BY ZANNY BEGG
SYDNEY — Seven hundred people turned out to support indigenous rights in protests coinciding with the September 15 opening ceremony of the Olympic Games — but in two seperate venues.
A rift between the Aboriginal Tent Embassy and its principal spokesperson, Isobell Coe, and the Metropolitan Lands Council, headed by Jenny Munroe (Coe's sister), forced supporters to choose between two separate rallies, at the same time but in different locations.
In Redfern Park, 100 people attended a rally organised by the MLC, while only a few blocks away, 600 gathered for a Tent Embassy rally in Victoria Park.
The gathering at the Tent Embassy attracted most of the interstate activists travelling home after the S11 protests against the World Economic Forum in Melbourne, as well as most of the Aboriginal activists who had travelled to Sydney specifically to participate in protests during the Olympic period.
After a delayed start, Coe made a dramatic entry to Victoria Park flanked by a dozen police officers. Coe began proceedings by inviting NSW police commissioner Peter Ryan to participate in a healing ceremony for Aboriginal people. Embracing and kissing the commissioner, Coe explained that it was time to "stop the war on Aboriginal people".
Coe told the crowd that what went "wrong" at the S11 protests was that demonstrators had not focused on "peace and healing".
Many who had witnessed with their own eyes the police violence against S11 protesters expressed disappointment at Coe's comments and the involvement of the police in the Tent Embassy ceremony.
Brisbane Aboriginal activist Wayne Wharton expressed frustration at the direction of the rally and called for a separate meeting just outside the Tent Embassy for all those who supported a march. Coe warned those gathered that any people who left the Tent Embassy would be disrupting the fire ceremony and would not be welcome back.
Despite this, the meeting was well attended and around 300 people marched from the Tent Embassy to unite with the rally organised by the Metropolitan Lands Council.
Chanting "Always was, always will be, Aboriginal land", the two groups met up to rapturous applause on the outskirts of Redfern. The united and peaceful grouping then marched on Prime Minister John Howard's office in the city.
Indigenous Students Network activist Kim Bullimore told Green Left Weekly, "It was disappointing that the protests were marred by division" and blamed the division for the rallies' small size.
"Up to half a million people walked across the Harbour Bridge for indigenous rights on May 28. A large proportion of these people would have come to a protest for indigenous rights which coincided with the Olympics", Bullimore said, "but people were confused over which rally to support. Many would not even have known they were on, as the dispute meant that little or no publicity went out for either rally."
Bullimore said that the bulk of the crowd "voted for unity with their feet" and called this a positive outcome for the day.
The Tent Embassy will continue with a fire ceremony during the Olympics. The MLC will hold follow-up protests on September 22 and 29. Green Left Weekly will hold a public meeting on September 20 to discuss which way forward for indigenous protest. See the calendar for more details.