Aboriginal activism goes online as the Aboriginal Tent Embassy turns 50
With a parasol and a determination backed by decades of heartache, four young men arrived in the nation’s capital unaware that they were about to change the course of Australian history.
They were four indigenous men, choosing on January 26, 1972 to cement themselves on the lawns of the Old Parliament Building – in Ngunnawal Country – to launch a protest for indigenous rights that would last not days, but decades.
Michael Anderson, Billy Craigie, Bertie Williams and Tony Coorey created the Aboriginal Tent Embassy on the day now known as Australia Day.
Now, 50 years later, the embassy is the world’s longest continuous protest for indigenous land rights.
The Embassy is a beacon for contemporary Indigenous activism in this country.
According to scholar and activist Lynda-June Coe, the movement was built on the legacy of First Nations warriors fighting British settlers in the border wars.
“It’s a symbol that goes back to 1788, not just 1972, in that we never ceded our sovereignty and there was never a treaty in this country,” Ms Coe said.
Wiradjuri and Badu Island’s wife is the niece of two of the embassy’s co-founders.
“The older ones taught us well not only about the Black Power movement in this country, but also about the invasion and what our people fought for on the frontier,” she said.
Ms. Coe believes that the Embassy’s objectives are more relevant than ever to younger generations of First Nations people.
“It’s amazing how the movement has [diversified] and transformed in 50 years.
“Self-determination now manifests itself in different aspects that we have never seen before.”
A ship without an anchor
The Embassy and its founding story are now legendary and, according to National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Service (NATSILS) Director General Jamie McConnachie, its impact cannot be underestimated.
“They’ve created a sea of activism in their communities and beyond,” Ms McConnachie said.
“Without the Tent Embassy, this country is like a ship without an anchor.”
As the baton is passed, the Waanyi woman said it was about ensuring the next generation is free to reshape the way they fight for justice for marginalized communities.
“Sometimes we win small battles, but sometimes we can’t win the war. And that’s why it’s fundamental that over time, young people keep turning the floor.
“Young people are important because they have the opportunity to not remain oppressed and anchored in the outdated policies of the past.”
NATSILS is currently campaigning to reduce the incarceration rate of Aboriginal people, with the most recent data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics showing that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people make up 30% of the country’s prison population.
This is despite the fact that First Nations people represent only 3% of the country’s total population.
NATSILS is also working to raise the country’s age of criminal responsibility from 10 to at least 14 and reduce the number of Indigenous deaths in custody.
In 2020, tens of thousands of people across the country turned out for Black Lives Matter protests, to bring attention to Indigenous deaths in custody.
Aboriginal people led the chants, but they were also supported by a growing number of white Australian allies, many of whom also shared education campaigns on social media.
Ms McConnachie believes these protests have shown that the civil rights movement is as relevant as it has ever been.
“When people feel heard, they feel empowered, and that freedom is fundamental to democracy,” she said.
The people’s voice
Going online has also helped First Nations people rethink the protest and its impact on non-Indigenous Australians.
Ms Coe said social media was being used by indigenous peoples to “mobilise and organize nationally”.
“The movement has spread in terms of people building their own economies, crowds building their own businesses…and social media has been a really strong tool to amplify that,” she said.
“It also gave us the space to amplify that message around Indigenous rights.”
This year’s Tasmanian Invasion Day rally will move online to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
Despite the rise of online activism, Ms Coe sees no end to the physical marches.
“Protest is still necessary…but we are now at a stage where we should learn from 1972 and organize our own political structures,” she said.
As in all protest movements, the power is in the numbers.
And according to Shelley Reys, inaugural co-chair of Reconciliation Australia, non-Indigenous interest in causes such as Black Lives Matter and the Australia Day debate is growing.
“It’s a whole bunch of non-Aboriginal people who are more aware of our history today and therefore more sensitive and attentive to what [January 26] means for Indigenous Australians, but also what it means for advancing the relationship between us. »
The Djiribul wife is the former vice-president of the National Australia Day Council.
Ms Reys believes Australian businesses are poised to lead sophisticated conversations on Indigenous issues that could lead to instrumental change.
“It often means that the corporate sector and the grassroots movement…lead to these big conversations and change long before government does,” she said.
Through her work with the corporate sector, Ms. Reys sees many companies supporting community sentiment change by publicly voicing their positions.
She says that while not every organization has taken a public stance, many more are starting to connect.
“They’re still learning Australia’s shared history. They’re still being educated about what January 26 means in terms of our historical timeline,” she said.
“[Some] told their staff: “If you wish to work Australia Day rather than taking it as a day off, you can do so and take the alternate day at a time that suits you.” So they’re always looking at the different perspectives on the date.”
The march forward
Jamie McConnachie says the way Australians engage in protest movements is changing.
“You can’t deny people their experiences or what’s happening in their country, their community and beyond because of the power of social media, and people are aware of that,” he said.
“The government, the parliament – they can’t deny that’s what the people want, and they have to be representative of the people.”
Organizers of the 50th anniversary of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy say this week is a chance for First Nations people to “honor and mourn our past, celebrate our survival and strategize for the next 50 years” .
On the same day, Indigenous peoples continue to educate Australians about the country’s first national civil rights protest in 1938, the Day of Mourning.
On January 26, 1938, activist Uncle William “Bill” Ferguson addressed the crowd in one of his many powerful calls to action.
“Certainly, the time has finally come for us to do something for ourselves and speak up,” he said.
Ms. Coe is optimistic about the multitude of new indigenous voices strengthening the front lines, inspired by their elders.
“It was these leaders who instilled in us black consciousness and the right to live in our own history from our own perspective,” Ms Coe said.
“I think blackfellas, especially these younger generations, learn on the spot as they go.