The Tent Embassy debacle from a protester's point of view

Tent Embassy 2012
Media Coverage Overview
Protest at Restaurant

Wil Wallace Red Stage Blog January 26, 2012

In Canberra, in front of Old Parliament House (also known as the Museum of Democracy) is the First Nation's Tent Embassy, first established in 1972 by four Aboriginal activists who wanted to draw attention to the plight and inequality of Indigenous Australians. 2012 is the 40th anniversary of the establishment of the Embassy and so a large gathering was organised for this Australia/Invasion day.

The Tent Embassy managed to get a lot of press today (26/1) after a large protest was held that resulted in Australian Federal Police and protective services dragging Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott to their ComCars and massively over-reacting to the presence of protesters at the site. But what really happened?

Speaking to Sam Castro, currently at the Tent Embassy, I was able to get a run down of the day's events.

The morning started with speeches being made at the Tent Embassy on a range of subjects until one person stood up and explained to the crowd that Tony Abbott had remarked to the media that he believed the Tent Embassy was no longer relevant and should be packed up and moved on; information had just come through that Tony Abbott was at The Lobby, a restaurant near the Old Parliament House, and the suggestion was made that the group should go there and ask Abbott to talk to the crowd and explain himself.

A contingent of about 100 protesters made their way up the road to The Lobby and surrounded it. Though they were loud and noisy they were non-violent. Security blocked the protesters from getting close to the restaurant for a while but it didn't take long for a few protesters to break the line and soon the rest had gotten close up against the restaurant's walls. As the walls of The Lobby are made of glass the protesters could look in and see Mr Abbott and the others pretending not to hear them and, after about ten or fifteen minutes Julia Gillard's white jacket was recognised and the protesters realised that she was in there along with Mr Abbott.

The aim of the protest had been to get Mr. Abbott to come out and talk to the crowd - now it wanted to get Ms. Gillard to come out and do the same as well. Yet they continued to ignore the protesters, drink champagne and take photos of one another while their constituents tried to get their attention.

A short time later a contingent of riot police and protective service officers arrived at the restaurant. All up there were about 50 to 60 officers there and protesters watched on as a group of about 20 riot police hurtled past them in V-formation, bursting into the restaurant and then locking themselves inside.

When I spoke to Sam she said that the protesters thought the riot police were arranging to form a sort of guard around the Prime Minister and Opposition Leader so that they could come out and talk to the crowd but, as the rest of the media has shown, the riot police's real objective was to 'escort' the Prime Minister and Opposition Leader to their cars.

As more protesters made their way to the restaurant, the riot police charged out the doors, practically dragging Ms Gillard along, while the onlookers began to shout "where are you going?" and "why won't you talk to us?" As the cars drove off, some people threw plastic water bottles and water at the cars.

At this point things began to get fairly nasty; one protester was knocked into the rose bushes and one gigantic cop started brandishing a can of tear gas or capsicum spray (reports differ on this point) in people's faces and shoved Sam, another girl and a female photo-journalist in the head. When Sam told him to calm down he reportedly bared his teeth and grinned so widely his eyes nearly popped out of his head; to many on site it was fairly clear that the officer was barely under control.

Then the police began to link arms to form a line against the protesters and the protesters followed suit, ending up with a Mexican standoff. Some of the Indigenous Elders called for the protesters to return to the Tent Embassy but a female Elder began a non-violent sit-down protest in the road just down from the café and soon a line of Indigenous women, female Elders and non-Indigenous women had been formed across the road.é

The women declared that they were not going to be intimidated by the police and that they would not move until the police stood down. While some of the other protesters returned to the Tent Embassy, a large group (including some of the Occupy Melbourne contingent) remained to watch on and support their fellow activists until the police eventually gave in and stood down.

As the remaining protesters made their way back to the Tent Embassy they were greeted by applause and the female protesters went through a cleansing smoke ceremony.

A few final points:

Contrary to some reports, the protest was not "an unprecedented outburst of violence"; in fact the only violence on the day was done by police and protective services (See 0:15, 0:41 and 0:42 in this video and 0:15 and 0:45 in this one).
The protesters were unaware that Julia Gillard was in the restaurant until some time after the action had started.
The aim of the protest was merely to get Mr Abbott to speak to the crowd, not to assault him or anything like that.
The massive over-reaction of protective services and the Australian Federal Police resulted in Ms Gillard losing her shoe, protesters being assaulted and pretty much everyone but the protesters looking like a bunch of dills.
EDIT: The fact that the protest was neither a "riot" nor violent is best shown in footage taken by Channel 9 (of all organisations) that clearly shows a lack of protesters anywhere near the PM as they're evacuated.

So, in summary: the protest was non-violent, the police over-reacted and Ms Gillard and Mr Abbott still won't listen to ordinary Australians.

UPDATE: The Tent Embassy protesters retrieved Ms. Gillard's shoe after it came off and are planning to auction it on eBay.

UPDATE 2: Ms Gillard's shoe is reportedly going to be used as an incentive to open dialogue with Ms Gillard about a First Nation's treaty.

UPDATE 3: Footage from the ABC (see below) shows protesters banging on the windows of the restaurant and shouting "Shame!" and "Racist!", which some might construe as violent. Even so, those who did bang on the windows were n the minority and it has nothing on the violence used against protesters by police (shown immediately after in the footage).

ABC TV Video

UPDATE 4: Another eyewitness account dismissing the claims of violence/a riot has been added by Mike Stuchbery:

"After another 5 minutes or so, the crowd grew larger and the chants became a bit more organised and you could hear knocking on the windows. It is at this stage that a few police cars start to turn up and officers jump out and run towards the building. The police surrounded the restaurant to create a barrier, the banging on the windows stopped, and a constant chant of "always was, always will be, Aboriginal land" started up, which continued until the two were taken out of the Lobby. It was at this point that Em and John (wife and uncle) were walking around and having a look at what was going on. Now ... as emphasised yesterday, Em is pregnant with twins ... if there protests were in any way violent, I would have got all paternal and walked Em away. There was almost no prospect of violence."

UPDATE 5: A THIRD eyewitness account dismisses claims of a riot (courtesy Amy McQuire of Crikey):

"But while there was anger, it was far from a "riot". A riot involves violence and a disturbing of the peace. While it was definitely a loud demonstration, there was no damage. A few smudged fingerprints on the glass of the restaurant was the net result. There were about 1000 protesters around the café when Gillard and Abbott were rushed through their own mob of security guards."