Mardi Reardon-Smith gathered at Brisbane’s Musgrave Park with other supporters early on May 16 to support the Brisbane Aboriginal Sovereign Embassy, which was later evicted from the park by more than 200 police officers. Her account of the day is below.
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On May 16, I witnessed an act I would describe as utterly ignorant and devoid of reason. Having heard the call for support from our brothers and sisters at the Musgrave Park Tent Embassy late Tuesday night, I made the decision to head down in the early hours of the morning and lend assistance by showing my support in any way I could.
The council had announced that between the hours of 5am and 7am police would be sent to move on the people asserting their sovereignty at the Tent Embassy. Accompanied by two passionate friends of mine, we arrived at Musgrave Park at 5 in the morning.
On my drive there, I noticed a nearby street lined entirely with police cars, with more vans around the corner. Despite all the cars I saw no police. Once inside the fenced enclosure, we stood by the symbolic fire burning there and listened to the young Aboriginal people speak emphatically about the significance of asserting their sovereign right and of the significance of the Tent Embassy.
By 6am police started trailing into the park, emerging from the shadowy end of Cordelia Street. They slowly formed an intimidating circle around the Embassy. More police kept spilling into the area, more than anyone I think had anticipated or realised would be there. My friend exclaimed softly under his breath.
The situation had already escalated into something that filled us with intimidation and trepidation. And yet the protestors remained in good spirits. Younger members of the Aboriginal community performed ritual dances, sang songs and played the didgeridoo.
As it began to dawn on us just how many police were present — I would estimate between 200 and 300 — the group became tense. Next to us, a member of Electrical Trades Union explained how to block an attack if a police officer should try to taser any of us.
Chants of “always has, always will be Aboriginal land” and “1 2 3, sovereignty” rang out. Staring back at us were the stony faces of unaffected police officers, clearly there to do a job, clearly assured of the outcome.
As the morning wore on, it appeared negotiations were underway. It seemed that another site within the park was being considered, as was the notion of keeping one tent erected merely for elders to meet in.
As the negotiations continued, a crowd gathered across the street. Sam Watson arrived and spoke to the protesters with a megaphone, helping everyone’s spirits. Another woman took to the megaphone, and everyone joined together in singing, “From little things, big things grow”.
The negotiations seemed to be going smoothly and people were relaxed, sitting around the fire in the sunshine, sharing apples and water. The police as ever, remained stern and watchful, with no sign of relenting.
Tensions rose as we realised the streets had been closed off to traffic and pedestrians. Exclamations of outrage rung out, as in plain sight, we saw a man tackled, dragged off by two police officers and arrested, for nothing more than approaching the fenced enclosure.
Negotiations broke down not long after this. Adorned with badges denoting his importance and expressionless behind sunglasses, a police officer approached the circle around the fire and read out a prepared statement, basically saying that unless we left quietly, the Sovereign Tent Embassy, and its supporters, would be forcibly removed.
An Aboriginal leader called the attention of the group, speaking above the cries and yells of angry protesters. He asked everyone to link arms and remain strong around the fire. He also urged anyone who wanted to leave to do so. No one moved.
The police encircled us, at least two police officers to every person. They began dragging away protesters who refused to move. I remember some people yelling, but I don’t recall any physical violence from the protesters.
As more and more people were dragged off for nothing more than non-compliance, the remaining group decided to walk off peacefully. After all, how could the protest continue if so many people were in the watch house?
My two friends were arrested. Speaking to them later that day when they were finally released, they told me they were charged with minor offences akin to obstruction, had their names and fingerprints taken, and told they could leave.
I’ve heard other reports from friends that were present at the watch house, about people being forced to sign an agreement stating they would not return to Musgrave Park in order to receive bail. But these reports are yet to be confirmed.
Thirty arrests were made yesterday morning. I feel that the police were grossly over represented, and this kind of overreaction was completely uncalled for.
The Sovereign Tent Embassy was not harming anyone. The Aboriginal people involved were asserting their rights as a sovereign people. If anything, they were contributing something really positive to the community and ensuring that their culture is kept alive.
I witnessed no violence that morning, except at the hands of bored, overeager police officers that had spent hours standing still and waiting for any kind of action.
Not since the days of Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen has a leader ordered the removal of an Aboriginal person from Musgrave Park. While I would hope that this isn’t indicative of the future under Campbell Newman, it would seem that this is the way things are likely to go.