Across the world the last words of a dying man I can’t breathe has rallied people to rise us against structural racism. He wasn’t the first to utter them and sadly he won’t be the last. These words were also recorded as the last words of David Dungay Jr, a 26-year-old Dunghutti man from Kempsey, who died in police custody at Long Bay prison hospital in 2015. What does it mean to breathe? To have life in the body and then have it extinguished? The pressure of other bodies on yours, to be held face down, to be unable to move and to cry out with your last gasp of air must surely be terrifying. We need to bring this story in, Australia. Yesterday in my city thousands gathered in the Square. This public gathering space is in the shape of a Kaurna shield and its name in Kaurna is Tarntanyangga and the plain on which the city is known as Tandanya – land of red kangaroo dreaming. The square is known as Victoria Square and was named after the British monarch Princess Victoria who went on to become Queen Victoria. Her statue is at one end of the space now and towering above her are the Australian and Aboriginal flags. It is the place that the Aboriginal flag was first flown back on July 12 in 1971 NAIDOC (National Aborigines Day Observance Committee) Week. I was in year 8 at the school closest to the Square and I can remember it happening as our school celebrated the week and the school I went to run by the Sisters of Mercy were (and continue to be) very involved in justice activities for Aboriginal peoples. One of the elders Major Moogy Sumner got the crowd to look up to the flag yesterday and tell his story of how he was in the square when it was first flown.
This place was also the place where Pitjantjatjara Elders sat down and met, before they approached Premier Don Dunstan about their Native Title claim. It took a few more years before the claim was law under Premier Tonkin. In SA we had the first land rights act prior to the 1967 Referendum (Aboriginal Lands Trust Act 1966 (SA) established the South Australian Aboriginal Lands Trust).
These are stories we should all know in South Australia and the square has both names Tarntanyangga/Victoria Square which gives me a lot of encouragement. Yesterday it became worthy of both those names. Those of us non-indigenous people led by Aboriginal First Nations people, supported by non-indigenous black and brown people, supported by non-indigenous white people was the cadence of the day. I love to see the surge of people coming from all corners arriving into one place, the gathering of all the tribes of humanity under a watchful sky. The square, now a shield completely full and containing us all like a mother who has gathered up all her offspring. Respect and solidarity were in the air and on everyone’s lips and in the applause and in the silences.
None of us can breath easy until there is a just settlement. It seems so fundamental to me the relationship between the land and people, and separation from land (and sea) manifests in our whole species and other species as well, being unable to breathe. We have come to this junction brought to our knees by a virus. I keep cycling back in my thinking to First Nations having borne the brunt of capitalism manifested in colonialism, founded on patriarchy – a kind of universal Father knows Best worldview.
Yesterday the First Nation voices were predominantly women across a number of generations, offering up their pain as a way into us getting a glimpse of what it means to be courageous and driven to use what breath there is in the body to be used to cry out for justice. I was moved time and time again with the fountain in front of the speakers as it rose and fell and danced with the words. There were times when it seemed the water was programmed exactly to fall silent when space was needed, and rise higher when the applause grew lounder. It was so aligned – the water baptising, healing and washing away and celebrating calling us to renewal. It was profound and poetic. The words from Amos:But let justice roll down like waters,and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream quoted by Martin Luther King in his I have a Dream speech were echoing in my head and then the next speaker was from Memphis telling us his story as a young black man growing up in the shadows of the Lorraine Motel where MLK was assassinated. I am forever grateful to have visited there as part of the Gospel music tour I did in 2016 with Tony Backhouse. These connections and the universal structural racism I too perpetuate with my everyday white privilege is uncomfortable, but not life threatening. I will never be in a position where I have to fight for my own survival as an individual.
I took this photo yesterday as I left the rally. The blue sky above and the rising eucalyptus trees grounded in the earth with the flag between them both. Let justice unfurl like a flag.