Feb 15, 2012

The tent embassy: fact v fiction, black v white

There is perhaps no event in the last few decades that better sums up the divide between black and white Australia than the debacle that engulfed the Embassy celebrations.

Chris Graham

Tracker managing editor

There is perhaps no event in the last few decades that better sums up the divide between black and white Australia than the debacle that engulfed the Embassy celebrations. It had everything: media misreporting; white political mischief; black political disunity; police violence; frustrated activists. And it had the odd rat-bag, black and white. If nothing else, the debacle that engulfed the Tent Embassy celebration has once again exposed to the rest of the world the racist underbelly of a very ignorant nation. But first the facts, because a lot of people have formed opinions on the Embassy based on media reporting. And that is almost always a bad idea. The Embassy celebrations kicked off with a large march through the streets of Canberra. It was loud and proud – by some margin the most inspiring march I’ve been to. It was a festival atmosphere and a celebration in every sense of the word. There was virtually no mainstream media present, certainly nothing comparable to the pack that would descend on the Aboriginal Tent Embassy a few hours later. The rot began to set in shortly after lunch on January 26, when one of Julia Gillard’s senior media advisers, Tony Hodges, phoned Kim Sattler, a union official who was visiting the Tent Embassy. According to the official version of events Hodges told Sattler that Tony Abbott had just been interviewed by media about the Embassy, and he expressed the view that it was time to move on. But what Sattler passed on to Embassy activists was something else altogether. Audio of the exchange between Sattler and young Central Australian Aboriginal leader Barbara Shaw, reveals that Sattler says Tony Abbott has just told the press the Tent Embassy should be “pulled down”, not that it’s time to move on.  It’s a pretty subtle difference, but Shaw relays that message – pulled down -- to the crowd, word for word. Shaw then directs people to The Lobby Restaurant, a few hundred metres from the stage. The rest, as they say, is history. Or in this case, the whitewashed version of history. Several hundred protestors descended on the restaurant. A small handful of them began banging on the glass walls on two sides of the building. The crowd was chanting ‘Shame’ and ‘Racist’. The object of their anger was Tony Abbott. Anyone who has seen the footage can understand that Abbott, Gillard and in particular their security minders had reason to be concerned. Protestors were furious at what they’d been told Abbott had said. After half an hour, Gillard’s security detail is captured by a Channel 9 news crew informing the Prime Minister that they’re becoming increasingly concerned for her safety, and have decided it’s time to go. The subsequent images of Gillard being bundled out of the restaurant are startling. Gillard looks terrified as she’s rushed to her vehicle, surrounded by her personal security team and police, including one with a riot shield. Not surprisingly, the story made headlines around the world. The fact that Gillard stumbled and lost her blue suede shoe in the process only added to the colour. Also not surprisingly, the vision sparked widespread outrage among average Australians – news sites that offered the opportunity for comment on the issue were inundated. Overwhelmingly the responses from readers were negative. The coverage from the ABC – supposedly the moderate national broadcaster – best sums up the unfolding media circus: ‘Gillard puts on brave face after riot rescue’. It’s a pretty compelling headline. It’s also complete bunkum. The ‘riot’ – at a glass-walled restaurant, mind you – saw not one pane of glass cracked, let alone broken. There were no arrests and no injuries. It was a loud, angry protest. Nothing more. Of course, it did have the potential to get out of hand, but all protests do. It’s worth noting, the only damage to the Lobby restaurant was to a door – the one which Gillard is rushed through as she exits the building. And who caused the damage? Police. The National Capital Authority, which owns the building, inspected the Lobby the day after the protest, and confirmed to Embassy organisers that the AFP had broken the door in its haste to leave. Not only was there no riot, but there was never any actual threat to Gillard’s safety, nor that of Abbott. As footage that emerged after the media had already written the script clearly showed, the only people pursuing Gillard and Abbott when they were rushed from the building were police, journalists and photographers. There were no protestors within coo-ee, and certainly none chasing down a terrified Prime Minister nor an Opposition Leader, who can be clearly seen smirking and smiling as he’s rushed to the car. But that’s not such a newsworthy story. So instead, we got this, from Channel 9:
“They made for the safety of a getaway car. The only thing between them and an angry, raging mob were police with shields. “The Prime Minister, cradled by an officer, lost her shoe, stumbled slightly in the mayhem, the moment of terror, captured here on Julia Gillard’s face. “Tony Abbott was pushed to the waiting car. “When she got to the vehicle you can see Julia Gillard shoved inside. “And in a sign of the danger, the rare sight of Mr Abbott bustled in beside her.”
The media reporting gave the widespread view that Gillard had somehow been attacked, as the comments on news sites consistently showed. But in defence of the Channel 9 journalist, he did get one aspect of his story right: he noted that AFTER the Prime Minister’s vehicle left, the violence began. One of the most memorable images from the ‘riot’, at least from the Aboriginal perspective, is footage captured by a news crew of a police officer punching an Aboriginal man – dressed in traditional costume and carrying a spear – in the face). It can be seen 15 seconds into this clip.

The images were replayed around the globe – BBC World News, for example, used the footage over and over again during its coverage of the event. Alternative footage, captured by an embassy activist, sheds new light on this officer’s behaviour, and what led up to the assault. Shortly after Gillard’s vehicle has left, the protestor’s footage shows the officer unleash a barrage of abuse – and blows – at protestors and media. At 1:05 he comes into the shot screaming “Media f**k off or get out. Get out media, get out”. He turns his attention to a cameraman from SBS and yells, “F**k off c*nt,” before manhandling a sound technician. The exchange clearly shows the officer as the aggressor. At 1:17 the cop starts yelling, “Move rear, move rear. Move f**king rear,” as he continues to push and swing at protestors, before finally hitting one of them in the head (at 1:28). At 1:30,a second cop stars in the video, with wild eyes and a huge grin on his face, nodding his head and willing protestors to take him on, all the while pushing and manhandling them. As soon as one protestor yells “Get him on camera”, the cop seems to realize he’s being filmed, wipes the smile off his face and steps back from the crowd. The camera pans back to the red-headed officer, who is now in full-swing, literally. He’s screaming “Get back off the road idiots” as he pushes more protestors. You can hear one off camera respond, “Little f**king big man. Little big man, pushing people eh?” It draws the attention of the officer, who responds by pushing him in the chest. The protestor replies, “Hey, you push me, I’ll spear you brother.” The cop pushes him again, and you see the protestor push the cop back. The cop looks down at his own chest – an act which people widely interpreted to mean he was spat on (he wasn’t) - then hits the protestor in the head. You can’t actually see the hit – it’s slightly off camera. But it’s of such force that you can certainly hear it. The news footage BBC ran shows it nearly knocked the protestor off his feet. What follows is one of the more ironic images from the demonstration. Tiga Bayles, an early Embassy activist and a former Queensland Father of the Year, steps into the frame and blocks the cop, saying ‘No, no, no, it’s alright’. Other protestors – including the first man assaulted -- also surround the cop to prevent further attacks. It’s not often you see groups of peaceful protestors having to step in to try and calm a police officer down. The cop keeps pushing and swinging until a female protestor puts her hand on his shoulder (at 2:04) and says, "You are inciting, you are inciting." Like his colleague earlier, the cop’s demeanor changes completely – he seems to realise that everything he’s just done has been captured on film. He stops yelling, and starts pleading, “I’m just trying to get you off the road.” Seconds later, Sergeant Chris Meagher – a community liaison officer who spent the five days working cooperatively with Embassy officials -- can be seen walking into the shot, and removing both officers from the front line of the confrontation. A protestor can be heard yelling, "This officer here is way too pumped up. The officer in the middle, this one right here.” You can hear someone reply, “Yeah, we got him.” And remember, all of this occurred AFTER Gillard has left the scene. The supposed threat has gone. So why the police violence? A measure of how pumped up the red haired officer was before confronting protestors is captured in this video. 

Free Trial

You've hit members-only content.

Sign up for a FREE 21-day trial to keep reading and get the best of Crikey straight to your inbox

By starting a free trial, you agree to accept Crikey’s terms and conditions


Leave a comment

96 thoughts on “The tent embassy: fact v fiction, black v white

  1. Peter Ormonde

    No you are quite correct Liz, there is abuse neglect and violence in our communities too.. but outrageous and unacceptable as it is, it was not threatening our very survival. It was an endemic in Aboriginal communities. It was the norm.

    I am not for one moment doubting your sincere convictions and sympathy for the plight of Aboriginal people. But what could be done?

    The old regime of sit-down money and official neglect led to this. If the intervention can provide enough of a breathing space, hopefully the communities of the NT – particularly the women – can respond to the challenge of regaining control and purpose.

    But returning to the old system, restoring the power of these “elders” who presided over, ignored, tolerated or excused this violence and abuse, will do nothing to resolve the problem. Aboriginal communities, their leaders and their organisations must protect the vulnerable and nurture the future. If they don’t, who will? Us?

  2. Liz45

    Peter, as with non-indigenous people, the ones to seek out, LISTEN to and work with are the WOMEN! In fact, in many communities the women are doing great things, sometimes with none or few resources. IF aboriginal communities had access to the same resources as the rest of the community, these problems would not have got to this stage. When successive govts demonstrated their ingrained racist attitudes, they never cared about any form of abuse, let alone women and kids. It wasn’t that long ago in my area, that aboriginal women had to take a friend with them to buy a dress, as they were not allowed to fit on any clothes? Amazing isn’t it?

    In all areas, women are doing amazing things, and as usual, monies are never enough, but as a woman on the Council of a Women’s Health Centre; and also on the Committee Against Domestic Violence, the programs that both the Federal Labor Govt and the previous NSW Labor Govt have set up are very positive and producing good outcomes for vulnerable women and kids. There are police people attached to major police stations; there’s a non-police person attached permanently to a city police station, who is the Liason Officer with all the people in the Illawarra. There are NGO’s attached to police stations who just work with victims of violence, going to Court with them etc. There’s counsellors for rape victims, young victims of child sexual abuse etc and these people are doing great – even tough we need more refuge places.

    There’s ‘Staying Home, Leaving Violence’ in NSW (started by Labor) where the perpetrators of DV have to leave the home not the victims. This was a great step forward on past realities. Women were often forced to move away, set up another home, with all that entails(particularly if you have kids) and this was really costly, in every respect.

    It’s unfair and unjust to put all “elders” into tohe same pot. Some of the elders are most supportive of women and kids, (just like the elders in our communities – like me for instance?), and of course, some of the elders are women! “Elder” is not a term just for males?

    While the ‘do gooders’ in Govt speak and act with a false tongue, there’ll never be solutions. They mouth all the motherhood comments with microphones in front of their faces, but then turn their backs and initiate realities that dehumanise, denigrate and belittle indigenous people. I for one would rile against their paternalistic attitudes. Speaking over me and then ignoring what I have to say wouldn’t impress me at all!

    It suited those in the past to hand out the ‘sit down money’? At the same time, they with-held the wages of those aboriginal people who worked – usually long hours for very little money. Those monies still have NOT been paid to those worker. Show me any worker in the rest of the country that would cop that? For decades?

    Most aboriginal people love their families, just like you and I do. To lump all people into a demoralising and pre-emptive bunch is not just. I’ve seen the ramifications of how too many men feel, due to being lumped together with pedophiles and other abusers? This does not lead to productive solutions. How would you feel if just because a man in your suburb had revolting images on his property, you were lumped in with him? I can’t think of anything worse for an innocent person to confront. When you’re demeaned because of the colour of your skin, this is just one more ‘weapon’ that is used against you!

    “Message Stick” has done a few programs with these men speaking out. It’s also had at least one program where perpetrators of DV spoke out about their past actions, and the awful stories of violent childhoods perpetrated against them. Many have turned their lives around, but our media, that supports stealing aboriginal land for the resources, has a vested interest in painting lying realities to those who can’t be bothered to research but quick to condemn! It suits them to blacken the lot of them! Easier to deny basic human rights then!

    Under NO circumstances do I condone any violence, or the revolting use and abuse of kids for sexual gratification – it sickens me to my stomach, but surely we don’t have to sacrifice justice and decency in order to combat it? We don’t throw innocent people in jails (except occasionally we get it wrong???) from our communities, why is it OK to do it to aboriginal people?

    You could probably access these past programs on both Message Stick and Living Black. Jenny Macklin won’t even go and speak to people. She prefers to only listen to the mouth pieces for industries; some of whom sadly, are aboriginal people, usually on a 6 figure sum – politicians or others???Even when there was a health scare re raw sewerage that was dumped near residential areas (including a school) not one person was sent there from her Dept. The people finally got sick of it and walked off! The motive? To save money?

    How many people have been convicted in the homelands for sexually abusing kids? Do you know? I don’t! If it was as the politicians said, why haven’t we heard about ALL the trials/convictions/prison sentences etc? Could it be that it just has NOT happened?

    How many programs in schools cover relationships in the NT? Any? White Ribbon Day has been using a program in NSW schools. The numbers are getting bigger each year. The plan is to extend it to all States. Is the NT on the list? You can access their web site by just putting those three words into your search engine, then go to the applicable site! It’s just an awesome program!

    One in 4 women will be sexually abused by the age of 18. One in 3-4 will be physically abused. Too many women experience their first instance of physical abuse when pregnant for the first time. The same number of older women are also being physically, and financially abused. A woman is murdered by her husband/partner every 10 days in Australia. These stats are horrific in the general community, and much worse in the aboriginal communities. But we don’t use the same draconian measures to combat this violence in non-indigenous communities! That just about says it all, really!

    Finally, with the life expectancy of aboriginal people being way behind the rest of the community, soon there’ll be none or few of those “elders” left? As I said, there’s many who love and protect their kids/grand kids, just like I do! It’s evil to condemn them all – and most unjust! But that’s what’s going on, as we speak! Shameful!

  3. David Hand

    I understand what you mean.
    I saw the Prime minister being bundled into a car by security people whose job it is to keep her safe. What was I supposed to see?

    The fact that it was aboriginal protesters is embarrassing for the protesters and I understand that. More bad press for the aboriginal cause.

    I also understand people like you charging in defending their anger and behaviour. Next you will be saying the Australia Day riot was my fault. In fact you are hinting that in your prose already, and I understand that as well.

    I also understand that nothing whatsoever will cause you to criticise boorish behaviour from the Tent Embassy protesters.

  4. Liz45

    @DAVID HAND – I find your last comments offensive. “Boorish behaviour” covers a pretty large number of people. I think “boorish behaviour” is being used here by a couple of people. Insulting people who stand up and speak out for justice, equality and common sense is “boorish”?

    I watched a video of the events of that day, and, as the person who put it up stated, the violent behaviour started via the police people – one or two in fact. I’d find being punched in the face an act of violence perpetrated ON me! I’d try and defend myself, in fact, out of sheer shock and anger, I’d probably lash out myself.

    Nobody from either the Tent Embassy or those outside the Lodge/eating house? were charged? Why is that, do you think? Perhaps, the police wouldn’t like images of their awful violence displayed in Court? It’s also interesting to note, that as far as I know, the police officers involved haven’t even been admonished, let alone charged with assault. Surprise, surprise! Something like the fact, that of the 400 black deaths in custody since the 1980’s not one person has been charged with any murders????On the contrary, the protestors venting their anger at this reality have themselves been charged and in some cases, jailed! But that’s OK though. Not as though they’re real people is it? They’re usually black!

    It appeared to me, that the only risk to the PM was from the brute strength used against her by a so-called ‘security person’? It was unnecessary. All the while, Abbott had a ‘gleeful’ look on his face! He threw the ‘grenade’ and then whined about what happened after! Sickening! Isn’t he surposed to be a Rhodes scholar? Wouldn’t you think he had a smattering of common sense? At his age, wouldn’t you think he’d show a bit more sensitivity on that day in that environment? No, as he himself has said on more than one occasion – ‘he’d sell his a**e to win an election’? or words to that effect!

    What’s led to this stage is the fault of all of us! That includes you and I.

    I don’t condone violence, but I have no problems with noisy demonstrators, in fact, I’ve been one on many occasions. Every Reclaim the Night Rallies, or International Women’s Day when we try to raise the sexual violence against women during wars etc. Even the UN is concerned about this reality, but I don’t suppose you bother to educate yourself about that reality.

    My boys were still in High School when we participated in Hiroshima Day rallies – in fact, I helped organise the first one in my area? I have a long history of angry demonstrations – that doesn’t make me a criminal – nor does it give any police person the right to bully or mishandle me! When that is condoned, I’ll give it all away!

  5. David Hand

    You weren’t there, Liz. You are hostage to the same TV pictures as the rest of us and I accept that you believe the propagandists from the tent embassy are objective and unbiased. You are in no position to judge how friendly or threatening the happy and motivated tent embassy people politely knocking on the window to get Tony’s attention so he could come out for a nice friendly chat were.

    You’re offended by “boorish”? Well I trust the opinions of Julia Gillard’s security detail, professionls who decided the threat was such that they had to bundle the PM to safety. They were there, Liz. I was being kind with “Boorish” How about “Threatening and offensive”?

  6. Liz45

    @DAVID HAND – This may come as a huge surprise to you, but I really couldn’t give a flying fruitcake what you think!

    In your view, the Embassy probably should’ve gone years ago. The reasons why it was started are still valid today. Abbott is wrong, but so what’s new?

    Racism is “threatening and offensive” too! Ask those who experience it almost on a daily basis!

Leave a comment

Share this article with a friend

Just fill out the fields below and we'll send your friend a link to this article along with a message from you.

Your details

Your friend's details