Indigenous water defender to face court

September 10, 2020
Leah Ebsworth, a Baakindji women, being arrested for protesting on the Wilcannia bridge. Photo: HomeLandings Media

Leah Ebsworth, a Baakindji woman from Wilcannia in New South Wales faces charges of assault, and being drunk and disorderly, at a court hearing on September 23. This followed her removal from a peaceful blockade of the bridge over the Baaka/Darling River on March 13.

The protest was against the corporate theft of water upriver, the cause of stagnant pools, the toxic blue green algal blooms and the mass fish die-off. It was also demanding an end to water trading.

The Baakindji (people of the Baaka), residents of Wilcannia, take their cultural duty to look after the river seriously: seeing it die affects their mental and physical health.

Some 50 locals and water activists from across NSW converged on Wilcannia in March. Initially, local police assisted, holding traffic at a safe distance. However, at 2pm a police inspector demanded that protesters disperse.

A group of local Baakindji women, led by Caroline Kirk, an Ngemba/Gomeroi woman from the upriver town of Bourke, decided to hold a “women’s business” ceremony on the bridge and painted a banner, blockading it for another hour.

The inspector, reinforced by 30 riot squad police from Broken Hill, then moved in and removed the women and the banners. Kirk was charged with failing to obey a move-on order and blocking a main highway.

Barry Stone from Menindee, 100 kilometres south, was also removed, but not charged.

Ebsworth was one those the police removed. Witnesses saw her drop to the ground. When she got up, a police officer took her shoulder and turned her around, and some water splashed onto the policeman.

Kirk appeared at Wilcannia Court on April 22, only for her case to be rescheduled to July 22. She pleaded not guilty, saying she was claiming sovereignty as a Native Title applicant. She was angry she had to face such charges. “I claimed sovereignty. Sovereignty as a First Nations person who was born on the land. I don’t go under the Crown; I have sovereignty, so I don’t have to face charges like this.”

Kirk is happy the prosecutor dropped the charges against her but she is angry that Ebsworth has been charged. “One of the women has been charged … The police were pulling the women’s arms. Police alleged that one of the women was drunk, on the bridge, but that was not the case,” she told journalist Otis Filly of HomeLandings Media on July 22.

Months after the blockade, Ebsworth was charged with assault and for being drunk and disorderly. She has witnesses who will give evidence against the charges.

Ebsworth told Filly: “I’m going to be pleading not guilty … That’s all I’m here for, is my Baaka and the Baakindji … What we are fighting for, we need water, we need food … they can’t take it when we all own it. We need [the water] to run.”

Commenting on the rate of water theft, Ebsworth said: “In two, goddamn days, like a truck come in and sucked it out … We know for a fact that somebody has taken it. The terms [are] not going to be like that any longer … I’m standing up for my community, the Darling. I’m 43 now [and] I’ve been here in this little town since I was two. I’m not going anywhere.”

Activists will gather in solidarity with Ebsworth outside the Wilcannia Court on September 23.

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