In the week after the January 26 Aboriginal Tent Embassy anniversary celebrations and protests, the mainstream media poured out a continuous stream of negative, scathing commentary on the Tent Embassy and the people that defended it.
Ignoring the thousands of people gathered for three days to recognise the achievements of the Tent Embassy and protest against ongoing attacks to Aboriginal people today, the corporate media ran stories of an “angry mob” that surrounded a Canberra restaurant and “besieged” Prime Minister Julia Gillard and Liberal leader Tony Abbott.
The impromptu demonstrators wanted Abbott to answer to comments he had made implying the tent embassy should “move on”. Instead, Gillard’s minders staged a dramatic exit and the leaders fled.
Right-wing media commentators, like the Herald Sun’s Andrew Bolt and the Sydney Morning Herald’s Paul Sheehan, seized the opportunity to deride the Aboriginal rights movement. Sheehan said his readers “overwhelmingly expressed their disapproval of the Aboriginal ‘embassy’”. He said, approvingly, that the proposal to amend the constitution to include Aboriginal people was “now dead”.
Bolt said the “disgraceful riot” meant reconciliation (which he conflated with land rights) was “just too dangerous”.
The media commentary, overwhelmingly by non-Aboriginal people, has mostly quoted conservative Aboriginal commentators who condemned the protesters and defended Abbott.
Warren Mundine, head of the Australian Indigenous Chamber of Commerce and former Labor national president, said the protesters “overreacted” to Abbott’s words, which were “pretty timid”.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner Mick Gooda called the protesters “aggressive, divisive and frightening” and said Abbott’s comments were “misconstrued”, the Herald Sun said on January 27.
But Tent Embassy co-founder Michael Anderson told Green Left Weekly Abbott’s words were anything but reasonable, and carefully worded to garner reaction.
“It’s very clever of politicians. They’re trained to use words with double meanings. When they say ‘move on’, that only means one thing. The police say ‘move on’ and arrest you for ‘disobeying’ them.
“He used a phrase that had a double-edged meaning, that was no mistake.”
Anderson said it was part of a strategy to “prevent us from talk of the real issue that we all wanted to talk about, which was Aboriginal sovereignty”.
WA Aboriginal activist Marianne Mackay was also at the Tent Embassy commemoration. She told GLW she believed the media and Abbott had incited racial hatred. “Why else would he make such comments?” she said.
Mackay, who was a senate candidate for the First Nations Political Party in 2010 and chairs the WA Deaths in Custody Community Watch, rejected the media story that the protesters had “rioted”.
“If they want to talk about a riot, look at the Cronulla riots, that’s a riot. What we did was a disturbance, trying to peacefully confront the opposition leader on what he said.
“There were three different events that day, but the media only portrayed us angrily calling out Abbott.
“We had the peaceful march in the morning — and that was a real peaceful march, everyone was excited, it was a big corroboree.
“We had a few speeches and a few banners held up, and then we went back to the tent embassy and had a smoking ceremony. The media showed none of that, and that was really sad because that was our celebration.”
She said word of Abbott’s comments “fuelled the fire”.
“It was so offensive to our people, so insulting to the warriors we had in the past who sacrificed so much to bring things where they are today. It was really upsetting.
“So everyone wanted to confront Abbott, in a peaceful way. We just wanted him to come out to speak to us so we could ask him why.”
She also said “government lackeys” like Mundine should “stop speaking for us”.
“They weren’t nominated or elected — they don’t speak for the grassroots, none of them have any rights to speak on our behalf.”
Anderson said the Labor party had again been exposed as a racist party. “They never even objected to the Northern Territory intervention. [Gillard] can’t even say the word Aboriginal, let alone talk to us.”
He said the reactions of a large section of the population show racism is alive and well: “We will never be Australians in the context in which everybody wants to assimilate us. We are Aboriginal people with a connection to this country that very few people understand.
“I understand the complexities of this, the seriousness of it, and the fact that everybody will say ‘well, it’s in the too-hard basket’. It’s just a matter of tipping it up and starting again.”
Mackay said the media coverage has been “really frustrating”.
“The media always portrays our people in a negative way. But we’re trying to move forward in a country ... with systemic, institutionalised racism. They ignore us and use lackeys like Warren Mundine to push against our rights.
“We deserve to be treated just like everyone else in this country — I don’t want my children growing up in a country that constantly puts them down, that they have to be fighting forever.”
Despite this, she said there was new optimism and strength at the embassy site.
“We had so many warriors of the past who sacrificed so much to establish that Tent Embassy. It’s a sign and a symbol — it represents the unity and the strength we have as one people. It’s our place. The Tent Embassy is everybody’s country.
“There’s always going to be a permanent presence now, people and mob will come from all over the country to camp and protect the place.