Pat Eatock: The '72 Tent Embassy was about land rights and sovereignty

February 1, 2012
Pat Eatock with the PM's shoe. Photo: Belinda Patten

Pat Eatock, a veteran of the 1972 Aboriginal Tent Embassy, was recently splashed all over the news holding the Prime Minister's shoe.

The shoe was lost when Julia Gillard was clumsily evacuated with opposition leader Tony Abbott by her panicked security detail from a function just 100 metres from the 40th anniversary gathering at the Aboriginal Tent Embassy.

The gathering took place next to the Old Parliament House in Canberra on January 26.

Eatock, now a member of the Socialist Alliance, spoke to Green Left Weekly's Peter Boyle about her recollections of her experiences at the 1972 start of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy.

* * *

The idea of calling it a Tent Embassy [in 1972] was to highlight the fact that we were being treated as aliens in our own land. We had no rights at all.

Land rights and sovereignty were the key stones of the Tent Embassy.

Today what land rights we won from our struggles are being traded off under a Labor government.

We feel totally betrayed. We expect nothing from the Liberal and National Party coalition but after [former PM Gough] Whitlam we expected more from Labor governments. But they have let us down abominably.

Through the Intervention, which has spread beyond the Northern Territory, we see the trading away of our land. This was land granted to our communities in perpetuity. Apparently it was not only John Howard who did not understand the meaning of “perpetuity”, almost any politician today does not seem to understand the meaning of “perpetuity”.

Our land is being traded off in five-year contracts leasing it back to the government to get housing or some other service. And not all of these services are really beneficial to our people. Some of the new education policies are destroying our culture and languages as is the way people are being forced off their country.

When the Intervention started the army was brought into communities for the first 18 months. Many of those soldiers later complained they did nothing but they don't realise that, for Aboriginal people in remote areas, having soldiers with guns in their communities and not knowing what they are going to do, was incredibly intimidating.

Now we have the Ramingining people saying now we know who the true enemy is: it is the government that has declared war on us.

The first Tent Embassy in 1972 lasted from January 27 to July or August. During that time we had a lot of demonstrations. On one occasion we went up to Cowra and got a whole bunch of Cowra people to come down. We walked then from the Australian National University (ANU) to the Tent embassy site.

I was a marshal on that day and I danced backwards the whole distance while shouting slogans through the megaphone. The feeling in that march was fantastic, like it was at the 40th anniversary march on January 26.

Lots of kids came to the 1972 march from ANU and lots of sleeping bags and tents were donated that day.

The demonstrations then were becoming more and more intense because we knew that the police were going to come at some time to try to remove the embassy physically.

I was working on the switchboard of the Office of Aboriginal Affairs [now the Department of Aboriginal Affairs] but I was removed from that position and sent to work at the government printers.

One day at work I heard a loud voice, probably from a supporter of our cause, from another room say the police were waiting on a Gazette being published that would empower them to remove the embassy.

I left work early and took off to embassy to warn that it was about to be attacked. There were about 30 of us to defend it. We circled the tent and waited. Before long 70 police turned up and knocked us all flying like nine pins.

Some people were arrested and some people were bashed.

There were at least three occasions when the embassy came under attack by the police in 1972.

There were 30 defenders of the Tent Embassy at the first attack, 300 defenders at the second but with a lot of onlookers, including media. The whole world was watching.

When the police came marching from the back of Parliament House, stomping like stormtroopers, I was on the opposite side of the tent so I did not see them coming but I heard this collective sigh. We all had our arms links but once again we went down like pins. There were so many police. They were five rows deep.

I think this may have been the time that Paul Coe was stamped on and sent to hospital with three broken ribs.

I ended up on the ground underneath all these blue serge legs and big black boots. I remember thinking this is what it feels like to be stamped to death. I couldn't move. But just then a blue serge leg came near and I bit into the back of a policeman's calf. The police were so tightly packed that he could do nothing until the police line moved around. He could not even get his arm down.

When the police line moved a bit the leg I was biting on finally pulled away but I bit onto another bit of blue and it was a policeman's thigh, just above his knee and a very tender spot. This policeman managed to get his hand down and grabbed my hair.

But then someone noticed my foot sticking out from under the police and a woman screamed. Several people then grabbed my legs and pulled me out from under the police. That broke my grip on the policeman's leg and I said to my rescuers: “What did you do that for? I had a good grip.”

In July 1972, we had this huge march. Even though it was during the third week of a petrol strike, we managed to get many supporters up from Sydney and elsewhere. About 3000 people gathered at ANU and we marched up to Parliament House and re-established the Tent Embassy.

The police formed a long line but we held them off for three hours before we let them take the tent, to avoid serious violence. But we had the moral victory. We held up bits of ground sheets above our heads and held signs saying “Aboriginal Embassy”.

The Tent Embassy would live on in our hearts, we said, and you can't take that away from us. We said to the authorities: whatever you do you cannot win.


Anyone whos capable of thinking for them self knows Australia has a very long way to go

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