On January 26th, a holiday known as Australia Day is celebrated in what is colloquially known as the land down under. On that date in 1788, the first British settlers arrived on the island continent we now know as Australia.
Of course, there were already human beings in Australia when the British went looking for new lands to conquer. These people had been there for at least 40,000 years and probably arrived by boat in a series of migrations from Africa and what is now New Guinea. Like the indigenous peoples of North and South America, they were very nearly wiped off the face of the earth by the migration of Europeans to their home land.
Australia’s history is no different in this regard. The encounter between aboriginals and the invading British resulted in extermination and an oppression which continues until this very day. Their lands were stolen, they were killed by new diseases, and even their children were taken from them as late as the 20th century. Today these people are the poorest of all Australians, are the most likely to be incarcerated, and die at younger ages than other groups in their country.
There is one simple word that describes the treatment of the original Australians by the invading people, and that word is genocide. To their credit, the aboriginal people have never stopped expressing their righteous indignation about the near total destruction of their race. No people so treated should ever cease protesting, demanding an end to their oppression, or petitioning for a redress of their grievances. Righteous anger is not only appropriate but necessary for all the peoples of the world whose lives and rights are so cruelly taken from them.
This protest came to international attention when it directly impacted Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard. She was attending an Australian Day event with opposition leader Tony Abbott when protesters came right to their door step after Abbott expressed an intention to close down the Aboriginal Tent Embassy, a symbol of protest since 1972.
Mr. Abbott opined that aboriginals “…can be very proud of the respect in which they are held by every Australian.” He added, “I think a lot has changed since then, and I think it probably is time to move on from that.” In other words, shut up and don’t complain.
A crowd of protesters got word of his remarks, converged on the meeting, and proceeded to bang on windows and doors and shouting “shame” and “racists.” While no one was hurt, and no property was damaged, the prime minister’s security detail was sufficiently anxious to spirit her away. A photograph of the terrified prime minister made headlines around the world.
The importance of this event should not be under estimated or trivialized. The presidents and prime ministers of the world are given respect and reverence regardless of how awful their actions. In 1788 or in 2012, they work for the benefit of whomever the ruling classes may be in that place and time. If those classes dictate that countries be invaded or their people eliminated, then so be it.
Their titles and prestige don’t prevent them from carrying out evil acts at the behest of their superiors in England, America or any other state in question. Yet when victimized people express their anger, they are told to run along and stop complaining.
The critics of the demonstrators were many and expressed their dismay immediately. Their tactics were called embarrassing and unseemly and impolite. Some aboriginal “leaders” criticized the action in the belief that it cast a bad light on the entire group.
The criticism was typical, but hypocritical and not to be taken seriously. What are bad manners in comparison to genocide? The prime minister was clearly discomfited, but why should that matter? Countries like Australia call themselves democracies and democratic leaders shouldn’t be frightened of popular demands or of acknowledgements of wrongdoing.
There are lesson in this episode that can be learned on this side of the world. Agitation should be the order of the day, but despite the propaganda proclaiming the perfection of our system, that agitation is never appreciated by anyone in power. The crimes of extermination and enslavement will always be considered less serious than the feelings of powerful people who feel put upon when masses of people dare to make demands.
It is a given that neither prime minister Gillard nor president Obama nor any of their colleagues among the world’s so-called democracies want to hear from angry citizens. That should be no concern of ours. Diplomatic niceties have never brought about any meaningful change. It is the unseemly behavior that eventually rules the day.
May the Aboriginal Tent Embassy last forever.