Gary Foley, one of the main leaders of the Black Power Movement in Australia says the literature of Malcolm X and other writers of the US civil rights era influenced Australia's Indigenous thought and action against white supremacy.
Gary Foley is sitting back in his red chair, looking into a camera for an interview about Australia’s very own civil rights movement. It’s a story you wouldn’t hear about at a school in Australia, to Gary’s bemusement. He’s spent his life living and reflecting, from his days as an activist turned actor turned academic.
And now, in a studio in Melbourne’s Coburg north in late 2016, he prepares to tell us, as a historian would, about history that isn’t taught – Australia’s Black Power Movement. But before we get to Redfern, one of the hubs of Indigenous resistance in the country, and the many moments in the era of the 70s, we have to go back to what pushed Gary into the thick of action.
The turning point you could say was moving to Nambucca Heads, a rural town in New South Wales, to stay with his grandmother, as his parents left for Queensland.
He could be at school during the week and “sit next to any of these white kids in class” but as soon as the weekend came, and people flooded into the “local picture theatre” as Gary, who's 67 now, calls it, his classmates and him particularly knew there were different rules. A rope dividing the cinema set the status quo. Aboriginal people were made to sit at the front of the cinema, while “all the white people sat up the back.” The material feel of segregation was new for Gary, who escaped much of the racism in Tenterfield because of his father's prowess on the Rugby field for the town's local team and the fact there weren’t that many Aboriginal people in Tenterfield.
But Nambucca would face a challenge, as did most segregated towns in rural New South Wales, when a bus full of wide-eyed University of Sydney student activists led by Charlie Perkins, the first Aboriginal man to graduate from a university, rolled up and demanded desegregation.
The 1965 freedom rides saw the bus full of student activists travel “across the notoriously racist enclaves of Northern New South Wales on a bus.” The journey drew international attention exposing the segregation that lived in rural Australia to a global audience.
For Gary, there was something significant about the freedom rides in northern New South Wales. “It was a really significant event in my life,” he says, “and the lives of young Aboriginal kids in northern New South Wales.” What happened in 1965 just wasn’t something he, and his peers of the time were used to. The freedom rides was the first time in Gary’s life he “had seen an Aboriginal man stand up to the local Klu Klux Klan types and walk away intact.”
Racial profiling and meeting the African American soldiers
Before moving to live with his grandmother in Nambucca Heads, Gary couldn’t imagine life beyond Tenterfield, it just wasn’t in his vocabulary. But a new student named Hunter had enrolled in his school, and as new kids do, he felt different amongst the monotony of the classroom.
He told Gary to tune into his radio dial late at night, this “long before the days of television,” and look for a faint signal. What Gary found was what he called “a great disc jockey” in the infamous John Laws, who at that time went by the name of “the thinner record spinner.” He introduced Gary to music and a realisation that proved invaluable “a world beyond Tenterfield.”
But to get to this world beyond Tenterfield or Nambucca Heads was problematic for Gary and any Aboriginal person in NSW. Because from 1883 until the late 60s, the NSW Aboriginal Board controlled the lives of Aboriginal people in NSW. Professor John Maynard, Director of Purai Global Indigenous and Diaspora Research Studies Centre, wrote in the Conversation, the “board was not of protection, but persecution.” Maynard continued, they impacted the lives of Indigenous people through “policies of segregation, assimilation, child removal and wage withholding continued for decades and the negative results are still visible today.”
It’s something that still sticks in the throat of Gary, as it would for anyone, but he told me as “the old apartheid system in NSW,” the Aboriginal Protection Board was breaking down in the late 60s, it opened the floodgates for a great migration. Gary was very much a part of the migration as “the chains loosened on the old protection board system,” slowly giving Aboriginal people in NSW “a degree of freedom of movement” and a way out.
But the great migration had repercussions, moving to what Gary described as this “big white place” where in Redfern there was this “little black enclave, this black ghetto, and I think that made a lot people in Sydney nervous.”
Gary recalls one afternoon when he was grabbed by the police in railway square in Sydney, taken to the police station where they “bashed the shit out of me” with thick Sydney telephone books. The officers forced Gary to plead guilty to a crime he didn’t commit – and that’s something that “really got the fire” in his belly. What irritated him the most was that he was bashed and accused of something he didn’t do. He describes the incident as his “real political education.”
A few days later, Gary met Paul Coe – the man who he’d eventually set up the Australian Black Panther Party with – at the foundation of Aboriginal affairs. Coe handed Gary a book, it was the autobiography of Malcolm X. The connection was “instant”. Gary felt Malcolm X was an expression of defiance for the African American communities in the US. Their situation, in terms of police brutality and poverty, mirrored the experience “of us young black fellas” in Redfern. The book was the first, Gary said he “ever really read,” and less than two weeks later Coe told Gary he was starting a discussion group “amongst us young people in Redfern” to tackle police brutality. He “didn’t have to ask” Gary twice, because the memories of his “bashing was still fresh” in his mind.
The group was small, and included Paul Coe, Gary’s cousin Gary Williams, Leanne Thomas and Bobby Blair. And as they were beginning to discuss the issues facing Indigenous people in Redfern, there was a sudden “influx” of African American soldiers in Sydney on rest and recuperation from the Vietnam war. Gary tells me, one of the first things the African American soldiers did was ask “where’s all the blacks,” he laughed, and said, “there were no blacks in Sydney, except us.”
The soldiers visited Redfern to meet with “black people like them.” The soldiers shared their stories from Oakland California and made Gary and others in Redfern aware of the Black Panther Party in the US. But the most important element of the meeting was the soldiers shared black American political literature ranging from Cease the Time by Bobby Seale, Sole on Ice by Eldridge Cleaver and writings of Stokely Carmichael and other radical African American thinkers. This was the first time, Gary said, “we’d been able to get our hands on this sort of literature” because it just wasn’t available in Australia in the late 60s.
The legal battle
The Black Power movement forming in Redfern appreciated the political rhetoric coming out of Oakland but were most interested in the “social political programs” that created a sense of self-determination through community organising.
They learned about the Oakland Panthers’ tactics of combating police harassment by monitoring the police through a program called the “pig patrol”. The program started after Huey Newton researched California law and found a loophole that enabled the Black Panthers to carry weapons under certain circumstances.
The patrol, as Gary explains, meant “monitoring police activity in the black community,” and if a police car drove into the black community in Oakland Black Panthers draped in their black leather jackets and berets would follow suit with their shotguns. The message was, as Gary put it, “if you kill any of our community, we will kill you.” Paul Coe, the first Aboriginal person to study law at UNSW, was curious if such a law existed in NSW. Gary jokes that no law existed “mercifully” for him because otherwise he “probably wouldn’t be sitting and talking to” me today.
But the group had decided the police still needed to be monitored and if not by shotguns, then by pen and paper. They began collecting information on where, when and how the police harassed and profiled Aboriginal people in Redfern, particularly at the “Aboriginal only pub” the Empress Hotel in Redfern, which Gary unaffectionately called “the Big E.” Gary tells me that from Thursday to Saturday night the police would make their way to the Big E with their paddy wagons out the back and grab Indigenous people into the wagons and “take them to any nearby police station where people would be bashed,” and like what happened to Gary when he first moved to Redfern “any unsolved crimes would be solved” through coercion.
In the background, during the violence and police beat downs on Aboriginal people, Gary, Paul Coe and others from the Redfern community were documenting it all. But they had all this information about police harassment and excessive force but nowhere to go with it. Paul Coe suggested to Gary, why don’t we make an appointment to see the Dean of Law at UNSW Professor Hal Wootten? Gary remembers that Coe was “the little brown eyed boy of the Dean” being the only Aboriginal student in the faculty. Paul Coe made the meeting with Professor Wootten, they “took this big pile of paper and slapped it on his desk, saying we want you to read this, and we’ll come back next week to talk to you about it.
They came back the following week, and Gary recounts Wootten’s response saying, “I can’t believe this sort of thing is happening in NSW in 1969,” and Gary and Paul Coe looked at him and said, "there’s one way you can find out." They said, "come to the Empress Hotel," and much to their surprise Wootten agreed. But they gave the professor a tip saying, "this isn’t the sort of place you’ve ever been before, so come dressed casual."
Professor Wootten came to the Big E with an “immaculate sportcoat” and a cravat around his neck. They sat him on the corner, gave him a lemon squash and said, “watch, you’ll see for yourself and you’ll know.” The police turned up on time grabbing and bashing people, Gary joked, “if we paid them they couldn’t have put on a better performance.” At one point, Professor Wootten got up and went to walk out from his seat, Gary rushed over and asked him, “where are you going? He said I’m going to intervene,” Gary said, “No, we don’t want you to end up in the wagon. Your job is to sit here and see. You wanted to see, now sit down and look.”
The following week Gary and Paul Coe met with Professor Wootten, he said to the two, "What do we do?" Gary remembers with exasperation replying, “What do you mean what do we do? That’s the reason we came to see you.” But Paul Coe had an idea, he was reading about these “shopfront free legal aid centres in poor communities in New York and asked Wootten, 'can’t we do that?'” Gary tells me, “Wootten rattled off seven different reasons,” but Coe wasn’t taking no for an answer. Gary recalls Coe saying, "A lot of your ex students are progressive young people who are volunteering. Why can’t you round up a few of them who would be prepared to help?"
Less than six weeks later, they opened “the first shopfront free legal aid centre in Australia,” Gary proudly says. “We introduced free legal aid into the Australia context.”
Impact – what did it do?
The Black Power Movement “shifted the focus.” For Dr Thalia Anthony, an Associate Professor in Law at the University of Technology Sydney, it moved the conversation from a discussion of “civil rights to the empowerment of Indigenous people.” No longer were Indigenous people just going to be included into society but were demanding self-determination and sovereignty.
The movement left a real material legacy. And for Professor John Maynard, Director of Purai Global Indigenous and Diaspora Research Studies Centre, the greatest moment in Aboriginal political history is “unquestionably the establishment of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy,” the protest that continues to this day on the lawns of Parliament House that began all those years ago in 1972.
And like the tent embassy, other monuments of Black Power still remain. The Aboriginal Legal Service of New South Wales set up by activists in Redfern is one of the remnants of the movement, and after it was setup by 1974 there was an Aboriginal Legal Service in every state and territory.
It saw Indigenous people have greater inclusion in Australian society, Dr Anthony says. It included the right to vote, equal pay and social security. The movement saw overtime, the growth of Indigenous-owned organisations and ultimately a national body: the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission.
But most importantly, the movement provided a language, a frame of reference for political actions in Australia, and as Paul Coe said in 1972, Black Power “is the policy of self-assertion, self-identity. It is our policy.” That policy created transnational solidarity movements without government or support from NGOs and saw real and substantial exchange in ideas and politics. This was in the late 1960s a time before we could tweet, share or email. The meeting between the Aboriginal community in Redfern and the African American soldiers was history making. And what followed lives on to this day.