The Tent Embassy 'debacle' from a protester’s POV

January 26, 2012
Aboriginal Tent Embassy
Aboriginal Tent Embassy, January 26. Photo: Peter Boyle

Reprinted from redSTACHE, January 26.

In Canberra, in front of Old Parliament House (also known as the Museum of Democracy) is the First Nations' Tent Embassy, established in 1972 by four Aboriginal activists who wanted to draw attention to the plight and inequality of Indigenous Australians. 2012 is the 40th anniversary of the Embassy, so a large gathering was organised for this Australia/Invasion day.

The Tent Embassy managed to get a lot of press today (26/1) after a large protest was held that resulted in Australian Federal Police and protective services dragging Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott to their ComCars and massively over-reacting to the presence of protesters at the site. But what really happened?

Speaking to Sam Castro at the Tent Embassy, I was able to get a rundown of the day’s events.

The morning started with speeches being made at the Tent Embassy on a range of subjects, until one person stood up and explained to the crowd that Abbott had told the media that he believed the Tent Embassy was no longer relevant and should be packed up and moved on.

Information had just come through that Abbott was at The Lobby, a restaurant near the Old Parliament House. The suggestion was made that the group should go there and ask Abbott to talk to the crowd and explain himself.

A contingent of about 100 protesters made their way up the road to The Lobby and surrounded it. Though they were loud and noisy, they were non-violent. Security blocked the protesters from getting close to the restaurant for a while, but it didn’t take long for a few protesters to break the line and soon the rest had gotten close up against the restaurant’s walls.

As the walls of The Lobby are made of glass, the protesters could look in and see Abbott and the others pretending not to hear them. After about 10 or 15 minutes Gillard’s white jacket was recognised and the protesters realised that she was in there along with Abbott.

The aim of the protest had been to get Abbott to come out and talk to the crowd – now it wanted Gillard to come out and do the same. Yet they continued to ignore the protesters, drink champagne and take photos of one another while their constituents tried to get their attention.

A short time later a contingent of riot police and protective service officers arrived at the restaurant. All up there were about 50 to 60 officers there and protesters watched as a group of about 20 riot police hurtled past them in V-formation, bursting into the restaurant and then locking themselves inside.

When I spoke to Sam, she said the protesters thought the riot police were arranging to form a sort of guard around the Prime Minister and Opposition Leader so they could come out and talk to the crowd but, as the rest of the media have shown, the riot police’s real objective was to "escort" the Prime Minister and Opposition Leader to their cars.

As more protesters made their way to the restaurant, the riot police charged out the doors, practically dragging Ms Gillard along, while the onlookers began to shout “where are you going?” and “why won’t you talk to us?” As the cars drove off, some people threw plastic water bottles and water at the cars.

At this point things began to get fairly nasty. One protester was knocked into rose bushes and one gigantic cop started brandishing a can of tear gas or capsicum spray (reports differ on this point) in people’s faces and shoved Sam, another girl and a female photo-journalist in the head.

When Sam told him to calm down he reportedly bared his teeth and grinned so widely his eyes nearly popped out of his head; to many on site it was fairly clear that the officer was barely under control.

Then the police began to link arms to form a line against the protesters and the protesters followed suit, ending with a Mexican standoff. Some of the Aboriginal elders called for the protesters to return to the Tent Embassy, but a female elder began a non-violent sit-down protest in the road just down from the cafe and soon a line of Aboriginal women, female elders and non-Aboriginal women had been formed across the road.

The women declared they were not going to be intimidated by the police and they would not move until the police stood down. While some of the other protesters returned to the Tent Embassy, a large group (including some of the Occupy Melbourne contingent) remained to watch and support their fellow activists until the police eventually gave in and stood down.

As the remaining protesters made their way back to the Tent Embassy they were greeted by applause and the female protesters went through a cleansing smoke ceremony.

* * *

A few final points.

Contrary to some reports, the protest was not “an unprecedented outburst of violence”; in fact the only violence on the day was done by police and protective services (See 0:15, 0:41 and 0:42 in this video and 0:15 and 0:45 in this one).

The protesters were unaware that Julia Gillard was in the restaurant until some time after the action had started.

The aim of the protest was merely to get Mr Abbott to speak to the crowd, not to assault him or anything like that.

The massive over-reaction of protective services and the Australian Federal Police resulted in Ms Gillard losing her shoe, protesters being assaulted and pretty much everyone but the protesters looking like a bunch of dills.

EDIT: The fact that the protest was neither a “riot” nor violent is best shown in footage taken by Channel 9 (of all organisations) that clearly shows a lack of protesters anywhere near the PM as she was evacuated.

So, in summary: the protest was non-violent, the police over-reacted and Ms Gillard and Mr Abbott still won’t listen to ordinary Australians.

Update: The Tent Embassy protesters retrieved Ms. Gillard’s shoe after it came off and are planning to auction it on eBay.

Update 2: Ms Gillard’s shoe is reportedly going to be used as an incentive to open dialogue with Ms Gillard about a First Nation’s treaty.

Update 3: Footage from the ABC (see below) shows protesters banging on the windows of the restaurant and shouting “Shame!” and “Racist!”, which some might construe as violent. Even so, those who did bang on the windows were in the minority and it has nothing on the violence used against protesters by police (shown immediately after in the footage).

Video: Australian PM flees angry protest in Canberra - ABC News. Edo Woo.


In the longer version of the video you cite ( you can see that the Aboriginal man pushes the police officer first. The officer then pushes back. The Aboriginal man then appears to attempt to stab the officer with his spear. It is one thing to be in possession of a spear for ceremonial purposes. It is quite another to brandish that spear as a weapon and thereafter attempt to use that weapon in a violent act against anther person.
it was embarrassing how our head of state was dragged around . It was as though the security were showing off instead of analysing the situation and setting up a dignified action plan. Really poor effort there that was shown around thw world .
police over reacted?? Im not a fan of gillard, hate her & her lies to be honest, I think she is an embarassment to this country but having said that, she is our PM, & any threat against her should be treated that way. violent or not, that situation could have esculated at any point, the police were right to get her out of there.. on another note, I wonder how I would go trying to set up a tent infront of parliment house??
I have watched on each episodes of video news abuot Abriginal protestes from all TV media , I only have seen the police pubched on the protests , didn't see any protests punched on police. The media said that protests have knoked on the glass wall of restaurant very hard. But what I saw was that there was no one hit on the wall hard at all. The walls were no anyone breaken. Also I saw that police themselves were panic, not calm control the situation at all. AFP is absolutely unprefessional team in dealing with the protesting . Julia Gillard was unnecessary draged by the police officer because there were no any one have approuched PM closely and it's stupid way to protect PM . All matters should be easily handed by AFP with calm and control but it's not. The event have been muddled up by AFP themselves. What I saw was that the AFP is a unreasonable volence police team , it's thied class police team in the world. Stupid. And now they wanted to charge abriginal people. AFP is also bully , very bully. Fan Lee
AFP have overreacted over aboriginal protest with massive violence, they have unnecessarily dragged the PM, which made Australia lost face: the country police are unprofessional bullies.
Replying to the above, even if the Aboriginal man pushed first, police do not have a free-standing right to wander around pushing and shoving or assaulting people who hit them. The correct procedure would have been for the police officer to arrest him, not to administer "instant justice". The police officer clearly assaulted a member of the public. Police can use force in self-defence, such as deflecting a blow, or trying to stop a prolonged series of punches: it is not a "if you punch me I will punch you back" situation. It is notable for the lack of police accountability that although the evidence is clear, I would be amazed if the police officer was charged with assault. Ditto the number of AFP officers who were not wearing badges. This is a criminal offence under federal law. The general security situation seems to be one were the security assessment wrong, and then panicked. Why was there no exit route planned out the back of the restaurant? Why did they drag Gillard though a crowd and not clear the way first? Why did they not split Julia and Tony up so as to split the protesters into two groups? Why did the personal protection officer over-react and drag Julia as if they're had been an attempted assasination? Real key-stone cops stuff.
Unfortunately video footage once again shows us that the riot police are another form of hooligan and some seem to think they are above the law themselves. It is they who shove and push and hit not the protestors. is this not a revelation? Why do we put up with this? We need to be able to trust our police to respond in a legal and proper manner, they are all there is between us and those who behave antisocially. our local police I have found to be kind , supportive and responsive to our fears and needs. So what is going wrong with the riot police? Who are these guys and do they have some kind of problem or aggression issue? Have they so vilified protestors that they forget it is our duty to protest in a democracy when things are wrong? Do they demonise protestors to the point they think it is ok to behave themselves like criminals? The short balding redhead guy has issues obviously and needs discipline and counselling and a desk job. Normal responsible police do not behave that way .Hooligans at a pub might. Time the real picture was played to the Australian people, these security goons have stuffed up and are an embarassment. Poor Julia dragged along when all she had to do was wave and respond . all so stupid.
Strange that on the anniversary of the tent embassy, The scene that arose on main stream media channels, were off police flooding the scene using extreme violence. So very sad for those who have seen the terrifying event of the ACT police marching en mass toward the peaceful tent embassy some 40 years ago. so very sad that the reactions of police and politicians hasn't changed, just nothing else much has changed.

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