Image description: A woman with red hair and a green shirt is being pushed in a wheelchair. A sign on the back of the wheelchair says, 'Black lives matter. Disabled lives matter.'
“Will you come and march with us on January 26?”
I think about it. The young man who is asking me is a young indigenous man named Clinton, and we are sitting at the outskirts of a homelessness community at Matagarup, a place that means ‘leg-deep’. It is home to a dozen homeless families, a few hard core activists protesting the closure of black communities, a few people who are travelling from interstate or who have moved to the city after their communities have been closed.
‘Why would we march?’, I ask. I am a disability rights activist, but I sometimes visit the island. The people there are always warm and polite and helpful. Sometimes I take food. Always, I learn something.
‘For change,’ Clinton says. ‘For the Australia we want to be. Do you want anything to change in Australia? I do.’
And we talk about the Australia we are living in – an Australia which celebrates the anniversary of white Australia occupying this land and commencing the mass genocide of his people, an Australia where half of my people, disabled folk, are living near or below the poverty line. An Australia where people who cannot marry who they want, where racism and bigotry and ableism is rife. An Australia whose history has informed our present, where disabled people are still living in institutions and black men, women and children cannot get jobs or housing and are still living in poverty.
And so I agree to march.
My day starts in uniform, in my own rural community. We raise and salute the flag, the children and I. There are awards presented to deserving recipients, hardworking members of my community. There is a citizenship ceremony, where the new Australians are given a potted native plant wrapped in a green and gold ribbon. The Councillors cook us breakfast and we volunteers talk to each other, the fire brigade members, Scouts, Mens Shed members.
Of three hundred or so people, there are five Aboriginal people. They stand slightly aside from the crowd.
I take off my uniform in the car and put on a green tee shirt. It is a teeshirt from FRIDA, the Feminist Response In Disability Activism collective, and was sent to me by a disabled sister in the US. There’s corflute for a sign for my wheelchair, carefully marked with the words, ‘Black Lives Matter, Disabled Lives Matter’. As I am writing it, I think of the Aboriginal Australians with disability who I will march for – my friend Marlon Noble, who was incarcerated for a decade without charge, Rosie Ann Fulton, others who have been deemed to be held indefinitely without charge under the Mentally Impaired Accused Act in this state. I think of other Australians, 22 year old Ms Dhu, whose inquest continues this year, who died from the injuries that the police disregarded when she was in their care, of Mr Ward, who was literally cooked to death in an unairconditioned police cell on a country trip. Kate Bugmy, Lala Mardigan – the names go on. They are the people I will march for, I decide.
It is a hot day. My wheelchair is fitted with an off road wheel, but it bogs down in the sand on the island.
‘Do you want a hand, or shall I just watch you struggle?’ A man strides over to me and I gratefully accept his help. If it was on the street, I would have said no. This is a community where people help one another.
He pushes me into the shade of a tarp, erected between a forked stick and a tent. There’s a chair beside me and an upturned piece of bark. It is filled with feathers, sprayed black and yellow and red, a half coke can filled with crushed charcoal, balls of wool and braided lengths, ready for decoration.
‘How do these work?’ I ask Herbert, who is sitting near me. ‘Where do you wear them?’
‘You’ll see, in a minute. We will be all dressed up.’ Herbert is an Aboriginal man who is one of the camp leaders. He directs the young men and boys and shows them how to paint their bodies and tuck the red material into their shorts, and I am greatly amused watching Clinton working out how to tuck his mobile phone into his traditional garb.
‘In case the media ring,’ he explains. And rubs charcoal across his chest, ties gumleaves to his arms.
There are more of us gathering, a two hundred strong crowd, but it is all very casual. The young boys are dressed by their brothers and fathers and uncles, and a few of them go off to play football, showing off impressive footy skills that my home team would die for. The young men talk about the heat of the bitumen and whether they should wear thongs.
‘No black man wore thongs,’ declares Herbert, and I tell him that no black man traditionally had to walk on bitumen. He grins. ‘We will walk barefoot,’ he says, and the young men put their footwear away.
The sun is shining and there is a breeze coming off the river. Someone is playing a radio, and others are laughing and talking in family groups. There is a small girl on my knee, and another small girl is telling me, earnestly, that all princesses live in castles.
‘Fuck off, you black cunts!’ They scream it from a car that was passing on the Causeway, and everybody freezes. It is a car full of white revellers, travelling to celebrate Australia Day. The community stop and look in that direction, then return to what they are doing. The little girl cocks her head and opens her blue eyes a little wider.
‘Does that happen often?’ I ask. Yes, I am told. Day and night. People scream abuse out their car windows, sometimes come to the camp to cause violence. The men at the camp protect the women and children, I am told.
A few minutes later, it happens again.
Herbert gathers us around. He is painted in white clay, and is today a ghost man, invisible in his own country. ‘When you hear the first bang of the first firework,’ he tells us, ‘That is the bang of the first gun that was fired by Captain Cook at black men when they arrived in our country. Our ancestors died for us.’ The children listen, the young men look sombre. He speaks of land and birthright and racism and colonialisation. He speaks of the reality for his people, right now.
My daughter joins me and my friend. We are not the only white people marching – the march is mostly made up of Aboriginal men, women and children, but there are folks from every conceivable background holding signs, wearing teeshirts. Many of them are pushing prams. The children are wearing shoes, carrying water bottles, tucked into strollers. We set off down the street, stopping the traffic, the police escort just in front of us. This is a peaceful protest. There is no anger and I have not heard a single person swear. It is a community march, a family rally, a statement of a position, a message that this community of people is not invisible.
The ground is hot. There is a three legged dog in front of us with an Aboriginal flag tied to his collar. Clinton leads the chant via his microphone – ‘Always was, always will be, Aboriginal land!’ Some people are chatting quietly, the young men are dancing at the front of the crowd and carrying a thick silver chain. We walk through the city and Aboriginal people in cars give us the thumbs up, white people look at us darkly. We have disrupted their day of celebration. We keep walking, deep into the heart of the city.
My daughter is sweating, pushing me up a hill that I cannot navigate without her help. And suddenly there is a scream – somebody has thrown a coconut from fifteen stories up, down into the crowd. It narrowly misses a baby in a pram, and it is the mother who has screamed. Seconds later, missiles pelt down into the crowd – a large stone, the type you get from a pot plant, water bottles filled with water. They explode and we are splashed. Nobody is hit, nobody is hurt, but the force of the missiles would almost certainly have meant that a person could have been killed. People are covering their children, their babies. We huddle together in the street. There is nowhere to go, and then the rally turn their faces up to the missile throwers, defiantly.
Caption: The building at 237 Adelaide Tce where the occupants of apartments 15 and 16 - and 9 and 10 threw projectiles at the marching men, women and children below. Image description: A tall building with balconies. The photograph is taken from the ground, looking up at the building.
‘Always was, always will be, Aboriginal land,’ they chant. They stand together and chant up at their attackers, unflinchingly, for long minutes before Clinton moves them on. ‘It’s what they want, let’s keep going,’ he says, and the crowd follows his lead. The television cameras are rolling, and they faithfully record every move.
It is a long walk to the Survival Concert, and heads turn as we proceed through the stalls at the park, disrupt the radio station’s live broadcast. A sea of blue and white tee shirts and here is a sea of chanting people dressed in red and black and yellow, headed up by mostly naked men wearing feathers and paint. The Aboriginal flag flies above us and I notice some people joining us from the other crowd, walking with us.
Image description: A group of people marching down the street, taken from above. The group is led by Aboriginal people carrying Aboriginal flags.Finally, we arrive at the Survival Concert. Herbert gives a rousing speech – he is not an Elder, he tells them, but an Aboriginal man who wants change for his people. The young men dance, hopping like kangaroos, and the sound of the didgeridoo is everywhere. We cannot stay for the concert, so start walking back.
I have blisters on my hands. I laugh and show the young man walking beside me, whose feet are blistered from walking on hot asphalt. He laughs and shows me his hands, blistered from climbing trees, he says. Wheelchair hands, he says.
On the way home, it is a sombre drive. I wonder how possible it is to 'get over' the trauma of your family history, the genocide of your people, particularly when others are reinforcing that hate and discrimination and racism every day. If you are unable to get a job or a house because of your skin colour. If your community has been closed down, if your parents were stolen from their families because white Australia didn't think they were 'good enough'. Particularly if you are now homeless, or disadvantaged, or having things thrown at you. Particularly if you are living in a tent.
My daughter finds the footage on Facebook, courtesy of Channel 9 News Perth. The comments are appalling.
From Luke - Let them have there little march if it makes them feel better. We shouls be giving out free metho they look thirsty from all the hard work they dont do
From Richard - I don't see them complaining about the Benefits and Royalties they get while hard working tax payers are suffering eh so wrong
From Lance - Should still have them as slaves today!!
From Frances - Can Australia legalise killing for one day please so we can do some culling
Not just a few comments. Hundreds of comments, telling Aboriginal people that they should be killed, grateful that they are living in this country, removed to somewhere away from white people.
Such hate, from white, anonymous faces. In other countries, they were concealed behind white hoods, but here they are screamed from passing cars, hurled from apartment balconies, typed from behind the anonymity of a keyboard.
I read those comments and I try to reconcile them with what I know about their targets, the respectful, warm people I spent time with yesterday, with little Olivia sitting beside me and telling me about her blanket with the stars on it and how all princesses live in castles.
I am not ashamed to be Australian. But today, I am ashamed to be white.
Image description: Aboriginal men leading the march. They are painted and wearing traditional garb.
Photographs by Jeff Tan Photography and Gerry Georgatos