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.

Peter Fray

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