Around 150 activists and supporters of the anti-racism campaign attended the Fight Racism National Conference at the University of Technology, Sydney (UTS) on September 27-28.
The conference was supported by a range of campaign groups and socialist and student organisations and brought together activists from around the country. The lively discussions on both days drew on a wide range of experiences, in Australia and overseas.
The first session, a panel on "What is Racism?", was addressed by Bea Ballangarry from the Central Coast Students Union (Coffs Harbour), Iggy Kim from Tasmanians Against Racism, and Jennifer Newman, an activist at UTS.
Ballangarry described her own experience of institutionalised racism against indigenous Australians and her family's continual struggle for survival and basic rights. For example, Ballangarry's family had to fight to be allowed to attend a state school.
Kim took up the historical origins of racism and the role of Australian nationalism in fostering it. He outlined the role of national chauvinism in creating scapegoats for social problems such as unemployment and declining standards of living.
Newman discussed the role of the family in perpetuating racism, fear and ignorance, and the social factors that cause individuals to accept or reject racist ideas.
Lively and informative workshops followed, covering the anti-Hindmarsh Island bridge campaign, presented by members of the Kumarangk Coalition; tactics in fighting Hanson, debated by members of Resistance and the International Socialist Organisation; the dismantling of racism in Cuba; racism and the ruling class; and the personal side of racism.
The second panel discussed "Struggles against racism — then and now". The talks covered the campaign against the Springbok tour by Phil Griffiths from the ISO; anti-racism campaigns in France by Sam Wainwright, a former correspondent in France for Green Left Weekly; and the British Anti-Nazi League by Steve Wakefield, an activist in the league in the 1970s.
The lively discussion which followed debated whether focusing on the far right is more important or useful than campaigning against state racism; whether "militancy" means just fighting police and individual racists; what type of campaign is most likely to drive back racism; and what lessons we can draw from anti-racism struggles overseas.
A highlight of the day was a very inspiring public meeting on Aboriginal rights in the evening. The meeting featured Aboriginal activists from around the country, including Jenny Munro from the Metropolitan Lands Council and the Redfern Block campaign; Monica Morgan, a coordinator with the Yorta Yorta native title claim; Veronica Brodie and Cheree Watkins from the Kumarangk Coalition; and Graceland Smallwood, an activist and writer on the "stolen generations".
Munro discussed the life of struggle of Aboriginal people and her own development as an activist beginning with the Aboriginal Tent Embassy in the 1970s. She described the struggle for land rights in NSW and the way in which legislative changes are used to limit gains made by Aboriginal communities.
Morgan described the struggle of her people along the Murray River and raised broader questions about the imposition of colonial laws on Aborigines. Aboriginal history, she said, was one of missions and genocide, but it was also one of struggle and survival. She said it was impossible to talk about living in harmony because things have to change.
Brodie outlined the Kumarangk Coalition's campaign to save Aboriginal land and a sacred site from the Hindmarsh Island bridge project. Coalition members described the failure of the legal and political systems to recognise the rights of indigenous people and the constant violation of cultural laws. They highlighted the need for solidarity between the campaigns.
Smallwood spoke about her experiences as one of the stolen generation, and compared the extent of recognition of the physical and cultural genocide of indigenous people in Australia and South Africa, where she recently visited.
She pointed to the contradictions in denying China the Olympics on the grounds of human rights violations when the record in Australia is so appalling. The 2000 Olympics are an opportunity to highlight the reality for indigenous Australians today, she said.
During the discussion, the speakers identified the need to make links with other progressive forces. They expressed a lack of faith in a system that was so easily manipulated by anti-Aboriginal forces and agreed that to rely on any mainstream political parties would be pointless.
One of the conference organisers, Wendy Robertson from Resistance, said the exchange of information and views that the conference made possible was both inspiring and educational for all participants. "It was a major contribution and boost to anti-racism campaigning by students and young people in Australia", she said.