Matagarup: The Fire Is Still Burning

ImportantCool correspondent Ray Grenfell reports from the frontline of the struggle against the ongoing dispossession of Australia’s indigenous peoples.

Photo: Desiré Mallet Photo: Desiré Mallet

The drone of industry and “development,” machines heaving dead yellow sand from one place to another in syncopated beeps, echoes across the river. On this side of the river, I have come to speak to a group of people who may soon be evicted for protesting the closure of communities and providing a refuge.

Matagarup, meaning “leg deep,” is an island on the edge of Perth, Western Australia, named so when this place was connected to the land by mudflats. Aboriginal mob [editor's note: Australian indigenous slang for a group of people] would wade here to hunt and perform ceremonies. Now this island is connected by a highway, constantly ferrying cars from the boom town to the casino and beyond, to suburbs that seem to sprawl into eternity. The group of Noongar and their supporters sit in the shade of the sheoak and eucalypt trees around a sacred fire.

Photo: Desiré Mallet Photo: Desiré Mallet

The smoke cuts through the unusually dense air, caused by a cyclone up north that is pushing its way down the West Australian coast. With the expectation of armed police soon to arrive, the trepidation is almost palpable.

The Noongar Tent Embassy was first established here on this island in 2012 in protest against the state government’s deal with the Aboriginal representative body, the South West Aboriginal Land and Sea Council (SWALSC). The government, under the leadership of the conservative Liberal and National coalition, negotiated to extinguish most native title claims in the region, in exchange for a massive pay out to the SWALSC. Many families saw this as a land grab by a government who was hell bent on removing any obstacle to the expansion of mining leases in the resource rich state.

The embassy quickly became a place of defiance, support, and community, with Aboriginal mob and their supporters coming from all over the state and country to demonstrate, connect, and share stories of struggle and perseverance. The corporate media and reactionary government demonized the protesters, stirring up fear and invoking colonial bigotry and hysteria. Radio stations were flooded by calls from middle-class white people who were terrified by the idea of “these people” stealing their backyards. Shortly after, in a show of force by the state, the police moved in. Over 150 police, including mounted police, stormed the camp. The few who had stayed were literally run down by police on horseback as they stood by the statue of Aboriginal resistance fighter, Yagan. The police arrested four people and injured many, including a pregnant woman who had been holding her friend’s newborn child as the police attacked.

Photo: Desiré Mallet Photo: Desiré Mallet

Three years later, lore man and activist Herbert Bropho, who was arrested on that day, stands on the island again and explains that they have returned to establish a refugee camp “for the homeless and the many people who have problems around the country.” This includes the many who are now being pushed off their land in the state’s northwest by the same government.

At the end of 2014, Western Australian Premier Colin Barnett announced that they would dismantle up to 150 remote communities. The premier had justified the decision by blaming the federal government for no longer funding essential services for the communities. Since then, both Barnett and the government have rolled out several excuses to defend what many see as assimilation and another land grab. The existence of mining leases appearing in and around these doomed communities would suggest that the critics may very well be right.

Herbert tells me that already people from the communities are coming to Matagarup.

“I got one of my family members on the island now, she rang up her community up north and they told her not to come up, as the community is being closed down. We’re giving them somewhere to come to, the only place they can come to is the city.”

Herbert himself was evicted from his traditional lands when the Swan Valley Noongar Community, east of Perth, was closed down 12 years ago. “A lot of us are homeless, I do not have a home. My community got knocked down. That was the only luxury I had, my community, and that was smashed in one day.” The site, which according to archaeological evidence had been inhabited by Noongar for at least 38,000 years, was closed on the 13 June 2003, when police evicted the families living there.

The government used an all too familiar narrative of “abuse” to justify the closure, alleging that there was widespread abuse of women and children in the community. This was despite the actual women and children of the community protesting the closure and requesting an opportunity to present their case to then Western Australian Premier, Geoff Gallop, a request that was denied.

The script is not a new one. In 2007, the federal government launched the Northern Territory Emergency Response, suspending the Racial Discrimination Act to do so. The public-relations foundation for such a dramatic measure was laid when an “anonymous youth worker” appeared on a talk show on a government-run TV station. With his face blurred and voice distorted “for his safety,” he denounced epidemic levels of “pedophile rings” and “sex slavery” in Aboriginal communities. The “youth worker” was later revealed to be a senior public servant in the indigenous affairs portfolio. Subsequent investigations by the Northern Territory police and the Australian Crime Commission dismissed his claims as baseless.

The scandal came too late to stop armed troops from being deployed to Aboriginal communities. Welfare payments were quarantined, forcing many to travel for hours to the city to buy basic necessities and displacing them from their traditional homelands.

Like the former members of the Swan Valley Noongar Community, many of those displaced have since passed away in custody or on the street. It is a tragedy and loss that Herbert clearly carries with him. “I feel it everyday when I come here protesting because I lost my two sisters, I lost my mother you know? A lot of people who built the community are homeless.”

Despite this Herbert is still hopeful to rebuild. “What we need to do is go home, build our community,” he says. “Build it for people who are homeless, for people who are from country, who have been ripped off their communities, somewhere they come to be safe, to practice their culture.”

There is a stirring among the protesters on Matagarup. Herbert and myself return to the group where the women have formed a circle around the sacred fire. In accordance with Noongar culture the female elders and lore women are invited to speak while the men stand on the edge in silence. Lore woman and activist Marianne Mackay stands, with her young child beside her, and begins to circle the sacred fire. As she pays respect to her ancestors, I feel something shift inside me, a tangible movement in the circle, on this island, as if there was really a presence of something much greater than any of us.

“This island here, this is very important to our people. This is our island and I can tell you now that I’m not going to go down without a fight! And when I say fight I don’t mean when we’re standing here doing this.” Marianne raises her fists. “I mean fight spiritually, with my heart and the love that I have been given from all of my people, the love that I have for this unity with my people. Because none of us could do what we do without supporting each other.”

Marrianne returns to her place and the women, Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal alike, stand and hold hands around the fire. As they move they slowly tighten the circle, bringing their hands to the sky and then expanding again, a hypnotic motion that seems to breathe life into the fire. They spiral around three times with the men standing guard, an ancient ritual to call on the ancestors of this land for strength and protection.

The group return to their places and quietly wait in anticipation of the intervention to come. The Perth City Council had originally given the encampment until 12 noon to leave the island, citing council by-laws that prohibit camping and the lighting of fires. It is nearly 2 pm before they make their move.

Photo: Desiré Mallet Photo: Desiré Mallet

The first sign of the intervention comes in the form of a truck attempting to erect concrete barriers around the car park, the only vehicle access. Some move their cars, others confront the council workers, obstructing them from establishing the barriers. Finally the truck retreats to the applause of the crowd. But the jubilation is short-lived.

In surreal scenes reminiscent of old war films, mounted police are spotted cantering in formation across the bridge toward the island, closely followed by an incredible number of police vehicles. In the space of minutes Matagarup is inundated with close to 80 police, including mounted police, a helicopter, and a dog squad, as well as council workers and members of the fire brigade.

Photo: Desiré Mallet Photo: Desiré Mallet

Herbert Bropho leads the group to establish a protective perimeter around women, children, and the sacred fire. Chants of “always was, always will be, Aboriginal land” erupt from the crowd. The police, now only 25 meters away, form lines in front of tents and camping equipment opposite us, allowing the council workers to move in to remove and eventually destroy the equipment that until recently had been used as shelter. The scene becomes more absurd as the fire brigade “put out” fire pits that had clearly been extinguished for days.

The police regroup in front of us, the crowd fear they will charge and tighten up, some linking arms. Marianne advances toward the police, stopping only meters away and digs her Aboriginal flag into the dirt, deliberately placing it upside down to indicate distress. The tension is building, the battle lines have been drawn. It almost feels as though we want them to attack, to give us a front to fight. Something more tangible than the faceless bureaucrats of government and council or spectacle of politicians. While many in the crowd would have experienced harassment and persecution at the hands of these very police, today they represent more than that. Today these men and women who are destroying the shelter of homeless people on an ancient land represent colonialism in all of its madness: the ongoing dispossession and genocide of a people.

There is a pause, the police shuffle anxiously and then as suddenly and absurdly as they came, the police retreat in silence. The crowd cheer, Herbert and others flank the police as they leave, seeing them off the island. As we settle down I hear someone say “we won this battle,” and that is exactly how it feels, but the police will be back soon.

The premier, Colin Barnett, has said that he will not tolerate the camp; it is clearly not good for business. No one in power wishes for anyone to draw attention to dispossession, to the destruction of land and culture. But at least for now the protesters have won. The embassy remains as a refuge for those being pushed off their land, for those already homeless, as a place for culture, for healing, and for resistance. The sacred fire is still burning.

As I leave I consider the absurdity of the police, the cathartic desire for confrontation. It would be easy to blame the police; they are after all the armed wing of the state. So too would it be easy to blame the council, the faceless bureaucrats who perpetuate greed. Or the money behind the policies, the corporate interests of mining companies. Or clearly, the selfish politicians who represent such interests. But really, if we were to be honest with ourselves, the responsibility for the suffering experienced by many of the indigenous people in Australia and for that matter the world is much more complicated.

It is the culture that we live in that is truly responsible. The culture of development, progress, industry, capital, and greed thrives on racism and dispossession. But a culture is only the people who participate in it and so as long as we remain silent, as so long as we do not act and stand in solidarity with our indigenous brothers and sisters, we are compliant in the suffering caused.

Only days before the dramatic events at Matagarup, Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott stated that he supports the closure of the communities in the northwest because the people who live there do so as a “lifestyle choice.” Before I left Matagarup I asked Herbert Bropho what he thought of the prime minster’s comments.

“Lifestyle? We ain’t got not lifestyle, my lifestyle is just sleeping on the ground, by the Swan River, trying to fight for what we believe in, my brothers got nothing … the lifestyles they are living are on the streets of Perth, getting spat on or told to get a job, all these racist things and yet our community … it’s looked after by a white man, it’s called a whiteman’s park … and I really want to go home, take my mob home because we’ve got no lifestyle… we’ve got nothing.”


This story was written for ImportantCool. Click here to view the original and all supporting artefacts.

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