Sam Watson: a life-long fighter against racism
BY KAREN FLETCHER
BRISBANE — Anti-racist activist Sam Watson is running for the Senate in Queensland as a Socialist Alliance candidate. He is a life-long campaigner for the rights of indigenous people. Green Left Weekly caught up with him to find out his story.
Watson grew up with tales of indigenous resistance that never made it into the history books. "Grandfather [the first Sam Watson] was a senior man of the Birigubba tribe, in Bowen Basin country. Right back to his generation, our family have been the sort of people who wouldn't accept the sort of bullshit that Aboriginal people have been expected to live with."
When he was five, grandfather Watson was sold into bondage to a white station owner in central Queensland. "After his day's work, he was chained up like a dog under the station house and fed on a tin plate."
Fleeing this treatment, he worked in ring-barking camps until he had enough money to hire a lawyer who had him freed from the Aboriginal Protection Act, one of the first Aboriginal people to do so.
Many of Sam Watson's relatives worked on Palm Island. "Palm Island was called 'Punishment Island'. Any Aboriginal dissident in Queensland who questioned the white managers on the reserves or missions, or who played up in the white towns, was shunted off [to Palm Island] in chains."
In 1957, Aborigines on the island went on strike for equal wages and conditions. Two of Watson's uncles were involved: "The police naturally put them in chains and took them off in the government boat to other reserves."
During the 1960s, the indigenous rights movement gained wider support than ever before. It is a time Watson remembers with affection. "In 1965, when Uncle Charlie Perkins lead the 'Freedom Rides' with his non-indigenous comrades from Sydney University, it was a huge morale boost for all of us.
"We were battling against the dying stages of the White Australia Policy because we saw that as something that had to be confronted and exposed for what it was. We fought for the referendum that was eventually held in 1967."
On referendum day, Watson, who was still in high school and a member of the underground Students for Democratic Action, spent the day on a polling booth campaigning for a yes vote. "That was my first experience of electioneering. Everyone that came past thanked me for the how-to-vote card and spoke kindly to me — these were white people that I didn't even know!
"The next morning the Sunday Truth had this huge banner headline saying that 92.5% of the Australian population had voted yes. That was just an incredible experience for us all and it showed what could be achieved through a political campaign."
The Vietnam War radicalised Watson further. He told Green Left Weekly that he would go out in the car with his father to pick up African-American soldiers who trying to hitchhike from Brisbane to the Gold Coast. "White drivers would stop for the white soldiers but they wouldn't take the black troops. The [black soldiers] told us about the great leaders of the US civil rights movement, about the big marches they had been on and about being forced out of the ghettos in New York into fighting a war they really didn't want to fight."
Encouraged by his family to become a lawyer, Watson enrolled at the University of Queensland in 1971, the only indigenous student amongst thousands of whites.
"I was called into a big meeting with the state director of Native Affairs and his staff. There must have been about a dozen senior white public servants there. He gave me a pep talk on how I had to stay away from the radicals and ratbags of the anti-war movement because they would 'lead me astray'."
"It only took me about six months to link up with the radicals", Watson admitted. "The next time I saw [Native Affairs officials] we were all marching on them."
In 1971, the tour of apartheid South Africa's Springbok rugby team provided a focus for anti-racist activism. Queensland Premier Joh Bjelke-Peterson declared a state of emergency for the Brisbane match.
"We declared the university a peoples' university and closed down the formal lecture program. We invited Aboriginal people into the lecture rooms and the tutorial rooms to discuss racism."
Strong bonds were formed between student activists, trade unionists, church leaders and political leaders from the broader community and the Aboriginal political leadership.
"People like Dan O'Neil and Carol Ferrier are still very close comrades of mine. Every time I see them I kind of get a bit of a choke in the throat remembering the good old days of the 1970s."
Now a lecturer in black Australian literature, Watson is still involved in local struggles. Most recently, he has been a central organiser of the People's March on CHOGM.
"In the Brisbane Murri community I am a link with the white left. For a long time, the Murri leadership was very suspicious of the white political movement and always insisted that Aboriginal politics should play a predominant role in joint activities. But over the years, Aboriginal leaders have become far more accepting of our white comrades.
"It's still going to take work to take it further, to really bond the way I'd like to see it. The majority of Aboriginal families are struggling every day just to put food on the table and keep the landlord off their backs, so they've got other priorities. But on the big issues, they will mobilise. That's what CHOGM is going to be and the major issue is going to be the demand for a Treaty."