People power can beat racism

February 8, 2007

This year marks the 40th anniversary of the referendum that acknowledged Aboriginal people as citizens in their own country. Forty years seems like a long time — so how much has really changed?

Despite the fact that Indigenous Australians achieved formal "equality", they remain the most oppressed and marginalised group in this country. A statistical overview of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in Australia by the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission states that today, Aboriginal people on average die 18 years younger than non-Aboriginal people.

In a January article, John Pilger painted this grim picture: "Today, black Australians have one of the lowest life expectancies in the world, and their health is the worst in the world. An entirely preventable disease, trachoma — beaten in many poor countries — still blinds them because of appalling living conditions. The impoverishment of black communities, which I have seen change little over the years, was described in 2006 by Save the Children as 'some of the worst we have seen in our work all around the world'."

Although the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody released a report in 1991 stating that Aboriginal people should only be taken into custody as a last resort, few of the commission's 339 recommendations have been implemented and Aboriginal deaths in custody continue. The incarceration rate for Indigenous Australians is 10 times the average rate, and since 1990, more than 200 Indigenous people have died in custody.

This horrific reality has not been created by accident: it is a result of a determined campaign by the Howard government, and governments before his, to deny Australia's shameful history of genocidal policies against Aboriginal people. Since coming to power in 1996, PM John Howard has cut hundreds of millions of dollars in funding for Aboriginal programs and communities, attacked and reversed some of the gains that had been made in Aboriginal land rights, and has refused to take any action to improve the rights and living conditions of Aboriginal people.

But Indigenous Australians are fighting back. The death of Mulrunji Doomadgee, an Aboriginal man who was brutally beaten to death by Palm Island police in November 2004 — with no consequences for his killer — sparked a campaign of resistance that has forced the Queensland Labor government to back down. This year on Invasion Day, January 26, there was something to celebrate for Aboriginal Australians and their supporters, when it was announced that Senior Sergeant Chris Hurley would be charged with manslaughter over Mulrunji's death.

The attempted cover-up by parts of the Australian legal system, the Queensland government and the corporate media showed many Australians just how widespread and institutionalised racism is in this country. But the Justice for Mulrunji campaign showed us another thing: that people power can start to beat back racism. From the Palm Island Indigenous community's spontaneous protests targeting the police station in 2004, through to the ongoing marches and public meetings calling for justice, a movement grew that forced Queensland Labor Premier Peter Beattie to quietly back away from his support for Mulrunji's killer.

Justice has not been won yet — not for Mulrunji, nor for the other victims of racist police, including TJ Hickey, the young Redfern man who was impaled on a fence in February 2004 when police chased him and rammed his bike, then called for "back-up" before calling an ambulance — but this partial victory shows us the way to achieve our demands for justice.

Mass protest movements can change not only government policy, but also the attitudes of large numbers of people. Resistance initiated the high-school walkouts against racist politician Pauline Hanson in 1998, which grew into a broad movement against her racist attacks on Aboriginal people and immigrants. Tens of thousands of people came out onto the streets. This movement helped spark the momentum for the Sydney Harbour Bridge march for reconciliation in 2000, which a million Australians took part in. The movement for refugee rights has similarly challenged government policy and people's attitudes.

Clearly the fight to defeat racism is a long way from over, and since the September 11 terrorist attacks in the US, the Howard government has gone on a renewed racist offensive, particularly targeting Middle Eastern and Muslim Australians. The ruling elite prefer us to be divided and distrustful of each other — we're easier to rule over and exploit that way.

I was in the Resistance Centre in Chippendale, Sydney, the morning after police killed TJ Hickey, when residents of the Redfern Block came in to ask for our help and to use our PA system for their protests. I was proud to be able to chair the rally of 500 people in Melbourne this year on Invasion Day where we got the news that Hurley was going to be charged over Mulrunji's death.

Resistance is certainly not the only organisation campaigning to end racism. But we are determined to work with others to build people-power movements that don't just win a small gain here and there, but make real change. We don't just stand against racism: we recognise that it is an essential tool of the ruling class to divide us from each other under this system, and we stand for an alternative. We're about trying to work together towards another type of society — one that is based on equality, democracy and sustainability, in which we can truly make racism history.

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