic racism that continues to have consequences and is still well and truly alive. Is it really a surprised that this occurred on Australia Day? Despite the best efforts of nationalistic apologists, it still marks the day of the initial invasion of the Aboriginal people, sparking well over a century of attempted genocide and assimilation, all for the cause of starting a massive penal state. That might just be a little offensive.
Similarly, little was said about the present day attacks on the Aboriginal people, the clearest example being the bipartisan Northern Territory Intervention. Started in 2007, the Intervention consists of a serious of policies implemented in 73 remote Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory. There is little evidence to suggest these policy have helped these communities at all, but are more likely to have driven the people further in poverty and stigma.

Efforts to build housing have been notoriously slow, with up to half the funds eaten up by administration. Even with the program beginning to get on track, it is unlikely the government will meet is occupancy rate (9.3 people per dwelling) without massive waste.

Social funding is being concentrated into ‘growth hubs’, effectively forcing people off their land despite the known health and social benefits of living on one’s homeland. School enrolments and attendance rates have decreased in prescribed areas due to poor facilities, job cuts and the abolition of bilingual education, and despite the use of punitive welfare measures.

On top of these failures comes income quarantine. Those receiving welfare payments automatically have 50% of their income withheld and placed onto a ‘BasicsCard’, which can be used to purchase necessities at selected stores. The evidence suggests that the BasicsCard has had no effect on consumption patterns of food, soft drink or cigarettes. The cards can only be used in major supermarkets, hence many locally owned small shops have gone bust, whilst forcing people to travel long distances at great costs to shop in the larger towns. There is also evidence to suggest that people are pressured and humiliated into accepting the BasicsCard when they no longer have to. A study of Aboriginal women using the BasicsCard found people were generally confused about why they had been put under income quarantine, that they felt a loss of ‘respect and dignity’, that they believed Centrelink staff often had paternalist views of Aboriginal People and that many women had stopped reporting abuse out of fear of further quarantining. Income quarantine also uses massive amounts of funds that could be used for social services, with estimates that its administration costs almost nine times the amount spent on aiding the unemployed find a job.

The NT Intervention has sparked serious and significant declines in the living standards of the prescribed Aboriginal communities. Under the intervention suicide and self harm, incarceration and child removal have all increased. Is it any wonder that the Intervention is opposed by Elders across the Northern Territory as well as officials within the United Nations. Yet despite all of the failures associated with the Intervention and the stigma it breeds, the government is committed to see it last for at least another decade under the ‘Stronger Futures‘ name. Indeed, income quarantining is planned to be rolled out around the country.

I mention these things because they must be acknowledged to understand what happened on Australia Day. The Aboriginal community continues to suffer the consequences from historical dispossession. Dispossession from the land, their culture, their wages and their families. Hence we have ‘the gap’, the massive disparity that exists between Indigenous and non-Indigenous persons in terms of wealth, education and health.

But the social context goes further than that. What the Northern Territory Intervention shows is that attempts to assimilate the Aboriginal people continues until this day. As a consequence, the racist and paternalist attitudes that justify policy responses like the Intervention are legitimised, strengthened and reproduced. This is especially the case when elements of the media are so explicitly racist. Take Mark Knight’s cartoon in the Herald Sun the day after the Tent Embassy protest, which uses genocide as a punchline. Or the aforementioned ‘Sorry Day’ headlines; because losing your shoe is apparently on par with remembering the thousands of children stolen from their families. Both things are fine if you think the suffering of people based on their race is so insignificant that it can be laughed at or dismissed entirely.

The harsh truth is that those in power, be they the police, the media, or politicians, have consistently and actively disadvantaged the Aboriginal people ever since ‘settlement’ in 1788. That’s why the Tent Embassy still exists. It’s also why Tony Abbott’s comments were so offensive and able to arouse such fury so easily, because 40 years after the first Tent Embassy, governments (and their megaphones in the media) are content with rolling out policies that do so much damage to Aboriginal communities.

In such a context, is it any wonder that the protestors would be so angry and maybe, sorta, kinda actually didn’t at all harm our Nation’s leading politicians? The fact that an action where protestors attacked no one and caused no property damage yet can still be labelled as violent displays a distinct authoritarian political outlook on the world. While the commentariat cries crocodile tears for the state of the Nation’s political dialogue and the ‘dignity of the Office’, we should remember that these same centres of power have shown little to no respect for the Aboriginal people.

Cross-posted from Zen’s Arcade.

Neil Robertson

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  1. Nasty country Australia and my heart aches for the indigenous folk. I cannot recall one day in the almost fifty years I’ve lived in the Lucky Country that I have forgotten how it all began. I know first hand the devastation of being colonized as I lived my early life in Glasgow. There’s no more harsher police than the British and their colonial cousins think USA South Africa and anywhere they inhabited. Many a life ruined by them. Jack Lindsay never put his foot in Australia after he left it due to a nasty experience by one of the boys in blue.I’m amazed at how patient the Aboriginal people are and for their own kind who side with the establishment a pox on them.

  2. You don’t see how burning the national flag could be seen as a negative and counter to the progress the protesters presumably want? Or shall we excuse any and all shitty behaviour on account of social context and the colour of those involved’s skin?

  3. Tony Abbott has my full support. Might I add he is also supported by many clear minded indigenous leaders as well. He never said the tent embassy should be torn down. He is perfectly correct in what he said. Australia has mived on – the Tent Embassy has made it’s point. Surely we can now all move to a place where indigenous and all other Australians can live together under the One roof – One nation together – divided we fall – untied we stand.
    What good will really come from continually harping on about Australia Day being Invasion Day. We all need to move on – own the past – recognise the good and the bad -but we all want bright future – something we can all celebrate together. Nobody can turn back the clock – is that what the proestors want??? 20 million Australians are not just goiog to leave – we are in this together – so let’s just move on – forgive the past and embrace a future together.

  4. Eddy, pleaasse to these people and many who understand the issue, the burning of the flag and protesting through loud chanting is trivial to the decimation of culture and the denial of fundamental human rights and social justice, not withstanding the highly illegal acts such as the stealing of land that has not had true recognition and compensation. Besides there is still nothing to lose. Indigenous people are still grossly the most incarcerated, least housed, highest infant mortality rate, least educated and all round disadvantaged due to institutionalised racism. I would have to say NO, it hasn’t done anything to stem progress in the long term. In fact it needs more of it until their is quality of life at the same par as non indigenous. Why on earth couldn’t europeans live at peace with one another and look after each other, but also control birth like our indigenous brothers and siters pre invasion. If this was the case, there would never have been any reason to invade a peaceful people who lived socially complex lives, ones in which many of us wish we could be living today.

  5. I was also at the protest and agree completely with the comments made by Sam Castro above. It was quite surreal waking up each morning for at least a week afterwards to the radio reporting ‘another revelation’ regarding the ‘violent protest’ at the embassy, and then seeing the Libs running with that angle to score cheap political points. It is also ironic that (the imagined) violence was deployed as a criticism by commentators who simultaneously praised the history of the embassy, ignoring the fact that the embassy was itself born from violence, from both militant activists and a police repression.

    Thanks for the great piece.

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