Why are police attacking these homeless people at Matagarup?

Issue 

In a re-run of scenes at Matagarup (Heirisson Island) over the past four years, WA police raided the island camp early on April 5. The Nyoongar camp and and homeless people's refuge in the Swan River was then raided again later in the day and the following morning.

According to eyewitnesses, police and City of Perth rangers confiscated people's tents, bedding and other belongings. They told people to leave and issued move-on notices.

Green Left Weekly's Kamala Emanuel spoke to several people at the camp on April 6.

Aaron, who'd been staying at the camp about 4 months, said there had been about 50 people staying at the camp, at the time of the raid.

With thousands of homeless people all over Perth, none of them facing this kind of organised assault from police and council, people were asking why this was even happening.

According to Mervyn, the Matagarup site is a protected Aboriginal Heritage site, a recognised place where Nyoongars have the right to practice their culture. Herbert Bropho explained that that included lighting the sacred fire, dance and other spiritual practices, and camping. Mervyn pointed out to an April 6 meeting that the City of Perth has a development plan – set to benefit casino-owner and multibillionaire James Packer – to link the CBD with the casino, via the island.

The Matagarup camp is headed by Noongars intent on protecting their land and culture. Their rights as sovereign people are challenged not only by the City of Perth and wealthy developers, but also by state and federal governments.

The Nyoongars who lead the camp don't recognise the non-Aboriginal governments and are clear that they remain the sovereign people in their country. They have welcomed homeless Wadjalas (non-Aboriginal people) and Aboriginal people from around the state who have been threatened by the state and federal governments' plans to close remote Aboriginal communities. They have met with refugees to express their welcome.

Rachel, a mother of 5, told me that she and her partner had moved to Perth looking for work, after their rental lease expired and they were unable to secure a lease in Melbourne. Although initially her partner had found work, he had had to stop working to look after their children when Rachel developed health problems. They were homeless and had been staying at the camp for over 3 months.

She described the welcome they had received at the camp, and the sense of belonging and family that had been extended to them, and the safety they felt there, compared with sleeping rough elsewhere.

“We've always been proud that everything we had here was our own. It was our tent, our children's own clothes and things. None of it was from charity. It was our home.”

But the council officers and police had taken their tent, and their children's clothes. Pointing to her second-youngest child, she explained, “she's only got that dress she's been wearing for three days now. Now we're not too proud to say we need help.”

Rachel said that during the raid, one of the police officers had said to her, “how can we make this as easy for you as we can?” and she'd replied, “you can stop.” She told me that the night after the raid, her daughter had had nightmares.

“And after all that, you're here again tonight,” I said.

“Well, where else are we supposed to go?”

Everyone at the camp knows that the homeless services are always full and the Housing Department waiting list is years long.

Megan has been staying at the camp for around 12 months, after having been living in her car for a year. She told me she had been using drugs before she got to the camp, and that not only had she felt a lot safer there, but that it had also been a place to detox for her.

“The women's healing camp was here before, and I was a part of that. Now I'm healthy, I'd be able to look after a house again.”

She told me she had been lucky enough that some of her things were in someone else's car when the raids took place, but that she and her partner had had their stuff confiscated. Like Rachel, she had returned.

“I don't say I'm homeless,” she told me: “this place is my home.”

While I was there, I saw people bringing food, cooking equipment, tents, blankets and clothing, which were shared around with those who needed them, Nyoongah and Wadjala alike.

There was a meeting on while I was there, with plans being made for a homeless people's march on Perth City Council and state parliament on April 14, legal action, and an approach to the Department of Indigenous Affairs and federal police to protect the camp.

Elder and camp stalwart Herbert Bropho said, “we have to get everyone to stand together, learn from those women who are still here: they're fighters. They're still here. We need all the groups we've supported to come and stand with us. Me, I'm still here. I'm not going anywhere.”

[Kamala Emanuel is the lead senate candidate for Socialist Alliance in WA. Photos by Clinton Pryor.]