Redfern First Nations Peoples under attack

Here is an interesting article from 1997 for those interested in the background to housing at 'The Block' and the 2014 Tent Embassy.

Photo: Peter Boyle - Green Left Weekly - 2014 Tent Embassy, Redfern

Wednesday, February 5, 1997 - 11:00
By Chris Spindler

On January 31, more than 300 people attended a public meeting called by the Redfern Aboriginal Housing Coalition to discuss opposition to the ongoing relocation of residents and demolition of houses in Eveleigh Street, Redfern. The meeting followed extensive media coverage of petty crimes in the area, and continued government and police attacks on the Aboriginal community.

2014 Tent Embassy
The Block – Redfern Aboriginal Tent Embassy established
The Tent Embassy is "reclaiming The Block for our people" as many feel betrayed by what they said was "a war of attrition" by the AHC.

Speakers at the meeting, organised by Aboriginal Housing Coalition workers Anne Cummings and Tanya Leroy, expressed their disgust at the conditions their homes had been allowed to deteriorate to and told about the problems they would face if forced to relocate by the Aboriginal Housing Company. The company, led by Mick Mundine, was given the land for housing by Prime Minister Gough Whitlam in 1973 and now wants to push forward plans for redevelopment.

Shane Phillips from the coalition said,"It's good to see people here to listen to what we have to say because at times we have to battle just to justify our presence in this community. The bad thing is that it takes negative publicity to get attention focused on the housing needs of the community."

Joyce Ingram, a community elder on "the Block", told Green Left:"I think that it's all linked to the Olympic Games, getting the place 'fit and clean'. And to the value of the land. 'The Block' land in Redfern is a centre point for Aboriginal people where they can come and feel comfortable. Aborigines come from country NSW and parts of Queensland to live here. It's like a heart and now they want to tear it apart. When you tear a heart apart it dies. That's what will happen to the community here."

Ali Golding, also a community elder, agreed: "Everything started from Redfern; this is the birthplace of all of the organisations of our people."

Father Ted Kennedy from the Uniting Church Redfern added: "There are two significant symbols which have been created by Aboriginal people in the last 30 or 40 years: one is the Tent Embassy in Canberra and the other is here in Redfern. In 1973, when we were trying to help establish the Block, we found that a company IBK had already bought up the land and the police were vicious in their arrest and eviction of Aborigines. There was a clear correlation between power, police, money and Aboriginal oppression at that time and I'm sensing the same thing now."

Photo: Peter Boyle - Green Left Weekly - 2014 Tent Embassy, Redfern

In response to the frenzied media coverage of "drugs" and "youth gangs", Ingram said: "There are drugs all over Australia and NSW, but since the stories highlighting the needle use and the 'shooting gallery' there has been an influx of drugs and strangers in the area. It's all part of trying to build up a picture to show us as irresponsible, to get rid of us.

"If anything goes wrong the media focus on Eveleigh Street. For example, last Monday night nothing happened in Eveleigh Street — what they reported as happening in Eveleigh happened in Pitt Street, and there was another crime in Ivy Street, Chippendale, but it was reported as being in Redfern.

"The media misrepresent the truth. They say there was a raid on 40 houses, but it never happened. It was totally exaggerated. The police came in looking for 'half a dozen criminals' and found one boy who violated parole. They assaulted him and then laid assault charges on him. When they raided another house and arrested two boys, stepping on a baby in the process, people stoned the police."

Lyall Munro from the Urban Land Council said at the public meeting: "We've been partly successful with part of the media in portraying how our people have to live, in conditions that are worse than some Third World conditions. We just have to walk down the Block to see how Aborigines have been forced to live by black landlords in conditions that are disgusting, that are not fit for animals, let alone human beings.

"It's been said that we have a drug and crime problem and we've watched the media build this up with the assistance of the state government, in particular the Premier who said the police summit would name the drug pushers. That's not what we envisaged the summit for. In fact, we did not believe in that police summit because what happened before [police raids in Eveleigh Street] has happened many times before and we're used to it.

"The situation is an indictment of ATSIC, it's an indictment of the regional ATSIC body here, and an indictment of all white infrastructures that are involved in the protection of the rights of indigenous peoples and the protection of human rights in general."

Many within the Redfern community are blaming the company for letting the houses become run down. Ingram told Green Left: "For the TV cameras the housing company painted the backs of houses and set up clothes lines, like making the set of a film, to make it look like they were doing their job. But they never filmed the front of the houses. They were clean when the houses were built and they were kept well and clean, now they've been allowed to run down. Then they tell us to move."

In a letter to the Sydney Morning Herald on January 31, a number of members of the coalition wrote: "The Aboriginal Housing Company no longer speaks for all the Aboriginal people who have connections with the Block. The directors have not held any public meetings or consulted with all the Aboriginal people who care about the Block, about their plans for redevelopment."

Photo: Peter Boyle - Green Left Weekly - 2014 Tent Embassy, Redfern

In response to a government survey of local residents in which 70% said they wanted to move or wanted a different style of housing, the letter states, "some people think that if they agree to move they will end up owning a fancy, big new house. No-one was told what they would have to pay and no-one was asked if they would prefer to keep the area for housing, fix the houses and have major efforts made to work on the problems in the community."

When asked about the impact that re-location would have, Ingram said, "The community will be torn apart. They ought to build houses, re-build for the community. If someone in the community wants to put their name down on the list for housing the housing company says the list is already too long — but if the list is so long, why aren't they fixing the houses and stopping the demolitions."

Golding said: "What good are things like the Community Development Employment Program? They won't help the community if the community is split up. When the programs were running people had some work, then the federal government, through ATSIC, stopped the funding and the programs stopped. This has contributed to social problems."

Isabelle Coe from the Aboriginal tent embassy in Canberra told the public meeting, "Cheap and decent housing that our people can afford is what is needed. The housing company has been purely negligent. They've been getting funding and rent paid by the tenants, but they haven't been doing any repairs."

Coe continued: "I've just come from the Aboriginal tent embassy in Canberra. We put the tent up to let people know what is happening in Redfern and we're staying there indefinitely and going to be taking the fight right up to the Howard government. From the embassy we are calling for a boycott of the Olympic Games if things don't improve in Redfern and we're going to be contacting people from all round the country and the world."

Everyone at the public meeting vowed to fight the plans for demolition and re-location. "We need to fight for our rights and stick together to keep the Block and keep it how we want it. Blow the rich; blow the businessmen; they've always had their way over Aboriginal people, right from 200 years ago. It's about time we came together as Aboriginal people", Golding said.

Munro told the public meeting: "Are we to forget the past? It's like asking the Jews to forget the holocaust. It's like asking the Fretilin East Timorese to forget the invasion in 1975. It's like asking the people in Nigeria to forget the massacres condoned by Shell using the Nigerian police. The Prime Minister said recently that we are the most tolerant nation in the world. He's obviously forgotten the massacres that were perpetrated on our people up until the 1940s and sometimes into the 1960s. This country is not only racist; the racism is condoned by the highest echelons of this country, in particular little blowfly Johnny Howard.

"I don't condone the violence that has been reported in our community, but neither do I condone the police in large numbers in our community and it's got to stop. We are not moving from Redfern. There are thousands of Aboriginal people here that will gladly move to the Block once the demolition goes ahead and the original plan is put into practice — to provide decent homes for Aboriginal people within the inner-city area. We will not be moved."

The Redfern Aboriginal Housing Coalition meets on Fridays at 1pm at the Factory, Redfern. For details phone (02) 9698 3087.

From GLW issue 261