Djab Wurrung, BLM, Climate Change: How Activism Has Replaced Our Failing Politicians

Politics is no longer a path to justice, and young people are taking power into their own hands.

Djab Wurrung

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When the directions tree was cut down in regional Victoria’s Dobie last Monday, it was clear talking had failed.

The Djapwurrung people had tried to talk. They had tried to fight within the confines of a political system that they say is designed to eliminate them and their culture. They found one of the last remnants of their culture razed, and it didn’t matter which way they voted, how much they pleaded behind closed doors, or how genuinely held their beliefs were.

The directions tree was one of the last of its kind: a spiritual link to the ancestors, created by mixing a child’s placenta with the seed of a tree. It was a place for spiritual guidance.

Faced with more cultural vandalism at the hands of the state government, the Djapwurrung and their allies had no options left but to protest.

“We’re doing everything we can to save country,” Djapwurrung woman Sissy Austin told Junkee. “Having to put your body on the line should be the last resort. But we’ve had bodies on the line for two years now on Djab Wurrung country. We’re in a constant survival mode where our minds are constantly thinking about what we have to do to protect us and protect country because that’s part of who we are.”

At one of his daily press conferences, Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews said that despite the traditional owners not being happy with the conclusion of the discussions he said the “agreement” they reached was good enough for him. He denounced the protestors.

He was done listening, despite there being another, cheaper, option to build the road.

The political process failed the Djapwurrung people. Laws written by previous governments give them the right to enjoy their culture — yet they lost it anyway. The process failed them, and anyone who believe the Djapwurrung have a right to their traditions and homelands.

“Today Dan Andrews tore down  an ancient ancestor tree, DjabWurrung people and country have been violated once again,” said Senator Lidia Thorpe in a tweet. “Couldn’t kill us, So they’ll kill everything else that keeps us alive.”

Earlier in the week, police violently raided and destroyed two camps near the trees, where Djapwurrung people had been living on country for three years in an effort to protect their heritage. Another was partially destroyed, the camp known as the Djab Wurrung Heritage Embassy, a centre for the movement opposing the highway expansion.

But despite this, and police arresting most protestors and legal observers, just a few people hiding up in trees managed to stop work at the site for days.

That was time enough for an injunction to be lodged in the Victorian Supreme Court, stalling the work for another day and giving the Djapwurrung time to launch the legal action.

Ms Austin credits the protestors for giving them the time to lodge the injunction, even though it came at great personal cost.

“I appreciate the people who are down there on the front line so we can do what we need to do from where we are at the moment,” she said.

And yet, they managed to eke out a win. It might have been small, but it was still a win. The court proceedings led to the site being protected for another three weeks. It doesn’t mean the area is safe for good, but it will give the Djapwurrung’s legal team time to plead their case and hope the colonial power structure listens.

Why Talk When You’re Being Killed?

The situation at the Djab Wurrung trees had reached a political deadlock, with the government still willing to use their institutional power to move ahead despite the protests of the traditional owners. The activism of a few managed to circumvent this power imbalance and assert the rights of Indigenous people both in person and in the courts.

The desecration of the directions tree and the pending destruction of the surrounding area is the state waging war against Indigenous people. It is indirect violence, but violence all the same. The end result is the obliteration of their culture.

Blak people are also regularly subject to more direct forms of violence, such as police brutality. In the United States, protest against this violence led to the Black Lives Matter protests ramping up in ferocity this year. It was given new life after the death of George Floyd — and since then the political atmosphere notably changed.

America convulsed. Protests roiled in major cities across the continent-spanning country. Black people and their supporters initially showed their displeasure by peacefully protesting, but this quickly turned violent. Both sides blamed each other, but clashes tended to escalate the most once police began arresting, tear gassing and shooting rubber bullets at activists. These tactics didn’t suppress protest, but rather egged on the aggrieved citizens to the point they captured and destroyed police stations. Activists and authorities are still clashing today.

As a result, the police lost their unconditional support. Minneapolis, the city where Floyd was killed, voted to disband their police force. Other cities committed to actions varying from banning chokeholds to reallocating police funding to social services to address the social ills which lead to crime.

These were key demands of the Black Lives Matter movement. Their activism worked.

Through direct action, abolitionists side-stepped the usual political discourse and forced politicians to act on issues they had ignored for decades.

The Black Lives Matter movement was also rightly picked up in Australia — despite a Royal Commission into Indigenous deaths in custody, more than 440 Blak people have been killed in the care of police or prison guards since. Names including Tanya Day, Kumanjayi Walker, and David Dungay were chanted by protesters around the country. David Dungay, an Aboriginal man said the words “I can’t breathe” 12 times before he died while he was restrained by five prison guards in an Australian jail.

The massive protests have put pressure on the government to do something, anything about Indigenous deaths in custody. But Blak people continue to die while in the care or police and prisons, and state like Victoria are still dragging their feet on repealing racist laws, like public drunkenness offences.

The World Is On Fire And The People Holding The Hose Won’t Put It Out

Another problem facing a similar political deadlock is climate change. Despite a whopping 79 percent of Australians believing in climate change and 68 percent supporting ambitious climate targets, our politicians are unable or unwilling to steer Australia toward that path. The Coalition’s emission targets are regularly trashed by experts, they deny the effects of carbon on the climate, and Labor refuses to commit to phase out gas usage and coal mining in line with expert advice.

School Strike for Climate organiser Imogen Kuah recognised this problem when she was just 16.

“I had growing feelings of frustration. We have these solutions like renewable energy and giving land rights back to first nations people,” she said. “[Activism] helps push forward the causes of people who don’t have a voice. … At the time I was 16 so that was an opportunity for me to find a voice.”

The first year Ms Kuah took part in the strike, their demands were ignored. “What we want is more learning in schools and less activism in schools,” Scott Morrison said at the time.

Even though the strike of September last year saw students and others turn out in huge numbers, in the hundreds of thousands, governments around the country continue to allow coal to be dug out of the ground, and snub renewable energy.

Ms Kuah was not disheartened though. Despite politicians refusing to listen through voices or strike action, she has resolved to keep up her activism, and try a new tack.

“The government is not listening and they fail to listen unless we apply a lot of pressure and for me I do that through activism,” said Ms Kuah. “Only posting in social media or only voting doesn’t apply enough pressure for them to do the right thing and listen to the people.”

Climate strike draws more than 1.5 million people

Climate Strike in Sydney, March 15 2019. Image via SchoolStrike4Climate

The school strike could not go ahead in the same way it did in 2019 because it was blocked by the Covid-19 crisis. Instead they went with much smaller actions, and have also been targeting their activism towards local community involvement.

“For us one thing we found focusing on local grassroots organisation is much more effective,” Ms Kuah said. “One thing we found was there was this really amazing grassroots power. We had so much community involvement because there could be a strike anywhere.”

As well as targeting MPs, which Ms Kuah said were more likely to be receptive to change than the current Prime Minister, they also lobbied private companies like Samsung — who subsequently pledged to cease funding Adani.

Simply talking is no longer enough. Protesting in the “right way” is no longer enough. Politicians have shown us time and time again that they will ignore real issues like they did with calls to abolish public drunkenness laws in Victoria. Like they ignored school students begging for their futures not to be defined by global heating and extreme weather.

Protests like the tree-sits at the Djab Wurrung trees, actions that actively disrupt their targets from achieving their goals, work. It gave the Djapwurrung time enough to launch a legal challenge.

Lobbying Samsung worked. It made them realise it was bad for business to finance a coal mine.

It’s time people realised how much power they hold, and use it to make politicians act where they wouldn’t otherwise.

Jim Malo is a journalist with an interest in politics and social justice. He tweets at @thejimmalo.