'They cannot put out the fire of sovereignty'

Direct Action, January 26, 2013

By Jon Lamb — Last year marked an important turning point in the struggle of Aboriginal people for justice and sovereignty. The 40th anniversary commemoration of the Tent Embassy in Canberra, culminating in the January 26 Invasion Day protest, sparked a renewed fight by activists young and old against the ongoing and institutionalised racism endured by Aboriginal people. In the year since then, sovereign tent embassies have been established across Australia, with Aboriginal activists and their supporters vowing to rekindle and rebuild a new movement for sovereign rights.

Already 2013 is shaping up as another year of struggle. Aboriginal communities — including at James Price Point in Western Australia, Muckaty Station in the Northern Territory and Musgrave Park in the middle of Brisbane — are making a stand for their rights. On the other side, big business and its friends in federal, state and local government are preparing to deepen the dispossession and exploitation of Aboriginal people.

Ten sovereign tent embassies were established across Australia in 2012 to raise the demand of sovereignty and broader Aboriginal rights issues. They have become locations of political and cultural resistance and organisation, at times coming under repeated harassment from the state.

In Brisbane the embassy was formed in the wake of the 40th anniversary commemorations in Canberra, maintaining a nearly continuous presence in Musgrave Park since that time. Twice there has been a concerted effort to shut the embassy down and prevent activists from organising out of the park. After each attempt to shut the embassy down, activists have resolved to re-establish it.

In May the embassy was temporarily suspended when Mayor Quirk, backed by his Liberal National Party colleague and state Premier Campbell Newman, directed police and council workers to break up the embassy and desecrate the sacred fire, which included ashes from the embassy in Canberra. Some 31 embassy activists and supporters were arrested following the heavily armed police attack, making it one of the most significant mass arrests of peaceful protesters since the infamous right-wing regime of Joh Bjelke-Petersen.

Despite media distortions and brazen lies from Quirk, the heavy-handed attack on the embassy drew public criticism and a certain backlash. The core activists were able to re-establish the embassy, until again on midnight on December 12, Quirk gave the go-ahead to have the embassy dismantled and the sacred fire put out again. Three activists were arrested and charged. Aboriginal activists and their supporters have since repeatedly sought to restart the fire in the face of harassment from police and council workers.

On January 24, the three activists arrested in December had a partial victory at a bail hearing when the magistrate ruled that the order preventing them from returning to Musgrave Park was “unduly harsh”. Further hearings will be held in March.

“We are not allowed to relight the fire, but it doesn’t stop any of the traditional owners or the custodians or any of our other people to exercise that right to practise our religion”, Wayne Wharton, one of the charged activists, told reporters outside court.

The establishment of the embassies in regional and urban areas such as Brisbane represents a consolidation and the beginning of the next phase in the fight for justice and sovereignty. They are a rallying point for a layer of radical activists, many of whom are increasingly alienated from representatives whom they see as “gatekeepers” because of the sell-outs and betrayals of their communities. They reflect the uncompromising and militant Aboriginal resistance that started the first embassy 40 years ago in Canberra.

A media statement released by the Brisbane embassy on January 11 made clear the determined sentiment of activists: “No matter what they have thrown at us, they are unable to stop this movement. They cannot put out the fire of sovereignty. This is a life and death battle. It is a fight for the lives of our people. The Embassy and the Sovereignty movement give our people strength. That is what the colonial authorities are afraid of and that is why we have a responsibility to keep fighting.”

This embryonic movement faces many challenges, and comes at a time when Aboriginal communities are preparing for important campaigns of resistance against mining corporations, the banks financing these corporations and the racist policies implemented by their mates in government. The fight to defend Aboriginal rights, sacred sites, ancient rock art and the highly significant environmental surrounds of James Price Point against Woodside and the WA government may prove to be the next important national focus of resistance.