'Deep into the eyes of racism' - Nyoongar Tent Embassy

'Deep into the eyes of racism'
Nyoongar Tent Embassy, Thursday March 22

Gerry Georgatos 24th March 2012

Two of Nyoongar Tent Embassy's stalwarts had not been to the Embassy for more than a week.

Dumbartung Aboriginal Corporation's Robert Eggington and John Pell were in Perth city on planning duties for the March 28 Stolen Wages march and rally when Mr Eggington was urged on by a spiritual sense and looked at Mr Pell, "Johnny, lets go to the Embassy."

They drove into the Heirisson Island carpark to find it full of police vehicles with only one carpark bay vacant, as if it waited patiently for them, said Mr Eggington. "We looked around and the Embassy was swarming with police but none of our people were there. It was an eerie feeling."

They had arrived after 3pm and most of the Nyoongar folk had walked to Yagan's statue on the other side of the island to regroup in sanctuary and in peace.

"I saw police and rangers tearing down the tents, dumping the crockery, food, blankets, everything into large dumpster type bins," said Mr Eggington.

"I looked around at our flags which were still flying and some of our other symbols and I said to Johnny this isn't right that they should be dumped and destroyed. We walked past police and rangers and decided to collect them before they did."

"One officer asked us what we were doing and we said we would collect them. He looked at us like we did not matter."

"I never forget the look in the eyes of many of the police officers, young tactical response types, it was a look deep with hatred for us, smirks on their faces itching for something. I'll never forget it," said Mr Eggington.

Mr Pell said this is what shook him most about the police presence, the look in their eyes - one filled with racism. "The look in their eyes is what our people on the banks of the Murray River during the Pinjarra massacre must have seen in the eyes of those just before they slaughtered them - men, women and children."

They managed to retrieve the flags, and felt that the spirits of the Nyoongars had guided them. Nyoongar Vanessa Culbong was thankful Mr Eggington and Mr Pell had retrieved her flag, "This was my father's flag, we have always kept it." Similarly were the stories of many others.

"I have never ever seen the likes of what we saw at Mattagarup, of the police acting in these ways, not in all my life, and I have lived racism, known it, experienced. I could not believe it, it will stay with me till I die," said Mr Pell.

"I cannot excuse the government, however worst is SWALSC's Glen Kelly - he needs to resign, and I call for his resignation. Most Nyoongars will be turned against the government and Glen Kelly when they see how they treat our people. How can any Nyoongar trust anything Glen Kelly and this government ever has to say or promise when they did this to our people? Nyoongars will say they can shove their offers and deals when they treat our people like this," said Mr Pell.

"That was racism out there, an army of police, who looked like more than a hundred of them, police on horses carrying on like cavalry, and the dogs in cages seething to break out and tear at people, the air smelled of the worst of man, of the awful things done to our people for 150 years in this state," said Mr Eggington.

WA's backwater racism smashes Nyoongar Tent Embassy - for a day

Heirisson Island (Mattagarup) had become the voice of disenfranchised Nyoongars, removed from the consultation process on Native Title talks between the state government and the South West Aboriginal Land and Sea Council (SWALSC).

The National Indigenous Times visited Nyoongar Tent Embassy on eight occasions during its nearly seven weeks at Mattagarup - on every occasion, except when West Australia's police force, in heavy duty numbers, arrived, it was peaceful, civil, and a place of yarning and a bloom of camaraderie.

Unlike many broadcast and print media reports which portrayed chaos the Embassy was orderly, at all times clean and tidy in the midst of the beautiful landscape and alongside the sweep of the Swan river, and people looked out for each other - children who were there after school hours played freely and happily. News media and radio shock jocks had been portraying images of truancy and neglect.

The ceremonial fires were carefully stoked and looked after.

In the minutes before the police arrived there was happiness, laughter, and myriad bright exchanges of civil banter.

At 2:30pm on Thursday 22, a police helicopter hovered over Heirisson and appeared to descend. The Western Australian police arrived in what appeared military phalanxes, in-a-never-before-seen public spectacle for the City of Perth upon a peaceful gathering of peoples. The public spectacle, a throw-back to an era presumed long gone, led to the unfettered debacle of confrontations, pumped-up officers on horseback galloping after activists walking to Yagan's statue on the other side of the island, and to the arrests of four of the campers - Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal.

Yagan was a Nyoongar resistance fighter who was murdered in 1833 by the first colonialists, and whose murderers then severed his head as 'bounty'. In 1984 his statue was erected at Heirisson Island. In 1997 the head from the Yagan statue was sawn off by vandals obviously in reference to the then current attempts to return Yagan's head from England.

One shocked Embassy supporter said, "The police numbers and their intimidating conduct should come before a royal commission however the government ordered this! Where do you go?"

"There were no reasons for the arrests? Why?" she said.

The Western Australian police looked near one hundred officers however many news reports have them numbered at 70 - they arrived in a platoon of blue shirts, dark shades, and gloves, and some acted in ways as if their blue thread provides them with various immunity - however the police violence, one on one, was not anywhere near as ugly as some of the officer to protestor confrontations at the Lobby restaurant incident on January 26, however it was ugly in terms of the size and force of the en masse police operation.

The violence at Heirisson was in the magnitude of the deployment of force by WA's police - the deployment of a dog squad, of horseback police, of the tactical special response group and of a huge number of officers in militia like formations and sweeping movements that caused people to fall, tumble, and a young pregnant mother, Shilo Harrison, cradling Marianne Mackay's newborn, was smacked in the face by a police officer's horse - she was 'shell shocked' and was left with a cut to her forehead.

Ms Harrison said she filed a complaint with police. However one Nyoongar said, "Police investigating police, we know where that goes." Police have confirmed they have received an 'excessive force' complaint.

Nyoongar Marianne Mackay said, "The calmness and tranquility of our culture and our respect at Mattagarup was vilified by the police and the government however we are not going anywhere, it is our right to be here."

"After all the vilification of us by the Premier and the (Police) Commissioner on radio, and Howard Sattler and Paul Murray (6PR radio program hosts) we knew the police would come today like an army. However we peacefully walked over to Yagan's statue and did not confront them, and this stunned them. Having come for trouble and not getting it, they looked foolish."

Nyoongar Greg Martin said, "They came after us, we did not do anything, they came here looking to make arrests."

Elder Herbert Bropho who was arrested two hours after the police stormed the Embassy said, "We have caused no one any harm, we have done no wrong, we will not be shut down, the Embassy will be back and up and running real quick."

"We will keep on coming back... They cannot stop us," said Mr Bropho.

The number of police and rangers were many more than those present however supporters, Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal, had arrived in the hour before the police and council rangers arrived to evict the Embassy campers, and many conscientiously tried to hold their ground in the face of the unrelenting sweeping movement by police across the camp, and they begged police officers to respect the rights of the Nyoongar folk at the Embassy, and said that this was not Nazi Germany, that they should not act like Nazi Germany's notorious Brown Shirts, and that they should refuse to be misused as 'weapons of government'.

Nyoongar activists spoke of a swathe of solidarity messages from right across Australia - of others nationwide who were appalled by what was described to them as the 'backwater racism of Western Australia'.

The police and 20 council rangers seized 21 tents, two vehicles, a dinghy, camping equipment, and other goods during the forcible eviction.

In the days and nights since many of the activists have remained at the Island, having regrouped, without tents and resources, with one saying, "Our spirit must remain strong."

Mr Martin said, "We send out an appeal to every good hearted person, if they can come with a tent for us, we will gladly accept it."

Mr Bropho said, "They can come back tomorrow with the army, we are not moving."

Former Fremantle Dockers and Melbourne AFL player Scott Chisholm has been at the Embassy "since day one".

"The people have been waiting for Premier (Barnett) for ages, since this started, to talk with them," said Mr Chisholm. "We have to get thee guys out of their office, sit down and talk with us."

"I am saddened, upset, at how our people are being portrayed."

"I do not want to see my people being treated the way they have, it brings a tear to my eye," said Mr Chisholm. "They haven't even been protesting, they are only people making a stand for their rights."

In the days since, there are still a dozen to a score Nyoongars at Mattagarup holding up the spirit of the Embassy and who said the bloom of the Embassy shall be raised again - they have relit the ceremonial campfires. In the meantime the police are maintaining a presence at Mattagarup, which they instead only refer to as Heirisson.

What WA Premier Colin Barnett had to say

Several hours before at least 70 Western Australian police marched into Nyoongar Tent Embassy Premier Colin Barnett had much to say. He said that the Embassy would be dismantled and where necessary 'force' would be applied.

He said it did not matter how embarrassing it may look for Western Australia and his government to the rest of Australia and to the world.

He told news media, "It has gone on long enough and it will be stopped."

"The protest is undermining the good negotiations, in good faith, about a final agreement over Native Title for Perth and the south west."

Premier Barnett accused the protestors of wanting a violent confrontation so that it would make international headlines. He did not believe his government had been at fault. He said he is relying on news footage for people to make up their minds about who is at fault however he said he did not care if the news footage was misconstrued as bad publicity, it was time to end the Embassy.

"There will be performances for the cameras and it will get reported around Australia and probably elsewhere but we will not tolerate the continuation of this camp and protest on Heirisson Island," said the Premier.

Mr Barnett said that if the Embassy continued it would make his government look "weak and impotent."

"We deliberately took a view that let them make their point for a while but that time has run out now."

"It is getting out of hand and therefore action will be taken and maybe it is a bit overdue," he said.

Several hours later, after four arrests, and news footage going around the world West Australia's police - tactical response pfficers, horseback police galloping like cavalry after activists who were only walking, a police helicopter, a dog squad, and the debacle of police marching all over ordinary folk - the Nyoongar folk said they would continue the Embassy as occurred with Canberra, 1972.

Tent Embassies have gone up in Brisbane (Musgrave), and in regional WA's Bunbury.

Inciting hatred - 'You are a weak and impotent government'

Radio programs throughout Perth and the south west of WA gave Nyoongar Tent Embassy a torrid time, none worse the radio station 6PR with three of its radio talkback hosts slamming the Heirisson Island Embassy day in day out.

A blogger to the 6PR website posted, "At least Howard tells it as it is without fear or favour. These people have had it too good too long and need to follow the laws of the land."

Radio talkshow host Howard Sattler said that the police should move in and clean them up. Fellow radio program hosts Paul Murray and Geoff Hutchison were just as tough. Mr Murray in interviewing Premier Colin Barnett said to him "your government appears weak and impotent". Premier Barnett responded, "Well we've given them the time to get their message out and now we will taken action to move them out."

WA Police Commissioner Karl O'Callaghan also added his weight on 6PR by saying it was time they had to go and he urged for instructions for his police to go in and end the Embassy.

There were many who called in support of the Embassy however most callers were vehemently against the Embassy. 'Doug' said, "Past injustices are no excuse for law breaking today."

'Max' said, "(Tell them to) get real jobs and pay taxes then you deserve the right to be heard same as the rest of Australia."

Posted by 'Dianna' on the 6PR website's blog, "I'm with you!! I'm sick and tired of these bloody do-gooders saying that we have to be more tolerant of the aboriginals - Rubbish! I'm over it, I'm tired of them making us feel intimidated with their foul mouths and violence - these 'people' on Heirisson, deserve nothing!!! I agree put them all on a remote piece of land in the middle of no-where and give them nothing, they're quite happy to take money from our government but slander them in the process!"

'Steve' posted, "Ding dong, the protestors are gone. The police and rangers need to keep on doing what they have done here today. Don't let them set up again... As soon as they set up another tent it needs to be removed. They will soon run out of tents and camping gear."

'Nikki' posted, "Paul, I like your fence idea... Keep them on the island in a secure enclosure and use their Centrelink money to provide the traditional lifestyle and habitat they claim to desire, a bark lean-to and a campfire. Of course they will be given firewood, a few kangaroos and possums thrown over the fence for them to kill and eat every week, and whatever fish they can catch... with nets they make themselves from grass. I imagine such an exhibit such as this would be quite popular with international tourists, perhaps (from a raised) treetop walk to view them safely..."

Sadly these are the views and posts of several of the far too many to document.

"They came after us"

Nyoongar Tent Embassy spokesman Greg Martin had been at the Embassy for the whole of the six weeks. He said the police always intended to make arrests.

"We tried to avoid a confrontation, they came after us. We went to the other side of the island but they kept on coming after us and they made the trouble. The police came here intending to arrest people," said Mr Martin.

SWALSC CEO Glen Kelly distressed

South West Aboriginal Land and Sea Council (SWALSC) chief executive officer, Nyoongar Glen Kelly said he was distressed his fellow Nyoongars were confronted by police in the manner that occurred, with a tactical response group, horseback officers and dog squads. He was distressed by the arrests.

Mr Kelly said, "We never wanted people to be arrested and for this event to happen."

Mr Kelly said SWALSC has the best interests of Nyoongars at heart and the Native Title proposal hopes to create last legacies, such as income and rights for Nyoongars. "I am a Nyoongar and I am in this for my people."

He said SWALSC's board of directors were elected by the organisation's 4,000 members. There are however at least 37,000 Nyoongars said Nyoongar academic Professor Len Collard.

Greens speak out in support of Nyoongar Tent Embassy

The Greens have spoken up in support of Nyoongar Tent Embassy and say that the police intervention was wrong. Greens WA member of the Legislative Council, Robin Chapple said the "activists have a right to stay on Heirisson Island."

Mr Chapple has called for calm in the face of the demands to have the Nyoongar activists "cleared from their Tent Embassy at Heirisson Island."

"I call on the Premier and City of Perth to respect the right of peaceful protest, and allow the Tent Embassy activists to continue to gather and practice culture on Heirisson Island."

"Heirisson Island is a public park of significant cultural importance, and particularly at this time while the state government is in negotiation about settlement of Nyoongar native title, it is important that the government does not silence these voices," said Mr Chapple.

"The Tent Embassy has been a peaceful gathering, drug and alcohol free by the activists' insistence. There is no pressing reason why the Tent Embassy should be cleared," he said.

War of attrition to destroy Tent Embassy wasn't enough

Sources close to the Office of the Western Australian Premier, Colin Barnett have told The National Indigenous Times that the angst by the Premier and his colleagues towards Nyoongar Tent Embassy at Heirisson built to fever pitch.

Indigenous Affairs minister Peter Collier and Premier Barnett had said that the Embassy had to go at all costs, although publicly Premier Barnett had limited himself to comments that the tents had to go and that no-one could sleep on the Island overnight.

In the last couple of weeks after an ugly tug war between City of Perth Council instructed police muscle misused as weapons against the Tent Embassy campers, the Embassy instead grew five fold in size in comparison to the first few weeks of its life.

However, police and council rangers set up concrete bollards to close off all parking area entrances into order to starve the Embassy of parking facilities and of supporters from coming in to join.

A source said, "The talkback (news media) had got too much for the Premier and some of the ministers, and with Labor and especially Ben Wyatt not supporting the Nyoongar Tent Embassy, the Premier decided to move things along. He'd had enough."

"What really sparked it for Colin and Peter (Collier) was the talkback - Howard Sattler and Paul Murray getting stuck into the Aboriginal protestors and the camp and the government letting it just carry on. With an election next year they are worried about looking weak."

"Then there's Rob Johnson (police minister) and Troy (Buswell) and Colin listens to them, and they dropped in their vitriol in against the protestors that they need to be moved on and well that was it for Colin. So, as far as he was concerned the police had to come in and end this, once and for all - lock up some of them, so be it. A couple of staffers said it's not wise to be heavy with people that don't have much, that they're not Andrew Forrest with all the voice in the world, but with Howard Sattler riling up half of Perth and the (news) media showing the worst of the protestors that was it."

Dennis Eggington says a Treaty is the answer

Dennis Eggington, chief executive officer of the Aboriginal Legal Services of Western Australia, and who unlike many prominent Nyoongar folk in high offices tied to state and federal governments visited Nyoongar Tent Embassy and demonstrated his support and comprehension of the Embassy said that it is time Australia put together a legitimate Treaty with its Aboriginal peoples. He said Australia is the only country not to have such a Treaty.

"A Treaty between the Commonwealth and Indigenous peoples can help resolve much of the problems between our peoples and the Commonwealth." He said this would be an apt resolution for all Aboriginal peoples as is being clearly evidenced by the predicament between for instance the West Australian government and Nyoongar Tent Embassy. He said the issues are more than just the content of the Native Title offer, they are of sovereignty - and the call for Aboriginal Tent Embassies has been Australia-wide. He said sovereignty calls will not go away and are being highlighted by all Aboriginal peoples and major organisations, and that hence a Treaty is long overdue. This generation of Aboriginal voices will cut its teeth on sovereignty and for governments to try and oppress this call will need great reserves of various biases, prejudices and racism shoved down peoples' throats to delay it as clearly demonstrated by the WA state government in what they have tried to do to the Nyoongar peoples at Heirisson Island (Mattagarup).

Mr Eggington believes a Treaty is the majorly way forward.

"This is the way other countries have done it - Treaty - and I do not know why Australia procrastinates any longer," said Mr Eggington.

"It just causes these kinds of issues we are dealing with today and it is something that should have been done a long time ago, a long, long time ago."

"It is a matter of governments sitting down in a fair dinkum way and drawing up a bona fide Treaty or partnership, sitting down with or peoples and putting it together," he said.

"What is happening at Nyoongar Tent Embassy is exactly the same as Aboriginal Tent Embassy in Canberra and the people at both just want to be heard."

"The reality once again is we're not doing it for people's sympathy, we are doing it because it is our right to," said Mr Eggington.

"Whatever needs to (be done) get people to the table to talk and to put together a fair dinkum Treaty or to talk about a legitimate partnership, because the sovereignty issues will not go away, then so be it."

In the first days of Nyoongar Tent Embassy Dennis Eggington said to me that far too many people are making the mistake of not realising that the issues with the Native Title offer are huge, and that Nyoongar Tent Embassy represents more dissatisfaction than is portrayed by the news media or is being accepted by those in positions of responsibility. The Native Title offer would not address the myriad issues and problems that afflict Nyoongar peoples, however that at the heart of the offer is a dig at the identity of Nyoongars - the extinguishment of many of their rights, and of their call for sovereignty, be it Treaty, and hence the stripping away of their identity, historical and contemporary, as assimilation plunders obvious demands.

I am reminded of the words of Les Malezer, co-chair of the First Peoples National Congress, to the news media Australia-wide the day after the Lobby restaurant incident - Australia can expect Aboriginal voices to rise, and much more to come, be they protests, heightened calls for various justice and including sovereignty, in a year that could be one pursuant 'of historical change'. Eulayhi leader, Michael Anderson has described 2012 as the stand for justice - it is happening, this is undeniable, and the narrative is still unfolding, though state, territory and commonwealth government jurisdictions to their shame may wish not to hear it at this time.

Well known Nyoongar and university academic Associate Professor Len Collard once told me the meaning of "Nyoongar" - "human being."

photos taken by Zebedee Parkes

photo essay by Alex Bainbridge