Protesting Through Identifying

Dave Andrews

When Ange and I returned to Australia we intentionally sought to identify with the ‘subcommunities that stand in tension with the dominant community’, including Indigenous people seeking restitution, people fleeing persecution seeking refuge, and people from other religions seeking recognition. [i]

Our community, West End, is a distinct, vibrant, urban village, bounded by a bend of the Brisbane River, with Musgrave Park at the very heart of it. From the very beginning, as long as anybody remembers Musgrave Park has been a significant meeting place for Indigenous peoples. People from all over Moreton Bay used to come to Kurilpa, the place of the Water Rat, to feast communally on its wild fruits. In spite of dispossession, the community in Kurilpa has survived and their tradition of hospitality has shaped West End.


Though there are always mobs of murris round West End many locals don’t notice them, let alone connect with them, still less relate to them with respect. Fortunately for us, Aunty Jean Philips, an Aboriginal leader, who attended our church, introduced us to local Aboriginal people, like Sam Watson, who familiarised us with the struggles of Indigenous people. Sam was born and raised in Brisbane. He was of the Munnenjarl and Biri Gubba tribal nations with blood ties to the Jagara, Kalkadoon and Noonuccal peoples. Sam worked full time with the Tribal Council and later organisations that delivered help to the Indigenous community in the areas of health, housing, education, employment and legal aid. In 1971 Sam and his comrade Dennis Walker launched the Brisbane chapter of the Black Panther Party. Throughout the 1970s Sam protested against State and Federal governments. In the early 1990s Sam became involved with the State and Federal Indigenous legal services. He was a co-founder of the first Aboriginal and Islander political party (The Australian Indigenous Peoples Party) and contested elections at both State and Federal elections. In recent years Sam worked tirelessly for Reconciliation, the Stolen Generations and Aboriginal Deaths in Custody.[ii]

Sam had consistently included us in the struggles of Indigenous peoples. And twice a year, for more than twenty years, as part of our community orientation courses, Aunty Jean has immersed non-Indigenous people in those struggles. Aunty Jean not only tells them the story of her people and their painful dispossession, but also takes them with her to meet her people, some in a maximum security prisons, languishing in their cells, others in human rights organisations, fighting for their release and their basic human rights.


One of the issues we got involved with was the proposal for an Indigenous Cultural Centre in Musgrave Park. Across the road from Musgrave Park was the Greek Club and my wife Ange, being Greek, thought the Greek community might be inclined to support the proposal for the Aboriginal community to have a similar centre of their own. But not so. Instead the Greek Club were circulating a petition against the Aboriginal community’s proposal. There was no inclination for them to support ‘the mavri’ (the blacks).

Ange felt it was unjust for the Greeks, who had got government funding to build their club, to oppose the Aboriginals’ proposal to get government funding to build their club. So Ange began circulating a counter-petition in support of the mavri (the blacks). This caused an uproar in the Greek community, as here was ‘one of their own’, acting as a ‘race traitor’, ‘betraying’ them. Ange’s uncle, who managed the Greek Club, was particularly upset with her. With the support of her gutsy mother, Ange engaged in multiple spirited exchanges.

Over time, the Greek community gradually changed its attitude towards the Aboriginal community. Each year the pride of the Greek community was on display at the Paniyiri Festival, celebrating Greece’s cultural offerings to the world. Though it was held in Musgrave Park, Aboriginals weren’t included. But, in recent years, Indigenous people were invited to open the festival with a smoking ceremony and Aboriginal dancers were invited to join Greek dancers in featured Paniyiri performances. And now the Greek community support the Aboriginal community’s proposal for a cultural centre in Musgrave Park.


In 1988 Australia celebrated the bicentenary of the 1788 arrival of the First Fleet of convict ships to settle the British colony in Sydney. ‘On Australia Day, Sydney Harbour hosted a re-enactment of the arrival of the First Fleet. The event triggered debate on historical interpretation, Australian identity and Aboriginal rights. The Uniting Church in Australia wanted people to boycott the event unless Aboriginal rights were recognised. More than 40,000 people, including Aboriginals from across the country, staged the largest march to Hyde Park in Sydney since the 1970s Vietnam Moratorium demonstrations.’ [iii]

After participating in the demonstrations in Brisbane, we talked to Aunty Jean about how best to respond to the issues of colonialism the bicentenary raised for the murri community. She suggested that it might be good for us to organise a mixed camp of non-Aboriginal and Aboriginal people, with the express purpose of the non-Aboriginal people listening to the Aboriginal people talk about what living in colonised Australia has meant to them.

So we organised a camp of 40 non-Aboriginal people and 20 Aboriginal people to get together for a weekend camp of listening at Mount Tamborine. It proved to be a powerful colonial bicentenary counterpoint experience. The Aboriginal people reported that, for them, it was an extraordinary experience to be able to speak so freely and to be taken so seriously for a change. And the non-Aboriginal people reported that, for us, hearing the stories was an excruciating face-to-face encounter with some of the most destructive consequences of a neo-colonial regime, with which we have been complicit, and from which we have benefitted, at the expense of the indigenous people.

Searching for a heartfelt response to the pain we were confronted with, the non-Aboriginal people asked if they might wash the feet of the Aboriginal people, and the Aboriginal people, most of whom were Christian, understood the ritual of foot-washing as a unaffected act of apology, humility and homage. As we washed the feet of our Aboriginal brothers and sisters the tears began to flow. But it was when our Aboriginal brothers and sisters reversed the roles and unexpectedly, and embarrassingly, began to wash our feet that the whole gathering was reduced to tears that, once started, could not be stopped. We wept with one another, embraced one another and prayed for one another.

A counterpoint bicentenary experience – not of empire, but of compassion.


In November 1993, Daniel Yock, a young 18-year-old Aboriginal dancer, died in the back of a police van soon after he was arrested. There had been over a hundred ‘black deaths in custody’ in the past two decades and the senseless death of an up-and-coming performer was too much for the local Aboriginal community to bear, staging ‘a violent protest outside Brisbane police headquarters’ in the city. Aunty Jean called on volunteers from our community to help her keep the protesters and the police apart, but scuffles broke out all over the place, ‘leaving more than 30 police and demonstrators injured’.

Aboriginals gathered in Musgrave Park from all over South East Queensland. Sam Watson said he was concerned outside extremist elements would try to provoke further confrontation. And fearing reprisals from a growing mob of thousands of angry Aboriginals the police station in West End shut up shop. However, contrary to expectations, on the 17th of November 1993, Brisbane witnessed Aboriginal leaders direct over 4000 people in what I thought was the most powerful disciplined silent protest ever seen in the city of Brisbane.

‘Marching up to 15 abreast in some streets, the protesters obeyed pleas by Aboriginal elders for a “silent tribute” to Daniel Yock. ” The marchers laid a wreath near Musgrave Park to mark the spot where Mr Yock was arrested. “This is exactly the sort of demonstration I hoped it would be,” said Inspector Don Gardner, who made sure (the) police (kept) a low profile.’[iv]


On June 4, 2000, Ange and I joined over 50,000 people in the People’s Walk for Reconciliation in Brisbane. We walked across the William Jolly Bridge and gathered for a wreath-laying ceremony in King George Square. The Koori Mail reported on the events of that day – “The march was larger than organisers expected, with only about half of the marchers able to fit into King George Square for the ceremonies. As the marchers made their way to the square, an aeroplane wrote ‘Sorry’ in the sky. Among the marchers were Queensland Premier Peter Beattie and Brisbane Lord Mayor Jim Soorley. Soorley told the Courier-Mail – “We have seen today thousands of people in Brisbane come out to say we are sorry for the past injustices inflicted on Aboriginal people and we want to be reconciled and able to create a future together”.[v]


On February 13, 2008, then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd made a formal public apology on behalf of the Australian Parliament to Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, in particular to the Stolen Generations. The National Apology to the Stolen Generations came about as a recommendation from The National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal Children from their Families. It highlighted the suffering of Indigenous families under the federal, state and territory Aboriginal protection and welfare laws and policies.

I went down to Musgrave Park, to join with the local murris, to watch the apology telecast on a large screen. Aunty Jean was there, standing with all the older women. I stood with Noritta Morseu-Diop, the co-founder of the Gallang Place Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Counselling Services, which seeks to enhance culturally appropriate health, healing and well-being. ’It was one of the defining moments in modern Australian history and one 79-year-old Aunty Lorraine Peeters waited almost a lifetime for. “Oh, we were so excited. We were out of our skin. We couldn’t wait,” she told SBS News. “It was a day I will never, ever forget in my life because we were being acknowledged as a group of people.” Ms Peeters was four years old when she was taken from her family and placed in an institution. She is one of thousands who make up the Stolen Generations – Indigenous Australians who have endured immense suffering due to past government policies of forced child removal. And of that day they finally heard the word “sorry”.’ [vi]

We all stood there together, listening intently, as the Prime Minister said: ‘We apologise especially for the removal of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from their families, their communities and their country. For the pain, suffering and hurt of these Stolen Generations, their descendants and for their families left behind, we say sorry. To the mothers and the fathers, the brothers and the sisters, for the breaking up of families and communities, we say sorry. And for the indignity and degradation thus inflicted on a proud people and a proud culture, we say sorry.’[vii] And we stood there – and wept.


Most Australians call January 26 ‘Australia Day’ and celebrate it as the day that marks the settlement of Australia. By contrast, many Aboriginal people call January 26 ‘Invasion Day’ and mourn the day that marks dispossession.

Over the years I have joined the ‘Invasion Day‘ rally in Brisbane that begins outside Parliament House, proceeds through the city, stops now and then for speeches and chants, crosses Victoria Bridge, and ends in Musgrave Park.

Sometimes supporting a ‘blackfella’ protest against ‘whitefella’ oppression can be complicated. I remember one year I turned up to unobtrusively do my bit by carrying the ‘Always Was, Always Will Be, Aboriginal Land’ banner, only to be publically singled out by Aunty Jean, who, In front of an very angry mob of ‘blackfellas’, asked me, a ‘whitefella’, to pray for everybody before we started.

I was gobsmacked. I didn’t know what to do. It seemed to me, as we say in Australia, I was buggered, whatever I did. If I didn’t do what Aunty Jean asked me to do, it would prove what a conceited ‘white bastard’ I was. But if I did do what Aunty Jean asked me to do, and actually prayed for the assembled mob of ‘blackfellas’, it would prove what a condescending ‘white bastard’ I was.

I was on a hiding to nothing whatever I did. But on balance, I thought it better for me to do as Aunty Jean asked me to do. So I said a prayer for the protest – doing my ‘whitefella’ best to voice the heartfelt cries of the ‘blackfellas’ there.

[i]Walter Brueggemann, Prophetic Imagination: Revised Edition Augsberg Fortress 2001 Location 154



[iv] A peaceful 4000 – Marchers pay a silent tribute to Daniel Yock





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