As I write this post, there are thousands of people around the state sending wishes of support to the small crowd of protesters gathered at The Block, in Redfern. They’re standing up against what they say is the theft of their land, and I tend to agree; theft is theft, whether it’s legal or not.
Back in 1973, the Whitlam Government provided a grant to the Aboriginal Housing Company for the specific reason of purchasing land around Redfern, to build what would become the state’s so-called Aboriginal capital, a place where indigenous people could come, knowing they’d find their mob, somewhere to stay if they didn’t, and have access to indigenous services like the Aboriginal Medical Service, Aboriginal Legal Service, and of course the benefits any Australian would enjoy at the centre of it’s most populous city. It seemed, and of course it was, a great idea.
But over the years, the ravages of alcohol and drugs took their toll – some say, and I don’t disagree, due to the intentional neglect of the state. (The same thing happened across the US in the 60s and 70s – black neighbourhoods literally provided with drugs under the watchful eye of Police, latent racism designed to undermine a population’s best efforts.) Sure enough, by the 90s, the Block, and parts of neighbouring Redfern, were awash with heroin addiction and alcohol related violence. Not surprising, considering the density of government housing in the area; housing which arguably provides nothing more than an environment in which this sort of behaviour can thrive, and which undermines the efforts of those who would rise above it.
The Block was a shambles; allowed to disintegrate, literally and metaphorically, the houses were one-by-one labelled derelict, and long-term Aboriginal tenants kicked out onto the street, all under the watchful eye of the Aboriginal Housing Company, and its CEO Mick Mundine, whose headquarters sit like a fort at the top of the hill, it’s quarry beneath. Crime reached new levels each year, and it all came to a head in 2004, when a young fella named TJ came off his push bike in a disputed case of Police Harrassment, unsolved to this day. This incident caused riots, and brought the nation’s attention, albeit briefly, to the area. But it also brought development.
Because it was not long after that the ironically named Pemulwuy project commenced – the redevelopment of The Block, with plans for affordable housing for Aboriginal people, specifically for the elders, who were to be granted life-long tenancies in return for giving up the homes they already occupied, as well as a community centre, health centres, and shopping. But through a number of State Governments, the project stalled, as funding slipped away, only to be re-gained from alternative sources, which is where the real problems began, for soon enough the plans changed. No more low cost housing – that was put on the backburner last year. No more Medical Centre. And no more tenancies for the elders. That would all have to wait.
Instead, housing for international students in a deal done with the University of Sydney. Retail, parking and a gym. Not really the beacon of Aboriginal Culture Gough Whitlam fought for in the early 70s, let alone a proud and world-class development the people of Sydney, and the State, should demand. Instead, a permanent bricks-and-mortar salute to the way things are done these days – behind closed doors, and developers first.
Today, the bulldozers are gearing up. The Police are at the ready, and Mick Mundine, CEO of the Aboriginal Housing Company, stands like a foreman in front of them, staring down his own people, whose interests he is supposed to represent. Those people, by the way made up of a group of mainly female elders who lead men young and old, students from neighbouring universities, including Sydney, and people from all walks of life from across the state, myself included.
These people are standing up for their own land – standing up against the interests of no more than foreign investors who have no knowledge, and certainly no compassion, for the people for whom this land literally is their life. These people have grown up here; they talk of coming here from the country to find their people, and for the first time in a century having a place to call their own in a city which grew on land which they had cared for for not centuries, but tens of thousands of years.
And this is what us white people forget, because we don’t think of time in that scale. We think in terms of street signs, bricks and mortar, and ashphalt. And in bulldozers and profit.
But under that tar, behind those brick walls, and way before that profit, there was soil and life. A civilisation which cared for the land without the need for fences, roads or legal documents that state one man’s permission to destroy the lives of countless others.
And for what? Who gave him permission? Who gave THEM the right?
And who stands there now, defending the land which always was, and always will be theirs?
It is we, the white people, who have the lesson to learn. Not the elders, like Jenny Monro, who fight with more dignity than I could ever hope to possess. We should learn that just because you have the words written on paper, doesn’t mean you have the right to turn your back on your people, and towards the bank. Those words are written in ink made from carbon, which comes from the soil, on paper made from trees, with a machine made from iron.
This all came from the land, and before the words were written, before they were even conceived in some office, and approved in some boardroom, there were people on the land. Which, in my view, gives them the right to stay.
But back to today.
The reason why The Block counts, even if you’re a white man living on the other side of the country, is because it represents the fight we are all a part of, whether we like it or not, whether we know it or not. The world is changing; it’s getting smaller, and land is more valuable every day. Those who realise this, who have the power to take it, are doing so at an alarming rate, and not for good reason. They do it for profit, short term, pure and simple. You just have to look at the papers to see, every day, heritage being destroyed for a car park, river front land being tarred over for military housing, bridges built where we need none, roads extended to satisfy no-one but those who build them.
And the hotels; prime public land, which could be preserved for centuries, for the enjoyment and growth of millions, as it has been for thousands of years, ticked off and sold to the highest, and only bidder. I’m talking, of course, about Barangaroo, and the men whose only legacy will be the public land they displace, the thousands they offend, and they dollars they can’t take with them, no matter how hard they try.
The Block is important today, because it doesn’t only represent the fight against the developers, who have no more creativity than it takes to use an ATM; it is literally a front in the battle against them . State sanctioned land grabs, against all the best advice, all the best possibilities. Land grabs which will result in no more than dead communities, broken promises, and a few wealthy so-and-so’s laughing all the way to the bank.