Gary Foley: Aboriginal Tent Embassy a 'stroke of genius'

Graphic: Isaac Nellist

On its 50th anniversary Green Left’s Markela Panegyres and Chloe de Silva spoke to Gumbainggir activist and historian Gary Foley about the history and significance of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy.

What led to the Tent Embassy being set up and how did it develop into such a powerful symbol of resistance?

Context is everything. The times leading up into the 1972 Aboriginal Embassy were dramatic and exciting. In the 1960s, there was a world youth revolt and the global anti-Apartheid movement was raising awareness about racism. It was also the culmination of some independence movements in various parts of the colonised world. Exciting things were happening in the African-American Civil Rights Movement and the Native American movement, as well as the Pacific.

The Black movement was very conscious of global events, as well as those happening locally. We were inspired by the Gurindji struggle, Vincent Lingiari and the extraordinary group of people involved in that battle.

Throughout 1971, we kept intense pressure on the Liberal government of Billy McMahon — a tragic, little pathetic person, made more nervous by us! It was McMahon’s nervousness over the massive Aboriginal land rights rallies throughout 1971 that led him to make a fatal political mistake. He decided that given the local and international publicity about Aboriginal Land Rights, he would make a Prime Ministerial statement.

He chose to do this on the most sensitive day in the political calendar for Aboriginal people – Invasion Day. In 1972, McMahon declared he would never grant Aboriginal Land rights. That’s what triggered the Aboriginal Embassy.

Why a Tent Embassy?

We discussed what we might do in response to McMahon’s statement and one suggestion was to row a boat into the middle of Sydney Harbour and take over Fort Denison. This idea had already been floated a couple of times the previous year by Chicka Dixon, an admirer of the 1968 Occupation of Alcatraz Island by the American Indian Movement. It had been a spectacular stunt.

But the boat idea didn’t last very long. None of the big, brave, macho Black Power boys were game to row a boat in the middle of shark-infested Sydney Harbour in the middle of the night!

The next option was to go to Canberra with the idea of freaking out the PM when he woke up and saw a few Black fellas holding a protest on the lawns of Parliament House.

That was all the Embassy was originally supposed to be — a passing momentary stunt.

But the boys who went on that first day — Michael Anderson, Billy Craigie, Tony Coorey and Bertie Williams — accidentally found a loophole in Canberra law, that meant they could occupy the lawns longer than originally planned. The police said no law prevented them from camping on the lawns of Parliament House, as long as we only had 11 tents.

What was originally intended as a stunt turned into something that changed the course of Australian history.

Coorey, the poet of the Black Power movement, who was one of the founders of the Embassy gave it the name “Aboriginal Embassy”. He said the PM’s statement had effectively deemed us aliens in our own land and we should have an embassy — like all the other aliens (only ours wouldn’t be in a big flash mansion up in Narrabundah somewhere!).

We wanted it to represent the living conditions of Aboriginal people in 1972. That is why it was an encampment of tents. Every time a minister or a politician walked out of that “gasworks” across the road, the first thing they’d see is a bunch of Black fellas camping on the lawn.

And so it happened, and it was a stroke of genius.

What role did the Redfern Black Power collective play in the Tent Embassy movement?

The Black Power movement grew out of Redfern in Sydney, Fitzroy in Melbourne and South Brisbane. It was never what you could call a movement as such and, at various times, it was called different things. Sometimes they called us a Black Caucus. Sometimes it was a Redfern Black Power Committee.

It was a group of several small collectives of like-minded Aboriginal activists, primarily composed of younger generation people. I had turned 18 in 1968 — a great year to turn 18! We were disillusioned by the failure of the famous 1967 Referendum to bring about the positive changes the older generation had promised us. The situation had gotten worse.

Younger Aboriginal political activists, who had been involved in the referendum campaign, became disillusioned with the tactics and strategies of the older generation. We decided to politically educate ourselves and find more effective tactics and strategies. The world of our generation was different to the world of those who had fought for the referendum.

We looked to a range of inspirations.

First, the activists who had preceded us. We also had the mentorship of Chicka Dixon, who had a wealth of experience, especially in the trade union movement.

We looked to the history of peoples who were in the process of decolonisation. We were keeping an extremely close watch on Ho Chi Minh in Vietnam. We were interested in the Cuban Revolution. We were looking at various aspects of what was going on in China.

We were also looking at the experience of the Black Panther Party in Oakland, California. What interested us about them was not so much their radical rhetoric, or their guns, but more the social and community programs they were developing: food cooperatives; breakfast for children programs; free health clinics; and legal aid.

From our studies, we developed tactics and strategies of our own and adopted and adapted certain ideas. We came up with a different approach. We set up the first free shopfront Legal Aid Centres. We set up the first free health clinics for anybody in Australia. We set up the first breakfast for kids program in Redfern.

One of the lessons we drew from the Black Panther Party was that if you want the support of your community, you have got to show your community that you are worthy of their support. We thought the best way to show we were fair dinkum about our community’s welfare and future was to set up programs like that.

Tell us more about the younger Aboriginal activists. How did their approach differ from the older generation?

We were much more confrontational. We weren’t as timid. A lot of people reckon the things we were demanding were radical. But all we were talking about was self determination, economic and political independence — issues that remain unresolved.

In terms of the guys who went to Canberra that night, they were simply part of the bigger Black Power collective in Redfern.

The thing that politicised all of us was the issue that is still around today: police intimidation; police harassment; deaths in custody; and Aboriginal incarceration rates. Our group of young Black radicals in Redfern were on the receiving end of a brutal campaign of harassment and intimidation, led by the notorious New South Wales Police No 21 Division.

It was par for the course. The constant police harassment brought us together. When you arrived in Sydney from the bush you got a bashing by the police within a couple of weeks. That’s what happened to me. That’s what happened to Wiradjuri activist Paul Coe. That’s what happened to others in our group.

The 21 Division was NSW Police’s first paramilitary unit, set up in the 1930s to counter a group of criminals, called the Darlinghurst Razor Gang. But 21 Division was never disbanded.

It is now an accepted fact that the NSW Police and state government at the time were corrupt and of all of the NSW squads, the 21 Division was the most corrupt. The 21 Division was sent to quell the radicalism that broke out in the Aboriginal community that was 35,000 strong in Redfern in the late 1960s.

A couple of weeks after I was bashed by the 21 Division coppers in the Regent Street Police Station, I met Paul Coe, a radical bloke who talked radical. I told him what happened to me and he handed me a book — The Autobiography of Malcolm X. That’s what changed my direction.

Until that point, I was a timid young apprentice air-conditioning design draughtsman in the Department of Works. But that was the end of that. I joined the little group Coe had set up to discuss what was happening and what we might do. That led us to looking at the tactics of the Black Panther Party. We set up the “pig patrol” to monitor the police. We had the police under surveillance and we collected information about what they were doing. This, in turn, led to us setting up the first Aboriginal Legal Aid Centre in Australia and the NSW Aboriginal Legal Firm.

At the same time we were involved in the huge anti-Vietnam War demonstrations. We took over the burgeoning anti-Apartheid movement in Australia in the lead up to the 1971 Springbok tour. That, again, was a major political event.

The difference between today and back then is that the Black Power movement developed as a pan-Aboriginal movement across Australia. We got people thinking: we are Aboriginal first and we’re Gumbaynggirr second or Wurundjeri second. First and foremost, we were part of a bigger thing. This allowed us to develop solidarity: there were people at the Embassy from all over Australia, all functioning as a unified movement.

If you look at Tent Embassy footage, you will see tough women fighting the coppers alongside the rest of us. One of the PhD projects I am currently supervising involves gathering the stories of these women. Women’s involvement in the Tent Embassy and the accounts of the Black Power women is significantly missing from the historical record, including in my writings.

Can you describe the police raids on the Tent Embassy?

We didn’t have much time to prepare. The police caught us completely off guard. We expected them to take at least a week or so, but they moved very swiftly after the ordinance was gazetted.

We had to ring up the Australian National University (ANU) to get other radical left students to come over and help us surround the office tent because we did not have enough people to defend all 11 tents. We formed a circle around the office tent and we let the police take the other tents away. We said if you touch the office then, it’s on.

If you watch the footage of that first smashing of us you will notice that one of the people who stood with us that day, and linked arms was Faith Bandler. She had been the leader of the campaign for the 1967 referendum and was by no means young. Yet she stood with us, firm and strong as the police moved in.

Another person with us was Will 'Ilolahia, who was the head of the Polynesian Panther Party in Auckland, New Zealand.

It turned out to be quite a brutal confrontation: I got knocked out and when I woke up, they arrested me and took me to hospital.

The second police raid was even more extraordinary: they really outgunned us. The documentary Ningla A-na shows just how many cops were there on that day. One of the interesting things is that the police who moved on us were unarmed. At least they had the decency to fight us on equal terms! That’s probably why they came off second best.

What was the Tent Embassy’s relationship with other progressive groups?

One of our tasks was to educate our friends. It made sense to tap into the anti-war movement, especially from the perspective of being a war against colonialism.

We were able to point out to the anti-Apartheid activists, in the early days, that the Australian version of Apartheid preceded the South African version and was copied by South Africa. A lot of good education occurred during rallies and strong friendships developed with activists from other movements. There were strong links to the Women’s Liberation Movement in Sydney, as well as what was then called the Gay Liberation Movement. These sorts of alliances were being made all over the place, especially in the trade union movement.

We developed a strong relationship with the NSW Builders Labourers Federation (BLF), under Jack Mundey, Bob Pringle and Joe Owens. In fact, the BLF enabled Billy Craigie and myself to address the NSW Trades and Labour Council’s meeting to seek support for the Aboriginal Embassy.

What were the initial public and media responses to the Tent Embassy?

The Embassy caught everybody by surprise, even us. It took a couple of days for it to sink in that the police were not going to move us on.

Initially, we had an enormous amount of support. It was only about five years since 90% of the population had voted to support Aboriginal rights in the 1967 referendum. Even though that didn’t change anything for us, it meant that there was an enormous reservoir of goodwill.

We in the Black Power movement had been preached to by right-wing politicians and conservative Aboriginal Christians alike. We had constantly heard the refrain, “We don’t mind you radicals protesting and demonstrating as long as you do it legal and peaceful”.

Well, here was a classic, legal and peaceful demonstration. It was not illegal for us to camp on the lawns. And the whole thing had been pulled off completely, absolutely, peacefully. A lot of Australians, I think, love the idea of a small bunch of nobodies sticking it to the powers that be and making them look foolish.

The Embassy was adept at getting the message out to the media. This was primarily due to our Aboriginal Embassy resident and media genius John Newfong, the first professional Aboriginal journalist in Australia. Newfong had worked for The AgeThe AustralianThe Bulletin and the ABC. He was also a radical. It was Newfong’s skill that enabled us to very quickly attract worldwide attention. Journalists from more than 70 countries filed stories on the Aboriginal Embassy, much to the excruciating embarrassment of the McMahon government.

The Tent Embassy issued a formal list of five demands for Land Rights to the government. How did this happen?

It was a difficult thing to develop an overall national plan in terms of Land Rights. In NSW, we developed a plan for the old Aboriginal reserve lands. These had only closed down a couple of years before when the NSW  government closed down its apartheid system.

Those lands were still there as vacant crown land, or in many instances not vacant crown land — many communities still lived on it. We said that as a starting point, the NSW government should hand those lands over to the communities living on them. We also said that a certain percentage of the gross national product must be provided for Aboriginal people.

We were talking in terms of the Black Power movement for economic and political independence. We saw self-determination as the ultimate objective. What does self determination mean? It means political and economic independence. How do you achieve political independence? Through economic independence. What do you need if you're going to try and strive towards economic independence? The ability to develop your own economic resources in whatever way that is not in conflict with your local cultural traditions.

But if you're going to do that, what’s the first thing you need? Land! That is why land rights is so central: we hoped land rights would lead us towards some degree of political and economic independence.

What were the main achievements of the Tent Embassy and what is its legacy?

In a short six months, it literally did change the course of Australian history. It bought an end to the era of assimilation. That is a pretty spectacular and a significant achievement.

But there is much more that makes the Embassy so significant. That six months was the most effective and successful Aboriginal protest action in all of the 20th century.

One of the unfortunate and unintended by-products of the Embassy and its success was that it led to the creation of the Black middle class. When Whitlam became Prime Minister at the end of 1972 he figured the best way to diffuse Black radicalism and the political intensity of the Land Rights movement would be to foster and create a Black middle class with whom governments might then be able to reasonably negotiate.

The Aboriginal political movement is now, courtesy of Native Title, more divided than it’s ever been. Any movement that is fundamentally disunited is going to be ineffective.

Very few of the issues that put a fire in the belly of my generation 50 years ago are much different today. The incarceration rates, which is always a good indication of the status of a particular group in society, are appalling: Aboriginal people are the most incarcerated people on Earth.

It has been that way for at least 40 years, including the 30 years since the $50 million Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody.

The light on the horizon is in seeing a new generation of young Aboriginal activists emerging. Many of these young activists are the grandchildren of activists from the Tent Embassy era. A young group called WAR, Warriors Of Aboriginal Resistance in Melbourne, even during COVID-19 last year, pulled 100,000 people into the streets on Invasion Day.

Some of these young people have asked me for advice. I tell them the tactics and strategies of my generation are now either out of out of date, or defunct. What they need to do is look at the world they live in, which is radically different to the world we were looking at 50 years ago. We didn’t have internet or social media, for example. There are great advantages in the communication technology that the younger generation has access to, if they get united and organised properly. I see the beginnings of that in organisations like the young WAR mob and Seed, the environmental group. They’re the real hope for the future.

[For more information about First Nations’ struggles, visit Gary Foley’s online educational resource Gooriweb.]