feature | Jennifer Mills

190coverOVERLAND 190
autumn 2008
ISBN 978-0-9775171-7-6
published 19 March 2008



Jennifer Mills writes from occupied territory

It’s not quite Afghanistan, but the intervention has taken its toll on an already divided town. After the 2007 election, Alice Springs is drawing cautious breaths. We’re whispering that maybe this new mob in Canberra will give us a better chance at living together. We’re hoping for a reprieve, if only from our own shortcomings. Because we whites don’t really know how to belong to this divided place. Are we a microcosm of Australia’s racial woes, or the front line of a silent war? Are we a tourist attraction? A business opportunity? A mistake?

For a minute there, we felt important. Someone, at least, was watching. That urgency has fallen away with the election, the summertime shutdown, and the return of the desert’s natural perspective. When you walk through the empty mall in midsummer, it’s like a suburban ghost town, all closed glass-fronted shops and tumbleweed. It’s hard to remember you’re in the murder capital of Australia.

In November I attend a meeting of concerned citizens regarding the establishment of a community patrol. “This is not a vigilante group,” insists the police’s Crime Prevention representative, more than once. Patrols were initiated early in 2007 by a group called ‘Advance Alice’, but they only ever managed one march down the mall at night, without a burning torch or pitchfork in sight.

They want to get organised.

The meeting is attended by about fifty whites, mainly suburban homeowners frightened of property crime and tired of their fear. It’s chaired by an officious, bemused woman from Neighbourhood Watch, a practised facilitator who pre-emptively defuses tension with bureaucratic language and gifts of free pens. Neighbourhood Watch is unwilling to auspice the project but are helping it get off the ground “if there’s enough interest”. She’s brought the criminal history check forms along. The police encourage the volunteers to “identify suspicious people” and be their “eyes and ears”.

To watch in the night like predators.

The existing Aboriginal-run service, Tangentyere Night Patrol, was not invited. No-one has spoken to them about the ‘community patrol’. Town camps will be off the list of patrolled areas too – crimes that happen in them don’t directly affect white property. CCTV is being installed in our streets, but so far the council can’t find anyone to watch the tapes.

In this age of racial profiling, it seems almost superfluous.

The urge to patrol reflects a lack of capacity on the part of the police who have been copping a lot of criticism this year for failing to answer their phones or show up at callouts. They do their best but are (here as elsewhere) disastrously under-prepared for the flood of family violence and sexual assault, not to mention the complexities of Indigenous cultural protocol.

It’s worth remembering that the intervention was and is a policing strategy. It offered little in terms of preventing violent crime and was brazenly targeted at skin tone – one rule for whites and another for blacks. In that sense it is consistent with the approach to policing Australia’s Indigenous people used for most of our history. The culturally appropriate approaches being tried – listening, exchanging knowledge, offering alternatives which respect the self-determination of Indigenous people – are much, much newer, and have come about because nothing else works.

The poor have extensive tools of their own: a remarkable skill set of manipulations, dodges and occasional collaboration. The colonised know how to negotiate with, and sometimes sabotage, occupying forces. Sabotage often takes the form of silence and non-participation. Even the simple act of turning one’s back, however symbolic, has been proven to render governments momentarily powerless. Time and time again, whites have been shown that, if the work is not done to learn Indigenous ways of doing business, attempts to ‘help’ are stonewalled by implacable resistance. Alice Springs is littered with the debris from such approaches.

Even in Alice the attitude of many whites seems defeatist. A section of the population holds the belief that nothing but paternalism works, a belief sadly given currency by self-styled experts such as art critic Nicolas Rothwell: “One logical course of action would be for the federal government to declare a state of emergency in many of the communities and ghetto camps of the centre and the north, and to employ the army … to impose a system of benign social control.”

Nothing works, so we must do our worst. The ends are noble and justify the means. Anyone who isn’t for us is against us. And anyone who disagrees with our methods is supporting child abuse. Replace ‘child abuse’ with ‘terrorism’ and the logic is immediately familiar. You might also remember it from early last century, when in 1910 Western Australian minister H. Gregory spoke in favour of empowering the Chief Protector of Aborigines to remove half-caste children: “This may seem harsh, but I am sure those who are familiar with the condition [in the camps] will admit that by this action we are in every sense considering the child itself and are justified in taking this great power.”

Paternalism is nothing new, of course. It may even be a fundamental habit of whiteness. In Notes of a Native Son, James Baldwin wrote that blacks have invented whites; that by being the receptacle for white anxieties about crime, blackness has defined and shaped whiteness. Whites can’t exist without black crimes. Does this notion, written in the 1950s, seem ideological, outdated? Or does it still ring true?

The humanitarian face of the intervention was beguiling. It was just familiar enough to be non-threatening, though it is hard to imagine a similar intervention occurring in other high crime areas. The tactic has a stronger precedent in the Pacific than elsewhere in Australia. This is no accident. Alice has more in common with a small island nation – perceived as corrupt, resource-rich, infrastructure-poor and ungovernable – than with the rest of the country. Here, at the centre of Australia, our belonging has become marginal.

On census night I was working in a crisis accommodation service; between my usual tasks, it was my job to make sure all the residents had their forms filled out. In the middle of the night, a woman arrived whose young child had been murdered – brutally bashed to death. In the morning, while we were waiting for the police to arrive, I suddenly remembered those forms. Like many people who grew up on a community, English was this woman’s third or fourth language; she had never left Central Australia. I sat with her in the morning sun and tried to explain why the government was counting us, why in fact they were interested in her existence at all. Neither of us could take the process very seriously. Citizenship is something I have the luxury to question. For this woman it was a fiction as abstract as Canberra. Defeated by absurdity, the absurdity of being counted and not counting, we ended up in quiet laughter.

Working with survivors of domestic violence can give you an unhealthy sense of humour. It can also provide some insight into traumatised cultures. People who have suffered serious harm, particularly when this continues across generations (as it does in a long-term war zone), tend to see no other solution but violence. Self-destruction born of futility and powerlessness attaches itself to a traumatised culture like a parasite. (Judy Atkinson’s Trauma Trails: Recreating Song Lines gives a detailed account of the phenomenon, and ways of healing from it.)

The argument that Indigenous social problems derive from the trauma of dispossession might be a cliché of the Left. And, yes, it is convenient: it’s easy to blame everything on history as a means of justifying inaction. The argument from trauma perpetuates a victim-perpetrator relationship that surely we must overcome.

But the victim-perpetrator relationship cannot simply be abolished. It exists and it continues, just as colonisation exists and continues, and we as occupying Australians have to face our shame, both past and present. It is not our trauma that holds us back. It is denial.

As a nation we have been expending an enormous amount of energy inventing ourselves a past. Howard’s era was characterised by endless attempts to rewrite history – to mark our own mythology on a clean tablet, as though the shores of Turkey provide us a special redemption. If war overseas has the ability to cleanse us, it is because it offers us a purer morality, a story told outside the land which remembers.

James Baldwin also wrote that “an invented past can never be used; it cracks and crumbles under the pressures of life like clay in a season of drought”. It is hard to think of a more appropriate image for Australia’s faltering story of occupation.

And yet there is survival, there is strength. A trauma survivor can define herself by simply continuing to exist. She can identify with her resilience. It’s an incomplete existence, fettered by the past, but it’s also necessary. It can be all a victim has, particularly if the perpetrator is not brought to justice. But survival is also a strategy of resistance. It requires a hell of a lot of shape-changing, of channelling rage and hate into pride. For many individuals this process is exhausting.

For an individual recovering from sexual assault or family violence, telling the story is only the beginning. Symbolic closure can come through the courts, but sadly, it rarely does. In a restorative justice model, with the participation of the perpetrator, a process approaching peace-making can occur. This process has a name that will be familiar. It is called reconciliation.

Professor Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela, a former member of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, writes that forgiveness is not an event – it is a process of transforming relationships. Where Hannah Arendt spoke of “radical evil” as those acts which are unforgivable, and posited genocide as chief among these, Gobodo-Madikizela witnesses, in bearing witness, a “radical forgiveness”. In her meetings with Eugene de Kock, a man known in South Africa as Prime Evil, she discovered that the human capacity to acknowledge – to restore relationships, to understand the other, to forgive – surpasses hope.

Even after an apology, it remains to be seen if white Australia is ready to come to the table.

Alice has changed a little since the national spotlight swung our way. Town Council finally enacted planned ‘dry town’ legislation which briefly shifted problem drinking out of the riverbed and into private homes. But, slowly, the campers are trickling back – the ‘anti-social elements’ sitting round their fires, telling stories in the riverbed over a carton of green cans, getting into fights. No-one wants the out-of-town itinerants here, not the whites, not the Arrernte custodians, but there is a paucity of safe, affordable short-term accommodation in town. Besides, law or no law, Territorians will do as they like.

Town carries on, seemingly resigned to a sort of half-won apartheid. Tangentyere effectively acts as a separate local council, though without the resources or dubious legitimacy of the white one. Lhere Artepe, the organisation representing the native title holders of Mparntwe, still has to fight to be consulted in a town where sacred sites have been concreted over, dynamited overnight.

The survivor does her best. This year, on a day Aboriginal people celebrate as Survival Day, many will have toasted the intervention as another trial survived. Whites can support this toast if they want, but it won’t help much. Acknowledging someone’s survival might be solidarity. Asking them to keep surviving, over and over again, is just sadistic.

Reconciliation is a different matter. It requires the participation of all parties. For too long it’s been upon the shoulders of Indigenous people to walk across that bridge, to come over to ‘our’ side (if they behave themselves, we might let them become Australian). Assimilation has been back with a vengeance. It’s called ‘mainstreaming’ or ‘taking responsibility’ these days, but it’s the same old story: ‘Get over it.’

Who’s taking responsibility? Not us. I am worried about Indigenous social problems, sure. But every time I look at the issue in any depth I come back to the same place – the awful, painful nub of white accountability. The fear and anger we feel about child abuse spring from our anxiety about our own unreconciled crimes. Our anxiety about belonging to a history of trauma we are afraid to own. It is not just Aboriginal people we can’t deal with, we don’t want to look at. It is our own conscience.

I wasn’t there. Perhaps I wasn’t told. But I profit from genocide and I live in stolen country. I do not have to face the daily racism Aboriginal people have to face, from patronising words at the supermarket checkout to constant, blatant surveillance. I do not have to live with the overcrowding, the lack of opportunity, the institutional racism. I can expect to live seventeen years longer than an Aboriginal person.

What happens to the perpetrators who do nothing? When we vanish into our own denial, our tenure here is hazy as an outback horizon, fractured as the surface of a claypan. We bury this anxiety about belonging, and it springs from the cracked earth: outbreaks of violence and fear.

In a remote pub I argue about history with an Austrian expat. He doesn’t think we have anything to apologise for. He doesn’t think he does either. He wasn’t around in the 1930s and 1940s.

“But you’re Austrian,” I plead, hoping someone, somewhere, has worried out the knot of generational accountability. I mention the Jewish museum in Berlin, the Auschwitz memorial, places I have carried this question.

“Here it’s different,” he says. “Here, none of that matters.”

What he means is, here I am outside my history. Australia is still an ahistoric zone for Europeans, the symbolic space where they may cleanse themselves of their past. The empty desert still echoes powerfully in the European psyche, and no wonder – they brought the symbol with them from Africa, already bloodstained.

Outside the pub, the local Aborigines humbug us for smokes. They’re not allowed in.

The intervention may be of use in the hands of a Labor government. It appears the money is staying, but this time there is evidence of tentative consultation. It is encouraging, perhaps even cause for hope. But if we want to ensure equality of opportunity, if we want to get it right this time, we must build on solid ground.

For me, it’s in stories that our horrors can be faced and our empathies nurtured. In fiction, I find myself returning again and again to worry at this knot of belonging and accountability. There is, perhaps, a new story being told through the arts, through the medium of film in particular. Liyarn Ngarn is a gentle journey that reminds us of the simplicity of sitting down together, having a conversation (the film is yet to be screened in Alice). The Ngapartji Ngapartji theatre project is another example of radical cross-cultural storytelling, working from a reciprocal model. In our stories, we may even have the makings of a post-colonial ‘literature of conscience’ – but, be that as it may, we still require answers that are less imaginary.

Any progress made towards reconciliation in the past eleven and a half years has been made in spite of Canberra. With the newspeak of ‘practical reconciliation’ and the stubborn refusal to acknowledge the past, the Howard government widened the divide between black and white Australians. It is time to reclaim our right to reconciliation. If an apology seems too symbolic, too abstract, what of the abstract weight of white silence? What of the intervention’s sudden bluster of white noise?

An apology is a beginning: a statement of intent to work. It enables, rather than effects, a transformation of our relationships. Lasting peace may still require a treaty, some resolution to our muddled sovereignty. At the very least the symbolic laying down of arms in this occupied Territory.

There are days when I feel that we are too far apart, Alice Springs and Mparntwe; two towns living on opposite sides of a divide, each deliberately ignorant of the other. But if one good thing has come out of the intervention, it is an end to silence. It is not noise we need, but a conversation about how we would like things to be. Here in Alice Springs, we lament, dissect, react to, argue about the intervention every day. Sometimes, instead of resignation or absurd humour, we manage to glimpse that rarest of treasures – a mutual imagining. We have so much work to do.

Jennifer Mills writes fiction and poetry and is a regular contributor to New Matilda. She lives in Alice Springs.

© Jennifer Mills

Overland 190-autumn 2008, pp. 36-40


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