The End to a Ghettoized Spiritual Home (Aborigines in Sydney, Australia)
By Hwaa Irfan
On a grey day (of which there are many) in South London, U.K., it looks as if there has been a pact between the sky and the Barrier Block to make the locals feel disconnected. Often mistaken for Brixton Prison, the Barrier Block or Southwyck House built in the 1960s, with prison-like or fortress like windows, one is dumbfounded as to how such a monstrosity of 176 apartments could have been built for people to live in. There is not a photograph that seems to convey that overwhelming feeling, along with the number of suicides that have taken place there. This was the image that came to mind when I heard about The Block in Sydney, Australia.
The Block, in Sydney is Redfern, a series of squat-like terraced social housing similar to the housing provided for factory workers and coal miners in the North of England in the Industrial Revolution – the only saving grace in Redfern is that the homes are red-bricked and not grey like those of North England. It is to be demolished in order to break the cycle of crime and unemployment for which it has become notorious for by “outsiders”, and replaced by a $60m redevelopment project at the relief of many Australians, who consider the graffiti riddled an insult to the surrounding harbourside. The remaining 74 residents have received eviction notices to leave and to find accommodation elsewhere by November 19 2010.
Indigenous Australians were squatting in Redfern when it was first condemned for demolition being 80 – 100 years old at the time. This was not acceptable to the local non-indigenous landlords; hence these landlords carried out a campaign to have all the indigenous Australians evicted. It was after successfully lobbying of the Whitlam administration by indigenous community leaders that led to a grant being given to the Aboriginal Housing Company, AHC to renovate, and begin buying the properties. Bought over a 30-year period, the project worked well under the AHC, who managed the buildings employing residents. Redfern, which covers 4 streets, marked the first urban land rights claim by the indigenous Australians or Aborigines as they are more commonly known.
By 1994, all houses had been bought. In 1997, the AHC demolished some of the houses becuase of the growing problem of drug dealers, which was turning The Block into a no go area. However, not long after, government funding dried up. Facilities fell into disrepair, and drug dealers began to habituate the project in the 1990s.
The Ethos of Redfern
By 2004, riots were to take place in Redfern when a 17 year-old boy was impaled on a fence in an attempt to escape the police. Over 40 police officers were injured, and the locals believed that the boy’s death was instigated by the police, which the police deny. Though some Australians realize the debt they owe indigenous Australians, the perception of them remains one as an inferior race. Not equating their indigenous land claims with an awakening awareness, changes were taking place. One of the few to recognize those changes was Dr. Herbert Cole Coombs, Chair of the Council of Aboriginal Affairs, Governor of the Reserve Bank, and advisor to 6 Australian Prime Ministers. Coombs mentioned as much on Australia Day in 1973.
“The emergence of what might be called an Aboriginal intelligentsia is taking place in Redfern and other urban centres. It is a politically active intelligentsia…I think they are the most interesting group to emerge from the political point of view in the whole of the Aboriginal community in Australia”.
That awareness arose from a devastated people relegated to a status of worthlessness, who identified with the Black Power Movement of Malcolm X and other African-Americans. One method of acquaintance was through the Victorian Aborigines Advancement League, which organized a talk by Caribbean academic and activist Dr. Roosevelt Brown in Melbourne. The indigenous youth responded well, and some of those youth were from Redfern.
There were differing perspectives on this new identity that was to help give back the dignity that they had lost. For Roberta Sykes it was about:
“…the power generated by people who seek to identify their own problems and those of the community as a whole, and who strive to take action in all possible forms to solve those problems”.
For Paul Coe indigenous Australians had a need:
“…to take control both of the economical, the political and cultural resources of the people and of the land…so that they themselves have got the power to determine their own future”.
For Bruce McGuinness as Director of the Victorian Aborigines Advancement League (AAL) the movement:
“…does not necessarily involve violence’ but rather was ‘in essence…that black people are more likely to achieve freedom and justice…”
The youth of Redfern were different from the others in the black power movement of Australia, according to Gary Foley, an expert, and an indigenous Australian. They worked as a group unlike others who could easily draw parallels with power struggles that occurred in the American Black Power Movement.
“A growing disillusionment in black Australia today with the apparent limitations of the Native Title Act and the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC) mirrors a similar community disaffection with Aboriginal organizations and leadership in the late 1960s. The disaffection then resulted in indigenous communities supporting more radical forms of action advocated by the Black Power movement. Thus there are important lessons to be learned from serious study of the events of that era”.
Many developments were to take place, some fruitful, and most not so fruitful. It was the Freedom Ride that led to an awakening for the Redfern youth. The Freedom Ride, grew out of a notion, a notion that bears parallel with the underground Freedom Train of Harriet Tubman, who led many African Americans out of slavery to the North, and the bus ride that tired Rosa Parks took with one available seat left (for whites), which she would not deny herself, and led to the Civil Rights Movement. In February 1965, indigenous Australian, Charles Perkins, and Reverend Ted Noffs organized the Freedom Ride. Involved were 30 white Sydney University students from SAFA (Student Action for Aborigines). They took SAFA on a hired bus ride to the most racist towns in NSW. It was not until they tried to desegregate the Moree swimming pool, that they were pelted with eggs, and rotten fruit. So frightened for his life, the bus driver left half way through the trip! The Freedom Ride exposed the extent of Australian racism internationally,
“Internationally inspired, a product of cooperation between whites and blacks committed to the same ideals, confrontationist but non-violent, the Freedom Ride was a consciousness-raising exercise that was very effective. Awakening media interest in Aboriginal affairs was, for the first time, marshalled in favour of the Black Australian cause, to the severe embarrassment of many white townspeople in rural New South Wales. All of these elements foreshadowed a pattern of protest that was to continue and expand in the 1970s and 1980s.” – Adam Shoemaker.
The Freedom Ride inspired some indigenous Australian youths to stand up for their rights. These youth were part of the migration to the city that was to take place in the 1960s seeking to take their place in the mainstream of life. However, this was more difficult than they thought. A few succeeded in education, but many found the education system to be the very system that oppressed them with books that represented indigenous Australians as Aborigines, – primitive and passive. Paul Coe, one of those who migrated found:
“…the ‘isolation of the black kid going through the present education system’ in which they were ‘forced to aspire towards lower middle class values’ and ‘conditioned to uphold and try to keep white material values”.
There is always a centre of gravity for any migrating people, and for young indigenous Australians migrating to the city, that center of gravity was a social welfare center, established by Charles Perkins one of the organizers of the Freedom Ride, and other community leaders. That center was the Foundation for Aboriginal Affairs, FAA. Centers like those, tend to generate a lot of high energy, as each person learns from the other. To support that learning, one turned to literature, of which there was plenty, as this was a time of social upheaval in global history when student rebellions were taking place in Paris, riots at the Democratic Convention in Chicago, the emergence of the Civil Rights Movement, U.S., the move towards independence from colonialism in Africa, and then the Middle East; and of course the social protest around the world, against the Vietnam War. Sydney was the location for protest against the Vietnam War, which brought together white and black activists who were influenced by the anti-colonial movements in India, and Africa, according to Foley who was amongst them, as well as the literature of Frantz Fanon, Jean Paul-Sartre and Camus. The only bookshop that sold material that they were interested in was Third World Bookshop, which sold literature on the African American and indigenous American struggle. The presence of American servicemen on leave in Sydney provide face-to-face contact, as many of whom were African American, African Americans who considered that they were fodder for the Vietnam War! Some engaged with the indigenous Australian community of Redfern to escape the racism of Australia, and shared their experience, their views, their literature and their music.
The indigenous Australian youth of Redfern found a common experience with the African American experience who set to surveillance of the police, who in turn surveilled, and harassed the indigenous Australian youth in Sydney. Quotes Foley:
“Here was the shared experience of Aboriginality. Here was the point of intersection. Foley was arrested at Central station about this time on a trumped up charge. Brindle was beaten up by Redfern police. Perkins was arrested in Alice Springs after he had rung up police to complain about a publican. What the Sydney Aborigines…understood intuitively…was the brutal reality of Aboriginal daily life” – Peter Reid.
Through Paul Coe who was studying law at the University of NSW, Professor J. H. Wooten, the Conservative Dean of the Law Faculty, set up shop front legal aid for indigenous youth, which in turn led to the establishment of the Redfern Aboriginal Legal Service from a grant given by the Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, W. Wentworth in 1970. This marked the first time that indigenous Australians obtained legal representation in Sydney courts.
The Rugby Springbok Tour of 1971 marked another campaign due to apartheid when the Redfern group had already developed strong views with the leaders of the Anti-Apartheid Movement, along with the campaign to release Kevin Gilbert, indigenous poet, playwright, and activist, as well as the campaign for land rights. By the end of the Springbok Tour, the Redfern group has a higher profile, and a greater desire to sustain issues of racism on their doorsteps.
Redfern/The Block stands on a small part of Gadi land – tribal land, which was a gathering place for the Gadigal, the name of the land, means Green Family, and they had lived there for 40,000 years before occupation. The small part know as Redfern is where they feasted, held competitions, carried out rites of passage, and settled disputes up until the 1800s, after they were almost wiped out by smallpox from the settlers.
In the 1800’s the area was known as Boxely, because a convict named Boxely bought it! Redfern is the namesake of the person who bought Boxely’s farm. Under the jurisdiction of New South Wales, the NSW Housing Commission was not established until the 1940s. In a speech given by Mike Allen, Director-General of Housing, NSW in 1998 at the conference on The Shape of Public Housing, Allen began his speech as follows:
“Firstly, I would like to begin by acknowledging the Gadigal people of the Eora Nation, the traditional owners of this land on which we are meeting today.”
The Eora Nation consists of Tharawal, Daruk, and the Gadi, but The Block consists of many clans.
Opposite The Block, is Redfern Station, which trundles past a vibrant indigenous community with a recent history to tell above and beyond the reports of crime in the mainstream Australian press. Passengers will be unaware that they are trundling through Gadigal, the indigenous name for Sydney. Passengers will be unaware of a history that provides the energy that feeds the community, a community that has many ongoing activities to enrich the community. Activities like “Gathering Ground, ” a Redfern Community Center production of acrobatics, multimedia, song, dance, rap duels, protest and, of course, traditional ceremonies; where regardless of race, one can join in their journey – or to go to a fashion show with s difference, where each child participating gets to share their dreams – or the block mode study (study offsite) in conjunction with Sydney University, offering diploma courses, and graduate and postgraduate courses in indigenous culture, history, and language, as well as education.
Despite what outsiders think, many of the residents on The Block have a good feeling about their community, which is generally seen as the spiritual home. It allowed for them to be a community, to share, learns from one another, and the raise their children by values closer to their own. This was made evident when Prince William (U.K.) went visiting. On speaking to Prince William, Charles Madden, director of the Aboriginal Medical Service for Redfern conveyed to The Australian newspaper:
“It’s good to have him here because The Block has produced a lot of positive things for Redfern,”
“Redfern isn’t the bad place people make it out.”
It was the spirit of the Gadigal people on The Block who reclaimed Redfern from the drug dealers though initiatives on the part of the government were employed, but failed. The Block holds many memories, and with those memories, emotions, not only as the only indigenous run housing project, but is viewed by the mainly rural indigenous population of NSW as a spiritual home in the largest of Australia’s cities. In its demise, the AHC did present redevelopment plans called the Pemulwuy Project, but this had been opposed by the government. Now the residents have to move out by November 2010 for which a the AHC plan to build 62 new homes to be called the Pemulwuy Project – residents will be invited to return on completion in 2013. Poor and unemployed, it might be both difficult to find a place to live in the meantime, and the means to return.
The significance of the name is that Pemulwuy was a famous indigenous warrior. Prince William was handed a letter by the residents, to return the severed head of Pemulwuy for proper burial. The ties that bind do not die whether dead or alive for the indigenous peoples of Australia
“There is no greater sorrow on earth than the loss of one’s native land.” – Euripides 431 B.C
AHC. “1972 Transfer to the Aboriginal Housing Company”. http://www.ahc.org.au/redevelop/redevelop.html/
AHC “Time to Help Redfern”. http://www.ahc.org.au/history/history.html
Fairytale as Prince William visits The Block in Sydney’s Redfern http://www.theaustralian.com.au/news/nation/fairytale-as-prince-visits-the-block/story-e6frg6nf-1225821403692
Foley, G. Black Power in Redfern 1968- 1972”. http://www.kooriweb.org/foley/essays/essay_1.html
Gadigal Clan of Coastal Darug http://redfernoralhistory.org/Timeline/GadigalclanofcoastalDarug/tabid/240/Default.aspx
Ghassan. “The Block.” http://blogs.usyd.edu.au/sydneylife/2006/11/the_block.html
Malkin, B. “Sydney’s Notorious Aboriginal Ghetto to be Demolished.” http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/australiaandthepacific/australia/8013160/Sydneys-notorious-Aboriginal-ghetto-to-be-demolished.html
Shelter. Shelter NSW Conference – The Shape of Public Housing http://www.shelternsw.org.au/docs/sem0806publichousing-allen.pdf
Sydney University Uni Home / Koori Centre / Studying at Sydney Uni / Block Mode Study. http://sydney.edu.au/koori/studying/blockmode.shtml
The People of the Dreamtime