Solidarity is vital for Indigenous struggle

November 11, 2009

Three hundred and fifty kilometres north-east of Alice Springs a group of elders from the Alyawarr language group are sitting down in a rough, makeshift camp. Three kilometres away is their community of Ampilatwatja.

This scene could be one of many similar situations across remote Aboriginal Australia: a family trip to the bush, the tail end of a football carnival, some old people wanting a break from the noise in town.

But this camp is an incredibly powerful political statement — among the most significant actions in the growing campaign against the Northern Territory intervention.

The Aboriginal people keeping up the constant presence at the camp bear little resemblance to the image the corporate media presents in its racist, stereotypical portrayals.

They are not unemployed "bludgers", they don't drink alcohol or sniff petrol, and they don't "neglect their children" by spending food money on gambling and letting the kids run wild when they should be at school.

The leaders of the Ampilatwatja walk-off camp have worked as drovers, stock hands and domestic labourers their entire adult lives. They worked for rations and sometimes, if they were lucky, also cash.

When I visited the camp in September, they proudly told me they had never been on "sit-down money".

They spoke of the walk-off strikes they had been part of, or inspired by — such as the famous Gurindji land rights struggle that began in the 1960s.

Yet these hardworking people, now age pensioners, were targeted by the controlling measures of the intervention as though they couldn't look after themselves — let alone anyone else — and didn't deserve the basic rights and freedoms non-Aboriginal Australians take for granted.

The intervention has meant they have faced the humiliation of having 50% of their age pensions converted into vouchers. The government decides where the vouchers can be used and what goods they can be used for.

These people have already lived through one era of rations and paternalism; they know racism when they see it.

But they also know from experience that patience, hard struggle, and support from broad sections of the community, especially unions, can pay off.

They walked off their community to protest against the intervention. And they have no intention of going back, because they know they can win.

They plan to build a new town, outside the boundary of the five-year lease the government imposed on Ampilatwatja. The lease was supposed to be in return for housing, in a community that was desperate for infrastructure upgrades.

Aside from the inherent blackmail of this policy — give us your land and we'll give you houses — the fact is the houses never came. The upgrades never came.

The new community will not be based on blackmail or government hand-outs. The elders hope to build a self-sufficient community based entirely upon the efforts of their own people and the solidarity of their supporters.

That solidarity is vital, and must take many forms: political, practical and financial. The success of their protest depends upon a strengthening and ongoing solidarity campaign by unionists and supporters around the country.

The walk-off camp has raised enough money for a bore, so there will finally be drinking water on site. But building a new community is a long-term project.

The Socialist Alliance expresses its admiration for the courageous stand the elders at the camp have made against the intervention. It pledges its solidarity with the campaign for the long haul.

We will do what we can to take the message to unions and community organisations, to continue the historical legacy of socialists and unionists playing key roles in Aboriginal struggles that have defined the modern land rights movement.

We will help build the national day of action on February 13 as a massive show of opposition to the NT intervention. And we won't forget the elders, sitting in the camps in the hot NT desert, who know that with their perseverance and commitment, and our support, they will win a huge victory.

[Emma Murphy has lived and worked in Aboriginal communities in central Australia, and visited Ampilatwatja and the walk-off camp to start an oral history project.]

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