The Brisbane Aboriginal Sovereign Embassy (BASE) celebrated its two-year anniversary on March 22. During the past two years, BASE has experienced community support and state repression in their struggle to put Indigenous sovereignty on the agenda in Brisbane and has served as a beacon for Indigenous freedom fighters across the country.
Boe Spearim spoke to Green Left Weekly about the history of BASE, its projects, influences and future.
What were the origins of the Brisbane Aboriginal Sovereign Embassy project?
On the 40th anniversary of the tent embassy in Canberra Aboriginal people had gathered from all over the country, and one of the main mandates was to go back to your home, your city, your country town and assert your sovereign rights.
So, there were hundreds and hundreds of people from all around the country that decided to go back and assert those rights by starting an embassy.
At one point in 2012 there were more than 20 embassies around the country, from Moree to Brisbane to Melbourne to Tasmania to Perth, just to name a few. It really galvanised the people and lit a fire for the people.
For us mob in Brisbane, it really reawakened something that had been here for a very long time. Not since ’82 has there really been a solid movement in Brisbane, when hundreds of Aboriginal and non-aboriginal people protested against the Commonwealth Games. Since then there hasn’t really been such a strong movement of Aboriginal people.
On May 16, 2012, hundreds of police officers surrounded our embassy [in Musgrave Park], just like they did in 1982. By 6pm, over 250 police had surrounded the park, blocked traffic and closed the area down to the public. For three and a half hours we had a standoff with the police. We had negotiators here, negotiating with traditional owners. There were about 65 or 70 of us here defending the park and over 30 of us got arrested by the cops.
From then on, we have been resisting the cops and the council. Every other embassy we met with, we received a standing ovation.
What sort of social programs has the embassy initiated?
More and more of our mob, who didn’t feel safe with the police, who didn’t feel safe with the social services that take Aboriginal money, came to the embassy. We saw just how the social services are failing our people, and we saw where they were failing the community heavily.
When the embassy was started, it had the same mandate as the embassy down in Canberra, to fight the political status that we have in this country, and question whether the Australian government and that structure has any mandate or sovereignty over us, the First Nations people.
The community came in, you know. We had mothers of young teenagers who had been shot by police officers, and they were saying, “What are you doing, you are the embassy you are supposed to be fighting for our people, organising people”. So we would head marches to the department of child safety and picket there for three to four hours, so we could get answers from these people, on why they are continuing this brutality on our people.
Since then, we have got a food program, and I think that’s the fastest way can get to the people, if we fill their stomachs up. Because most of the time people are coming here, they are coming here on an empty stomach. If you want to talk to someone, you need to let them have a full stomach so they can listen to what we are saying, so they can get what we are talking about.
So we started a food program last year, and we were delivering to three or four homes. A year on, and we are delivering to almost 120 to 175 families within the greater Brisbane area. It’s the best way that we can spark with our people, to break bread with them. As it says in the Bible, you should break bread with your brother or your sister, so we are breaking bread.
We are also giving legal advice and support for people who come to us, who are in trouble with the law or fighting in the courts for justice. There are times when we go to the embassy, for housing, for the children. Our mob can bring strength and look after the community. We are also organising community forums and discussions about sovereignty, land rights or treaty, or just having community barbeques and getting amongst our people.
We also have a magazine called Brisbane Blacks, which was relaunched last August as a bi-monthly publication, and that talks all about political and Indigenous viewpoints. It’s all about raising the Black consciousness of First Nations people.
It is the only independent Aboriginal magazine in this country that is actually talking about the issues of mining, constitutional recognition, the major parties that support politics of assimilation. It’s the paper that’s out there talking about the NT intervention and all the issues our people face in this country.
What inspirations did you draw on outside of the tent embassy in Canberra when you created this embassy?
Well, it is more than the tent embassy down in Canberra, there’s the National Day of Mourning in the 20s and 30s, the 1960s freedom rides, the ’82 Commonwealth Games protests, the Vincent Lingiari walk-offs, the Palm Island Strikes, all these are the stories that keep us going.
It even goes back further to people like Pemulwuy and Dundali. The same things they were fighting for are what we are fighting for. The same fire they lit 225 years ago is exactly the same fire we light today, nothing different.
A lot of the political movement in this country was inspired by movements such as the Black Panthers in the USA. In the 60s, the first branch of the Australian Black Panthers was formed here in Brisbane.
We also draw inspiration from the struggles of our mob in Turtle Island [North America], like the Elsipogtog people who stood up against the mining companies in Canada. We also draw a lot of connections with our people in West Papua and in Aotearoa.