It’s highly subjective, of course, but the sweetest moment of 2019 came late in the year, complete with a personal epiphany, writes Chris Graham.
‘Too strong for you Karen’.
I am, of course, referring to the Pride of Mildura, ‘Rob and Karen’, and the stunning mid-December video of their neighbour Robby Wirramanda Knight, a proud Aboriginal man, calmly watching as Karen (surname ‘Ridges’) tries, repeatedly but unsuccessfully, to rip an Aboriginal flag down from the roof of Mr Knight’s garage.
Followed shortly after by Ridges’ husband, Rob Vigors, explaining to Mr Knight and his family how he knows ‘real Aboriginal people’ from Cape York, and Mr Knight certainly isn’t one of them.
The story went around the world, and the fallout was swift, and severe. I’ll come back to that as well, but I should first explain why it’s my favourite story of 2019, and what my personal epiphany was.
I’ve been reporting Aboriginal affairs since 2001. A year or so ago, I decided that New Matilda would no longer focus on stories about ‘damned racist idiots doing damned racist idiot things’.
In part, I was just sick and tired of reporting the same racist bullshit, time after time after time after time, for what felt like no real gain. There’s only so many times you can report yet another Australian blackface story without it chipping away at your faith in country and humanity.
But mostly it was because I was concerned that viral videos of racists doing racist things had become the default and the gold standard for Aboriginal affairs reporting in Australia.
Mainstream media discovered the power of the ‘Great Australian Racist Video’ a few years ago, and are now utterly united in their commitment to report them. As often as humanly possible.
But that’s not because media organisations believe vilifying Aboriginal people is bad. Indeed, they still routinely engage it themselves – think Prue MacSween’s stunningly racist rant eagerly hosted by Channel 7’s Sunrise program, or Kerri-Anne Kennerley’s stupidity being called out by Yumi Styles on Channel 10.
Rather, media have realized that ‘damned idiot racists doing damned idiot racist things’ is really, really good for business.
The stories get major clicks and attention, the outrage economy clicks into gear, and the media make more money.
Of course, if that’s all your media outlet is reporting – and with a few exceptions like The Guardian, SBS and to a lesser extent the ABC that IS all they’re reporting – then you’re not doing your job and even worse, you’re very much part of the problem.
That’s because racist videos are the ‘low hanging fruit’ of Aboriginal affairs reporting. They don’t explain anything about the context of Aboriginal suffering, or the beauty and generosity of Aboriginal culture. They just expose Australian ignorance. More to the point, they require almost no resources or effort to report, while providing maximum return.
Actually investigating the causes of Aboriginal poverty – seriously probing government policy, social reality, and, in particular, the legacy of historical racism – requires a lot more effort. So in early 2019, I decided that’s where New Matilda should divert its very limited resources. We would no longer chase racist video yarns.
Instead, last year, we launched the Outback Tour – Aboriginal Edition. We also broke a major investigation into a $15 million grant given to Wesfarmers from money set aside to alleviate Aboriginal disadvantage. The money was given to Wesfarmers – one of the Liberals’ most generous financial donors – 24 hours before Scott Morrison won re-election to office.
Cue the sounds of crickets chirping… the story attracted zero media interest. It was completely ignored by other outlets, which is pretty staggering when you consider that the information was publicly available, and that it was obviously corruption on a pretty grand scale.
At that point, I decided to scale back New Matilda, and disappear quietly into the ether. The hours, the debt, the law suits and the angst just seemed pointless in the face of massive indifference.
And then, very late in the year, ‘Rob and Karen’ came along, bless their cotton-picked-by-slaves socks, and with them, my personal epiphany.
Sometimes, the low hanging fruit can still be pretty sweet, and it can still serve a useful purpose.
I realized this because after years of watching people get slammed for their racism, only to walk away essentially scot-free, Rob and Karen ended up paying a pretty high price for their racism.
Within hours of the video going viral, McDonalds Australia announced it was severing its franchise agreement with Rigors for the two Mildura takeaway restaurants he owned and ran.
Twenty-four hours later, Ridge, who owns a local travel agency Mildura Travel & Cruise, also felt the fall out – Express Travel Group, which represents the largest fully independent travel agencies in Australia, also severed its commercial arrangement.
That’s not to suggest that Rob and Karen got all they deserved.
The incident was actually sparked when ‘Rob and Karen’ were observed putting something under the front tire of Mr Knight’s car. When he went to investigate, he found a screw set up to puncture it.
Police have not interviewed the witnesses to this. They also haven’t acted on the video evidence published, which clearly shows Karen Ridge committing several chargeable offences, including (but certainly not limited too) malicious damage and offensive conduct.
Two days ago, New Matilda emailed the Victoria Police media unit a series of questions about their inaction. They simply ignored it.
How is it, you might ask, that an American takeaway restaurant responded more proactively and firmly to an Australian hate-crime than the Mildura Police?
In any event, Mr Knight has since posted an additional video of the encounter – the lead up to Ridge trying to pull the flag town, which is also laden with racism and hatred.
It’s worth watching in full, not least of all to get a sense of how an Aboriginal man responds to two racist goons on his doorstep, spewing abuse.
I’ve long believed that there will never be change in Australia unless and until people start paying a price for their racism.
No politician in Australian history has ever lost their seat because so many Aboriginal people live so poor, and die so young. Lots of politicians, however, have been elected for claiming that Aboriginal people are the cause.
No-one was sacked over the introduction of the Northern Territory intervention. No cop has ever been convicted for a black death in custody. No journalist has ever been sacked for promoting hatred and racism, although quite a few have been dumped for challenging it.
Truth be told, every day, all over the country, there are Robs and Karens spreading the same sort of hatred and ignorance the world got to watch late last year. 99.9 per cent of them will be never held to account, at least not like Rob and Karen were. But things are changing. Slowly. Good things are finally coming to those who wait, and Aboriginal people are very, very good at waiting.
There’s still an awful lot of work to do, obviously. But for me personally, ‘Too strong for you Karen’ reminded me that patience in the face of this sort of hatred is a virtue.
The sort of patience – and generosity of spirit – that was on display in Robby Knight’s garage.
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