Monday, May 14, 2012

Dispatch from the Sovereign Embassy

I can't sleep. It's 3.21am, a cool windy night in Brisbane. Across the river, people are sleeping in tents pitched in Musgrave Park, at the Brisbane Sovereign Embassy. Or perhaps they are not sleeping. As one of them told me, "we're just preparing for the worst and hoping for the best".

On Saturday morning, a friend informed me we were invited to attend the embassy and show support when the mayor came for a "chat". I had been meaning to visit the embassy, proudly set up beneath Moreton Bay figs at a prominently visible corner of the park. It seemed like a beautifully bold statement. It seemed like a good way to meet people and learn more about the world. It seemed like a place that could heal the pain that had so often manifested at all hours of day and night, on that land known as Musgrave Park. And I had been fearing for the embassy's survival, knowing that the annual Greek Paniyiri Festival was scheduled to take over Musgrave Park on 20 and 21 May.

I had to do something. I called a friend with whom I'd been talking about the embassy and "Aboriginal terms of reference" the night before. I called the ABC's Brisbane news desk and told them the mayor was going to be a the Sovereign Embassy at 10am, that I didn't know what it was about but personally suspected it was about turfing them out. "I'll make a couple of calls and see what we can do," was the response. I wasn't holding my breath. No one from the mainstream media has the time, the inclination to record events that are sure to play out in a microcosm of the Australian colonial story.

Then I received a text from my friend: "Just spoke to the Westender ... they said Paniyiri organisers don't have any probs with tent embassy being there."

On arrival at the embassy, I introduced myself to one of its founders. I asked if he thought the mayor's visit had anything to do with Paniyiri. He said it wasn't about Paniyiri, it wasn't about the annual NAIDOC event planned for July. It was about something much bigger.

A circle of chairs had been formed in the embassy meeting space, with a line in the dirt to delineate the mayor's side of the circle and the embassy supporters' side. Battle lines were drawn.

The ABC didn't show.

The mayor arrived and shook hands with people including me. Jagera representative Uncle Des Sandy welcomed to country the crowd that had gathered.

Early on, it was announced that the mayor had until exactly 10.30am - less than half an hour - before he had to leave the embassy.

An Aboriginal council employee who had arrived with the mayor stood up and announced himself as the facilitator. A member of the community invited the employee to introduce himself: "It's just, I don't know who you are." The council employee stated his name, position at the council and his Aboriginal national heritage. His voice was wavering. I got the sense he knew this was bigger than Paniyiri too. He, like most people at this gathering, knew how the story usually goes.

And so it went. The mayor stated that some important, long-standing events were coming up, and mistakenly used the word "allowed", as in "I've allowed you to be here for sometime now". He'd momentarily forgotten to whom he was talking.

He announced a plan to relocate the embassy to a tennis court beside the Jagera Arts Centre in another, less visible section of the park, a piece of land set aside for "Indigenous purposes". Under the plan, the embassy would be scaled down to a marquee and two "security tents". A dedicated fire pit would be created for the sacred fire. The mayor had spoken. I guess this was the council's idea of compromise.

I learned my own lesson. Unaware of my place at the meeting, and accustomed to using any space in a discussion to jump in, I was the first to put up my hand, asking for clarification on what the events were, and which if any had objected to the embassy being there. I wanted some honesty from the mayor: was this about something bigger? He listed the events, and did not answer the question about whether they had objected.

Another non-Indigenous man leapt to the bigger issue, saying the mayor's argument didn't wash - that he described the events as long-standing, but that Aboriginal soverignty went far beyond that.

Uncle Sam Watson eventually stepped in and called on Indigenous voices. They came from every direction. There were points argued by the embassy, by the local community. Aunty Valda Coolwell stated that it was up to the Jagera Traditonal Owners, and called for compromise. A Jagera TO spoke to the Mayor, asking whether he could offer any guarantees on his plan. Another embassy friend stated it was known that Paniyiri had no problem coexisting with the current embassy. People told the old story - of being moved on, moved on, constantly moved on to something smaller, less visible. The scene was emotional and no one was facilitating it.

Then the mayor, like Cinderella at midnight, took his leave. He gradually turned, walked away and left, all while one of the tent embassy residents was talking to him, pleading that there would be no violence.

The discussion continued. The most salient voice of the morning to me was a woman from Inala, who said she had been visiting the embassy on a regular basis for healing. The embassy has a women's group, a men's group, a youth group, she said. She has turned to her elders for support but hasn't found it. She has turned to the embassy and found support, found the strength to get through a court battle, found so much healing around the fire.

Among the other voices emerged an argument - NAIDOC versus the embassy. Divide and conquer, as they say.

An embassy representative tried to wrap up the meeting without a resolution, adjourning to Wednesday night. But somehow a final call was made to allow the T.O.s to decide what should happen.

My friends and I left. Later we ran into another friend who had stuck around. He informed us that the T.O.s had decided to agree to the mayor's plan on several conditions, including Indigenous ownership of Musgrave Park and the retention of the sacred fire in its current position - as my Chinese whisper had it. He'd also heard on good authority that the embassy would face forcible removal within 72 hours. That hadn't been mentioned at the meeting.

Yesterday, Sunday, the embassy was bracing for a pre-dawn raid this morning, which is why I, in my comfortable bed, can't sleep.

Some would ask, why was the embassy allowed to remain for so long? Some would answer, because as of tomorrow, Tuesday, Paniyiri will be setting up, and there will be high fences and security guards to keep people out of the park. It's a theory that makes sense.

This is a battle that won't go away. Please let's not all ignore it.