The Mob Violence That Wasn't


Somehow, with the strange alchemy that the media seems to summon, the dominant angle of reporting about yesterday’s Australia Day kerfuffle involving the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition has been to condemn it as a violent protest.

"Indigenous leaders condemn ‘disgraceful’ protesters" is how the ABC has been describing it and much of the Fairfax press has carried similar stories. The television networks have, of course, reveled in the dramatic footage. Channel 9’s news report from last night, which carried the inside-the-restaurant footage of the Prime Minister and Opposition Leader conferring on whether to evacuate, repeatedly framed the protest in emotive terms like "violent", "raging", "angry mob", under siege" and so on.

Few media outlets seem to have asked whether there was in fact any violence from protesters. The available video and eyewitness evidence suggests that the violence came mainly from police and security staff. Yes, there was chanting, Yes, there was banging on the windows of local restaurant The Lobby.

But were the protesters really "violent"? What exactly would this "violence" have consisted of?

Police have laid no charges. No-one appears to have been hurt through the actions of protesters. The available footage, particularly from Channel 9, which can be seen here on the 3AW site, shows no violence from protesters. What it shows is confusion and panic from police and security, protestors milling about shouting, and rough handling of protesters by police.

In response to a question about yesterday’s violence from a journalist at today’s tent embassy press conference, a spokeswoman for the embassy, Selina Davey-Newry, said:

"There was no violence, we had the AFP and riot squad pushing at us in a line, and invited the politicians to come out and speak. The AFP came out against us with force, and we did not retaliatie with force, we did not instigate any wrong-doing or any violence".

3AW’s Michael Pachi’s account of the affair, broadcast yesterday, appears to confirm this. "In terms of violence, if you call it violence … it was basically the protesters banging on the Commonwealth car once they were escorted from the car … but from the most part it was really just loud chanting," he said.

This report by Wil Wallace is the best available eyewitness account of the protest. Wallace spoke to Sam Castro, who was at the tent embassy. Wallace writes that "a contingent of about 100 protesters made their way up the road to The Lobby and surrounded it. Though they were loud and noisy they were non-violent."

New Matilda has spoken to one protester who attended yesterday’s march to the tent embassy, Jennifer Killen, a high school teacher from Sydney. "I got up early yesterday and went to the ANU at 9am for the start of the march," she said. "There were a couple of police on bikes either looking amused or bored, it was well marshalled. We walked over to parliament and back to the embassy. The camp kitchen was feeding everyone. I met people aged three to 80. It was a family occasion."

"There were — at a guess — around 2000 people on the big march. Why was that all ignored? The Sydney Morning Herald headline was ‘Australia day turns ugly’, but I saw a peaceful march by people who had been neglected for generations."

"Why was it that our politicians are completely unable to cope with meeting constituents unless it’s on an orchestrated basis where they can look good? Why couldn’t they just come out and talk?" she asks.

The Canberra Times’ Jack Waterford argues that the security forces panicked and over-reacted, and the politicians were never in danger. "At no stage did it appear that Gillard made contact with any protester, or that any lunged towards her. The stumble was a function of the extrication, not crowd pressure."

New Matilda contacted the Australian Federal Police for comment. They confirmed that no arrests had been made, though added that "investigations were ongoing". The AFP will issue a formal statement later this afternoon, we were told.

Despite no arrests being made, no physical harm coming to any of the guests of the ceremony, indeed, no real threat to the Prime Minister or the Leader of the Opposition at all, through lazy reporting and the distorting lens of the television footage, the protests have been reported as though a group of violent protesters took Australia’s two most senior politicians hostage.

It hasn’t taken long for the usual suspects to rear their heads and issue forth with pompous outrage.

"The Aboriginal tent embassy has never engendered public respect," thundered News Limited’s David Penberthy. "It has never done anything to bring black and white Australia together." Penberthy also made wild claims about an "illegal assortment of galvanised humpies" and an "unprecedented outburst of violence that saw our Prime Minister being dragged along the ground and our Opposition Leader cowering behind a riot shield."

The Herald-Sun’s Andrew Bolt went one step further, calling the protest a "riot", writing of "Gillard, fear on her face, being monstered" and calling the end of the reconciliation movement. "It’s just too dangerous," he averred.

It’s easy to see why Indigenous leaders such as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner Mick Gooda were so exasperated by the events yesterday, and the inevitable backlash they will provoke. "An aggressive, divisive and frightening protest such as this, has no place in debates about the affairs of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples or in any circumstances," he has been reported as saying, and it is true that the protest will not advance the cause of reconciliation.

But Tent Embassy spokesman Pal Coe made a point largely lost in the media coverage today, which is that Warren Mundine and Mick Gooda don’t speak for those involved, much less for Aboriginal Australia as a whole. "You cannot work a peaceful way when governments rely upon certain Aboriginal people to justify a position, a political position, a policy position that they take and they conveniently choose to ignore the rest of Aboriginal people because they have one or two convenient spokespeople," he told the ABC’s George Roberts.

And there should be no doubt as to whether this was a "violent" protest, and what the real cause of the dramatic pictures of Gillard and Abbott being bundled to their cars really was.

The blame for yesterday’s dramatic scenes should lie principally with the politicians and police. First and foremost, it should lie with Tony Abbott, for the cynically provocative comments he made about the value of the tent embassy, despite his mild-mannered protestations today.

Secondly, questions must be asked about why Gillard and Abbott both refused to interrupt their Australia Day ceremony to walk outside the restaurant and speak to the protestors.

Finally, and, most seriously, significant questions must be raised about the Australian Federal Police and their cack-handed overreaction to this non-riot.

Ben Eltham is New Matilda's National Affairs Correspondent.