On the 1st of August, in response to the shocking reveal by ABC about the abuse in the Don Dale detention centre, and not satisfied with Turnbull’s response of a royal commission examining the Northern Territory system, given the last one made many recommendations still not implemented to this day, the Aboriginal Tent Embassy called for a peaceful “Sit In” at Parliament House in Canberra. This was to go ahead on the 30th of August at 8am (Tuesday last week) on the opening day of the new Parliament, to highlight that more action was needed, and needed Australia wide, to properly address the issues around Aboriginal youth in custody and youth in custody in general.
The Aboriginal Tent Embassy announced this by creating an event on their Facebook page, and publicising it from there. As far as I can tell, this was the limit of the extent to publicise the event though mainly, through Social Media alone. I noticed the event early on, and intended to help bring awareness of its existence via this website closer to the date. This did not end up happening for reasons I will go into below. First I want to explore what happened in the weeks in between the announcement of the event and the event itself taking place.
During this month, a total of 591 indicated they were interested in attending on Facebook, and 188 indicated they would definitely attend. It was also shared with over 1,000 other people. At some point after the protest was announced, the peak Indigenous bodies and some Indigenous members of the new Parliament, decided to hold a press conference essentially at the same time of 8am on the lawns of Parliament House. In hindsight, it is obvious that they realised what I know now, the event was never that likely to go ahead as a protest in the first place. However some people in the Indigenous rights movement chose to take advantage of the protest announcement itself to make the event their own instead.
I arrived at 7:50am at Parliament House on the Tuesday morning not knowing what to expect exactly. What I found was a sea of hands, setup by Reconciliation Australia, and about 50 people gathered around on the lower front lawn with some people speaking and a number of mainstream media filming. I joined the assembled throng, and tried to work out what was going to happen. At first I presumed this was the speeches that normally take place first at a Protest, before then moving up to presumably attempt to peacefully occupy the front entrance at least of the Parliament. It soon became clear though that nothing of the sort was going to occur, and instead I realised they were about to commence what amounted essentially to a press conference with about 30 people gathered to watch along with the media present.
Live stream footage of the proceedings (audio is very low, apologies):
Having promised my readers a live stream of events, I proceeded to live stream the press conference for the just over 20 minutes it lasted, for the 15 viewers who did tune it to see what was going on. Most did not stick around though after realising all there was to watch was a press conference at that stage, and probably also because unbeknownst to me, the audio was not picking up anywhere near as loudly as it had in my testing prior, so was very hard to hear. After it was over, the crowd dispersed and volunteers began packing up the hands placed out on the lawns. I then spoke with Roxley Foley, the Tent Embassy Firekeeper and organiser of the protest, to try and work out if it was going ahead or not. It became clear from talking to him that it was not, although he was going to be maintaining a symbolic presence by the ceremonial fire he had lit on the lawn all day. So I remained to speak to him for a bit then headed up to the entrance of Parliament House to check out the assembled parliamentarians out the front at that stage.
Sadly without an official media pass, I was unable to get very close and could not get any decent photos as a result, and the Police were very active in blocking my view at pretty much all times as I moved along the edge of the crowd trying to get a good photo of something. It seems wearing a t-shirt that proclaims you as “Independent Media” makes you appear very suspicious to the Parliament House AFP officers. Maybe after I have been back a few times they will get used to me and not be so aggressively in my face in the future, one can only hope.
Various well known Indigenous rights movement leaders and some politicians spoke passionately that morning about the the need for further action on youth in detention in Australia. But it was clear that the protest as such had been hijacked and turned into an attempt to garner press coverage using the protest as a backdrop to lure people in to watch. Sadly this is far from the first time, and far from the last time, that something like this has occurred in the grass roots activist movement in Australia.
The Aboriginal Tent Embassy can be criticised for not doing more to advertise the protest and make it actually happen if this was their genuine intention, as the people who did turn up were obviously not planning to do anything of the sort. Whether they were aware in advance their event was being hijacked as it was is unclear. However up until the day before the protest, they were still urging people to attend with the stated intention of conduction a “sit in”.
If more people had been aware of the planned protest, would more have turned up and would it have actually gone ahead? It is pure speculation, but yes it is possible that could have happened. The media itself is partly to blame for this. Not one mainstream outlet reported the intent of the protest in advance, despite the intention to conduct a “sit in” at Parliament House on the opening day of Parliament being a bold move to propose. I myself attempted to publicise it. I submitted an article about it to this site a few days before the event, but it didn’t run till the day before, and even then wasn’t a featured article on the home page.
It is unfortunate that I wasn’t able bring the planned protest to the attention of more of Canberra as a result, but it likely would have made little difference in the end. To achieve something like the Aboriginal Tent Embassy intended takes more planning and especially more promotion than it appears they actually put in to organising it. Roxley assured me the intent was genuine though.
Overall it is great that some people, including the mainstream media, turned out to hear some leading Indigenous rights figures and Indigenous Politicians speak on the issues at hand. It is sad that they chose to use a planned protest as the vehicle with which to do this though. In the end, Falun Gong protesters outnumbered those that had gathered at 8am, and they had multiple banners as well, something also missing at the mornings “protest”.