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Redfern Aboriginal Tent Embassy supporters occupy Deicorp offices to defend the Block

Andy Mason and Anna Hush on Monday night’s protest at The Block

Last night, the campaign for affordable housing for Aboriginal people in Sydney stepped up a gear when about 500 people occupied the offices of Deicorp in Redfern. Aboriginal activists from the Redfern Aboriginal Tent Embassy and a large number of supporters, including students from USYD, UTS and UNSW, flooded into the lobby and up the stairs chanting “Deicorp, Deicorp, we won’t stop – get your hands off the Block!” before settling into a half-hour sit in. Deicorp officials refused to meet with the group’s leader, veteran land rights campaigner Aunty Jenny Munro, but a declaration of intent was handed to NSW Police on Deicorp’s behalf.

A protestor’s video can be found here

Deicorp is a corporate developer in charge of the ‘Pemulwuy’ project, a $70 million redevelopment of Redfern’s famous Block. The company has previously come under fire for advertising one of its other developments in the area by reassuring potential buyers that “the Aboriginals have already moved out”, and that Redfern is therefore “the last virgin suburb close to the city”. 

The Block was won by an Aboriginal community campaign as a social housing grant in 1973, when Gough Whitlam allocated $530,000 to the newly founded Aboriginal Housing Company (AHC) to start buying properties on the Block. It quickly became a vibrant social, cultural and political centre to which Aboriginal people all over the country flocked. The project was opposed from the get-go by racists in the local community and local councils, and from the 1980s onward the Block became caricatured in the mainstream media as a hotbed of crime, drug abuse and social dysfunction. Aunty Jenny alleges that these problems begun under the watch of current CEO of the AHC, Mick Mundine – this same ‘wave of crime and drugs’ is referred to on the AHC’s website as justification for the new development.

Community activists like Aunty Jenny say that the AHC has lost sight of its original purpose – to provide affordable housing managed by Aboriginal people to serve the community’s needs. The massive development proposal includes plans for retail space and student accommodation, and although the AHC claims on large posters around the Block that it wants to also build 62 affordable units for Aboriginal families, it has not included these in the initial plans. Activists from the Redfern Aboriginal Tent Embassy argue that this is part of a decades-long process of gentrification, which has forced Aboriginal people out of the inner city towards areas like Mt Druitt, at the same time lining the pockets of corporate accomplices. They also criticise Mick Mundine for what they see as his complicity in the latest step in this process.

Indeed, the name of the AHC’s ‘Pemulwuy Project’ betrays its roots in the colonial legacy – Pemulwuy was an Eora warrior from the Bidjigal clan, who led organised resistance to the first invaders from 1788 until 1802, when he was shot by a British sailor. The irony of naming the project of gentrification after Pemulwuy seems to be lost on the AHC, but not on the local community who, much like Pemulwuy, are determined to resist violent colonial dispossession from their land.

Before marching up to Deicorp’s offices last night, the group gathered around a large bonfire at the Redfern Aboriginal Tent Embassy on the Block to watch a traditional Gomeroi dance performance, accompanied by traditional songs in Gamilaraay language. The assembly then heard a speech by Aunty Jenny, who has recently returned from a trip to Perth to offer support to remote Aboriginal communities in WA who face closure as a result of government cuts. Aunty Jenny said that the struggle of the WA communities and the struggle for the Block are fundamentally linked – both are about Aboriginal people fighting to keep their land – and spoke of the rise of a new national Aboriginal land rights movement, and the solidarity forming between these communities all around the country.

Kunja activist and poet Ken Canning (who has recently released a new book of political poems) spoke next about the war on Aboriginal people which has been ongoing since the British invasion in 1788. Ken also read out a declaration from the Redfern Aboriginal Tent Embassy to the assembly, stating the community opposition to the project and encouraging everybody at the rally to continue fighting to defend the Block.

Albert Harnett then spoke about his recent five week visit to remote communities in WA, highlighting the appalling consequences of community closures, which leave people destitute and living as outsiders on the fringes of mining towns.

NSW Greens MP David Shoebridge also spoke, arguing that there is more than enough money in the hands of the State Government to support an affordable housing project on the Block. He promised the crowd that the Greens will introduce a bill for this funding before the next State budget in late July.

The group then heard from Joe Deakin from the Sydney branch of the Maritime Union of Australia (MUA), who decried White Australia’s shameful history, and argued that anyone wanting to call themselves Australian must first stand with Australia’s First Peoples. The MUA recently passed a resolution in support of the Block, and its members say they will stay to defend it until affordable housing for the Aboriginal community is built.

Support for the Embassy has been growing, and with a strong alliance of Aboriginal activists, unions and students, victory seems tangible. The Green Bans movement of the 1970s reminds us that alliances between different groups, which bring diverse people together around specific social justice issues, have the potential to make real social change. The next action is planned for Sunday June 28 at 1pm, with a march from Town Hall to the Block. We’ll be marching with a banner that says “Students Support Aboriginal Communities – come join us and be a part of a historic movement for Aboriginal rights which is rapidly spreading across the country and beyond our borders. This always was, and always will be, Aboriginal land.

As always, the Redfern Aboriginal Tent Embassy is grateful for donations of native firewood, money, food and time – follow them on Facebook for updates.