In our first piece for In Conversation, Lilly McKenzie takes us to the streets of Brisbane to offer a different perspective on Black Lives Matter.
Walking through the Brisbane Cental Business District (CBD), you hear the roar of the crowd before you see them, stragglers walking alongside you. Spilling out from King George Square is a group that’s over 30,000 strong – the biggest protest the city has seen in years. This one looks different in other ways too, with protesters in masks standing apart rather than crammed together, and scattered medic stalls handing out masks and hand sanitiser to anyone who hasn’t brought their own.
These stalls were an important inclusion to organising group ‘Warriors of the Aboriginal Resistance’, not accidentally known as ‘WAR’. WAR founder and Gomeroi, Kooma, Murawarri activist Bogaine ‘Boe’ Spearim felt it was important to hold the march on June 6th, during waning coronavirus restrictions, stating that “as Aboriginal people we’re very outraged about what happened to George Floyd…Over here in Longbeach jail [in December 2015] an Aboriginal young man by the name of David Dungay Jr’s last words were ‘I can’t breathe’ and you know he said that about eleven or twelve times.”
Boe continued to tell me that “Lots of Aboriginal people, earlier on in that week before we started the rally, we were upset and frustrated that mass media in Australia, but then also the public here in Australia, they weren’t sort of gravitating to what was happening here with Aboriginal people and Torres Strait Islander people regarding Black deaths in custody or police brutality.”
Since the Royal Commission into Deaths in Custody report was released in 1991, there have been at least 437 Indigenous deaths in custody.
In 1991 the Australian government’s Royal Commission into Deaths in Custody report was released, investigating the reasons for the high numbers of Indigenous deaths during arrest, pursuit or while in custody. Since this report and its recommendations were released, there have been at least 437 Indigenous deaths in custody. You can view their stories in Walkley award-winning database ‘Deaths Inside’ by Indigenous journalist for the Guardian Lorena Allam.
“It was an urgent thing to sort of say hey, wait a minute, as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people we stand in solidarity with Black folks in the United States because we know what happens…Hold up for a minute, we don’t want you to not share what’s happening in the United States to George Floyd or other Black folks, but could you also share what’s happening to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in this country as well?”
This isn’t the first time Australia’s Indigenous communities have stood with people of colour from around the world, and found solace in shared issues – in fact, it is in WAR’s very foundation, as Boe told me:
“In 2014 myself and two other young Aboriginal people went to Canada. We drove from the West Coast to the East Coast, stopping off at different Indigenous communities that were either land defenders, or that were blockading mining companies, or had tent cities set up in protest of mistreatment of Native folks – like police brutality but then also missing and murdered Indigenous women.
…we can support and also build on each other’s campaigns, see other narratives, and draw comparisons from our different experiences as Indigenous peoples.
“That also informed me on a personal level as well as focusing my political understanding on Indigenous folks globally as to how we can support and also build on each other’s campaigns, see other narratives, and draw comparisons from our different experiences as Indigenous peoples. And that really was a really powerful shift and inspiration in starting Warriors of the Aboriginal Resistance after that as well. The three mob that I went with plus my partner now, we were the (I guess you could say) founding members of WAR. So those things were very informative and very inspiring to me as well.”
The crowd in Brisbane marched through the city streets, stopping at intersections to dance, chant, and make speeches. Walking across the William Jolley Bridge to South Brisbane the crowd paused on the busway as Boe addressed the crowd, inspiring them to help stop Black and Indigenous deaths in custody:
“If we can empower people to film coppers, or if we can empower people to you know, if there’s more of them and less coppers, to intervene and save that person, even if it means getting physical, we may save a life.”
WAR organised protests across the country on June 6th 2020, their members working with local Indigenous groups in each area, like the Brisbane Blacks, and the Brisbane Aboriginal Sovereign Embassy (BASE), formed at Musgrave Park.
Yet for Boe this follows nearly a decade in activism work: “I got involved [with activism] through the Brisbane Aboriginal Sovereign Embassy in Musgrave Park when the embassy was set up in 2012, after the 40th anniversary of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy in Canberra.
The elders and the mob there said go back to your own area where you live, your city or your town, and start an Aboriginal tent embassy.
“The elders and the mob there said go back to your own area where you live, your city or your town, and start an Aboriginal tent embassy. So what happened was the founders of the Brisbane Aboriginal Sovereign Embassy attended the 40th anniversary of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy in Canberra, they came back to start an embassy – one of those people was my older brother, and the first night it was set up he said come in for the night bro, have some mad yarns around the fire and stuff.
“And I’ve gone in and sure enough, sat around the fire and had some great conversations about issues that have always affected Aboriginal people, but I guess really resonated with me and with my generation – and so I was going to stay one night but I ended up staying three or four nights. That was my introduction to activism and my being politicised I guess in some way.”
The Brisbane Tent Embassy has been described by the Brisbane City Council described as a place for ceremonies and feasts, as well as ‘conflict resolution’.
The Tent Embassy in Canberra was set up in 1972 opposite Parliament House, protesting the contemporary government’s approach to Indigenous land rights. Over time the embassy developed, fighting for sovereignty, and moved around Canberra before becoming permanent in its original location in 1992. The Brisbane Tent Embassy was formed in Musgrave Park, an area that has always been culturally significant to Indigenous people, and where the Musgrave Park Cultural centre was established in 1998, described by the Brisbane City Council described as a place for ceremonies and feasts, as well as ‘conflict resolution’.
The protest on June 6th was the beginning of an increase in actions to stop Black deaths in custody. On Wednesday the 17th of June a protest was held in King George Square in Brisbane city before marching to Parliament house – on the second day of parliament sitting – to pressure the state government to take action regarding Indigenous deaths in custody.
When the crowd got to parliament house, they turned, marching down to the entrance of the riverside expressway before holding ground. Uncle Wayne ‘Coco’ Wharton, Brisbane Aboriginal Sovereign Embassy (BASE) member, Indigenous activist and coordinator of the day’s march, addressed the wall of police officers. He called for the Police Minister to come down and talk to him about the officer who allegedly assaulted his daughter, Ruby Wharton, on Saturday the 13th of June.
Ruby, a young Black activist from the Gold Coast, is involved with coordinating Black Lives Matter protests and was taking part in a separate protest; the Kangaroo Point Blockade. This blockade is outside a hotel where asylum seekers are being kept, and they aim to stop the transfer and deportation of 120 men that have been in detention for seven years.
Protesters surrounded the paddy wagon, sitting on the road to prevent the police from driving away…
On Saturday the 13th of June a peaceful rally was held, and hours later Brisbane City Council Member Jonathan ‘Jono’ Sri, Greens Councillor for the Gabba Ward – who is one of the organisers of the blockade – was arrested while leaving the event. Protesters surrounded the paddy wagon, sitting on the road to prevent the police from driving away, many with their phones out filming the police, and Ruby was allegedly assaulted by a police officer for continuing to film.
Uncle Coco named Jerry Moffat, the officer who allegedly assaulted Ruby, holding up a photo of him on his phone, and called on any of the police to take a report from him. The police began to move the crowd on, pulling gloves on before they did, and when Uncle Coco stood his ground, he was arrested.
The march continued with Ruby at the helm, redirecting the crowd across the CBD before standing ground outside the Brisbane Watch House, calling for Uncle Coco’s release. Uncle Coco was released without charge that night, after lawyer Debbie Kilroy became involved.
Black Lives Matter protests have been continuing in Brisbane and around Australia – including outside local correctional facilities – fighting to make their voices heard. The Kangaroo Point Blockade is indefinitely ongoing.
Lilly McKenzie is a freelance journalist and a 2018 Mid-Year Walkley Award finalist. She is currently focused on covering minority issues, human rights, and politics in her home city of Brisbane, Australia.