Sydney University student and Socialist Alliance activist Bronwyn Powell spoke to Green Left Weekly's Kerryn Williams about the Freedom Ride's first week travelling by bus through northern and north-western NSW.
Indigenous and non-Indigenous students and supporters set off from Sydney on February 12 to retrace the steps of the original 1965 Freedom Ride for Aboriginal rights.
Powell said the experience so far had been "incredible" and that the Freedom Ride had encountered "racism and segregation, as well as community programs and organising".
Powell described how in Gulargambone on February 16, "we picked up Shane Peters, a young Kamilaroi man who had been prevented from boarding a Countrylink bus to Walgett. The bus driver said his ticket wasn't valid and the bus was booked out. However, Shane was holding a valid ticket and the bus had a vacant seat. A non-Indigenous man was allowed to board the bus but the door was shut in Shane's face, hitting him in the arm."
According to Powell, "Shane said he felt he 'didn't get a fair go or a choice'". A non-Indigenous young woman, Danielle Hazlett, also joined the Freedom Ride after she spoke out in the young man's defence. "She was told the Countrylink bus would take her to the police station, so she got off the bus and joined the Freedom Ride to Walgett", said Powell.
Discussions with residents encountered by the Freedom Ride suggested that this was not an isolated incident of racism. According to Powell, "Mary Chreighton, an Indigenous resident of Walgett, described to us how she has been told, when boarding the Countrylink bus at Dubbo, not to take her pillow on the bus as it 'might carry head lice'".
Powell said "conditions for Indigenous people got worse as we headed north". In discussions with local Walgett residents, the Freedom Riders were told that "Aboriginal mothers are not allowed to take prams into the local IGA supermarket, while non-Indigenous woman can".
"A trip to Dingi Mission in Walgett revealed that some people still live in makeshift tin houses, not too different to what the original Freedom Riders saw in 1965", Powell explained.
Michael Anderson, who showed the Freedom Riders the Namoi Reserve, said, "conditions are worse than what they were in the '60s. The only difference is the style of homes and we've got running water. But there are no jobs and no education."
According to Powell, "Many people in the towns visited said that the drug problem among young people was increasing and there is nothing for young people to do. They would like to see sport centres established."
Powell explained that Anderson is planning to get as many Indigenous people as possible to protest in Canberra on July 20. "This is because of conditions in Walgett, and because nine Aboriginal people await trial for 'trespass' and fossicking without consent in the waste rubble of an opal mining site in Lightening Ridge", she explained.
"Indigenous and non-Indigenous people have long accessed the dumps, but only Indigenous people are now being targeted."
The Freedom Ride also visited two community centres in Dubbo. "The Apollo Centre in East Dubbo is run by an Indigenous women's organisation", Powell said, "and includes in its program pre-school playgroups and support for women".
A memorial rally was held at Moree on February 18. Powell said this was "40 years to the day since the original Freedom Riders took Aboriginal children into the Moree baths that they were usually barred from". The rally marched from the council chambers to the pool.
From Green Left Weekly, February 23, 2005.
Visit the Green Left Weekly home page.