The Redfern Aboriginal Tent Embassy (RATE) was established nine months ago. It is a site of resistance to a program to move Aboriginal people out of Redfern led by the Aboriginal Housing Corporation (AHC) and development company DeiCorp. The racist campaign of social cleansing is backed up by Redfern police.
The Tent Embassy has been under sustained attack. RATE activists have suffered verbal and physical assaults and bail conditions imposed on victims that prevent access to the Embassy — all while the perpetrators have no restrictions on their movement.
Despite these sustained attacks, support for the Embassy has grown. Its first large solid structure was erected in mid-January, complementing ten tents, a lounge, kitchen, BBQ, portaloo, sacred fire area, community garden and seedling bank. Justice Michael Kirby visited in late January and said to RATE organiser Jenny Munro: "I've known you for a long time ... keep causing them trouble”.
A Wiradjuri woman from Erambie Mission, Cowra, Munro has a long history of campaigning for Aboriginal rights. She became a founding member of the Aboriginal Housing Corporation Board when she moved to Sydney in 1973 and worked in the Aboriginal Children’s Service from 1976. She was active in National Aboriginal and Islander Child Care and was instrumental in setting up the current Redfern Aboriginal Tent Embassy. She was a delegate at the 2014 Alice Springs Freedom Summit.
I met Munro in RATE’s shaded lounge room, and as we sat out of the hot sun she told me about her life of struggle. “I visited the original Canberra Tent Embassy 43 years ago. I was in my final year of high school in Cowra. My brother Paul and Isobel Coe told the family about the Tent Embassy and invited me to come. My parents agreed but only on the condition that they could come too. My parents were my greatest teachers and my family comes from a long line of warriors. So we all went to the first week of the Tent Embassy and went back and forth from Cowra to help.
“They tried to remove the Embassy in July that year, so we spent a lot of time there then. The Canberra Tent Embassy was established by a group called the Black Caucus and it followed a racist court ruling that said Aboriginal people didn’t have rights over our land. After that ruling, on January 25, 1972 Liberal Prime Minister Billy McMahon said that Aboriginal people would never get land rights; all we would ever get would be a system of perpetual leases on land we already lived on, owned and occupied. This angered Aboriginal people and the Canberra Tent Embassy was our response.
“AHC was registered in 1973, motivated by helping to house goomies (wise men fond of drink) who were squatting in abandoned homes. We fought to keep the homes. This was the genesis of AHC,” Munro recalled.
“I was an original Board member, as was my husband, Yvonne and Dick Blair, Aunty Shirley Smith, Bob Blair, Aunty Joyce. There were elders who helped a younger group set up the AHC. Aunty Shirley was a key mentor to young activists in Redfern. Ian Kiernan, who set up Clean Up Australia, owned some terraces in Redfern and after discussions with the AHC, he put them on the market and we bought them. Then the AHC bought more terraces, repaired them, rebuilt them. We bought two streets worth.
“The community had a say back then. But it lost its say when Mick Mundine (current President of the AHC) came in. He manipulated successive changes in the Board to benefit himself. Anyone that was against his moves was removed. Many AHC members don’t even come from this community now. They have no right to steal this land from us,” said Munro.
"It was greed and jealousy that motivated Mick Mundine. In 1973 the original AHC’s first two administrators did a magnificent job in managing the community’s housing and developing the community. But it’s been demolitions and drug addiction under this administration of Mick Mundine. And well, because greed knows no colour, there are some of our people who work for the government's agenda. But we don’t want to be white. White culture is brutal and barbaric. Our culture is more honourable and enduring.”
Munro reminisced about her early days in Sydney. “It was a hard time in the 70s. There were very racist real estate agents who would not rent houses to Aboriginal people. It was the same with the medical services — clinics would not see Aboriginal people. Legal services were the same. So the services we set up were very important.
Some Mexican Australian activists stepped into the tent to give solidarity. With photos taken and banners presented, they stayed to listen while Munro continued her history. “There have been three purges of Aboriginal people from Redfern — in the late 70s, late 80s and now this latest purge. Redfern used to have the biggest urban population of Aboriginal people in Australia. Now it is western Sydney, as our community has been pushed out of the inner city. So we are saying enough,” declared Munro.
“So in May 2014, we set up the Redfern Tent Embassy. For two years we had been having community discussions about what to do, but could not do anything until May 26 as we had sorry business in the community to deal with.
“The Redfern police are onside with Mundine. The police have fought us for 227 years and they fight us still. They have a relationship with the AHC, which has led a sustained campaign of intimidation and assault against us. We have had lots of warriors assaulted, and the police did not act in any way until footage of assaults was shown to them.”
I asked Munro who wanted to make money out of the land? She clarified: “According to Sydney University, they were only part of a feasibility study into the redevelopment project that Mick Mundine initiated. But Sydney University has since said there will be no student accommodation here.
“DieCorp are the company that has been contracted to build here. They were the ones who said “the blacks have moved out of Redfern” in their recent advertising. Mick Mundine is saying the new shops in the plan will benefit the blacks in Redfern. Well, you take a walk down Redfern and there are no black faces running shops in Redfern.
“They want to build these tower blocks with small apartments and car parks underneath. Small box living. Well, we like our space. Why would we want to live in that?
“So we are calling for a forensic audit of the AHC for the last 15 years. When we see the paper trial, we will uncover the corruption in the AHC.
“Mundine is on $100,000 a year, and his female administrator is probably on similar. She shouldn't be working in AHC. It should be Indigenous workers. Mundine and company have got a lot to lose. They have waged a war of attrition on the elders in the community. We want a financial audit, and we want our land back. We want to sack Mick Mundine and re-create the community. DeiCorp should go home,” said Munro.
Three AHC houses overlook the Redfern Tent Embassy. AHC employees look through the windows and check on movements in the Embassy.
Munro pointed to the buildings. “I have heard, and I am waiting on confirmation, that Mundine has sold 41 more houses up the north coast. The AHC employ at least six staff who are employed to do repairs and manage the properties. But they have contracted a real estate agent to do that. So if the AHC are not doing any of that work, and they keep selling all the houses anyway, what do they do all day? There seems to be a flurry of activity on pay day, but other than that, they just sit in the office. As it appears they are not doing any work, then they should be sacked,” she said.
Munro reflected on the recent Freedom Summit in Alice Springs. “People said the Redfern Tent Embassy was giving them inspiration. Our Embassy reminds people that we are resisting every day. If I can give Aboriginal children hope and stop them from putting a noose around their neck or teach an Aboriginal kid to give the finger to a copper without getting caught, I will do it. That’s what we are doing with this Tent Embassy.
“We need more white allies, and we need them to help with our campaigns now,” said Munro.
“Our Prime Ministers get worse. We thought Howard was the worst but look at Abbott. The ALP and Liberals are as bad as each other. These governments need to recognise Aboriginal people — that we have our own laws and governance.
“But this Recognition campaign that Abbott is spending millions of dollars on propaganda about, is a misinformation campaign that wants to insert two words into the constitution.
“The constitution is a racist document anyway and these two words won’t stop institutionalised racism in this country. The change won’t stop deaths in custody. It won’t stop the government trying to take our land, trying to wipe out our cultural practices, and keep on with their genocidal program of killing us.
“If they close communities in WA, they will have a humanitarian crisis on the steps of Canberra. How would they like to have their wages taken? How would Abbott and co. like to live on a Basics Card? See how they like it! The Recognition campaign won’t halt any of these practices,” Munro said.
Our talk is interrupted while Munro takes a call from people wanting a ride to Canberra for the Freedom Summit. After firming up yet another car for the trip, she continued. “White laws are illegitimate. Aboriginal people live by different law and culture. Instead of us assimilating into white culture, they should assimilate into our culture. White culture is so destructive.
“Redfern Tent Embassy here has gardening and sustainable living. We can live in the middle of the CBD as a black person would want to. Our solar panels mean we are not taking anyone’s energy, we are self-sufficient. We feed our own pigeons,” Munro smiled.
“We have only survived through a lot of support. The Construction Forestry Mining Energy Union donated our portaloo. There is discussion with the Maritime Union Australia about assistance. We have had international guests, visits and support from North and South America, South Africa, England, Mexico, Iran. Aboriginal mobs from north Queensland, south Queensland, northern NSW, and WA. They have all been helping. We couldn't do it without them.
“A lot of refugees come to the Embassy, refugees who have the most horrific stories. This government has no right to lock people up. Refugees should talk to the real owners of the land — the black people.
“Young Aboriginal people are getting organised. Warriors of Aboriginal Resistance started at G20 in Brisbane and they represent the next generation of fighters. In Sydney in the 70s, the establishment of the housing corporation was based on young people setting it up with guidance from the elders. It was Aunty Shirley who was crucial to this back then.”
The circle of people listening to Munro had grown as more supporters came in after work. “In the end, Aboriginal culture is diametrically opposed to capitalism. We are the original socialists. They have a crisis and they float the dollar and it worsens the crisis. Look at the results. This system is unsustainable. And 10% of the population have 99% of the wealth. It’s not fair or right. In the Australian experience, the rich are only thieves,” Munro concluded.
Donations, equipment and support is welcome at Redfern Tent Embassy.Visit the Redfern Tent Embassy Facebook page here.