Sam Watson: From the Black Panther Party to the Aboriginal Tent Embassy

February 8, 2012
Aboriginal Tent Embassy 40 year commemoration, January 26. Photo: Peter Boyle

About 40 people crowded into the Brisbane Activist Centre on February 7 for a Green Left Weekly public forum titled “The truth about the Aboriginal Tent Embassy”, presented by prominent Murri leader and Socialist Alliance Aboriginal affairs spokesperson Sam Watson. Watson was an activist at the Tent Embassy in Canberra in 1972, and attended the Embassy 40th anniversary commemoration over January 26-28.

Watson gave an eyewitness account of the protests in Canberra on Invasion Day, refuting the racist media furore launched against the Aboriginal community. He outlined the history and real issues addressed at the Embassy anniversary.

“It was an emotional time for us in Canberra at the commemoration,” Watson said. “A small group had travelled from Sydney to Canberra on Invasion Day, 1972, in response to the then McMahon Liberal government’s absolute refusal to consider Aboriginal land rights.

“The original Tent Embassy was established because Aboriginal people were treated as foreigners in their own country. The 1970s produced a big movement of struggle in the Black community, led by a new, angry, younger generation.

“In 1970, the Brisbane chapter of the Black Panther Party of Australia (BPP) was established. It aimed to elevate the Black struggle to the level of a class struggle, to unite with the unions and other progressive organisations.

“The South African Springbok rugby tour of Australia in 1971 represented an important phase of the Black political struggle in this country. There were meetings and demonstrations right across Australia, involving Blacks, trade unions and churches.

“In Queensland, Premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen declared a state of emergency. This upsurge was part of the lead-up to the Tent Embassy.

“After small beginnings, people came from all over the country to Canberra to support the embassy.

“I, as minister for information of the BPP Queensland, went down to Canberra to join in. I stayed on, travelling back and forward to Queensland. I was arrested many times, charged with assaulting cops, and was actually bashed senseless by them.

“Tourists flocked to the Tent Embassy to see what was going on. Real national and international networks were established in those days.

“In fact, the Tent Embassy would not have survived without the support of many ordinary people of Canberra, who brought food, shelter and money to assist us. We received strong support from the trade unions also.

“I was there from January to July 1972, on and off. Then, in July, the government decided to smash the embassy. Waves of police moved in and forcibly removed the tents. This action reignited the struggle, and brought hundreds of Blacks back into the campaign to defend the Tent Embassy.

“The struggle for the Aboriginal Tent Embassy went through various phases from there, over the past 40 years.

“On Invasion Day this year, young Blacks were angry that Tony Abbott said the embassy should 'move on'. We stand by their actions to defend the embassy on that day.

“Now, we need to make a balance sheet of the Black struggle over all those years. I was very impressed with the young people in Canberra, preparing to step forward and lead the struggle to a new stage.

“They are ready to challenge the false leaders of the Aboriginal community, such as Noel Pearson and Warren Mundine, who are essentially owned by the ruling class and do their bidding.

“This is an important time in the history of the Aboriginal rights struggle. As part of the new stage, we need a strong program of activities in Canberra every January 26, to be a focal point of our national campaigns.”


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