The Redfern Tent Embassy survives a third time, a week after another eviction notice was served demanding that they vacate by Sorry Day. For a week now activists, supporters and Redfern locals have come out in numbers to show their support for the Embassy and defy state and private orders for development on the land.
This is the third time that the Embassy has faced an eviction notice from the Aboriginal Housing Company yet police and developers have still failed to show up what they claim is ‘private land.’
Mick Mundine, in conjunction with the AHC, first proposed the creation of the Pemulwuy Project in 2005. It was an ambitious $70 million commercial and residential development badged with the name of the Aboriginal warrior who led the resistance to the first white settlers in Sydney. Endorsed by the AHC in 2007 as an attempt to ensure ownership of traditional land, the concept was lodged with the Department of Planning, which eventually granted approval in 2009.
The original plan was that AHC would rebuild the Block into a modern, affordable housing project for Indigenous people. The project would include 17 storeys, 14 of which would be student housing. There would also be a commercial shopping area.
The Block is legally owned by the AHC. The first houses were purchased on the land when Prime Minister Gough Whitlam provided an initial grant to the AHC in 1973.
The Block became historically significant as the birthplace of urban land rights in Australia. This gave the Block historical significance and it was consequently seen as the first opportunity for Aboriginal people across Australia to celebrate their heritage, rights and community.
The AHC’s website claims that “we are at risk of losing the land if we continue to stand by and allow the wave of crime and drugs to thrive, which gave the government ammunition to justify their position on forcible acquisition of the Block in the first place”.
What they are referring to is development that existed in the 1970’s which was well-known for being a drug hotspot. One of the residents of the original land Lorna Munro said that “it was convenient for the cops to present that image of us, so they had an excuse to shut it down.”
“The cops would come in and destroy our property. They eventually smashed up all of our bathrooms forcing us to leave.”
The eventual turning point in the acquisition of the Block where the now dubbed ‘Redfern Riots’ over the death of a young aboriginal man called TJ Hickey in police custody and claims from the community that he was murdered at the hands of a police man with no justice. This event is what is claimed to be the justification for removing aboriginal housing in the 1970’s.
To this day, there are still protests to draw attention to what is said to be the police murder of TJ Hickey.
In 2015, the Tent Embassy has a “no drugs or alcohol” policy, which the aunties and other residents of the embassy strictly maintain. Mundine, who has been to the Tent Embassy many times, is aware of this policy.
In a rushed move on February 20, amid fears the NSW government would take back control of the project, AHC said in a statement: “We do now need to get on with the Pemulwuy Project so that we can ensure an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander-controlled future”.
However, the project represents commercial interests more than those of Aboriginal people. When asked by the Sydney Morning Herald whether the development would provide affordable housing to Aboriginal people, Mundine said: “That’s on the backburner at the moment. Our first priority is the commercial build.”
“In 10 years the Block will belong to developers, that’s my sad prediction,” said Jenny Munro, one of the founders of the AHC who is now holding fort at the embassy. She is skeptical of the current management’s ability to deliver affordable housing on the Block.
For Sol Bellear, another founder of the AHC and chairperson of the Aboriginal Medical Service in Redfern, the Pemulwuy project smacks of “overreach” and a departure from the AHC’s primary mission to look after the housing needs of less well-off Indigenous people.
The Embassy has really defied all odds including numerous assaults on the property from armed assailants entering the property. Wiradjuri elder Auntie Jenny Munro, and Lorna Munro and Raymond Munro have all been assaulted while at the Block. Jenny Munro and Tepora Stevens, another activist on site, were assaulted by a man carrying a piece of wood at the Block in August last year. During the incident, a woman’s arm was broken. Saoisi Tonga, was charged with intimidation shortly afterwards.
The police had already received numerous complaints from RATE residents about Tonga but had not acted on them. One of the complaints, lodged a week before the assault, said Raymond Munro and another activist at RATE, James Miles, had received death threats from Tonga.
Jenny Munro has filed numerous requests for a Personal Violence Order against Tonga — none of which were followed up by police.
In an area of increasing gentrification, the Block is the last chance Aboriginal people have left to hold onto an area that gave them their first land rights. In the past two years AHC has sold $2.4 million worth of land assets, boosting its reserves to nearly $3 million. Included in this sell-off were five terrace houses across the road from the Block. The houses have since been renovated and now command rents of up to $1100 a week.
Rent prices on Eveleigh Street in 1975 while it was owned by the AHC
Sale prices today after AHC sold the land
Lorna Munro, said that the Block is one of the key centres for black empowerment in the country.
“This is the birthplace of black power and land rights and self-determination as we know it. You get rid of the Aboriginal faces here, you get rid of the Aboriginal faces everywhere.”
The NSW state government and the AHC are prioritizing the opportunity to milk the cash cow the Block has the potential to be, over addressing the current social cleansing and broader ethnic cleansing of its rightful landowners.
What is the way forward? Ask an elder. Here is some footage from an aboriginal community closures rally outlining the way in which reappropriation of land to the First Nations people could occur.