Deaths in custody, statues, Gaza: Melbourne brims with tension
27 January 2024, The Australian, by Rachael Dexter
A Boon Wurrung elder has condemned the vandalism of a statue of Captain James Cook, which was torn down in darkness on Australia Day eve, while thousands cheered the act on at a rally in Melbourne’s CBD yesterday.
During a day of anti-Australia Day protest peppered with references to the war in Gaza, the relatives of Indigenous Australians who have died in custody stood alongside leaders of the pro-Palestinian movement at this year’s ‘‘Invasion Day’’ rally. Police say 35,000 people attended, bringing parts of the city to a standstill.
The day began with a dawn mourning reflection We-Akon Dilinja ceremony in St Kilda, where Jason Briggs, the chair of the Boonwurrung Land and Sea Council – the traditional owners of the area – said a ‘‘violent crime had been committed’’ close to where the sunrise event took place.
‘‘We do not abide by anything illegal, illegitimate, or as disgraceful as such a heinous act,’’ he said, referring to the destruction of a Captain Cook sculpture in St Kilda’s Catani Gardens in the early hours of January 25.
The phrase ‘‘the colony will fall’’ was spray-painted on the plinth and the statue, which was cut through at the ankles, dumped on the grass.
Briggs called those who vandalised the statue ‘‘cretins’’ whose ‘‘divisive act’’ had failed in its attempt to overshadow the event which saw hundreds gather for the remembrance event and smoking ceremony co-hosted with the Port Phillip Council.
‘‘It’s a violent crime committed so close to this gathering of unity,’’ he said. ‘‘So let’s not let them win in and let them tear us apart … [we] say this: you do not speak for us. We do not in any way support or condone what you did.’’
Briggs told The Age after the event that if the local Aboriginal community had an issue with the statue, they would go through legitimate legal channels, rather than ‘‘being thieves in the night with angle grinders’’.
‘‘If we want the community to respect our cultural icons, it’s a two-way street,’’ Briggs said.
But the feeling was different at the now-annual ‘‘Invasion Day’’ rally organised by activist group Warriors of the Aboriginal Resistance, where the event emcee – who introduced herself as Nika – said she was proud of those who had brought down the statue.
‘‘I’m really, really proud of our city. I’m really proud of the people who took action yesterday. Captain Cook – yes!’’ she said, as the crowd erupted in cheers.
In St Kilda earlier, Boon Wurrung elder Dr Carolyn Briggs said while the fight to maintain culture began with colonisation in the 1830s, one of the most important lessons from the struggle was how First Nations people forged alliances with each other that persist today.
Independent MP for Goldstein Zoe Daniel told the crowd at the smoking ceremony that 2023 had been a ‘‘difficult year on the pathway to reconciliation’’, following the failed Voice to parliament referendum. ‘‘Today is about coming together to heal from pain, to accept and to acknowledge our history and to celebrate survival,’’ she said.
In the city, protest organisers tore in half an Australian flag soaked in fake blood on the steps of parliament, while speeches focused on Aboriginal deaths in custody and the war in Gaza.
April Day, one of the daughters of Tanya Day – who died in December 2017 after hitting her head in a police cell in central Victoria after being arrested for public drunkenness – spoke of her family’s activism which resulted in the state decriminalising public drunkenness this year. She urged advocates to continue campaigning for other justices for Aboriginal Australians.
Raelene Nixon, mother of Steven Nixon-McKellar who died after being placed in a ‘‘chokehold’’ by police in Toowoomba in 2021, also spoke during a massive ‘‘sit-in’’ outside Flinders Street Station of her ambition to see a complete ban on neck restraints and chokeholds. She spoke of her family’s dismay with the coronial process.
Police did not report any arrests or ‘‘major issues of note’’ at the CBD rally which lasted more than four hours, moving through the city streets and hearing from dozens of speakers and singers.
The plight of Palestinians living in Gaza – where more than 25,000 people have died under bombardment by the Israeli Defence Force after Hamas’ October 7 massacre – dominated much of the discourse of the rally, and dozens carried Palestinian flags alongside Aboriginal flags and placards.
Pro-Palestinian supporters took to the stage and said there were parallels between the Palestinian cause and that of Indigenous Australians.
Meanwhile, in Sydney, Thomas Sewell, 30, the leader of Australia’s neo-Nazis, the National Socialist Network, was stopped by police at a train station and ordered to stay away from Australia Day events.Article link: https://todayspaper.smedia.com.au/theage/default.aspx
Article source: The Australian/Rachael Dexter/27.1.2024