The opening ceremony of the 2018 Commonwealth Games was marked with bitter irony.
As the performers and speakers waxed lyrically, welcoming people from across the globe to Australia, Aboriginal rights protesters from the Stolenwealth Games camp stood outside Carrara stadium opposite police lines.
When a group of protesters attempted to enter the venue, one thing was abundantly clear; unlike those already inside, they were not welcome.
It appears that the protest organisers were denied the use of a more central location at Broadbeach as originally planned and instead “Freedom Camp” was established at Doug Jennings Park, at the end of the narrow headland know as ‘the Spit’. However, this didn’t dampen spirits or hamper protests as the authorities undoubtedly wished.
The camp itself was a testament to the determination and organising skill of those involved, with a large kitchen, portable showers and toilets, caravans and tents. A statement displayed at the site outlined the litany of reasons why the camp had been formed.
The tone for the protests was set the day before the opening ceremony. Busloads of runners and media were forced to wait for over an hour as the protesters successfully blocked the Queen’s baton with a sit-down protest. Although peaceful, five protesters were arrested at the opening ceremony, including high profile state torture survivor, Dylan Voller.
In the days that followed the protesters organised a series of marches and demonstrations, highlighting a range of issues faced by indigenous communities and putting forward their demands.
The protesters successfully held a march and demonstration in the popular Surfers Paradise area and effectively brought traffic to a standstill in the central hub of Southport. They then occupied a large area inside the Australia Fair shopping mall where they filled the mezzanine with a defiant crowd chanting “always was, always will be aboriginal land”.
In their most high-profile action Stolenwealth Games protesters took Sunrises’ Sam Armytage to task for her role in a racist discussion about the adoption of Aboriginal children on the same programme just a few weeks earlier.
The TV presenters struggled to be heard over loud chanting of “Shame on Scumrise”. So effective were the protests that producers took to moving subsequent broadcasts to new locations and using soundproof blinds and generic backdrops to try and keep the demonstrators off the air.
Significant efforts were made by the official Games organisers to include indigenous people and their culture. However, as successfully highlighted by the Stolenwealth protesters, showcasing of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture is little more than a fig leaf in the context of health crises, mass incarceration, unemployment and poverty faced by Australia’s First Peoples.
Initially the camp was visited by “police liaison officers”, distributing propaganda trinkets and playing soccer with young people. Things began to change during the games as several camp attendees were arrested.
By the final day of the camp the police had returned to form, forcibly removing, brutalising and arresting protesters.
According to authorities the camp’s permit lapsed and police moved in. In response, a group of activists in Brisbane set fire to the Games countdown clock in Southbank, posting images and a statement on social media.
The Stolenwealth protesters effectively highlighted the centuries-old oppression of indigenous peoples, this time on the world stage. The protests offered an opportunity to begin a broader discussion on how to not only highlight the issues faced by Aboriginal people but also change the living conditions of all those oppressed and downtrodden by Australia’s elite class.
Such a discussion should be held in homes, communities, workplaces and most importantly, in our trade unions.
Many of the issues facing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people affect all working class people, albeit usually on a lesser scale. Fully funded healthcare and education would mean improved access and standards for all.
Similarly, creating transparent, democratic policing and justice systems, worthy of our trust, benefits all ordinary people. Mass investment in socially useful public works can create jobs and lift people out of poverty, first and foremost Aboriginal people.
To do any of this however, power and wealth must be taken from the hands of those who hoard it.
History shows that the only way to improve the lives of the oppressed is through mass struggle and solidarity. It is up to all those fighting for a better world to recognise that their struggle and the struggle of indigenous peoples the world over, are one and the same.
By Eóin Dawson