Prayer vigil at Musgrave Park.
Photo: Tony Robertson
The Brisbane Commonwealth Games protests in 1982 proved a turning point for first nations peoples. Wayne Wharton, a Kooma man from the Cunnamulla region of south-western Queensland and veteran activist and sovereignty campaigner, took part in the Stolenwealth Games campaign. Thirty-two years later, Wayne galvanised his community and supporters yet again with the words: “The whole world will be watching”. His eye was on the forthcoming G20 summit, where the leaders and finance ministers of the world’s richest nations – and the world’s media – would converge on Brisbane in November 2014. Despite Australia’s place among the wealthiest nations, it has as yet to acknowledge its history of failing to honour and respect its first nations people and their deep knowledge of this land.
During Australia Yearly Meeting 2014 in Brisbane, a group of Quakers walked from a peace vigil in King George Square to the Brisbane Aboriginal Sovereign Embassy (BASE) at Musgrave Park. Wayne had already been involved in a Yearly Meeting session and now he welcomed us to BASE. All but one of the gathered group knew their land (their sovereign tribe). David Carline, a first nations Friend and also a Kooma man, commented that in his experience this was unprecedented. But although some things have changed perceptibly, the processes of decolonisation has scarcely begun. A new wave of stolen children, more deaths in custody, and threats to the land and water are constant concerns. The sacred fire was lit by David because Wayne had recently been arrested for carrying out this traditional practice and would face jail for any contravention of bail orders.
In a traditional smoking ceremony, green leaves are placed on the sacred fire and each participant moves through the cleansing smoke; but this ceremony was particularly moving in that Wayne held our hands as he received and blessed each of us. His request was for Quakers to accompany the difficult work of the embassy at the forthcoming G20 alternative program planned for November 2014. His message was powerfully clear: our presence and our Quaker tabards help them to carry their message forward.
Wayne had spent twenty years working on the Kooma land rights claim, but with a success in this project, his attention switched to the G20. On 2 November, Queensland Quakers approved a request for financial support with a donation of $1000 from the Pay the Rent – Land Rights Fund for a First Nations Conference. At the national level, the First Nations Peoples Concerns Committee also approved a donation of $800. I agreed to work as a Quaker Universalist observer and to help provide accompaniment for this work.
On 5 November I saw a wonderful Oxfam billboard on the east side of the rail overpass right next to the Convention Centre where the G20 Summit was to be held: The rich get richer and the poor get left behind: G20 – Even it up. Given that the Queensland government had ordered the removal of billboards with political messaging from near the airport, I wondered how long this signage would remain. Activists hurried to photograph it and put the message up on social media.
On Sunday 9 November, I helped Friends of the Earth welcome Warlmanpa women, Diane and Paula, guests from Muckaty Station in the Northern Territory. The Warlmanpa people have won a long struggle to resist having a nuclear waste dump on their lands and I was keen to show my gratitude for their work in exposing and resisting the machinations of the toxic nuclear industry. A welcome corroboree for all guests set a celebratory mood, after a week of jumping bureaucratic hurdles including a last minute requirement from Brisbane City Council for 20 toilets to be provided at a cost of $5000. An appeal to ANTaR (Australians for Native Title and Reconciliation) members met this target in ten hours. Fencing from an abandoned construction site and elsewhere carried banners. Although the fence was incomplete, it suggested that important business was planned here: but unlike the barriers around the Brisbane Convention Centre, it was not policed by hundreds of officers.
Given the experience of previous G20 protesters, there was a heightened fear of violence from riot police imported from all over Australia and New Zealand. Caxton Legal Service initiated an Observer Project, in which they would work in teams of two to provide an independent record of events. Because Monday 10 November was a workday, all the volunteers from the Caxton observer project were at their normal jobs. Thus the “observer” presence was one person in a Quaker tabard plus members of the Brisbane Street Medics collective with their distinctive Green Cross armbands.
The first of five embassy rallies to focus on particular issues of concern centred on the latest wave of Stolen Children. I greeted Monty who headed up the police community liaison team of mostly Caucasian men and women in pale blue caps and he was happy to wear a white poppy to mark Remembrance Eve. I had met Monty earlier in the year as part of the BrisCAN-G20 (Brisbane Community Action Network) coordinating team. Quite a few others accepted a white poppy for peace. The rally went overtime, so I was unable to accompany the march because of the Quaker peace vigil to mark Remembrance Eve, scheduled from noon to 1 pm.
Tuesday 11 November (Remembrance Day): About 40 people accepted a white poppy. Monty said his daughter had appropriated his peace poppy, so I gladly gave him another one. The theme today was Our Land, Our Water, Our Life, Our Future: the title says it all! The traditional custodians of this land remind us constantly that “if we care for country, it will care for us”; but a settler “control” mentality still overshadows the call for sustainable practices. After the rally, we marched over Victoria Bridge as it was still open to pedestrians. Back at the “yarning circle”, I heard some of the details of the patronising deal that had been offered to the Marlmanpa people. Even had the materials to be stored been benign, the proposed management of the trust fund to send students away to private boarding schools still resonated with a distinctly patriarchal tenor.
The rallies and marches for Wednesday and Thursday were cancelled and a further march added for Sunday. This gave me an opportunity to take in some of the Peoples Summit which was also endorsed and supported by a donation of $250 from Queensland Quakers. Liaison with Frontline Films and the embassy saw the premiere of Waging Peace at the embassy on Thursday night. This was entirely appropriate, following a call from local elder Sam Watson for collaborative solutions to injustice as part of the afternoon Peoples Summit session. The film was well received. It was, as we say, “in right ordering”. Chris Hughes, a member of Australia Yearly Meeting First Nations Committee, arrived from Melbourne and it was wonderful to have an “observer buddy” for the remainder of the week.
Friday’s rally and march focused on Deaths in Custody. A royal commission in 1987 investigated Aboriginal deaths in custody over a ten year period, giving over 330 recommendations. Its recommendations are still valid today, but very few have been implemented, and every year Aboriginal people continue to die in custody. I found it difficult to listen to the pain and the trauma and the anger that racial profiling has generated. Some speakers were overcome with emotion. Other speakers were articulate and “Putinesque” in their strategising. We marched past the main city watch house, a site of much suffering; then over the Kurilpa pedestrian bridge since Victoria Bridge was now in lockdown. A media report summarised the situation well: “Stifling heat and stifling security.” Following the march, I was a little surprised to see a number of police community liaison personnel in Musgrave Park. At a smoking ceremony, the district commissioner and his deputy joined a line-up of elders and in an extraordinary ceremony, they and scores of people circled the sacred fire. Given the recent history of the Brisbane embassy, this is nothing short of miraculous. I watched the police media briefing the next morning, and the seismic shift had indeed endured the night.
Saturday marked a combined BrisCAN and First Nations rally and march, with thousands of protesters. One highlight was seeing a huge banner carried aloft by about 20 people. Its message, Genocidal 20, reflects the plight of First Nations people here and across the world. Given that the banner size under the restrictive G20 laws was 2×1 metres, this is a significant win for civil society. Although some people reported face masks were confiscated during bag searches on trains, quite a few masks were worn – particularly the iconic Anonymous mask – albeit on the back of the head.
Before Sunday’s rally and march, a car tooting support was pulled up by police with no police liaison personnel in sight. Although other cars had tooted, this one was driven by a Brisbane Black. The car was swarmed by police and rally supporters, citizen journalists and photographers. I asked a six foot police officer in riot gear where he came from. He replied with a tight-lipped: “Australia.” I replied: “I’m from Brisbane. Where are you from?” He repeated: “Australia.” A man with a camera brushed past me with a quiet “Onya” (good on you). A young black woman quipped: “How many police does it take to do a license check?” Humour always helps. The arrival of police community liaison officers further defused a nasty incident of racial profiling. It brought home to me this reality: that without eyes and ears to deter such profiling, vulnerable individuals face prejudice alone, and Australia ends up with disproportionate numbers of angry, helpless people in the court system and in the jails.
After a long list of speakers, I witnessed my first flag burning. Wayne had told the police to respect the ceremony and its message. And they did. One woman was in tears as the Australian flag burned, but I do not know if it was because she was distressed, or relieved that injustice was being ceremoniously recognised. As the flames died down, an elder invited the fire department to “come and extinguish 200 years of colonial injustice”. The march to Musgrave Park was halted at Kurilpa Point. Named by the Turrbul people as Kurilpa (place of the water rat) it was a regarded in the city’s earliest history as a meeting place for indigenous tribes and a popular crossing point before the river was bridged. In the shade of huge old trees I was witness to dancers young and old as they celebrated energetically in 40 degree heat.
This week marks a momentous move forward in the struggle of Australia’s first nation peoples. It has been a privilege to walk peacefully with them. The focus of this campaign now shifts to a peace convergence in Canberra in April 2015 to continue work towards recognition in Australia’s military history of the Frontier Wars fought across this continent for a century. This history is still widely denied and ignored, and it remains history that Australia needs to face.