A new tide in the Aboriginal rights movement

April 23, 2015
Uncle Sam Watson speaking at a conference.
Sam Watson says the government is "committed to an agenda based on genocide". Photo: Peter Boyle.

The second national day of action against the WA government’s policy of closing remote Aboriginal communities will take place on May 1.

Protest actions have been planned in about 60 places around the country: from remote communities in WA to all capital cities, and in a number of cities overseas (See this list of actions).

The response to the policy has escalated since the now notorious statement by Prime Minister Tony Abbott describing people living on their ancestral lands as a “lifestyle choice”. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and their supporters have come out in their thousands to oppose the genocidal policy of community closures.

Green Left Weekly spoke to long-term Aboriginal rights movement activist Sam Watson in Brisbane. Watson is a respected elder and has been active in the movement for land rights and against deaths in custody since the 1960s.

He was a member of the Black Panther Party, took part in the first Aboriginal Tent Embassy in Canberra, campaigned for the right to march during the dark days of the Joh Bjelke-Petersen government, and more recently campaigned against police violence towards his people and deaths in custody on Palm Island and in Brisbane.

Watson is also well known as a poet and playwright. He is the Socialist Alliance national spokesperson on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander rights.

* * *

A very big movement has sprung into action against the federal government’s threats to close down Aboriginal communities in WA and other states. What do you think is driving this mass response?

The Coalition government is committed to an agenda based on genocide, an ideology that underpins all their policies. In this case, they want to open the way for big mining corporations to further exploit Aboriginal lands.

The genocide is driven by capitalism’s need to access the mineral wealth of our lands. Native title doesn’t deliver land rights, as recent court cases have shown.

People can see through these genocidal policies and see the need to mobilise against them. We have seen wave after wave, generation after generation of the Black movement challenging this genocide, which continues today.

In 2015, the Black movement and its supporters have become adept at utilising social media in building the response to the current attacks on Aboriginal communities.

Evidence of this can be seen in how Facebook and Twitter have been used to build the largest mobilisations throughout the country for many years.

Social media has been successful in creating a level of awareness in the broader community. In the past supporters haven’t had the opportunity to come forward in such numbers for protests and rallies.

What do you say about Abbott's offensive comments about so-called "unaffordable lifestyle choices”?

Abbott is the clown prince of Australian politics. There is a real disconnect between his brain and his mouth. It was a huge surprise when he was elected to the Liberal parliamentary leadership by just one vote.

His comment about “lifestyle choice” is particularly offensive as he is the principal minister responsible for Aboriginal affairs. He has shown that he has no understanding of the complex relationship between Aboriginal people and their sacred homelands, and the place of ceremonies as the fundamental engines of Aboriginal culture.

Part of this movement is the emergence of a new generation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander militants around the country. Do you agree and if so what do you put this development down to?

Every generation produces a new wave of energy, and this is what we are seeing reasserted now.

I’ve been involved since the 1960s and can say that every decade has produced a new wave of leaders who rise to the challenge. It shows that young Blacks out there are prepared for their time in the frontline. It shows the health and strength of the Black political struggle.

There is also a global element. The heightened sense of the global nature is evidenced by language, clothing culture, music etc through Facebook: for example informing on the state of the movement in the United States in response to police murders of young Blacks.

How do you think this movement will intersect with the new attempts to build the "Reclaim Australia" movement?

At the moment there is strength in the movement focusing on the government and its genocidal actions, its favouring of mining corporations, and its attempts to close down Aboriginal communities.

Capitalist politicians often use racism as a tool of divide and rule, or scapegoating, in times of economic and political crisis. Is this what we are seeing today in Australia?

Racism has always been used to divide us. It has to be acknowledged that since the invasion this has been the case.

At this time, with the centenary of Gallipoli and all the associated war propaganda, Aboriginal people have some empathy for the Turkish people who fought the invasion by Australia and its Allies. So the Aboriginal movement is important not only in the struggle for Aboriginal land rights and justice, but for freedom for all of the working class.

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