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Camp Sovereignty – 60 days of Peace May 13, 2006

Posted by campsovereignty in Analysis, Camp News.

Lisa has posted an excellent summary of how Camp Sovereignty went, along with an on-the-spot report of the last night at Melbourne Indymedia. It's so good in fact, we're going to reproduce it here:

Camp Sovereignty – 60 days of peace
by Lisa Sinclair Friday May 12, 2006

“There will probably be a media frenzy through here in the next couple of days complaining about the ’cleanup bill’. Here is paradise. People who can do computers, send it overseas… We can create a thousand fires but it’s not going to happen if there isn’t any one taking notice. The issues of Aboriginal stuff are still here. Two hundred and nineteen years ago here, a hundred years ago, 10th of May 2006, at 7.30, Aboriginal issues are still here. They’re [Aboriginals] still being put down, misrepresented, lied about. Chances are, there could be one dying in police custody or being belted up or going to prison, going to a hospital, [with] drug overdoses. Unemployment disposession, language, culture… Aboriginal people are still here.”

Aboriginal elder, Camp Sovereignty 10 May, 2006

I was there in the last hours, where hope reigned and the glancing blows of politicians and media commentators with axes to grind were merely excuses to offer another cheek.
The place was one of peace, harmony and a bastion of reasonableness amongst the overwhelming view of the greater society that Aboriginal culture, land-rights and language was something that was dying at best or dead at worst.

The camp had lasted for 60 days, through abusive media frenzies tipified by Andrew Bolt of The Herald Sun and through the opinionated unhelpful outbursts of the Prime Minister, Mister Howard, and even surpassed the Commonwealth games and Anzac day parades as a bastion of honour and a shining light of hope.

Feelings that were felt there at the end ranged from sadness, hope and joy. The fire was a symbol of sorts, temporary in its location, perhaps, but permanent in its concept and its intent.

“The fire will never die” said one of the fire-tenders.

The genesis of the fire lay in the tent embassy in Canberra. Embers were carried here to Victoria, lived briefly in King’s Domain, and now has gone to the various tribal areas around this and other states.

The facts

The camp was never a protest against the commonewalth games. Its intent was far wider than reported by the media.

The camp was a representation that aboriginal people were still in existence, that they had rights and that their cause – regardless of right-wing opinion to the contrary – was just. The intent was to raise awareness of Aboriginal issues in Australia, and to bring the face of Aboriginal Australia to the world’s media. The Commonwealth Games provided such an opportunity.

The camp

Looking back on the events that led up to the Police arrival just after midnight on the 11th of May, the camp achieved all its aims; a peaceful and harmonious environment was created and many visitors with preconceived ideas left with a new understanding and supporting the concepts and aims that the camp tipified.

In one tense moment, on Anzac day, a confrontation with a gang of bikers was neatly avoided; the spirit of the camp won through.

The bikers had attended the march to the shrine of remembrance and had come to Camp Sovereignty to see what the fuss was all about. They came with preconceived ideas, both of their own and those provided by the media.

They were led into the smoke of the sacred fire, after having its aims explained clearly, and left the camp peacefully.

People laugh about Aboriginal people on the street, make jokes like the one below:

“Why don’t we go up to King’s Domain? There’ll be plenty to drink up there! Oh, no, it’ll be petrol.”
“Nah, Petrol’s too expensive.”

Attitudes like this help no-one. And they fly in the face of the facts of substance abuse worldwide. People of all walks of life abuse substances, be they cigarettes, marijuana, cocaine, alcohol or petrol. But for many, it is easy to hide these abuses.

They hide them by taking the abuses into their homes, by hiding behind closed-doors.
For a homeless person, be they Aboriginal or Caucasian, there is nowhere to hide. Their home is the park-bench, the rooftop or the quiet doorway. Their substances are, for the most-part, cheaper and easier to obtain; Petrol rather than Cocaine. Methylated Spirit rather than Johnny Walker.

And it is this visibility which breeds the contempt of the closet racist, the sort of person that says “I’m not racist, but…” and who makes jokes like that mentioned earlier.

Camp Sovereignty showed another face of Aboriginal Australia. It showed Aboriginal people are a deep-thinking, honourable and spiritual people. It showed what they are capable of if given a glimmer of hope.

One of the fire-tenders told about how prior to the camp he was quite literally lying in the gutter and had done things he was deeply ashamed of. The acts were of someone with no hope and nothing to live for.

He recounted how he dragged himself to the camp and felt something new grow within him, and that he became truly afraid to leave, afraid that the feeling may disappear and the hell that was would return. He said that now he had managed to rekindle a relationship with his children and had gotten to know his daughter and grandchild. All this in sixty days.

The camp and the fire that burned within it was hope in its purest form.
It was hope that money cannot buy.

It is the current attitude of the Commonwealth Government that money can fix the problems facing the Aboriginal people. The current Federal Indigenous Affairs Minister, Mal Brough has pledged thirty million dollars to the Aboriginal community in Alice Springs. This money will be spent on power, water, sewerage, roads, rubbish and rates. He has even commented that individual home ownership may be possible at some stage in the future.
This pledge is based on an assumption that money can solve anything. It is an approach which is equivalent to the band playing on the Titanic as it sank beneath the waves: a nice gesture but fundamentally worthless.

In order to truly solve the problems facing Aboriginal people, governments must do the unthinkable:

They must listen to what Aboriginal people need. And they must have the courage and the fortitude to act honestly and honourably once the facts are known.

An opportunity is upon us, one which will be remembered in the history of this country.

The end of the beginning

Assumption ruled the opening minutes of the 11th of May, 2006.
As we stood around the dying embers of the fire, in the dying moments of the day, we realised a new and belligerent presence had arrived.

Women were asked to move to the back of the fire and the men stood to the front, forming a barrier between this new presence and those least likely to be able to defend against it.
This was not done to prevent the police and council workers performing the job they had been told to do, nor an attempt to save the fire from what was coming.

That decision had already been made: the fire would be put out, and embers saved for fires elsewhere.

Negotiations had already taken place, and one of the park rangers had provided soil with which the fire could be extinguished and barrows with which to carry it to the fire.

Shock and awe

As the police began to move in, they were approached by camp organisers who informed them that the fire was to be extinguished on time and according to the laws of the land.
But the organisers were ignored and the police moved in.

Had the police sent a small group of officers to approach the camp organisers at the appropriate time, all the unpleasantness that followed would have been avoided. Reasonable precautions could have been taken including contingency for a show of force (such as that which actually occurred) had the law not been obeyed.

But the police took plan ‘B’ and came in mob-handed. Officers obviously picked for muscle deployed around the fire, pushing aside both protesters and any illusion of peace.

And as we were shoved aside, and backwards, confusion and anger grew.

In reports today, police representatives deny the accusation of heavy-handedness. Perhaps they are right for that term implies aggression of which there was surprisingly little.

A better term to describe the police action is one coined by ex U.S. secretary-of-state Colin Powell. That term is ‘shock and awe’, and describes the use of overwhelming force in the face of any type of opposition.

And like Iraq, where this principle was most recently used, it fails to take into account the aftermath of such actions. It is an immediate solution to a problem, with no view to the long-term view of the actions taken.

The police operation achieved its goals quite adequately; goals of clearing the area, protecting the council workers from any type of attack and extinguishing the fire.
However, the direct result of their overwhelmingly forceful actions was outrage, shock and rebellion.

Will they never learn?

When the police came in, they exploited the altered make-up of those around the fire, and forced their way through the women. Many attempted to resist the wedge-action in an attempt to keep their footing around the still-hot fire pit. They were shoved roughly aside by the well-trained officers.

It would be unfair in the extreme to attack the officers, the council workers or the security guards who executed their duties throughout the sixty days of the camp. They were merely doing the jobs they had been told to do.

The council workers were told to extinguish the fire and fill the fire pit.

The security guards were told to ensure the occupants of the camp obeyed the letter of the law.

The police officers were told to perform their duties. And like on so many occasions previously, during the September 11 protests in the year 2000, during the school protests in the 90’s, the police force was used as the blunt-instrument of political policy, both from elected representatives and their own superiors within the force.

And this blunt-instrument, on the morning of the 11th of May 2006, performed the bidding of its masters.

What could have been a quiet and dignified end to the occupation of King’s Domain was instead reduced to the level of farce. What was peaceful was changed to struggle.
The police brought belligerence into the camp and it was returned through words and deeds. The occupants of the camp certainly began to abuse the police, but the abuse was a result of the overwhelmingly extreme approach adopted by the officers.

Capsicum spray

As I stood eye-to-eye with police officers, I suddenly understood how wars were started.
The police officers seemed poised and ready for any violence. Given that violence had not featured during the time the camp had existed, despite provocations from members of the public, media figures and our political representatives, the attitude of the police was at best, confusing and at worst, insulting.

Accordingly, their might was met with anger, disbelief and a feeling of disgust.

It is rare for police forces to pre-empt violence. The entire legal system seems geared to deal with the consequences of actions rather than preventing their occurrence. A crime is committed, then punishment is meted out. For example if you told a police officer that you believed someone was going to drink and drive, they would merely turn around and say they could do nothing to stop the individual. A crime has to be committed before an officer can do anything about it, or at the very least, evidence produced to act upon.

Yet on this day, no evidence of violence was in existence. The camp had been dry, drug and alcohol free. Violence had been absent.

But as one lifted a can of capsicum spray from his belt, I braced myself for what could come next. The coin was balanced on one edge, and only the merest breath would cause it to fall one side or the other.

Fortunately no-one else saw the officer’s actions and the potential disaster was averted.
None of the knights on the hill saw the sword drawn.

Mission accomplished

The sacred fire was extinguished just after midnight by camp organisers just before the full brunt of the Police action was felt by the camp supporters.

However, with the arrival of the police and council workers, a further half an hour was spent making sure the fire was completely and utterly dead.

They shovelled the newly placed earth onto the back of a truck where a man with a hose poured water on it.

They hosed the pit down.

They dumped more earth in the fire pit and half-filled it.

Some in the camp yelled abuse. Others pleaded with the police and council employees to see reason. Others still made jokes, in that nervous way people do when confronted with overwhelming force.

“They’ve only half-filled the pit! Where the hell are they going to get more earth at this time of night? All the nurseries are closed!”

Soon they departed, leaving confusion and anger in their wake. The police action was the antithesis of all the camp stood for and achieved. And in the aftermath of that fourty-five minutes of confrontation and tension, it became clear that it was not only the fire that had been extinguished.

Unsurprisingly, the media chose that point to come in and start asking questions. Rather than leave these people to lick their wounds, they came and rubbed salt into them.

A reporter from 3AW, and representatives from the Herald Sun, Channel Ten and Southern-Cross radio started asking questions. Words were exchanged which, while not well chosen, certainly were to be expected given the events of the previous hour.

There seemed to be an attitude of antagonism within these representatives, for, rather than withdrawing respectfully, they hung-on, almost taunting the people of the camp. Perhaps they hoped for the violent responses that some expressed, which will no-doubt be used by radio shock-jocks and commercial current-affairs shows preaching further disrespect to the indigenous population, and to those who supported them.

Hope for the future

But while peace may have taken a battering, the hope of the camp remains.

Embers from the fire were saved and have been transferred to different parts of the state of Victoria. Agreement was reached to remember the fire that was in one years time on the 10th of March.

People understood.

All the camp organisers were trying to achieve with the camp and the sacred fire was understanding.

Camp Sovereignty achieved this aim admirably. It proved that Aboriginal people were decent, reasonable, hopeful and honourable.




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