By Nick Pendergrast
Like many others around Narrm (the Aboriginal word for the Melbourne city centre area), I attended the Invasion Day rally to Abolish Australia Day, organised by the Warriors of Aboriginal Resistance (WAR). For anyone unfamiliar with the reason behind these rallies, WAR explain that: ‘We will stand together and march together as our Elders have for the last 81 years this January 26 to protest the ongoing colonial violence on our people’. For more on opposition to the celebration of January 26 as it is officially known as “Australia Day”, you can read Celeste Liddle, Gary Foley and many other Aboriginal perspectives.
When I arrived at the rally, speakers had already commenced and there were many thousands of people there. Not being able to find a spot to stand was a problem I was glad to have! A speaker mentioned that this Invasion Day rally in Narrm is the most attended event around Australia on this day, outnumbering any “Australia Day” celebration around the country!
One of the speakers early in the rally estimated that there were 80,000 people there, the Whistleblowers, Activists and Citizens Alliance (WACA) tweeted after the rally estimating over 40,000, despite much lower numbers in media reports they had seen. Once you get over a certain number it is very hard to work out numbers, however, the numbers seemed similar to last year where there were crowd estimates of 40,000-60,000. Either way, it was great to see tens of thousands of people turning out again!
Solidarity and Intersectionality
Numbers aside, one thing that struck me about the rally was the large number of groups in solidarity with Aboriginal Australians and also with other marginalised groups around the world. Sometimes Invasion Day events can be dismissed as “divisive”, unlike the “inclusive” “Australia Day” events that include people from a wide range of different ethnicities. While I certainly saw people from a wide range of ethnicities attending and supporting the official “Australia Day” celebrations which took place nearby and at a similar time, these events are inherently damaging and upsetting to many Aboriginal people.
At the Invasion Day event there was an Aboriginal-led march with Asian people, Jewish people, Muslim people, trade unionists, queer people and many others all marching together in solidarity with Aboriginal people, rather than neglecting their historical and ongoing persecution under colonisation. The messaging was also in support of other struggles against racism and colonisation, with intersectional links made to the plight of Palestinian people (see photo above) and also refugees. One banner which I didn’t manage to get a photo of read something like: ‘The only boat I want to stop is the fucking Endeavour re-enactment’ (for those outside of Australia, the Endeavour was the first British ship to reach the east coast of Australia, leading to colonisation and land theft).
Abolish Australia Day NOT Change The Date!
One thing that was made very clear in the Facebook event page, by the speakers at the rally and elsewhere was that this was not a rally to change the date that Australia Day is celebrated. While I certainly did see a few ‘Change the Date’ signs amongst people attending the rally, there were none that I saw amongst the Aboriginal people leading the rally. One speaker at the rally clearly differentiated the rally from the Change the Date message, stating that they can change the date and we’ll still be here calling for an end to Aboriginal deaths in custody, with “fuck the police” being expressed by numerous speakers. The ongoing injustices Aboriginal people face at the hands of the police and beyond mean that changing the date does not adequately address the issues faced.
It is important, particularly for those non-Aboriginal people attempting to be allies and join these marches in Narrm, that despite many media reports, it is not a march to change the date but to Abolish Australia Day. There is an opposition from those leading these rallies to celebrating a country built on racism that is still widespread. I’d particularly recommend Celeste Liddle’s article ‘This Invasion Day, march for the future’ and the flyer below from WAR for more on this Change the Date versus Abolish Australia Day distinction.
I’d also mention that the fact that this is even a debate shows great progress from this movement. The Greens political party have now taken on the Change the Date message, allowing more radical aspects of the Indigenous rights movement to highlight the limitations of this move, dismissing ‘simplistic solutions such as changing the date of a public holiday geared around reinforcing jingoism and nationalism’ (Liddle). But a few years back it seems that even a moderate Change the Date message was a long way from mainstream discussions/media/and larger political parties.
Unfortunately there was a tiny counter “protest” by a small number of fascists/white supremacists, for the first time that I am aware of for these rallies in Narrm. @slackbastard gives an overview of this futile counter protest and who was involved etc. At first I was kind of surprised by this counter protest, as opposing this Aboriginal-led march certainly undermines the strategic/tactical/“soft sell” white supremacy promoted by groups like Reclaim Australia who encourage people to wrap themselves in Australian flags and leave their swastikas at home. But this counter-protest is a move away from this “I’m not a racist but I’m just concerned about immigration/Muslim people” form of more widely accepted racism. But I guess this counter-protest shouldn’t be that surprising when even at Reclaim Australia rallies people showed up with Nazi imagery.
I think the main take home message from this counter protest for me was that although some argue the best way to respond to fascists is to ignore them, this is simply not possible when they start harassing progressive rallies. Some kind of response is unavoidable. Fortunately it seems that the organisers did a really job preparing for this. I believe WACA were involved with this and there was a large number of clearly marked marshals who had prepared and trained to deal with the fascist counter rally. They were at the front and back of the large rally, protecting the participants. Thanks to this preparedness, the fascists seemed unable to achieve much from what I could see, besides putting a bit of negativity into this really positive march.
Gary Foley’s Take Home Message
Finishing on a more positive note, historian Gary Foley was one of the final speakers and he gave an inspiring call to learn the history of this country and then go out and educate others! I didn’t manage to get a recording of his talk from this year but me and others got his talk from last year’s rally and I’d really encourage people to check this out. In this talk Foley gives a history not taught in schools, covering Aboriginal resistance on Invasion Day and beyond. You can listen to audio here and you can also watch a video of the talk and read a transcript thanks to Blackfulla Revolution on Facebook. You can also listen to our podcast episode which featured this talk and an additional discussion on some of the problems of nationalism.
Foley called on everyone to tell 10 people about the rally and this movement with the hopes of the rally being even bigger next year. This is an exciting movement that has already achieved so much in terms of changing the discussion about the history of January 26 and Australia generally. Hopefully people continue to spread the word and get even more people along to the Narrm rally and all of the rallies around the country next year!