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Aboriginal protests: grassroots activism v boardroom blackfellas

In the months before he died, Chicka Dixon, one of the most loved and respected Aboriginal leaders of the modern era, would host a weekly meeting at his Sydney home with young and up-and-coming Aboriginal men and women. One of the central messages Chicka wanted to get out was this: “The days of marching on the streets are over. You have to beat them in the boardroom.”

An impressive young Sydney Aboriginal leader who made frequent use of Chicka’s mentoring was relaying the story to me recently. The conversation was sparked by his disappointment at what had occurred at the 40th anniversary celebrations of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy on January 26.

He spends his days fighting for the rights of his people, and felt that the actions of some Embassy activists — the demonstration outside an event attended by the Prime Minister, and in particular the burning of the Australian flag — had set the cause back some years.

Aboriginal opinion on the Embassy protest is obviously divided. Some were outraged by it; others were disappointed, but they understood where the frustrations came from. And of course some supported it, while others felt the embassy activists didn’t go far enough.

The frustrations of the young Sydney Aboriginal leader are real. But so too are the frustrations of embassy activists.

In the wash-up of the Tent Embassy debacle, a few opportunities have emerged. The most important is a discussion — particularly among young Aboriginal people — about a way forward. Many Aboriginal people were highly critical of the decision by some Tent Embassy activists to burn the Australian flag the day after the clash at The Lobby.

But what they perhaps miss is that while the story played out disastrously locally — Australians were outraged — it played out very positively internationally. There’s no commercial need for the world’s media to be parochial in its reporting of Aboriginal affairs, so they overwhelmingly delivered a straight news report.

People around the world simply saw images of very angry people burning the Australian flag. The effect internationally has been to shed further light on the atrocious relationship between black and white Australians. Regardless of your views of the actual incident, exposing the racist underbelly of this nation to the rest of the world is not a bad thing for the Aboriginal cause.

So to the opportunity for discussion — I think the debate really is about two classes of protesters — boardroom blackfellas, and grassroots activists (by that I mean “embassy-style activists and mission blackfellas”).

I also think that Chicka Dixon was wrong. While I have enormous admiration for the man, if there’s no place for the street march, then there’s no place for grassroots activists. They can’t battle it out in the boardroom, because they’ll never get in there. But nor can they sit on their hands and do nothing. Their frustration and their sense of alienation is no less relevant.

Just as there are two classes of protester, there must be two battlegrounds. But in engaging in the struggle, the grassroots activists face a number of specific hurdles. The first is owning up to the reality that the behaviour of some protesters — albeit a small minority — was, on occasion, disgraceful.

Internal tensions became so great during the four-day celebration that delegations from Western Australia and South Australia walked out. At one point during a press conference, sanctioned by the embassy, one Aboriginal man threatened a cameraman who had been invited on the grounds by embassy officials.

Don’t you f-cking film me c-nt or I’ll smash your f-cking head in,” he screamed.

The cameraman had simply turned and panned around the embassy grounds to get a different shot. It was a disgraceful display, but one that was repeated by this man, and a few others (women included) over the course of the next few days.

During the march to burn the flag another Aboriginal man threatened to assault a number of journalists. Later that night, he arrived back at the embassy drunk and started several altercations. On another occasion, an Aboriginal man walked up the middle of the embassy grounds with a baseball bat, threatening several people. He was chased off by dozens of embassy activists.

As media camped up on the steps above the embassy grounds for several days, numerous Aboriginal people took it upon themselves to approach crews and hurl abuse. This even occurred during officially sanctioned media conferences.

Most of these incidents were captured by news crews, but it’s worth acknowledging that none of them were reported. And with that, I also acknowledge the press gallery’s interactions with embassy activists throughout the event was mostly professional and respectful. Shame about much of the subsequent reporting (an honourable exception to Channel Seven, which remains the only news outlet to question the level of threat posed to the Prime Minister).

Even so, while the overwhelming majority of people at the Tent Embassy were also respectful and well-behaved, there was irrefutably an element that did themselves — and their cause — no favours. The days of the street march may not be over, but the days of bullying and abuse to get what you want must end. There can be no room in the Aboriginal struggle for this behaviour any more.

There are two other specific challenges for the grassroots activists, and they both relate to how they sell their message. Media has evolved over the past 40 years. But the methods of grassroots activists have not. Unlike the 1972 embassy protests, today we have a 24-hour news cycle.

The quickest way to feed a 24-hour news appetite is to run half-baked stories that confirm pre-existing notions about Aboriginal people. Grassroots activists, on occasions, handed those stories up on a platter.

The other challenge is that their message hasn’t changed. That’s understandable given there’s been bugger-all progress on the issues that matter to most Aboriginal people — treaty, sovereignty and national land rights. But white Australia has tired of hearing the same message (if they ever heard it in the first place). So the challenge is to communicate demands in a way that breaks through.

What we saw at the embassy a week ago was a failure to do that cogently.Instead, we saw in-fighting, abuse, chaos and very mixed messages. Embassy activists told media that their beef was not with Gillard, but with Abbott. And yet news footage shows activists holding Gillard’s lost shoe aloft like a trophy (and for the record, it was returned … another story media overwhelmingly didn’t report).

A well-attended press conference at which embassy officials listed their demands — sovereignty, treaty land rights — was followed by the flag burning. No prizes for guessing which story got dropped, and which got run.

The fact is, grassroots activists need to get more sophisticated in their message delivery. That’s where the boardroom blackfellas have a role.

One of the sad realities of black political life in Australia is that in order to be listened to, Aboriginal Australians must put forward an “acceptable face”.

It’s why Noel Pearson gets so much traction. It’s why the attacks on “rioters” by Social Justice Commissioner Mick Gooda and self-anointed leader Warren Mundine dominated the news response to the debacle. These men don’t threaten the status quo. They tell whites what they want to hear. But delivering a difficult message to mainstream Australia is not impossible — it just hangs on how it’s presented.

Working together, boardroom blackfellas and grassroots activists have a chance of breaking through. They can reshape the media landscape, but if they’re to do so, they must remember two golden rules. The first is that boardroom blackfellas and grassroots activists are, deep down, the same people. The second is the greatest tool of colonisation — the way we whitefellas nowadays try to “civilise” — is to turn one Aboriginal person against another.

When blackfellas fight, us whitefellas start rubbing our hands together and counting our cash. The sooner Aboriginal Australia remembers that, the quicker the battle in the boardroom, and on the streets, will be won.

*Chris Graham is the managing editor of Tracker Magazine. He is a Walkley Award and Walkley High Commendation winner, and has twice won the Human Rights Award for his reporting on indigenous affairs. He served as the embassy’s media adviser for the 40th anniversary celebrations in Canberra.

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  • 1
    Whistleblower
    Posted Thursday, 16 February 2012 at 2:21 pm | Permalink

    The alienation of so-called indigenous Australians is largely self-inflicted because of their unwillingness to adapt to the social requirements necessary to participate in the modern world economy. There are plenty of opportunities for advancement, but these are squandered on the presumption that somehow or other being of aboriginal descent make one a special case. Therefore they theydon’t have to adapt to changing circumstances in terms of education, social and vocational skills, but can gain identity by claiming victimhood.

    There should be no battle in the boardroom or the streets. The battle is in the minds of the alienated. Until they learn to adapt to a different way of living involving integration into Australian society, they will continue to be marginalised largely on a self-selection basis, aided and abetted by parasitical left-wing activists who boost their own self-esteem by promoting indigenous victimhood as a means of self-expression.

  • 2
    Cyndi
    Posted Thursday, 16 February 2012 at 2:41 pm | Permalink

    Back it up, whistle.

  • 3
    Mr Marrickville
    Posted Thursday, 16 February 2012 at 2:54 pm | Permalink

    Mr Graham has a habit of referring to non-indigenous Australians as ‘white’ in his articles.

    Considering that a large number of non-indigenous Australians are not white it is not clear who he is talking about when he talks about ‘whites’ and ‘whitefellas’.

    I assume he means people of Irish, Welsh, Scottish and English descent.

    What about people from continental Europe (west and east and the Mediterranean)?

    What about people from the Middle East?

    What about people from Asia and Oceania?.

    What about people from Africa?

    If he is arguing that non-indigenous Australians with white skins are racist but non-indigenous Australians who do not have white skin are not could make that clear and explain the basis for the claim. There are plenty of non-white non-indigenous Australians who have strong views about people of different backgrounds - invariably former neighbours in their or their parents homelands.

    If he thinks that all non-indigenous Australians are racist and racist specifically towards indigenous Australians he should describe the issue as being racism by non-indigenous Australians rather than ‘white’ Australians in particular.

  • 4
    Lyn Gain
    Posted Thursday, 16 February 2012 at 2:55 pm | Permalink

    A thoughtful article Chris. But I don’t think you have given enough emphasis to the corruptive effects on the boardroom blackfellas of mixing with the whitefella power brokers. This is a very complex issue, in both black and white society, whether to do ‘insider’ or ‘outsider’ advocacy. I teach advocacy and social change, and remind my undergraduates how important it is for the advocates to take the people affected with them, and make sure everyone supports the message. This is, of course, a great deal easier said than done. There seems to be considerable dislocation between the boardroom blackfellas and the grassroots activists. It could be a gut reaction or a thought-through position on the likelihood of achieving real social change through revolution or through reform. I am reminded of a 1999 article by Garry Foley on reconciliation. http://www.kooriweb.org/foley/essays/essay_6.htm. This is still valid, as is an alternative pro reform view – both of which I still use as readings. Working together is certainly the way to go, but how realistic is this, for either blackfellas or whitefellas with different views about what works. Which groups do you think are most likely to be reading Crikey?

  • 5
    Whistleblower
    Posted Thursday, 16 February 2012 at 3:05 pm | Permalink

    @Cyndi

    You really need to be more explicit in your question. Let me amplify my position.

    In my opinion, a significant proportion of the the so-called indigenous problem is an intractable issue born out of a desire to cling to a form of identity which is antipathetic towards participation in a modern economy.

    The first main issue is physical isolation. Substantial remnants of so-called indigenous culture are in isolated areas of low economic value in terms of goods and services production. This isolation mitigates against effective healthcare and education.

    Most mainstream Australians understand that education is the key to social dignity and the ability for one to earn a living. Clinging to outmoded tribal customs, non- mainstream languages, and fragmented cultural values must make it difficult for so-called indigenous children to remain competitive in educational environment if they are isolated from a broader peer group.

    Anybody who really cares about aboriginal welfare would be working to physically integrate aboriginal communities into mainstream Australian society. This would require relocation away from tribal homelands into urban centres.

    It would involve exposing aboriginal children to all of the benefits to be derived from vocational employment rather than living on welfare. However anybody trying to facilitate such an arrangement would be accused of creating another stolen generation.

    This reminds me about the old joke about how many social workers does it take to change a light bulb. The answer is of course that the light bulb has to want to be changed.

    So it is with the indigenous community, it has to want to change and has to manage the change itself. Until enough indigenous leaders come to the fore and recommend this type of solution to the rest of the indigenous community as a desirable pathway, a significant proportion of the money being spent on indigenous welfare is being swallowed up by bureaucracy and spinning of wheels. There is very little advantage to be gained from taking an adversarial position which only reinforces the egos of activists.

    I am more than happy to be told that my position is wrong, but I expect constructive debate rather than four word challenges with no substance.

  • 6
    Mark Regan
    Posted Thursday, 16 February 2012 at 4:07 pm | Permalink

    Wow Whistleblower you make a complicated social and political issue seem so simple. Thank God for good old common sense hey So, Aboriginals are alienated because of their ‘unwillingness to adapt to the social requirements necessary to participate in the modern world economy’. I get it now. Its their fault! If only Aboriginal people in isolated communities
    WANTED to become hedge-fund managers or chemical engineers. Because there are ‘plenty of opportunities for advancement,’ you said so, but you conveniently don’t say what these are. Well never mind, here’s your second paragraph all steeped in tough love and common sense.

    And what a paragraph! I can tell you’ve really thought about this issue and perhaps discussed it with some of your friends.
    Whistleblower, its as though you are speaking from the year 1890. Since then a man called Durkheim… oh whats the point?

  • 7
    daiskmeliadorn
    Posted Thursday, 16 February 2012 at 4:42 pm | Permalink

    This seems like a problematic article for a “whitefella” to be writing.

    I’m not sure Aboriginal activists should really have “media cut-through” as their main objective when the media relentlessly and almost without exception ignore any positively-framed message (as Chris Graham pointed out in his article yesterday - the thousand? 2000? strong rally had zero media presence).

    A lot of Aboriginal people, and I suspect many of those Chris describes being very drunk and abusive, are desperately poor, and we all recognise totally alienated by most of Australia’s institutions. Sure it would be a great media strategy for those people to sober up and be nice and respectable. But they probably have bigger worries - and it’s whitefellas’ responsibility to try and address those. It’s hard to argue it’s our role to police Aboriginal peoples’ behaviour, and encourage some Aboriginal activists to disown those who are obviously struggling.

    Hopefully Chris would argue that’s not what he is suggesting, but it looks to me like the direciton his argument leads.

  • 8
    Phen
    Posted Thursday, 16 February 2012 at 5:01 pm | Permalink

    Mark - I think its fair to assume that getting more aboriginal children motivated to want to become mechanics and secretaries would be a good starting point before chemical engineers and hedge-fund managers. Even these modest goals are out of reach when people grow up in a culture of welfare dependency and victimhood complexes.

  • 9
    Lyn Gain
    Posted Thursday, 16 February 2012 at 6:12 pm | Permalink

    I think you’re making a valid point Daiskmeliadorn. I, for one, am not an outraged Australian. It is important to understand that the frustrations which lead to what Chris calls ‘disgraceful’ behaviour arise from 40 years plus of inappropriate action, and an attempt to co-opt the well behaved blackfellas into the system. Why is it disgraceful to see real people behaving with real passion. And as for some other comments, I have never heard such patronising eurocentric twaddle in my life. I assume Phen is not a secretary or a mechanic. And, Whistleblower simply assumes that the dominant society’s obsession with competitive economic ‘progress’ is preferable to an indigenous valuing of wisdom and harmony with the land.

  • 10
    Chris Graham
    Posted Thursday, 16 February 2012 at 7:13 pm | Permalink

    @ Whistleblower: You could have saved a lot of time and energy (and strain on the environment) by just writing, “Aboriginal culture is shit, and Aboriginal people should assimilate”. Mind you, you would have been rightfully ignored. But then were anyway, so no harm done, I suppose.

    @Daiskmeliadorn: Some fair points you raise. And it is problematic coming from a whitefella. I was very mindful of that when I wrote it. And I normally don’t write that sort of stuff, but having been as involved as I was at the Embassy, and seeing what I saw, I felt obliged to offer an honest assessment. It was a difficult piece to write (and in fact the original is much much longer, and tied together with the piece Crikey published yesterday).

    I’m not suggesting Aboriginal people disown those that are struggling (although I accept it could be read that way). The individuals I’m mostly referring to are not poor - they’ve been part of the Aboriginal struggle for a long time. They’ve contributed a lot, but they’ve often gotten their way through aggression and bullying. In fact several of them have benefitted more than most from it. I saw first-heand the impact these people had on other Aboriginal people during the course of events - Aboriginal people who were there for the same reason as them, but got threatened and shouted down. I also made the point in the article that it was a very small minority, but that because of Australia’s inherent racism, they do enormous damage to the ‘cause’. That is a sad reality, whether we like it or not. And granted, it is for Aboriginal people to police, not me. But it’s a discussion that has to be had.

    Overall, I was trying to write the piece from a media management perspective (as I was worked as the ‘spin doctor’ for the Embassy). What I think a lot of people miss is that ATSIC, for example, wasn’t abolished because it was corrupt, or because it lost some ‘political war’. It lost the public relations war.

    All that said, I do take the points you and Lyn have made, and appreciate the thoughts that have gone into them.

  • 11
    Bob Durnan
    Posted Thursday, 16 February 2012 at 7:41 pm | Permalink

    Thanks Chris for detailing the honest facts of the situation: this is a real contribution to the debate.
    It is highly unlikely that the Government security people would not have had intelligence about at least some of the incidents that you have described, and this makes their seemingly paranoid responses more understandable.
    These aggressive and threatening behaviours by some of the Tent Embassy participants place even more onus on those who organise such events to ensure that they have their own marshals capable of preventing and containing such incidents, plus good liaison with police and security to help ensure the safety of all concerned. They also need to make sure that people using their stage to make authorative announcements and direct the crowd are mature, responsible people, rather than those who are likely to make rash judgements and allow silly behaviour to risk destroying the dignity of the occasion.
    .

  • 12
    Whistleblower
    Posted Thursday, 16 February 2012 at 11:50 pm | Permalink

    @Mark Regan
    I’m not saying that a complicated social issue is simple. As usual activists with no sensible policy proposals retreat into attacking straw men of their own creation. Why don’t you address the issues that I have raised about physical and cultural isolation, and the dignity associated with earning a living rather than living on social welfare. Of course you cannot.

    Simple minded activists encouraging so-called indigenous Australians to concentrate on their own language and culture rather than adapting to a modern economic way of life are doing indigenous children no service, unless of course you wish to maintain a permanent dependent economic under culture so that you can bleat about its disability. as

    The opportunities for advancement that I referenced were funding for special educational facilities provided for indigenous children which are wasted because the indigenous population doesn’t value what is being provided and effectively ignore it . The indigenous population has to want to change and to provide opportunities for its children needs to relocate so that education and health facilities can be provided on a more economic basis. I understand that significant amounts of funds set aside for indigenous education and welfare are being absorbed within self interested bureaucracies with very little actually been delivered to the end user. However sitting in the middle of the desert and expecting all this facilitation of to come to you will not work. The indigenous community has to want to change, to acquire the necessary skills through education so that members of its community can compete with the rest of Australia on equal footing.

    There is no reason why indigenous Australians can’t become chemical engineers if they have the appropriate educational opportunities, and they want to learn, and should not be restricted to being secretaries or mechanics.

    @phen
    Whilst I have some sympathy with your position, it could be seen to be patronising. Of the first generation children of migrants can aspire to the highest levels of education, there is no reason why indigenous children shouldn’t have the same aspirations. Of course the difference is that these parents have an understanding of the benefits of education which some indigenous parents seem not to appreciate, probably through a lack of understanding and role modelling.

    @Lyn Gain
    I have no issue with ” indigenous valuing of wisdom and harmony with the land” but it doesn’t pay the grocery bill. If people want to live in the bush in “harmony with the land” like one of Rousseau’s “noble savages” so be it, but this is a total misnomer. Harmony includes killing wildlife, disturbing vegetation, and stripping fruits and seeds from indigenous plants etc . Such a lifestyle requires constant movement otherwise you run out of tucker, and certainly will not provide books and reading material, store bought food, store bought clothing, telecommunications, or useful presumably useful things like motor vehicles, health care, community education services etc.

    As for “an attempt to co-opt the well behaved blackfellas into the system”, this is a patronising reflection on the rest of Australia who actually work and pay taxes to fund the social welfare system including the dysfunctional lifestyle of a number of social welfare recipients. I for one would put it somewhat differently: that I want indigenous Australians to shoulder an equal burden for both their own welfare funded from their own economic activity, as well as funding a proportion of the welfare burden of those unwilling or incapable of effective economic integration.

  • 13
    muruk
    Posted Friday, 17 February 2012 at 7:04 pm | Permalink

    When I was in PNG (a very undeveloped country) at Porgera Gold Mine in 1996, there was a graduate trainee chemical engineer working there. She was the first child from her isolated highland village who had been educated beyond grade 3 primary school. It is possible to make the enormous leap from stone age society to modern industrial society. The whole village supported her by contributing to boarding school fees and other costs

  • 14
    Whistleblower
    Posted Friday, 17 February 2012 at 7:23 pm | Permalink

    @Chris Graham
    You have totally misinterpreted my comment. I am not saying aboriginal culture is shit what; I am saying is that there must be a adaption to working within a sustainable economic framework and that elements of cultural values at variance with this objectives must adapt or you will have a permanent economic and social underclass.

    Furthermore assimilation does not mean abandonment of cultural values. I am advocating adaption to the requirements necessary to participate effectively within the mainstream economy which of necessity will involve some degree of physical relocation for both education and skills training as well as moving to where work is.

    I hope this clarifies my position

  • 15
    Whistleblower
    Posted Friday, 17 February 2012 at 7:29 pm | Permalink

    @Murak
    I was pleased to see your comment. I note that it was with community support that this particular individual received post primary and tertiary education and that obviously she must have relocated for part if not all of this education. It is more pleasing that it was a girl who received this support and encouragement.

  • 16
    Lyn Gain
    Posted Friday, 17 February 2012 at 8:20 pm | Permalink

    Whistleblower and Chris Graham. I don’t think Chris ‘totally misinterpreted’ your comment. I think he just cut through the bullshit. Why don’t you have a look at today’s Crikey article
    http://www.crikey.com.au/2012/02/17/stolen-lives-crusader-preventing-suicide-by-promoting-identity/ especially the bit about working in the mainstream but being able to visit country for healing purposes, and see if you have any further thoughts.

  • 17
    Whistleblower
    Posted Saturday, 18 February 2012 at 4:47 pm | Permalink

    @Lyn Gain
    I do have some further thoughts. Firstly having read read all of your posts, you have added nothing other than patronising comments putting down at people who don’t agree with you. God help your students who might have a different idea to yourself. Do you have make patronising statements as “cutting through the bullshit” to your students?

    I note that you profess to “teach advocacy and social change, and remind my undergraduates how important it is for the advocates to take the people affected with them, and make sure everyone supports the message”. It it would be possible for somebody who wanted to be critical of you to categorise that as bullshit!

    What solutions are you putting forward? I have already read the article that you mentioned, and it is not inconsistent with what I’m suggesting. Suicide rates are probably correlated with low self-esteem and what I am trying to put forward is a method by which self-esteem can be raised. Not being able to work to feed and clothe yourself from our own efforts does nothing for one’s self-esteem. What solutions are you putting forward?

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