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Aboriginal elders stand firm on Black Lives Matter rallies

Black Lives Matter - Stop Black Deaths in Custody announced their planned gathering on Sunday 5 July in Sydney will go ahead, despite NSW Police threats to arrest participants. L-R: Lizzie Jarret, Aunty Rhonda Dixon-Grovenor and Nadeena Dixon. Photo: Wendy Bacon


This story was UPDATED on Saturday July 4.

Black Lives Matter – Stop Black Deaths in Custody organisers have called on NSW Police not to stand in the way of a protest at Djarrbarrgalli, the local Gadigal word for Sydney’s Domain, this Sunday July 5.

Nearly two thousand people have already indicated that they will be attending the rally on a Facebook event page advertising the protest and thousands more are ‘interested’. The protest will demand justice for Aboriginal people killed in police and prison custody, the closure of youth prisons, the transfer of resources away from police and prisons into community-controlled programs and an end to the Northern Territory Intervention.

The Sydney rally is part of a national Black Lives Matter day of action in capital and regional cities including Nowra and Newcastle around Australia. The protest will be a test of whether the Gladys Berejiklian government and NSW Police aim to shut down socially-distanced protests while allowing other activities that involve large numbers of people to continue during the COVID-19 period.

Gadigal elder Aunty Rhonda Dixon-Grovenor, accompanied by her daughter Nadeena Dixon, introduced a media conference at the Domain on Tuesday with a Welcome to Gadigal Country in local language. She introduced herself as a “traditional descendant of the Gadigal people who have 60,000 years connection to the Domain”, which she described as a “sacred area” where her people gathered for corroborees.

She said that her “great grandmother was placed in the institution in the Domain” while her other grandmother, who lived at the boatshed down at Darling Harbour, used “to walk from there through Centennial Park out to La Perouse”.

“I Can’t Breathe”
Gumbaynggirr Dunghutti Bundjalung woman Lizzie Jarret, who works closely with many families that have suffered deaths in custody, spoke as a representative of the family of David Dungay, who was suffocated to death by prison officers in 2015 in the mental health unit of Long Bay prison.

Like George Floyd who died in Minneapolis on May 25 this year, his last words were “I can’t breathe” which he called out 12 times as he was suffocated to death.

His mother Leetona Dungay spoke at the successful Sydney Black Lives Matter rally in Sydney on June 6 and called for a review of the decision not to take disciplinary action against the guards who caused the death of her son.

In a historic march in the mid-north town of Kempsey, David Dungay’s nephew Paul Silva and other members of the family led hundreds of Dunghutti people and their supporters across the town’s bridge to the local Police station.  The Dungay and other families will travel to Sydney to join other families at Sunday’s rally. “When my family saw the footage of George Floyd being murdered, gasping ‘I can’t breathe’ we felt it deeply. My uncle David Dungay Jnr was killed in the same way. With the Black Lives Matter movement, we have never seen so much support for the campaign against Black deaths in custody and never had so many people calling for justice for my uncle,” said Mr Silva.

Ms Jarret called on people to respect the law of the land of the Aboriginal women elders. “Let’s get it right, they are the law, not the law that is telling us that it is illegal for us to be protesting for the right to live. We’re merely just asking for the right to live. We are not asking for the world to give us everything, we’re asking for the right to live.”

Organisers stressed that the protest will be peaceful and safe. The wide space of the Domain will enable social distancing and there will be hand sanitiser and masks. “We will have COVID safety teams and we will abide by every health restriction, but there is a bigger health restriction and it is called racism. Quarantine can’t fix that. Isolation can’t fix that but being together as real people fighting for change that is what is going to fix that,” said Ms Jarret.

Protest organiser Paddy Gibson made a strong appeal to the police, politicians and the public to support the right to protest. He explained that this was under threat when hundreds of police stopped a Black Lives Matter protest on Sydney on June 12th. On that evening, hundreds of police shut down a peaceful rally in Hyde Park.

Since then, “There have been a number of refugee rights’ protests where, again, police turned up in large numbers threatening arrest,” Mr Gibson explained. There is no evidence that the massive Black Lives Matter rallies on June 6 led to any spread of COVID-19 anywhere in Australia.

Rally organisers have not sought a permit for the Sydney rally under the NSW Summary Offences Act due to consistent indications by the police that they will oppose any large rallies, citing COVID-19 restrictions. Attempts to liaise with police have not been successful and there is a risk that if organisers do go to court, the Supreme Court will award costs against them.

On Friday, the NSW Police applied to the NSW Supreme Court for an order prohibiting the protest in Newcastle. But the Court declined which allows the protest to continue. Solicitor Peter O’Brien who acted for the Newcastle rally organisers Fighting in Solidarity Towards Treaties hailed the decision as “fundamental victory for the right to protest and the freedom to politically communicate in Australia.” “This decision emphasises that #BlackLivesMatter movement is not just a trending hashtag, rather, it is a testament of the true lived experience suffered by Indigenous lives in Australia,” he said.

The threat of thousands of dollars of costs functions like a penalty to discourage applications for approvals for protests.

“We’ve built as much support as we can to stay on the streets so that we can keep expressing our views and support the Aboriginal people who are struggling so hard,” Mr Gibson said. “We won’t compromise on that question. We have a right to be heard.”

“We have 10,000 people now allowed to go into football stadiums, markets that are chockablock of people, supermarkets that are chockablock. Schools that have got people in them. Workplaces that are filling up again. In those circumstances to tell a group of Aboriginal people in the middle of a global movement of #BlackLivesMatter that they can’t protest is unacceptable,” he said

On Thursday, Aunty Rhonda Dixon-Grovenor and Nadeena Dixon, whose respective father and grandfather was legendary wharfie Chicka Dixon, visited Hutchison Ports at Botany Bay where they spoke to wharfies during a ‘Smoko’ break. The Maritime and Construction Divisions of the CFMMEU and other trade unionists will be supporting Aboriginal families at the rally.

The School Strike 4 Climate movement is also supporting the rally.

“The government might say this protest is ‘unauthorised’, but it is their laws that are killing us. We never ceded sovereignty and will continue to rally and march. We call on the NSW Police to help facilitate this rally so our voices can be heard, ” said Ms Jarret.

The protest event page can be found here.

Wendy Bacon was previously the Professor of Journalism at UTS.

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