Non-Indigenous allies MIA at Stolenwealth Games protest

By Elizabeth Muldoon
Prince Charles protest action in April 2018. Credit: Elizabeth Muldoon

As my tired body crumpled into a hard, plastic seat at the Coolangatta airport, my friend Nish said, “You know, I think that’s the best thing I’ve ever done in my life.”

“Yeah, by a long shot,” I replied. “I’ve been thinking that all week.”

After a lingering pause, we speculated on why only a small number of non-Indigenous people, ourselves included, joined the protest camp set up by a broad coalition of Indigenous activists opposing the Commonwealth Games.

An open invitation had been sent out months earlier via the Warriors of the Aboriginal Resistance (WAR) Facebook page, which has over 23,000 followers. It read:

“The 2018 Stolenwealth Games will be re-invading our shores on the 4th–15th of April, 2018… Each time ‘Australia’ has hosted the games thousands of Aboriginal, Torres Straight islanders as well as other groups who have been oppressed by the crown have united to resist colonial activity and authority…

…The protest camp will be a central hub throughout the games for demonstrations, public forums and discussions, as well as workshops for cultural sharing and resistance concerts when the sun goes down. There will be showers, toilets, and kitchen facilities on site all you need to bring is your tribe, tent, all your passion and power!”

Yet, aside from the Food Not Bombs crew, who kept us all happily fed, there were only a handful of non-Indigenous activists at the camp or the daily protest actions that were staged around the Gold Coast.

As WAR noted in a call-out for more non-Indigenous allies to show up for the final days of the protest:

This expressed enthusiasm for non-Indigenous allies is not empty rhetoric. When Nish and I arrived at the camp – feeling more than a little awkward because we knew nobody there – we were welcomed with open arms. We introduced ourselves, explaining our Melbourne activist connections to some of the Elders and they asked us to sit down for a cup of tea and a yarn. Within no time, we felt completely at home. We became immersed in a kind of political activism grounded in family and community that we’d never experienced before.

On our first morning at the camp, Nish and I piled onto a bus along with grandparents, parents, children, teenagers, aunties, uncles, and took off for the Sheridan Hotel where Prince Charles was staying. While families gathered on the street outside the hotel holding Aboriginal flags and a large banner reading, “Respect our Existence or Expect our Resistance”, a few activists dashed up the nearby bridge over Seaworld Drive. Police scurried up the stairs behind us as we reached the centre of the bridge and dropped our banners reading, “Fighting Terrorism Since 1788” and “Say Their Names: Wayne Fella Morrison, Rebecca Maher, Ms Dhu, Dylan Voller, DJ Doolan”.

Just before the cops managed to block off both sides of the bridge, an older activist darted past them to deliver us water so we could comfortably hold our position under the blazing sun. “Thanks Aunty,” the younger activists called out as she slipped back past the cops with a mischievous grin.

The events that unfolded over the following weeks were inspiring and transformative. I was astounded by the courage, resilience and determination of all the Indigenous activists I met, in spite of the brutal oppression they faced on a daily basis. As a teacher, it was especially moving to see the staunch pride and self-discipline of the children who stood alongside their families in silent protest outside a Christian church, and their beaming joy in performing their traditional dances at rallies and celebrations back at the camp.

During camp meetings and at quieter moments, older activists shared stories of being taken from their families as children and abused in state and church-run institutions, as well as lengthy battles for custody of their own children and grandchildren who had been taken by the state. They also spoke about their experiences of surveillance and intimidation by police and security personnel, deaths of relatives in police custody, measly wages seized by the state never to be returned, and unrelenting abuse and ridicule dished out by non-Indigenous people from all walks of life.

By protesting the Stolenwealth Games, these activists were challenging the idea that colonisation is no longer happening in Australia. They were continuing a long, proud tradition of using protest to draw the public eye to the injustices they continue to suffer due to Australia’s denial of their status as sovereign First Nations peoples. These activists do not simply demand equal rights with other Australians, but rather the recognition of their continuing sovereignty, which implies rights to land and self-governance.

Sovereignty is at the heart of Indigenous self-determination

Many Indigenous activists affirm that their sovereignty fundamentally challenges the right of corporations to exploit people, animals and the natural environment for their own profit, as well as the legitimacy of the state that allows them to do so. Thus, supporting Indigenous self-determination is not only a way to seek justice for Indigenous people, but also connects to a broader agenda to achieve a more just, sustainable future for everyone in Australia.

Unlike other “Commonwealth” nations, Australia does not have a single treaty with any of the Indigenous nations whose territories it occupies. Although the Victorian and South Australian governments have begun the process of negotiating treaties, many Indigenous activists fear these will not be based on an honest appreciation of their legal status as sovereign peoples or the atrocities they have suffered over the past 230 years. So one of the central demands of the Stolenwealth Games protestors was for a truth commission, overseen by the United Nations, to ensure that what really happened in Australia is properly documented and recognised in an international forum.

My experience at the Stolenwealth Games protest gave me a deeper appreciation for the staggering amount of energy Indigenous activists spend organising actions that powerfully challenge colonisation, build unity amongst diverse Indigenous agendas and, as far as possible, protect the safety and wellbeing of participants.

For this reason, I want to echo WAR in affirming that what will make a massive difference right now is responding to calls for action and support by the Indigenous political groups that are building this inspiring movement.

How to be an effective ally

If you’re a non-Indigenous person thinking about taking your first steps to support Indigenous self-determination, this guide adapted by Clare Land outlines a variety of supportive actions, ordered from the easiest (and least impactful) to the most challenging (and transformative).

Yet, as renowned Gumbaynggirr activist Gary Foley often affirms, being an effective ally also means making time to educate yourself and your own community about Indigenous political struggles and solidarity politics. Land’s more comprehensive Decolonizing Solidarity book explores this second vital component of solidarity through in-depth discussions with Indigenous and non-Indigenous activists.

Mitch, an Arrernte/Luritja activist I met at the camp, stressed that non-Indigenous people “don’t need permission to seek out information.” Or rather, we already have permission via the countless Indigenous activists who have called on non-Indigenous people to get informed by listening to the voices of Indigenous people.

Indigenous voices often feature in mainstream media, but it also pays to follow Indigenous-controlled media, such as Indigenous X, Black Nations Rising magazine, Celeste Liddle’s blog, Black Australia tumblr, Warriors of the Aboriginal Resistance or Grandmothers Against Removals on Facebook, Amy McQuire, Chelsea Bond, Nayuka Gorrie or SEED on Twitter, Let’s Talk or Fire First radio podcasts, to name just a few. For a more historical perspective, Gary Foley’s Koori History Website and his more recent Gooriweb are excellent resources.

The above resources provide a context for understanding the local Indigenous histories and political struggles where you live. A Google search is probably the best place to start if you’re not yet aware of the agendas of local Indigenous communities.

Non-Indigenous people must also learn and teach one another about the particularities of our own social locations, the accompanying privileges we so often take for granted, and how these relate to our work in support of Indigenous self-determination.

There are lots of resources that can help with this. Some key points to consider are:

  1. Be humble and self-reflective. Listen and think carefully before talking in an Indigenous organising meeting. Your opinion may not be required.
  1. Be accountable and expect to be challenged. If you’re asked to change your behaviour or step out of an action, don’t be precious about it. Managing non-Indigenous people’s emotions is an extra burden that Indigenous activists don’t need.
  1. An action in support of Indigenous self-determination is an action that Indigenous activists have explicitly endorsed. If you’re thinking of taking an action that has not been called for, ask yourself whether it is really the best use of your energy. If in doubt, ask an Indigenous activist you trust.
  1. Keep your critical mind switched on and act according to your own values and judgements. You’re not doing the Indigenous self-determination movement any favours if you romanticize Indigenous cultures and treat Indigenous people like gods. While there may be times when Indigenous activists ask you to do something without giving you all the information you want, you are ultimately responsible for your own actions, which should be based on your own understanding of the situation and relationships with the activists involved.
  1. Be ready to put your body on the line. The risks you face engaging in civil disobedience are far less than those faced by Indigenous people. In the widely circulated zine Accomplices not Allies, an anonymous Indigenous author analyses a range of unhelpful behaviours often displayed by supposed “allies” of Indigenous political struggle and calls for non-Indigenous people to stand alongside Indigenous people as “accomplices”, which means sharing the risks and consequences of confronting colonialism.
  1. Remember that Indigenous people don’t owe you anything. I’ll never forget the white lady who approached us during a protest action outside the hotel where Prince Charles was staying during the Stolenwealth Games. “Well, look at you! That’s lovely. Can I get a photo? You know, we do Indigenous!” When asked what it meant to “do Indigenous”, she explained that she “helped” Indigenous people by overseeing unemployment programs, including the notorious work for the dole When Indigenous activists proceeded to ignore her, she got pissed. “Teach me then! You can’t just wave a flag and not teach me!”

    Fortunately, Indigenous activists can make choices about how to spend their time and energy. Sometimes, when they encounter extreme levels of ignorance and condescension, they will decide it’s not worth the effort. If you find yourself shut down or shut out, walk away, do some research and you’ll probably figure out what went wrong. It’s important that you give your support without expecting anything in return – not praise, not friendship, not endorsement of your projects.

Once you’ve tapped into what Indigenous activists are doing, you’ll soon be presented with plenty of opportunities to show your support. Many groups frequently call out for donations, so holding fundraising events is a straightforward, risk-free way to make a difference.

Yet, as WAR and other Indigenous activists have affirmed, non-Indigenous allies also need to show up for protest actions when asked. To be an accomplice, sharing even a small portion of the risks involved in the fight against colonialism, it’s critical to stand beside Indigenous people when they take their struggle to the streets, just like tens of thousands of non-Indigenous supporters did in cities around Australia on Invasion Day.

As generations of Stolenwealth Games protesters have powerfully affirmed, Indigenous sovereignty has not been erased. Only by uniting behind it can we achieve the kind of social, political and economic change we desperately need.


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