Rise from this grave

It’s now been over a decade since Indigenous activist group Black GST – Genocide Sovereignty Treaty – occupied Kings Domain, an ornamental parkland in the centre of Melbourne. The occupation, known as Camp Sovereignty, coincided with the 2006 Melbourne Commonwealth Games, which presented an opportunity to draw the international media’s attention to a range of Indigenous political struggles. What began as a two-week occupation soon morphed into a contest over place and memory, an act of resistance on a picturesque parcel of colonial land.

With the Commonwealth Games back in Australia, this time hosted by the Gold Coast, Indigenous people are again gathering to highlight the struggle for human rights, sovereignty and treaty.

The 2006 Melbourne protest was initiated by senior Indigenous intellectual and political campaigners, including Marg Thorpe, Gary Foley and Robbie Thorpe, supported by a younger generation of Indigenous activists and white supporters, some of whom had close and trustful relationships with the Indigenous leadership. The group’s name was a deliberate attempt to foreground the systematic murder of Indigenous people. The focus on genocide as well as sovereignty and treaty – more familiar concepts from ongoing struggles for land rights – was a response to efforts by conservatives to downplay or deny the mass slaughter of Indigenous nations.

As well as a major sports spectacle, the games were regarded as a significant economic opportunity for both public and private interests, with preparations managed by the City of Melbourne, the Victorian Labor government and the commerce-centric Victorian Major Events Corporation. Games organisers claimed that Melbourne would come under the spotlight of ‘hundreds of millions, if not a billion people across the world’. Central to the strategy of bringing a global community to Melbourne – virtually, if not in person – was an extensive branding of culture across the city. Melbourne would become awash with cultural events, with tourists encouraged to visit heritage sites, sample diverse cuisines and engage with what was labelled ‘Indigenous’ arts. A strong Indigenous theme was also evident in the opening ceremony, held on 15 March at the Melbourne Cricket Ground, aided by the appointment of Indigenous track gold-medallist Cathy Freeman, the ‘face’ of the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games, as cultural ambassador.

The opening ceremony was managed with precision. Processions and pageants were rehearsed and re-rehearsed to ensure the city, the premiere Victorian-era metropolis of the southern hemisphere, was showcased in just the right way. This fixation with stage-management shows how naive the organisers were in expecting the games to proceed uneventfully.

It was more than a year earlier that Black GST had been formed. Some involved in its foundation had been active members of earlier protests, including the Aboriginal Tent Embassy (1972), the Brisbane Commonwealth Games protests (1982) and the anti-bicentennial movement (1988). Younger Indigenous activists soon became involved in both organising the protest and occupation. In the years since, many younger Indigenous activists, including members of Warriors of Aboriginal Resistance (WAR) and those organising this year’s Gold Coast protests, have spoken of the Black GST movement as instrumental in their activist education.

Initially, the group planned a series of protests, media events and public forums to highlight a set of aims broadly contained within the rubric of social and legal justice. In addition to those early meetings with both Indigenous and non-Indigenous supporters, and more detailed discussions among a leadership cell exclusively Indigenous in membership, Black GST also held talks with the Commonwealth Games authority and with state and local government in an effort to forge a level of accommodation for how the protest might be managed. Realising they could not halt the protests without bringing negative attention to the city – and, more importantly, delivering unfavourable media coverage that would unsettle the carefully scripted narrative of harmony (a buzzword of the games) – the organisers and corporate interests attempted not only to facilitate a manageable reception of the protest, but also to co-opt it, offering up rhetoric that positioned Melbourne as a city of tolerance, inclusiveness and diversity.

As the opening day drew close, the fragile relationship between protestors and organisers soured after a request by Black GST to establish a cultural camp at Victoria Park, Collingwood, could not be brokered between the City of Yarra, the authority overseeing the park, and the state government.

Consequently, Black GST decided, without consultation with bureaucrats or politicians, to occupy an area of parkland south of the Yarra River, overlooking the CBD. A highly visible and culturally significant location, the Kings Domain quickly became the very thing that had worried city officials – a site and occupation beyond their management.

Long live the king

Kings Domain is clogged with imperial monuments, statues of civic leaders, celebratory plaques and war commemorations, offering a sanitised, largely fictional history of colonial occupation. One of the most imposing monuments is a statue of George V, ruler of empire. Its inscription explains that it was a gift from the people of Victoria to the crown; today it serves as a perpetual reminder of who we once were, and who many continue to regard themselves, despite periodic rumblings of republicanism. King George looks pensively across the gardens to the Shrine of Remembrance, which itself is guarded by an eternal flame.

In occupying the Domain, Black GST staked a claim on both its past and its present; their very presence became an act of ‘desecration and defacement’ of colonial triumphalism, disrupting what Michael Taussig refers to as the ‘public secret … knowing what not to know’. The visible and vocal presence of Indigenous people demanding recognition of both colonial violence and sovereign rights represented a public eyesore of deep resonance, forcing those who prefer the ‘white blindfold’ version of history to confront the realities of frontier conflict.

In the decade prior to Camp Sovereignty, Australia had waged a war within its own boundaries. The so-called history wars were ignited by conservative prime minister John Howard, who in 1996 infamously invited the nation to share in his vision of a ‘relaxed and comfortable’ view of history, rather than face the realities of colonial violence and attempted dispossession.

As with earlier Indigenous occupations, such as the Aboriginal Tent Embassy in Canberra and the Swan Brewery Indigenous encampment in Perth, Camp Sovereignty initially aimed to draw attention to a range of issues stemming from the legacies of colonialism. But as the occupation evolved, its focus turned to the contested ground on which it was staged – Indigenous activists argued that the colonial narrative celebrated and mourned on the site was selective, consciously amnesic and, for all its pretence of being grounded on rock-solid foundations, a fragile representation of the past. Had Camp Sovereignty existed just for the period of the games, its broader impact would have been limited.

Once the games ended, and as the protest grew, a more significant contest over memory loomed, one of national and, for some, sacred significance: the annual ANZAC Day commemoration. The Shrine of Remembrance – one of the largest war memorials in the world – visually and culturally dominates the Domain, yet its authority was brought into question challenged by a relatively small group of protesters gathered around their own sacred flame, the Camp Sovereignty fire. While not entirely unforeseen, the debate ignited by the ‘counter’ flame would produce a level of fury that few predicted.

Black GST waged its protest on a battlefield burdened with stone-faced monuments so materially and symbolically omnipresent that contemporary society becomes, according to Lessie Jo Frazier, ‘so inhabited by previous generational memories that we find ourselves unable to generate memories of our own’. Given the almost impenetrable monolithic narratives littered throughout the Domain, it was initially assumed the Black GST protest would produce little more than an obligatory photo opportunity when ‘the rest of the world is watching’.

The Commonwealth Games can hardly claim to be a sporting event of global significance. The four yearly gathering of the old colonial masters of empire and their ‘subjects’ is an anachronistic, fleeting celebration played out ad nauseam through medal ceremonies, national anthems and, in Melbourne’s case, thousands of blow-up boxing kangaroos, a kitsch symbol of nationalism that emerged out of Australia’s America’s Cup yachting victory of 1983. Regardless, the nationalistic fervour of the parade would not be rained on without consequences for the spoilers. Camp Sovereignty, being an unsanctioned, unwelcome and self-determining event, threatened the fragile authority of a King and his crown. In response, the occupation was confronted by anger and old-styled colonial sneers.

Barbarians at the gates

Games organisers had initially hoped the Black GST protest would amount to little more than a ten-day carnival of minor dissent, but were soon faced with a rude shock: Camp Sovereignty transformed into a spectre of repressed Indigenous histories literally buried under a carefully managed monument to colonial power. From the outset, the camp was adorned with the Aboriginal flag, itself an act of reclamation, considering how this iconic symbol of self-determination and political activism had been increasingly appropriated as a shallow quasi-national and commercial logo.

Those opposing Camp Sovereignty’s ongoing presence after the games argued that its sacred flame (which had ceremonial links to a flame located at the Aboriginal Tent Embassy in Canberra) had desecrated a symbol of national identity and unity – the Shrine’s eternal flame. As with the Tent Embassy, which directly confronts the Australian War Memorial, Camp Sovereignty became a direct ‘challenge to a white racial regime of sovereignty produced by the cultural space’ of a national war memorial, resulting in what Fiona Nicoll calls an ‘ontological disturbance’ of seismic proportions.

In the weeks after the games, when most people had packed up and gone home, Black GST continued to occupy the Domain in defiance of those who had earlier courted cooperation. Patronising self-styled sympathisers, the City of Melbourne first among them, soon turned on Black GST when the group failed to adhere to a managed and containable strategy.

On 12 April, one month into the protest, Victoria’s king of tabloid journalism, Andrew Bolt, warned Melburnians that ‘the barbarians aren’t just at the gates. They’ve smashed through and are camping in the Kings Domain gardens’.

There was a degree of community tolerance during the games itself, reflecting a nominal atmosphere of conciliation. (For instance, a senior member of Victoria Police was cheered by camp occupants after accepting an invitation to partake in a ceremony around the sacred flame.) But any atmosphere of goodwill evaporated once Black GST refused to evacuate the campsite.

Media commentators who had initially dismissed the protest as tokenistic quickly became scathing. Herald Sun journalists criticised the living conditions in and around the camp, claiming they were spoiling the charm of an ornamental park, while an article in the Age linked the occupation to ‘ghetto camp conditions surrounding Alice Springs and other Northern Territory fringe camps’. One commentator was particularly annoyed that a ‘derelict caravan’ used by the protestors was located in sight of the Shrine of Remembrance, apparently tantamount to an act of cultural vandalism.

In line with the habitual backlash against any Indigenous presence that refuses to defer to colonial authority or to hospitably perform a Welcome to Country, the media attempted to reduce the protesters to the role of a cultureless rabble. Stuart Rintoul, of The Australian, dismissed Camp Sovereignty’s membership as ‘a ragged band of Aboriginal protesters’, while in the Herald Sun, beneath the banner ‘Pitching Camp Disgrace’, popular radio and press journalist Neil Mitchell ominously warned those who had ‘parked themselves on public land’ that their presence would not be tolerated if they muddied the memory of the Australian war effort (Anzac Day was then only three weeks away).

The media coverage sunk to a farcical level on 15 April, when the Herald Sun reported that ‘a female jogger was threatened by an angry protester wielding a large stick’ after she diverted from her usual early morning route to get a closer look at the sacred flame. Described glowingly as ‘a former Telstra Businesswoman of the Year and successful author’, the jogger claimed that ‘an Aboriginal man’ had approached her in the early morning light and started ‘poking the stick towards [her] chest’. While the accompanying headline described the encounter between the threatening native and the colonial madam as a ‘jogger threatened in park flashpoint’, Victoria Police’s investigation concluded that it was a brief frontier encounter requiring no further action.

Camp Sovereignty’s sacred flame soon became a symbol of the occupation. While supporters defended the flame’s spiritual and ceremonial vitality, opponents regarded it as a sacrilegious affront to the ‘real’ eternal flame. On 7 April, Robbie Thorpe, a key organiser of the occupation, informed the media that the camp flame had been created in ‘proper ceremonial fashion’ and therefore its cultural authority had to be respected. A week later, when the City of Melbourne sought a court order to have the occupation removed, Vicki Nicholson-Brown, a state Aboriginal Heritage Inspector, successfully applied for a protection order; Justice King of the Supreme Court ordered that the fire remain for a further thirty days.

The flames of war

Opposition to an Indigenous presence within a park commemorating imperial conquest and power continued to grow; some who had initially dismissed the occupation soon found themselves entangled in a battle of real consequence. As Anzac Day drew nearer, calls to have the sacred flame extinguished became shriller. Thorpe responded by saying the Camp’s flame was ‘1000 times more powerful than that other flame’. He also reminded those wishing to privilege a selective commemoration of war dead that they had conveniently forgotten that ‘Indigenous soldiers often went unrecognised’ after they had given their lives for a country that had not yet recognised them as full citizens.

When vandals extinguished the shrine’s eternal flame that same week, the media was quick to link the act to the protesters. While these reports were accusatory for certain, they were perhaps absent of the melodrama professed by Stuart McCulloch in his letter to the Herald Sun:

Recently, under cover of darkness, it [the shrine’s flame] was extinguished by mindless cowards … curiously, in the nearby Kings Domain, a ‘sacred’ fire ignited by anarchic ‘Aboriginal’ squatters burns on, thanks to a Supreme Court decision. That’s the paradox of political correctness.

Ten days later, on ANZAC Day, the Herald Sun reported that ‘some diggers have threatened to storm the camp’, though no hostilities were reported.

At dawn, a commemorative service was held at Camp Sovereignty, the Age reported, to ‘remember the Indigenous soldiers who fought and fell in battles across history’. A group of Vietnam War veterans visited the camp that same morning and circled the Indigenous sacred flame in a mark of mutual respect and commemoration, after they were told they would be welcome at the camp as long as the accepted the ceremony of being cleansed by the fire’s sacred smoke, while the State RSL president David McLachlan, in muted support of the joint commemoration, stated ‘if they do their service with reverence, it would be fine’.

During the tussle over commemoration, the Herald Sun recognised that Robbie Thorpe’s great-grandfather, Harry Thorpe, was a decorated ‘real [war] hero’, shot and killed in France in 1918. In an unsubstantiated claim, the newspaper then stated that Thorpe had debased the ANZAC memory by commenting that white soldiers had hidden behind Indigenous soldiers during the French campaigns. The more important comments articulated by Thorpe – largely ignored by the media – concerned the abuse of human rights suffered by the families of Indigenous war dead in the inter-war years.

Epic memory

Camp Sovereignty defaced a sacred colonial site and the self-referential monuments it houses. Black GST’s presence – a sudden visibility of Indigenous people – destabilised the narratives memorialised within the Domain. Considering the level of hostility directed at the protestors, and the related anxiety from which this derived, it’s necessary to question the fragility of landscapes overburdened with meaning. Why was the domain of a dead British monarch so threatened when confronted by a group of ‘barbarians’? One answer may be that histories over-reliant on fabulist mythologies and sanitised versions of nation-building reel when faced with a counter-narrative.

In an insightful analysis of the memory work at hand during the construction of the Shrine of Remembrance, Francesco Vitelli argues that the monument’s architecture and archaeological foundational moment are representational of ‘epic memory’, or what Benedict Anderson determined to be ‘the empire’s manner of speaking, or “type of speech”’ – speech that, despite its seeming confidence and authority, stutters when scrutinised by the very voices it seeks to silence. Vitelli argues that monumentalisation, a practice that attempts to secure a selective and privileged memory, may still produce oppositional outcomes that expose barely repressed fragility.

Vitelli discusses an event that occurred during the shrine’s construction in 1927, which, for us, informs how the site might also be interpreted in contemporary, nominally postcolonial society. When the foundations were being excavated, the skeletal remains of an Indigenous person were found buried at the site. The remains were quickly disposed of and the inscription of land with an imperial monument proceeded unabated. Vitelli argues that this unexpected exhumation that preceded the act of concealment is revelatory, with regard to both the past and present:

I suggest that this event signifies that since its beginning the Shrine – as a memory object – displaced and replaced another memory, and that the white man’s monumental, epic sacred site was already someone else’s sacred site.

So how does a society dependent on the conservation of epic memory cope with the collective secrets it holds in storage? I would argue that, as with the speedy disposal of an Indigenous body at the site of a proposed national monument, the colonial state must engage in a continuous process of erasure.

At 12.15 am on 11 May, exactly a month after the court injunction protecting the Camp Sovereignty flame and almost two months since the occupation began, the site was raided by police and private security guards.

The flame was extinguished by city officials; yet another skeleton returned to the colonial closet. In a further attempt to extinguish this fleeting but vital history of contest and conflict, city officials ordered that all trace of Camp Sovereignty be removed. The scorched earth left behind by the sacred flame was buried beneath a patch of fresh turf. This futile attempt at material erasure also failed: the frame of its history, contained in the contrast of a square of lurid green ‘instant grass’ encircled by a dry, scrubby patch of ground, became visible evidence of colonial failure.

Before the sacred flame could be extinguished, its embers were sent to locations around the state, with Indigenous people determined to keep it burning into the future. Therefore, the end of Camp Sovereignty was not an ending at all. Both the energy and animosity it generated served as a flashpoint, a conflict zone that ripped off the festering scab of a history reliant on the myth of terra nullius. Various acts of hypocrisy, evident during and after the Commonwealth Games, had predicted such an outcome. The artist and writer Michael Leunig visited the occupation site in the week that it was re-occupied by officials, and reflected on the many layers of contradiction:

The smoke ceremonies have been banished, the sacred circle broken and the Indigenous protesters sufficiently belittled by the passing parade of hooligans and hit-and-run media people … banality has been restored to the surface of this unspectacular ground where the mortal remains of thirty-eight indigenous souls lay buried, and upon which it is now relaxed and comfortable enough for joggers to democratically do their push-ups and stretching exercises yet again.

On 31 May, a ceremony was held at the Shrine of Remembrance ‘dedicated to the sacrifice’ of the Indigenous men and women who had served the nation from the Great War onward. All sign of Camp Sovereignty had been removed; the eyesore of an Indigenous occupation had been restored to a state of ornamentation. Robert Bamblett, a didgeridoo player, performed the ‘Last Post’, while the black, red and yellow Aboriginal flag flew at half-mast. Ricky Morris, an Indigenous serviceman who had recently returned from East Timor, stood before the eternal flame and told the crowd ‘There is no such thing as a black soldier or a white soldier’. While some applauded the ceremonial gesture of inclusion, a letter writer to the Herald Sun noted her disgust at ‘the sight of the Aboriginal flag flying half-mast at the Shrine’.

The repugnance displayed by this woman is an expression of ‘paranoid nationalism’, as described by Ghassan Hage in his book Against Paranoid Nationalism. She may also be haunted, as many non-Indigenous people are, by the mere sight of Indigenous symbolism. Or by the material presence of Indigenous people, such as those who slept rough for two months in Kings Domain, demanding sovereign recognition. She may be haunted as the first British occupiers were haunted, not only by Indigenous people, but also by their fragile relationship to and control over the land, despite confident rhetoric to the contrary. Her fear is reminiscent of the experience of William Adeney, an early Melbourne ‘pioneer’ who looked out of his window one morning, ‘peep[ing] between the blind and window to see how the day looked out of doors’. Adeney was shocked to see what he described as the ‘horrible black face’ of an Indigenous woman returning his colonial gaze. During the Camp Sovereignty protest, George V and his loyal subjects were witness to a story not of their own making and control. They were similarly haunted, confronted by determined flame that refuses to be extinguished.

 

 

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Tony Birch is the author of Shadowboxing, Father’s Day, Blood, The Promise and Ghost River. He is currently research fellow in the Moondani Balluk Academic Centre at Victoria University.

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