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. 

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

  1. David Hand

    Great, Blaggers.
    “The truth is out there” ha ha ha. Good one. (Cue X Files music).

    I saw what I wanted to see? Get real.

    I did not want to see the Prime Minister fleeing a rowdy mob because her security detail feared for her safety.

    I di not want to see angry aboriginal protesters disrupting an awards ceremony for emergency services personnel.

    I did not want to see a senior Union official in Canberra utter the words, “They’re both in a reception at The Lobby restaurant, which is just up the corner, and Abbott’s just made a statement to the press that the tent embassy should be pulled down.”

    Did you see what you wanted to see?

  2. Peter Ormonde


    Yes obviously one of those “seemed like a good idea at the time” moments isn’t it?

    Radio is telling everyone Abbott says “move on”… keen staffer rings a mate and it’s off …

    But not a riot … and certainly not a RACE RIOT.

    Riots are deeply deeply ugly. No one walks out of a pile of burning cars and looted shops holding the PM’s slingback. They go to hospital or the morgue.

    Could have been a riot … had the coppers been even sillier and decided to disperse the crowd with force rather than do a flit, ungracious as it was.

    As for me I wouldn’t have talked to them. I would have stayed inside and skipped the next flag wagging ceremony, waited until the coppers could provide a secure and dignified exit out the back, or send someone out to talk it down. But you would not send Abbott. Not Gillard. Not to the mob that turned up at the Lobby banging on the windows. RACE RIOT indeed. Bob Durnan above is spot on.

    But to be honest, given the zeitgeist, I actually found myself taking a dark delight in watching our PM and her smirking shadow being whisked away sans dignity and a shoe. Whipping boys for the lot of us. Representative Democracy at its best. Fix this stuff.

    Should be an annual event – a tall poppy day – for cutting the self-important down to size. An Australia Day backyard game – so the kids can take mum and dad down a peg with some sort of conspiracy or prank. Like Holi in India with the food dyes and the water. Or the water festival in Thailand. And there should be a shoe.

    A day for not taking ourselves too seriously. Just once a year of course.

  3. curaezipirid

    I think it is a bit bloody obvious that the coalition have used the whole set up, to scapegoat Julia Gillard and her office, and encouraged more public perception of contention between Rudd and Gillard.

    What is not so obvious, is that the experience of the majority of Aborigines in Australia, is that under coalition governments the police are obviously more brutal, more racist, and more likely to let Aboriginal men off the hook only when they were involved with drug dealing. These are the cold hard facts, I got told about often enough, ever since 1988, when old enough to want to care, but then got slapped in the face with the first time I camped at the tent embassy myself, in 2002-3, after disclosing the “probability” of indigenous ancestry intermarried among my own European ancestry. I say it is about time this country wakes up into recognizing what happened to the many too many indigenous families experiencing excessive incarceration, and wake up into realizing, that as the largest minority, if not majority (at one QLD prison), in the prisons, Aboriginal men DO KNOW what the deals were going down at any time, between organised crime, corrupt police, (who were are never supposed to witness any evidence of, because if we witness that, and mentioned it, we can be held suspect under the anti-terrorist legislation, according to certain sources among police), and politics funders, lobbists, and backers.

  4. Blaggers

    David, Glad you picked up on that reference.

    I did not want to see the opposition leader incite our indigenous people.

    I did not want to see the blame game played by both sides of politics.

    I did expect just a little leadership.

    I did not want to read the racist and vile comments that made me for the first time in my life not want to be Australian.

    …and while we’re at it….

    i did not want to see a world in which poverty, hunger, disease, mistreatment, superiority, misinformation, ignorance… exist. But here we are.

    You comment to Liz45 about rewriting history, yet you cannot even take in (comprehend?) the reports written by those that were there. So yes i reaffirm (as do you by your comment), you see/read/hear what you want to take in, what confirms your beliefs. All else must be lies. (cue X files music)

  5. Liz45

    My lengthy response is still awaiting moderation! I can’t type it again, my arms are painful!

    I agree that there is abuse of children. I agree that there’s violence full stop, but why is the govt using a different method than in the rest of the community? Where the majority of people aren’t aboriginal, and there’s no resources under foot? What about the kids in Wollongong or Woy Woy or Adelaide? Is there no abuse there? Are those kids less deserving of protection? What about those (mainly men – at least 30 of them) who’ve been charged with having “horrific” images on their electronic media? I don’t think any of them are in jail awaiting trial even. Why not? Are their families still living in the family home? Is their income quarantined? If not why not?

    All statistics clearly show, that while other crimes have reduced, crimes of violence, particularly against women and kids has not – Australia wide. I live in one of the highest incidents of DV in NSW. There’s no intervention, no removal of the Racial Discrimination Act; no dry areas and no ban on pornography. In fact, there’s adult ‘centres’ and many clubs are open 19 hours per day!

    If anyone can supply me with details of how approximately 5 years of occupation has assisted those affected by violence, then I’ll take note. I follow this issue closely. I’ve been and LISTENED to what aboriginal say is their reality, and the majority of them are depressed, angry and feel isolated by the actions of the three most recent Fed Govt’s.

    The ‘Little Children are Sacred’ report was the 13th. It was not conducted by the Federal Govt, but the NT Govt. In fact, many indigenous women who’d been imploring the Howard Govt via senior Ministers were being fobbed off about domestic violence etc.

    The bottom line is – if a Govt singles out aboriginal communities to correct or address serious issues in a vastly different manner to the rest of the community, then it’s racist, patronising, paternalistic and going back to the dark days of the past. At least, it puts people off side and so positive results are not the result. There’s ways of dealing with people, and ways not to do because once you raise people’s hackles, you just say good bye to anything positive. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to work it out!

    In Weekends Sydney Morning Herald (18-19 Feb.inst.)on page 3 is an article headed, “Girls at greater risk since intervention”. The article goes on to state that “The rate of suicide among Aboriginal girls is believed to have greatly increased since the NT emergency intervention was introduced five years ago to combat systemic child abuse and neglect”.

    You can read the full article on line!

  6. Liz45

    As for sovereignity. Aboriginal people aren’t even included in the Constitution, except in the Flora and Fauna sections. We’re the only Western world with blatant racist Articles in the Constitution.

    What if the Constitution replaced the word aboriginal and substituted it with ‘Asians’ or ‘Greeks’ or Malaysians? It would be met with hostile responses. Why then is it OK to refer to indigenous people like this?

    Aboriginal people never relinquished ownership of their land. There was a war for over 40 years, and conservatively, 20,000 aboriginal people were killed. Over 200 years has passed, and aboriginal people are still/again being forced off their land.

    Other countries have, in good will, reached an ‘Agreement’ with their indigenous peoples. we haven’t. We’re too bloody racist to even admit to the wrongs of the past. Even Australian History Lecturers were ignorant of the real truth pertaining to European Settlement – Henry Reynolds. He’s written several books on this issue, and did indepth research.

    I recommend his books to anyone wishing to further their knowledge of this issue.

  7. Liz45

    MY other posts are not being posted.

    I suggest people go to ‘stop the NT Intervention’. On there you’ll see over 3,500 sites, including ‘Jobs with Justice’ etc.

    Most enlightening!

  8. David Hand

    We all want world peace.

    Your faith in the accounts of Aboriginal activists who were there is touching. Pity they don’t quite line up with the compelling TV pictures and sounds. But you only see what you want to see.

  9. Liz45

    Thank you Chris and/or Moderator for posting my comments – even though the first one is lengthy?

    Re Henry Reynolds. Henry is a Lecturer in Australian History. He was teaching history in Tasmania then moved to Queensland. He was confronted by awful racism which made him wonder about the past. He started to investigate, and was horrified to learn that his education had been sadly lacking. He could not recall any thing about the effects on aboriginal people re European settlement. He corrected this omission, and has written several books. There are two that stand out as my ‘awakening’ moments – ‘This Whispering in our Heart’ and ‘Why Weren’t we Told’? I’m currently reading another one called, ‘AN INDELIBLE STAIN – The question of genocide in Australia’s history’. Most confronting indeed!

    Henry is about 7 years older than I am, and my education was lacking also. The fact that I went to catholic schools probably didn’t help, as their past records aren’t something to be proud!. Since I started to learn the truth, I’ve only been encouraged to seek more information.

    I’ve also read Peter Stewart’s ‘Demons at Dusk’ which took 20 years of research prior to writing it. It’s about the Myall Street Massacre – the awful murders of 28 aboriginal people including elderly men, women, children and babies. This book stayed in my head for weeks – not because of the brutal description of that awful crime, but because it wasn’t. In about half a page it started and stopped – just basic information. It’s probably the only massacre where the culprits were brought to justice, let alone hanged(I don’t agree with the death penalty – ever) but the fact that the guilty were all European was a stark reality. The role of the media and govts etc was telling. It was just horrific.

    These books are available at my local library! So there shouldn’t be any trouble accessing them!

    If these crimes had been perpetrated in the opposite, there’d be monuments dotted all over the country, and at least one day each year would be set aside to commemorate these atrocities. The fact that we’ve all been fed bs, that even today those who should know better choose to ignore these vital parts of our collective history and shame is a damned good reason why aboriginal people are so traumatised, resentful and angry about our ONGOING racist behaviour/s.

    The basic point re both Gillard and Abbott still must be put – if they’re really fair dinkum about the plight of indigenous people; if they had just some semblance of sensitivity, they’d have realised the importance of Jan. 26 last. As public officials, they must share the responsibility for what transpired. IF either one deliberately inflamed the situation, they should be condemned.

    They should be called upon to answer a couple of basic questions? Where did all the money go that came about via removing resources from aboriginal land, and why have past governments used ‘jack boot’ diplomacy in relation to very serious social issues? Why aren’t the Army and Police driving down Pitt St or its equivalents around the country, in order to stop all forms of violence against children. Why, even after pleading from hospital staff, Clubs, Pubs and other places are allowed to sell alcohol almost 24/7, when it’s very clear how serious overuse of alcohol has been for many years – and getting worse – in non-aboriginal communities?

    Regardless of how it’s put, the NT Intervention is just one more reality of abuse and use of indigenous people under the banner of caring about kids. If the problem was so severe, show us the police records. How many white men have been arrested etc for bribing young aboriginal girls for sex? Why are the basic social needs like housing, sewerage, garbage collection, education and other essentials that the rest of us take for granted, lacking in too many indigenous communities? Why were the employment programs shut down, and why aren’t aboriginal workers paid the same as their non-aboriginal colleagues who work beside them, performing the same or similar tasks?

    Could the proposed 10 year extension of the Intervention just be the same number of years as the mining boom for the resources under the feet of indigenous people is anticipated? No! How could I think such terrible things? Shame on me!

    The answers to all these questions are damning! It’s an old tactic to blame the underprivileged and dispossessed for their demise. Women who are raped suffer the same fate, as for too many years, women suffering domestic violence were also! I know. I’m one of them! A Chamber Magistrate told me to “go home, be a good wife, and cook his favourite meal’?

  10. Liz45

    @DAVID HAND – What glasses did you have on while you watched? How many aboriginal people have you spoken to? What have you read? What do you know of past history – and don’t say it shouldn’t count, because in reality it does? We’ve all been made aware of the ramifications of trauma years after the event/s. If people in war zones require counselling; if people who’ve witnessed awful things like car accidents, assaults etc then it stands to reason that if you live under constant oppression, it has a damaging effect on your psyche.

    Why are people in the NT treated differently to the rest of us? No abuse in our communities? No, there’s awful neglect and abuse, but non-indigenous people are treated differently. Why is that?

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