Truth and accuracy have never been the highest priorities for the mainstream media. But hysteria and misrepresentation of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy protest in Canberra on January 26 have been taken to an absurd level.
Terms like “mob violence”, “thuggery” and “riot” have been used by journalists and politicians to describe a protest where no one was injured, no property was damaged and no one was arrested.
Selectively edited television footage has been used to poison public opinion against protesters, giving the false impression they posed a threat to Prime Minister Julia Gillard and opposition leader Tony Abbott. Rather than speak to the small crowd about Abbott’s earlier comment that the Tent Embassy should move on, Gillard and Abbott chose to run from a function they were attending about 100 metres away from the Tent Embassy.
The media’s portrayal of Gillard and Abbott as victims of Aboriginal aggression is deeply ironic. Such a portrayal is possible only when deep racism and ignorance are the norm in society.
In reality, the policies carried out by the Gillard government, and before that the John Howard government, of which Abbott was a leading member, makes them among the principle oppressors of Aboriginal people of recent times.
The event has been used to further demonise Aboriginal people and challenge their right to protest against people who have furthered their oppression and ignored their demands.
Green Left Weekly witnessed the loud and passionate protest, which involved some jostling incited by overly aggressive police in its latter stages. However, no reasonable person who witnessed it would describe it as a “violent” protest, much less a “riot”.
Several videos shot by protesters have emerged showing police violently shoving people in the throat without provocation and verbally abusing people after Gillard and Abbott had left.
Tent Embassy founder Michael Anderson told the Sydney Morning Herald on January 31: “I was quite shocked at the behaviour of some police. As far as I was concerned, all they had to do after the Prime Minister’s vehicle left was disband and everyone else would have as well.
“Instead they linked arms, unholstered their weapons and began confronting protesters. It was an act of incitement on their part.”
Despite their embarrassing over-reaction, police — not known for their leniency towards Aboriginal people — admitted there was no need for arrests.
AAP said on January 26: “Sergeant Chris Meagher, of ACT Policing, said no one was injured in the scuffles and it was unlikely any arrests would be made...
“'Basically there was a minor fracas between ourselves and the demonstrators,' he told reporters.”
But after the media-driven hysteria, the police changed their story and said they may still press charges.
Rather than confront the causes of Aboriginal anger, the media have chosen to moralise about protesters’ “bad behaviour” and focus on political games being played by the opposition.
Among those moralising about the protest was Attorney General Nicola Roxon who, egged on by the ABC’s 7.30 host Chris Uhlmann, declared protesters guilty of violent acts on January 30.
“I think this was a very ugly scene ... and a very ugly part of now what will be Australia’s history and people were confronted by the violence,” Roxon said.
“We know that in Australia the best way if you’ve got political differences is to argue them out at the ballot box. People have their opportunity to do that, but not to use violence. It doesn’t matter if you’re travelling home on the train, if you’re a mum in your own house or if you’re the prime minister, violence and intimidation is not appropriate.”
The media have made much of Gillard losing her shoe while being dragged by her bodyguard and the “intimidation” the media claimed she felt when a handful of protesters slapped their hands on the plate-glass walls of the restaurant.
Moralisers who condemn the protest as “violence” and “intimidation” hypocritically ignore the systemic violence of the government toward Aboriginal people that has continued in various forms since white colonisation.
Today, this violence takes many forms. One is constant police harassment of, and judicial bias against, Aboriginal people. Aboriginal people are imprisoned 14.3 times more than other Australians.
Aboriginal people have died in police custody at the rate of 13 a year since 1980. Aboriginal people have a far lower life expectancy — 17 years less than the general population.
The Northern Territory intervention marks a shameful return to the paternalism of past Australian governments. The intervention has removed Aboriginal people’s control over their land and lowered living standards.
Roxon also attacked the right to protest, saying the “ballot box” is the only legitimate way to influence politics. Suggesting such a thing to Aboriginal people is ridiculous, given the shared racism of the two big parties and their refusal to address Aboriginal concerns for decades.
The government has already shown what it thinks of Aboriginal people’s opinions during its farcical “consultation” process to legitimise the hated NT intervention.
GLW reported in November last year: “The consultations have been widely criticised by Aboriginal people and their supporters. Little, if any, real notice was given to communities before the consultations took place, and government facilitators focused discussion on pre-decided topics.”
Aboriginal people have every right to be angry, and public protest is one of the most important avenues available to them to make their voices heard.
About 2000 people had gathered to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy and to reaffirm the struggle for Aboriginal sovereignty. Several Aboriginal leaders spoke of the history of the embassy as a place where Aboriginal people asserted their existence and demanded change in the face of a political establishment that wants to ignore them.
This is why the Tent Embassy remains important today. Its work is a long way from finished.