The Trouble With Alice

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Recently, a by-law has been enforced by Alice Springs Town Council which bans Aboriginal people from selling their art in the mall. Painting sellers have been a familiar sight to residents and tourists for years. For many tourists the person from whom they buy a painting will be the only Aboriginal person with whom they have a conversation in Alice.

And tomorrow, the resale royalty scheme for the sale of Indigenous art comes into effect. Is the timing ironic? Or is this a strategy of colonisation which sees legitimate forms of Indigenousness subsumed into a white economy — while artists are persecuted for trading outside it? The street trading harms no-one, though perhaps it inconveniences the businesses in the Alice Springs mall who wish to avoid painting sellers hassling their customers. Many of those businesses are art galleries, but most have several more zeros after their prices and are, as all acknowledge, targeting very different markets.

A feature of the discussion around the issue has been a confusion of racism and discrimination. Some of the comments which appeared after Crikey ran an article on the ban on selling art in the mall suggested that the law wasn’t racist because it applies to everyone. They’re wrong: a law which applies to everyone might not be discriminatory, but if it is designed to target Aboriginal people, it is still racist.

The broader problem, in Alice at least, is the lack of acknowledgement of the relationship between discrimination, racist violence, and the everyday slights which many people, Aboriginal and white, take for granted. When we try to look at the entire spectrum of racism, we begin to stand back. This is where we are frozen with confusion.

Recently I had visitors, a couple of Aboriginal poets on their way to the NT Writers’ Festival in Darwin. They went to the shop to get some food. One waited outside so he could smoke and was rudely moved along by a security guard. He wondered if this would have happened to him if he hadn’t been wearing the Aboriginal flag on his shirt. I found myself, not for the first time, in a position of having to apologise to a guest for the racist town in which I live.

There’s more, of course. Last week two white guys pulled up at a waterhole about half an hour from Alice Springs and accosted a 44-year-old man, also white, and his partner. The court was told the men said "You’re right mate, we thought you were blackfellas and we were going to shoot you." They wound up shooting him anyway.

Less than a year ago, 33-year-old Kwementyaye Ryder was beaten to death by five white men. Four of these men were recently sentenced to between four and six years in jail. Afterward, Damien Ryan, the Mayor of Alice Springs, famously declared that this is not a racist town.

At the NT Writers’ Festival a couple of weeks ago, Germaine Greer talked during her panel on "Australian myths" about witnessing an incident at Darwin’s art gallery the previous day. She had seen a policeman push an Aboriginal man with his boot.

"You’ve become inured to it," she said. "This would never happen in Europe." I am not entirely sure which parts of Europe she is talking about — I have seen similar incidents at several borders. An audience member asked Greer what we should be doing about it. Several people said they were also at the gallery and confused about how to read the incident, so they too did nothing. Apparently we are all paralysed by the complexity of the issue.

I am not sure that Territorians have become inured to racist violence. Institutional racism, yes. The Intervention continuing beyond the Apology ridicules any attempt the Rudd Government might have made towards reconciliation. Police racism is par for the course in Australia, and black deaths in custody continue. Legislative discrimination is likewise ubiquitous. The violence troubles all of us. But is complexity-paralysis any kind of answer?

This kind of everyday racism, the kind that outraged Greer, is so common that maybe it is true we have become inured to it. I would go so far as to suggest that it is totally white to be shocked by it. But that doesn’t make it okay.

Shock sells newspapers. The danger, however, with choosing not to trade on the story of racist violence is that it feeds the silence which allows it to fester. There is an attitude in Alice that it is not okay to talk about all this in public, that the East Coast media can only be unhelpful. It is certainly true that reports of frontier-style violence hurt the tourist industry and the town’s image. But we cannot be expected to address these problems unless we admit there is a problem.

What struck me most about Greer’s treatment of the incident she witnessed was that it did nothing for the audience’s paralysis — save raising the issue. What are the alternatives — apart from running a line that Alice is the new Johannesburg?

In the first instance, we need to step up as individuals and interrupt and identify racist behaviour in Alice and across the Territory. This takes individual courage. It is also tiring, and years in Alice wear out your energy for this battle, but it has to be done.

There is a public health campaign in NT newspapers at the moment which encourages young men out drinking to stop bar fights before they happen. Be a hero: stop your mate from getting into that argument. We need a similar campaign for racist violence in this town. Be a hero: mates don’t let mates drive into riverbeds and shoot people. If just one of those five men had said no (and the driver was sober) last year, Kwementyaye Ryder would still be alive.

Racially motivated crimes should be addressed as such and the issue needs to be taken seriously by the courts. Chief Justice Brian Martin has stepped down and will be leaving the job in September. He admitted that "we can put people in jail but that, in itself, has proved to be an ineffective way of rehabilitating people." So let’s think of better ones.

As well as prison, could offenders be sent to racist rehab? Since we don’t even have a much-needed drug and alcohol residential rehab in Alice, I can’t see this happening any time soon. But what about a program that could visit schools and prisons? Jane Elliott, the convener of the Blue Eyes/Brown Eyes workshops, visited Perth recently. This approach has been used to good effect around the world: perhaps it could gain some traction in Alice. Elliot was a guest speaker at a national symposium on racism held at Murdoch University titled "Racism Revisited: Anti-racism Leadership and Practice". Why not hold the next symposium in Alice Springs?

Inteyerrkwe Stop the Violence is a campaign run by the Central Australian Aboriginal Congress and supported by the Federal Government which may also provide some guidance.

In 2008 the Inteyerrkwe statement apologised to Aboriginal women and children on behalf of Aboriginal men for the epidemic of family violence. A couple of weeks ago some 200 men from different communities came together at Inteyerrkwe (Ross River) to talk about how to stand up against family violence. "We need to rejuvenate our local grass roots leadership powers and promote grass roots intolerance to all acts of violence no matter how small," John Liddle, who heads the campaign, said. "If we see something happening, we have to stop it. We have to be man enough to step in, even it means challenging family members."

Let’s apply a similar strategy. If black men can take responsibility for their own violence in this way, isn’t it about time we saw a similar campaign — from white and black people — against racist violence?

Our racist by-laws need to be challenged — and the links between the suspension of the Racial Discrimination Act and the everyday racism in Alice need to be acknowledged. Big-picture inequality needs to be addressed. The Intervention has been taken by some people as permission to relate to Indigenous people as half-citizens, taking us back years. But this doesn’t mean we get to blame politicians for everything and walk away from it.

In the absence of political leadership it is up to everyone in Alice Springs to take responsibility for building a decent society. We need to tackle racism at work, in the shop, in the street, write letters to the Ombudsman when we witness police violence, talk about racism with our kids. It is hard work but the consequences of not doing it are worse. We need to fight racism on every level. If we continue to be paralysed by the complexity of the issue we will end up with a town plagued by escalating violence — and ruled by bullies.

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