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Downsizing numbers can't silence Indigenous protests


On the day of the Invasion Day rally in Melbourne, I was abused on a tram for wearing a pro-Aboriginal rights t-shirt.

Invasion Day rallyI was waiting for the stop when this Aboriginal man approached me for a dollar. I noticed the Aboriginal football guernsey he was wearing, and commented. He in turn complimented the White Australia/Black History t-shirt I had on.

The tram pulled up and as I boarded, he yelled goodbye to me. I turned around to look for a seat, and this bloke up the front who had witnessed the end of the exchange took one look at my t-shirt and said 'F**k that, you're not f**ken sitting near me'. 

I wasn't even shocked. Indeed, I think I even expected it. It is not the first time I have been abused as an Indigenous activist on Australia Day.

And as it turned out, his bigotry was not enough to put a dampener on what was one of the best protests I have ever been to. I spent the entire day surrounded by energetic members of the Indigenous community and our countless allies, chanting for change.

What did shock me were the media reports on this rally. When I found out that the densely packed, energetic, noisy crowd consisted of only 150 people, I was surprised, to say the least.

This is according to coverage by The Australian, anyway. I could have sworn it was much larger.

Indeed, the crowd continued to grow as it wound its way through the streets to the intersection of Flinders and Swanston Streets. Not only did the protesters fill this intersection, they spilled into the side streets. As someone who has occupied this intersection several times during the large Stop the Forced Closures rallies, I and other seasoned protesters estimated the crowd at around 3-5000.

Other media sources didn't do much better than The Australian. The Age, Herald Sun and ABC all reported 'hundreds'. Indeed, the only news source which came close to mentioning the true size of the Melbourne rally was New Zealand site stuff.co.nz which stated 'thousands'.

If this were just confined to the reports on the Melbourne rally, I could probably write it off as limited reporting and editorial staff operating remotely on a public holiday. (And even then, why not update online articles when more information comes to light?)  This however wasn't the case.

In Sydney, numbers reported ranged from 'several hundred' to 'more than a thousand', despite there being about 5000 protesters in attendance. In Brisbane, various sources reported 'hundreds', yet accounts via social media were staunch in stating there were at least 1500. Numbers recorded in Canberra, Hobart, Perth and Adelaide by the media were considered well below the actual attendance.

You could almost be excused for thinking that behind this minimising of protester numbers is a calculated attempt to downplay a movement which has grown continuously over the past few years.

During 2015 numbers at the rallies to stop the forced closures of Aboriginal communities swelled to about 10,000 in Melbourne thanks to impeccable organising by Indigenous community members and solidarity from unions, lobby groups and political organisations. Despite the crowd being smaller than this at the Invasion Day rally, I saw even more energy and enthusiasm.

Non-Indigenous people showing such vibrant support for Indigenous rights, particularly at a time when we cannot go anywhere without being bombarded by Australiana, should be a source of pride. At the very least, this growth in attendance from previous Invasion Day rallies shows a shifting of consciousness in the community.

Perhaps most telling was that despite the Herald Sun feeling the protests present were barely newsworthy, the next day they ran nearly an entire page of letters from citizens complaining about the protesters and the reasons for the rally. The paper may not have seen the rally itself as being of interest to the public, but the reasons it was wrong, selfish and 'unAustralian' definitely were.

This seems a small victory in my opinion. The volume of people out on the street might be considered beneath notice by the media, but there were still enough of us to be noticed by armchair critics who then felt compelled to write in their complaints.

The movement is reaching beyond the confines of the mainstream media and we should be proud, for it shows that even in this day and age, grassroots movements can still be effective.

I challenge the mainstream media to actually stop and investigate what is unfolding right in front of them. I challenge them to walk among the cheering masses, to talk to the participants about why they are there, and to find out why a non-Indigenous person who wouldn't have even thought of marching for Indigenous rights this time last year now feels compelled to do so.

Times are changing, and ignoring the voices of a growing movement in the days of social media is not going to make that movement disappear among the sea of Australian flags.

No matter how much you want it to.


Celeste LiddleCeleste Liddle is an Arrernte woman living in Melbourne, the National Indigenous Organiser of the NTEU, and a freelance opinion writer and social commentator. She blogs at Rantings of an Aboriginal Feminist.

Topic tags: Celeste Liddle, Australia Day, Invasion Day, First Australians, Aboriginal, racism



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Existing comments

Media Watch should seriously look at this reporting. They have the staff to research all media reports and they do a very good job on it. Let's contact them with a flood of complaints.

Sean | 29 January 2016  

Sometimes i think those newspapers dont know many indigenous people. Wont the Herald or anybody show interest if you send them stuff, ..your writing's so much better than those old journos harping away, no new ideas. I was briefly a journo and dont know anyway. Maybe you are sick of sending them stuff. Helen Razer's a brilliant lady i can mostly only find in "The Big Issue"!

diddy FitzGerald | 29 January 2016  

So horrified to hear that you were abused on the tram, disgraceful really. I must say though, I am not surprised New Zealand reported a more accurate number of attendees since they have a Treaty and are more open to negotiation with the Maori. I am still waiting for the day we can grow up as a Nation and be united in our love for one another.

Joel Stibbard | 29 January 2016  

I was at the Melbourne rally too, and there were definitely more than 'hundreds' of us! I also noticed that the media downplayed the numbers, but our photo's are proof that we numbered in the thousands. It was a great day, with an amazing feeling of solidarity both during the march, and at the gardens afterwards.

DG | 29 January 2016  

Enjoyed reading this article and the astute anylis presented As one who attended and supported rally in Brisbane Such a resolute,strong community filled with choldren and younge people wich where such a credit to there community and this country The gathering afterwards was equally Iimpresive and resilant and respectfull.. As the marchs reach the last stretch the younge led the way running up the slight hill leading the mob into muscrave as they poured in 1,000s streaming in leading us into a future worth embracing Fully commend the organization,solidarity and spirit that shone that day Brilliant...winners not victims in abundance

katy | 29 January 2016  

I attended the Sydney march and was exhilarated by the energy and numbers of people, indigenous and non-indigenous, young and old, who participated. I agree, there were at least 3000 people, not "hundreds" as ABC online stated. ABC is not really our ABC anymore, remember that. Basically the shockingly poor reporting just goes to show that the news is being manipulated and controlled by others above who have much to lose by the truth. Those people who write like that are puppets, not journalists. My guess that their pupeteers are old, white and male. But remember, one day not far away, they will die off and new generations will come through, generations who travel, study and read multiple info from multiple online sources. Plus the NBN will open up pathways for Australians who have been withheld truth due to limited access to news. The times they are changing. The world is becoming smaller. Nothing will hold back the truth.

Beverley | 30 January 2016  

Your experience echoes the email I received the other day from a woman, keen to engage in Aboriginal activism, but scared to be ousted and bullied: "I got interested in the Aboriginal culture through my husband who bought me books and documentaries about their struggle to be treated respectfully... I am totally in solidarity with them and would like to openly show people my support to their causes. However we have just moved to [an Australian city] from the UK, myself of [American] descent... Given the unfriendly reaction we've seen of some people against the Aboriginal cause and the feeling I have that this topic is a bit of a taboo, I am concerned that showing my support will make our settling process in Australia difficult as I couldn't grasp yet how sensitive, and how widespread is the racism, or support towards the Aboriginal people in the Australian society. We have only a few Australian friends and we don't know yet whether they also have sympathy for the Aboriginal people or not. Also, I am have been looking for a job since we arrived and worried I might be indirectly declined for a position." And I must admit, having worn the same t-shirt as you, Celeste, I could only fully relax after arriving at Sydney's Redfern Station and seeing another fellow activist giving me a nod as he read it.

Jens | 30 January 2016  

Man of letters, Thomas Carlyle, opined about "The three great elements of modern civilisation, Gunpowder, Printing and the Protestant Religion". Freedom of the press is important but it shouldn't extend to fudging the numbers on any issue. I look forward to the day when 26th January is just another day of the week and we can celebrate our diversity in other ways.

Pam | 30 January 2016  

Indeed, well said Celeste

George | 30 January 2016  

Sorry to hear about you being insulted (I think women cop this random abuse more than guys as they are seen as 'easier' targets. Having been there as well, I agree with your article re numbers etc.

Piergiorgio moro | 31 January 2016  

Why is this article written in such a subjective way instead of being objective. The words "I was abused" are a generalisation. How were you abused?

Len Heggarty | 01 February 2016  

While I don’t agree with the behaviour or language of the man on the tram, he was doing the same as you, that is, protesting. He was protesting with a different opinion. If you wear a politically statement, you are sure to find people who have the same need to show their opinion, of which they are perfectly entitled, just as you are. Btw you can sit near me anytime.

plain jane | 01 February 2016  

Have you perchance noticed that the Australiana with which you are bombarded contains a large modicum of aboriginal art, fabric prints, beautifully handcrafted woodwork and depictions of the Aboriginal flag. Also native fauna and floral depictions on household items. I suppose tunnel vision could miss all of these and focus only on the Australian flag.

john frawley | 01 February 2016  

Australia is becoming a very ignorant country. In 1857 my Grandmother was the family's first born Australian. Today I cringe at the exploitation of Australia Day. Such a day should be one for reflection on what has gone wrong, why did it go wrong and how can it be fixed. We could learn a great deal from the way the different generations of Aboriginal people treat each other with respect and acceptance. It has always been what has impressed me when I have shared a workplace with them. You and your people are a great blessing on us Celeste

Margaret McDonald | 01 February 2016  

Len Heffarty, the article is subjective because it is a first person account of the writer's own experience. As for your question: "How were you abused?" try reading the article, where the abuse is described in detail. What's your point?

Barry Breen | 01 February 2016  

Of course it was a subjective report! This person was, and felt, abused in a verbal, public and personal way - all because she was quietly displaying her support for a cause which should challenge all of us.

John L | 01 February 2016  

Great article Celeste. A number of Brisbane media outlets including Fairfax's Brisbane Times and the Courier-Mail reported a 'few hundred' protesters in Brisbane, but the estimation of 1500-2000 is far more accurate. We stretched more than half the full length of the Victoria Bridge as we marched to Musgrave Park -- it was a big rally and a great day.

Susan | 01 February 2016  

Len, verbal abuse is abuse.

Karen | 01 February 2016  

Dear Len , You need to reread the article . I think that being told "F**k that your not sitting near me", sounds like abuse.

David | 01 February 2016  

part of the manipulation of ''news'' The ABC is as guilty as the ''others''

Edward Kleingeerts | 01 February 2016  

Len you just don't get it! Read the article, read the abusive words, get to understand by listening and reflecting and see if you can better understand what's happening in our communities.

Judy George | 01 February 2016  

Thanks Celeste. I have absolutely no direct understanding of how it feels to live as an Aboriginal human being in Australia - home of the world's oldest indigenous civilisation known to mankind. I feel perplexed when I as a Maori male immigrant from NZ observe the comparably atrocious maltreatment of our indigenous neighbours. It embarrasses me and I'm grateful for those who stand tall and say no more. Thank you!

Frank Ohia | 01 February 2016  

There always seems to be a dispute on numbers between those on any protest and the news media. I think most figures are guesstimates and made at different times and places. Whatever the estimates I think you could definitely say there was a large crowd present. The man who abused you probably felt confronted by an awkward truth. It disturbed his comfortable view of the universe: a view of Australian History much more prevalent in the 1950s than it is today. The view then was a very Social Darwinian one. That view proved false: Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders have not died out. I guess the question that needs to be put to ATSI people is 'What do you want from us (the numerical majority) to feel genuinely valued and included so we can all move on together to a more inclusive future?' I think that answer needs to come from everyone in the indigenous community, not just prominent members of it. There is a time and place for protest but then there needs to be a reconciliation. This is probably going to be the biggest one this country ever had.

Edward Fido | 02 February 2016  

As a white Australian activist who's lived in the UK for 40 plus years, I'm delighted to discover your blog. I attended an Invasion Day event in Treasury Gardens in 2014,and also the demo/march to Victoria Market to get recognition for first executed activists. Glad to see (slowly) growing consciousness of white Australians showing solidarity, but still appalled at overt racism in Australia...mind you, UK not much better! Liked your comments in another article about superficial appropriation of indigenous 'symbols' and fairly meaningless 'minute's silence' for 'aboriginal land' when there is real lack of recognition legally...always strikes me when I come 'home' - especially for instance in art galleries showing off their anti-racism which becomes meaningless given overall picture. Thank you for your writing. Elaine

Elaine Hutton | 03 February 2016  

Great article Celeste, I guess we were a threat to their "let's keep things the way they are, we've got a great business model". The Age now just like the HeraldScum and the other Murdoch rags need to keep their revenue stream (advertisements) to keep them from becoming extinct, I wish. Auntie however is controlled by the conservative right wing upstairs mob so that's no surprise. Every time The Indigenous Social Justice Association Melbourne (ISJA Melbourne) raises awareness of a Death in Custody the door shuts at our? ABC.

Klaus Kaulfuss | 03 February 2016  

Yes I wondered about th media coverage of Invasion day marches, Last year the Melbourne one was well covered much to my amusement when they joined the main one. Also NITV this year gave very little

Elizabeth Jack | 04 February 2016  

Hi Celeste. Just got to read this. good reading. not up for large gatherings any more. I've seen a few in my time. there were always underestimations of numbers and detailed focus on any violent behaviour. but not like this lot. the abc hurts most, since we always thought they would attempt balance, even if they erred on the conservative. I so love the strength of this latest movement, the strength and clarity of people's thinking, the demarking of First nations' self-definition and of boundaries. I wish you all well.

bev henwood | 06 February 2016  

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