The most striking aspect of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy protests, which sprung onto the media’s radar on Survival Day, was the stark difference between the reports of the events, and the reality.
This week, 2000 people made their way to the tent embassy to camp on the land where four Aboriginal men had helped change the course of Aboriginal political history 40 years prior. On January 26, 1972, Michael Anderson, Billie Craigie, Bertie Williams and Tony Coorie staked their claim on the lawns opposite Old Parliament House, in a historic protest for land rights. Yesterday, Aboriginal people and their non-indigenous supporters came together to celebrate that occasion, and protest against the succeeding decades that brought little change.
The day began with a well-attended protest through the heart of Canberra. Starting at the Australian National University, the rally wound its way through the city, to Parliament House, and back to the Tent Embassy. It was peaceful, but lively, and mirrored the concerns of those four men in 1972. Men, women and children marched peacefully alongside the police escorts, calling for “Land Rights Now”.
By the end of the day, that protest would be forgotten, replaced by images of an “angry mob” that had “trapped” the Prime Minister and opposition leader in a Canberra restaurant.
I was at the tent embassy at the time we heard of Tony Abbott’s comments. Abbott had responded to the 40th anniversary by stating it was time the tent embassy move on:
“I think a lot has changed for the better since then … I think the indigenous people of Australia can be very proud of the respect in which they are held by every Australian … I think it probably is time to move on from that.”
Comments such as that from a man who wants to be prime minister were never going to go down well.
The common sentiment from the embassy was that they were insensitive remarks, and wildly untrue. The fact we were still protesting for land rights 40 years on put the lie to those claims.
There has been much discussion in the media about whether Abbott was misinterpreted, but by saying “moving on” people did interpret that to mean move the tent embassy on, and today many people are still pretty angry at the literal interpretation. For many, it was seen as insensitive because things now are not much better than the 70s (eg. the gap is only getting wider).
When word got around the embassy that Abbott was at a restaurant less than 200 metres away from the camp, people slowly started to trickle over.
The Lobby Restaurant is encased in glass, with the interior easily visible to those outside. While protesters were angry, it’s safe to say the reaction would not have been as emotional had Abbott not made those comments.
But while there was anger, it was far from a “riot”. A riot involves violence and a disturbing of the peace. While it was definitely a loud demonstration, there was no damage. A few smudged fingerprints on the glass of the restaurant was the net result. There were about 1000 protesters around the café when Gillard and Abbott were rushed through their own mob of security guards.
When they did come out, there were few protesters in the firing line. In fact, people such as Michael Anderson, one of the original founding members of the tent embassy, was pushed out of the way and into the stair railing. One of the only Aboriginal protesters near Gillard when she was delivered to her car was a photographer who was unceremoniously pushed away by a policeman.
Similarly, it was the police that made Gillard stumble. There was no protesters around her. People such as Anderson and Tiga Bayles, a prominent indigenous broadcaster, were involved in soothing the crowd and were negotiating with police who had made a line of blue outside the restaurant. There was a call for people to return to the embassy, as the “point had been made”.
The only violence I saw was on behalf of police, who were pushing protesters away. Nevertheless, that didn’t stop media from portraying an angry mob who were bent on terrorising our first female prime minister. Images of Gillard in the arm of her protector made the front page of newspapers around the country, but would it have been such a source of public outrage if she wasn’t a woman?
There was no attempt to hurt Gillard or Abbott. Protesters simply wanted to make clear their concerns about sovereignty, land rights and Aboriginal rights to the mainstream. On that part, they were effective. Would media even be reporting the protests of the tent embassy if this didn’t happen?
Aboriginal people still want to have a national conversation about the issues that affect our communities. Unfortunately, media ignore it, and prefer to listen to the self-appointed Aboriginal leaders such as Warren Mundine, who represent the smallest percentage of Aboriginal opinion. I’m not surprised that he is the Aboriginal leader they have decided to quote, even though he was not present, and did not know the full story.
Today, the tent embassy is also peaceful. Children are playing on the jumping castle, and about 500 people are having a conversation about sovereignty in a tent set up by the organising committee. It is not the angry, riotous place portrayed on your television screens this morning.
If more people came down and saw for themselves, maybe it would be reported more accurately.