Yaluritja Clarrie Isaacs — a lifetime of activism

Issue 

BY ANTHONY BENBOW

PERTH — On December 2, as the morning sun sparkled from the river's quiet surface, more than a hundred people gathered at Gooniniup, the Nyungah women's sacred site, also known as the old Swan Brewery. We recalled the campaign waged during the 1980s and 1990s, when Nyungah people and others united in a bid to prevent a corrupt government and a greedy developer from desecrating a sacred place.

Aboriginal flags, T-shirts and ribbons were displayed proudly. Familiar faces were greeted, stories exchanged — but the mood was one of sorrow rather than celebration. One of the key leaders of the struggle against the brewery development was not present. We were there to remember and celebrate the life of Yaluritja Clarrie Isaacs, whose sudden death on November 26, at just 55 years of age, shocked and saddened us all.

Clarrie's sharp wit and willingness to take a stand earned him plenty of enemies in the WA establishment — but the mainstream media portrayal of him as a lone shit-stirrer was false. "Clarrie was not a renegade, he did not act alone, he always had our support. He had the support of his people", Robert Bropho told the memorial meeting.

At the time of his death, Yaluritja was a Nyungah elder and custodian of the Busselton and Margaret River area of WA. He was also the chairperson of the Rottnest Island Deaths Group, and involved with the Nyungah Patrol, the Aboriginal Advancement Council, and the campaign to save the Ludlow Tuart forest, to name but a few. His warmth and generosity were noted by most who met him.

Clarrie was born in 1948, one of an extended family of 27 from the south-west of WA. His family was involved in the early Aboriginal Legal Service. Clarrie was a convert to Islam, and having made a pilgrimage to Mecca, earned the right to the title Haj. He was also a justice of the peace.

In the 1970s, Clarrie was active in the Water Supply Union, including as its president. In 1981, the WSU merged with the Federated Miscellaneous Workers' Union. Clarrie served as a state councillor and executive member of the FMWU from 1982 to 1989. Here Clarrie first encountered FMWU leader Jim McGinty, later to become a state Labor minister. Clarrie also offered his solidarity with other workers in struggle, including the occupiers of the Cockatoo Island Dockyard in Sydney.

During this time, Clarrie helped found the Rottnest Island Deaths Group. Rottnest was used as a concentration camp for Aboriginal people from 1831 to the 1930s. The many people who holidayed there each year had no idea of the island's shocking and brutal past, until the Deaths Group documented the graves on Rottnest and raised community awareness.

The 1980s also saw the beginnings of the brewery struggle. The old Swan Brewery was built in the 1890s, over a water source sacred to Nyungah women. The building was abandoned in the 1960s. Through a series of shonky deals in the 1980s, the state government bought the site at a big loss.

The then-premier, Labor's Carmen Lawrence, did a deal. In effect, Multiplex Construction boss (and Labor campaign donor) John Roberts was handed the site free, to develop it as luxury apartments and restaurants. McGinty, by then heritage minister, was given the job of ramming the development through.

Nyungah people set up a year-long protest camp at the brewery site. Their wishes were simple: remove the old buildings and make the site a public park, to restore its significance as a sacred site. Thousands joined the brewery protests in solidarity.

Yaluritja was a key leader of the brewery protests, and his imaginative and colourful tactics have become legend: installing a mailbox and insisting Australia Post deliver letters direct to the camp; climbing the Norfolk pine tree and tying the Aboriginal flag right at the top; and painting everything he could red, black and yellow — including the concrete barriers erected by the developers. Yaluritja and Bropho were inspirational leaders at the community pickets.

Eventually, the WA government bypassed the federal government's laws, frustrated the legal challenges, forced the lifting of the work ban some unions had placed on the site, and used masses of police to break the community picket on the morning of August 26, 1992. This was still not the end of the dispute — Multiplex and the government had to fight further legal challenges which stalled the development three more years.

In 1988, to highlight 200 years of racism and genocide, Clarrie, Michael Mansell and other Aboriginal activists travelled to Libya, on passports issued by the Provisional Aboriginal Government of Australia. Clarrie continued to use the title "President of the Aboriginal Government".

He told the 2001 UN Conference against Racism: "If all Australians had the same experiences as Aboriginals, a third of them would not be alive today." He and Ellie Gilbert, widow of poet and activist Kevin Gilbert, went to this conference at their own expense to represent the Sovereign Union of Aboriginal Nations and Peoples in Australia.

Clarrie was a strong supporter of all anti-racist campaigns, in particular the campaign against the apartheid regime in South Africa. In 1996, with the election of Prime Minister John Howard and the rise of Pauline Hanson, Clarrie travelled the country speaking as part of a "justice tour". In the 1996 WA election he stood as part of the Racism No! ticket.

Clarrie supported the Aboriginal Tent Embassy in Canberra and participated in the Sydney protests against the 2000 Olympics. He also battled WA's racist media — particularly shock-jock Howard Sattler, who described the car-crash deaths of two Aboriginal boys as "good riddance to bad rubbish". In 2001, the Australian Broadcasting Tribunal found Sattler guilty of racial discrimination.

In 1999, Clarrie lost much of his work and possessions in a house fire, the cause of which has never been satisfactorily explained.

Clarrie was direct and honest — and he was not afraid to speak his mind. For example, in 1996 he attacked the federal Labor government's Native Title legislation: "We expected native title, but we got native welfare ... the Native Title Tribunal has been an instrument to coerce the Indigenous peoples of Australia to accept the Labor Party's policy of compensation which, as at the 1st September 1994, amounted to a grand sum of less than $124 for each Indigenous person of Australia." Clarrie could be equally fierce in his condemnation of those supporting the government line, both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people.

In 2001, Clarrie was the lead Senate candidate in WA for the Socialist Alliance, condemning the government's treatment of refugees and the looming war on Afghanistan.

I last saw Clarrie at an October 23 rally in Forrest Place against Bush's visit. He gave the Nyungah welcome to country — the welcoming smile and outstretched hand in greeting, and always that huge land rights flag over one shoulder, the one with the yellow map of Australia at its centre.

That remains my final memory of a leader whose struggles will live on through what he inspired in us all. Yaluritja Clarrie Isaacs, you will not be forgotten.

[Colleagues & friends are invited to attend the funeral service of Clarrie Isaacs (Yaluritja) (Mohamad) at Karrakatta Cemetery, Railway Road, Karrakatta on December 12 at 3pm. Donations in lieu of flowers to the Nyungah Patrol, 28 Lindsay Street, Perth 6000 would be appreciated. Tributes can be viewed and submitted to the web site <http://www.west.com.au/clarrie/>.]

From Green Left Weekly, December 10, 2003.

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