Culture

‘I Knew In My Gut, That Singing The Anthem Wasn’t A Reflection Of My History.’

Lawyer, activist and Wiradjuri and Wailwan woman, Teela Reid spoke to Future Women about the Black Lives Matter movement, the Walama Court and the history, truth and experience of First Nations People in Australia.

By Jordaine Chattaway

Culture

Lawyer, activist and Wiradjuri and Wailwan woman, Teela Reid spoke to Future Women about the Black Lives Matter movement, the Walama Court and the history, truth and experience of First Nations People in Australia.

By Jordaine Chattaway

Can we start with the fact that – in the physical world – our public events would always start with an ‘acknowledgement to country’. How important is it for us to continue this as Covid-19 drives the world into a digital era? Unless you are actively working in your business to dismantle colonialism; unless you’re actively working in your families to speak truth, injustice about the history of this country (then) that conversation has to start with an acknowledgement. The more non-Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander people that acknowledge that this land was taken without treaty; without voice; without consent (we will) then turn our minds to the deeper issue that we need to discuss when we’re engaging.

You called for a year of reckoning, not reconciliation in your essay for the Griffith Review recently. Can you tell us more about that? The way in which reconciliation has been implemented in Australia has been sugar-coated. It’s been lip service. It’s been “sorry” speeches. It’s been Reconciliation Action Plans. And what it hasn’t been is it hasn’t delivered on truth and justice for blakfullas. It hasn’t delivered ‘pay the rent’ for land that’s been stolen, and it hasn’t, clearly, delivered accountability for black lives that have been lost in custody or justice in the criminal justice system where we’re seeing our mob being incarcerated at the highest rate. 

What does reckoning look like to you? We must grapple with the power structures that shape our society. And that means getting the difficult task done of the reckoning of “Voice. Treaty. Truth”, as called for in the Uluru Statement, and continuing this conversation around treaties because we’re going to have to have many treaties in Australia … so, my argument for the reckoning was for us to do the hard work and not just give lip service to the narrative about history.

In the essay you shared some of the experiences at school which made you feel conflicted – can you share a little more about that? As a Wiradjuri and Wailwan girl, going to school on my country, I felt very lost. I knew in my gut, that singing the anthem wasn’t a reflection of my history. I knew that looking up to the Australian flag did not represent my people; it represented invasion. I didn’t really understand it at the time, but I had that feeling. 

How did that impact your approach to school? I knew if I worked hard, I could do well. And that was never really a challenge for me because I come from a very smart family. To me, it didn’t matter if I got an F on my report or an A, as long as I was true to myself and true to my family; that’s all that mattered.

When it comes to educating ourselves, regardless of whatever education or mis-education we have had at school, where should we be looking? We should be looking internally; checking our privilege, checking our own individual power, and mobilising collectively. We should not be waiting on politicians because we know that they will always lag behind us. And I urge everyone here to understand your power is so important and it is so powerful.

“As a Wiradjuri and Wailwan girl, going to school on my country, I felt very lost. I knew in my gut, that singing the anthem wasn’t a reflection of my history. I knew that looking up to the Australian flag did not represent my people; it represented invasion.”

The Uluru Statement calls for a First Nations Voice to Parliament. In your essay you stated “The power and success of that Voice depends on its public status” – what needs to happen to validate the Voice? What we’re seeking is to enshrine a voice that’s able to speak to the entirety of Parliament on issues that affect us – that’s it – just to the issues that affect us. And if we’re able to pass that through a referendum, it simply means that … no other government (can) take it away. 

Have previous governments stripped the First Nations of their voice in the past? We’ve had voices in the past. We’ve had the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission … when that got too powerful in the 90s and 2000s, that was when Howard came along and abolished it because it was only legislated. So, we’re saying that in order to hear us – the most basic thing – and to be accountable for our communities, (we need) to have a voice in the Constitution as a starting point … It’s not the solution to everything, but it’s a starting point in redistributing power. 

So, First Nations people are simply asking for a say in decisions affecting their own communities? We know that for so long power has been within the hands of political elites who tell Aboriginal communities, what they can do; how they should do it, and why. What we’re saying is … the decisions that affect our communities should come from our communities. And that’s the most basic ask … that anything that is determined at a local community level is driven by the community. We want the power to make decisions over our lives. And we want that power to be durable. We want it to go beyond government. 

What issues have risen in the past from not having a Voice to Parliament? We don’t want to see government, again, running and putting the Northern Territory Intervention into our communities. We don’t want the government to have another Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody when there’s no accountability when they produce million dollar reports and don’t implement the recommendations. What we don’t want is government saying that they’re putting millions of money into Aboriginal Affairs when in fact, it goes to non-Aboriginal organisations. 

Have you been offered explanations as to why this hasn’t happened already? “It’s a referendum – referendums are hard” but it’s such a cop out; it’s such a cop out in this country, because no Aboriginal person would be here if we didn’t know how hard it was to fight for our survival and we’re not going into these conversations, thinking we’re going to lose. It’s politicians who keep saying that, not us.

You mentioned Aboriginal deaths in custody – can we talk about this a little more? The history of Aboriginal people dying at the hands of this State is an issue where there is a lack of accountability. What we have seen since the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody is a lack of accountability where no one has been convicted for these deaths. 

Has Covid-19 had any impact on this issue? During the pandemic, what we witnessed was, in each jurisdiction, a swath of legislation be rolled out where police were given more power to police our communities for global pandemic … for basically a health crisis.  

Can you explain how police having more power is seen as a danger to vulnerable communities? What we know is that where police have more power, it disproportionately affects vulnerable communities. And I’m not just saying it’s just an Aboriginal thing. But Aboriginal people are likely to be more vulnerable; they’re more likely to be homeless; they’re more likely to have mental health issues and we’re more likely therefore to be over-policed and locked up. It has been scary to see the enabling of more police power, because we know we’re at more of a risk of losing our lives as well …

“The history of Aboriginal people dying at the hands of this State is an issue where there is a lack of accountability. What we have seen since the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody is a lack of accountability where no one has been convicted for these deaths.”

What are the failure points of the current system? What we know, as lawyers, and particularly in defence is that by the time anyone gets to court, whether you’re white, or an Aboriginal person, lots of other systemic issues have gone wrong for them. They may have lost their housing; they may have lost their child; they may be in debt and been unable to pay their debt; and even more drastically, they might be experiencing mental health issues and prison becomes a dumping ground. 

You’ve been doing a lot of work in this space. Can you share a little about what you’ve been developing? I have been researching now and working since 2015 on dismantling systemic racism in the criminal justice system, and in New South Wales what we’ve never had is this disrupter within the system to say: “no, our people are not going to prison by the time they get to court”. I’ve created a model with judges and public defenders, what we call Walama Court. 

How does the Walama Court model differ from today’s process? What we’re trying to recognise is that this is a model that can disrupt this disproportionate impact on Aboriginal people, and that we are not going to send people to prison. We’re going to try and enable rehabilitation, which is a purpose of sentencing. But because governments don’t focus on that purpose, it means that they get away with spending billions on prisons. 

So where are you at with the model? So the model is about well, this is your system. Here’s a proposal. We’ve crunched the numbers. We’ve created the model. We’ve done all the hard work, all we need you to do is pass the legislation. And that becomes a political ideology block for many politicians.

We spoke earlier about roadblocks within government – do you see this as a major issue in Australia? People aren’t going around the country pulling down or defacing statues because they don’t like the statue. They’re doing it because they feel powerless. They’re doing it because they’re frustrated. They’re doing it because politicians are not listening to our generation. 

What can we do to make the government listen? I think it’s absolutely time now that we have to step up to this challenge and not be complacent about their dismissals and their low expectations of us to achieve this. I think that for so long, the Australian people have built up this sense of complacency because politicians don’t listen to us. And I think that now is the time for people to take back that power, because they are accountable to us. It’s as simple as writing to your Premier or writing to your local MP or writing to the Minister – those are three things right now; three actions that you can do in terms of taking action on systemic change.

Systemic change is high on public agendas across the globe at the moment. Can you talk to the Black Lives Matter movement and what we’re seeing here in Australia? I think the global movement has really honed home what we have been saying … for so long in our community: stop killing us; stop locking us up. And it’s just been so frustrating to see it’s taken a global movement to do that.

Can you think of a time when Australia has seen this level of momentum for the Black Lives Matter movement previously? In the 60s and 70s in the Black Civil Rights movement in America, that movement where the Black Panthers and those kinds of chapters popped up … were precisely how the civil rights movement happened here in the 60s and 70s. And that is exactly how off the back of those global movements that Australia in 1967 delivered its most successful referendum for Aboriginal people. So we absolutely know when there are global movements that the Australian people step up to the plate. And that referendum it was the highest “yes” vote of over 90%.

The NSW police attempted to have Sydney’s recent protests ‘unauthorised’. Can you explain what you saw in the community when this happened? The night before the protest … the tension started to rise that night because of the social media commentary around whether or not the protest would be authorised. What flows from that is how police use their power. The main issue is … the way in which power is executed and how police are able to exercise their power when it comes to an authorised protest or an unauthorised protest can mean the consequence between people getting locked up, or not getting locked up.

Did you attend the protests? I’d already made a decision that my partner and I … were going to that protest. You speak to any Aboriginal person; what non-Aboriginal law says about our right to protest does not stop us from still protesting; (the same) laws that we say are invalid. 

What did you take away from the day? It showed that non-Aboriginal people continue to show up in solidarity with us. I have been travelling the country … and everywhere we go … speaking to people who have never met Aboriginal people before; when you have the conversation with them, Australian people actually have big hearts. They want to change the system.  And I think that shows such a lack of leadership that we have in this country that it takes people like you and I to start these conversations. Because, the Prime Minister is still saying that slavery didn’t happen in this country.

With that in mind, what would you like to see from Australians to drive this message home? One of the things that as Australian people I think we can get better at is harnessing those calls to action. Where there’s a movement, are we actually actioning that movement? I always try (to) bring my work back to, and my activism back to, allowing people a direction in what systemic change we need. 

So you’re saying the issue is systemic? I’m not saying people are racist. Of course, there are some, but what my activism is about is abolishing systemic racism. And one of the scariest things in my work that I’ve seen is that Australian people themselves don’t understand that their laws are racist; that their system is racist and that this is the reason we have so many Aboriginal deaths in custody because it cultivates a culture of this lack of care for our people. 

Can you expand on what you mean by our system being racist? For example, the Constitution, it’s got a race power in it. It’s embarrassing, because on a global scale, we are the only country that enables our Parliament with that kind of power. It’s draconian. And it’s so behind it’s time that once you start to explain to people: this is how your system is built. This is not my system, but I’m trying to change it with you; walk with me to change it. 

Have you found Australians are open to these ideas? Once you start to unpack the systemic issues and how there is systemic racism, Australian people start to really take ownership of that. And that’s where my call to action is. My call to action is: I want you to help me change your system … because it’s not working. 

It seems the Black Lives Matter movement is given the most attention when the community suffers a death. Are you hopeful the world is focussed enough now to keep this conversation moving forward for good? It’s unfortunate that we’ve always got to have a death or a natural disaster to kick us into action. That point infuriates me. To me, the point is about having power when we’re alive, not when we’re dead. And it shouldn’t take us to lose our brothers and our sisters to a system that’s racist to be heard.

“Once you start to unpack the systemic issues and how there is systemic racism, Australian people start to really take ownership of that. And that’s where my call to action is. My call to action is: I want you to help me change your system … because it’s not working.”

If you could urge Australians to take one thing from the current events, what would it be? The call to action now is absolutely that people harness this energy, this global movement and understand that while things might not necessarily impact you, because you might not experience racism, that you have to understand that these are the systems that are continuing killing us and we need you guys to help us create that change.

And how do you see the media’s role in this? I think that it’s really up to mainstream media and audiences to continually be conscious about elevating First Nations voices right now; that it’s First Nations who have the solutions to these problems, and we’re just calling you guys to action. In so many ways … the media is the fourth arm of government. It’s an accountability mechanism. I think the more that we continue to raise our voices together in the same form, and in the same direction, we will absolutely create the change that we need. 

Do you see that change being felt anytime soon? It takes a while to change things in Australia. The only time we have is now. (We need to) come out of this Black Lives Matter movement a better country for our children; for our future; for us … I want to be the generation that’s remembered for a legacy we left behind, not the generation that copped the crap from Parliament that said that we couldn’t achieve it.

What will it take to turn these tragic events into change? We’ve been waiting 250 years to be heard, put the voice to the people, and we will do the hard work. It just takes some leadership and some courage to imagine a better country for our people. We have to commit our personal and our professional lives to elevating Black Lives Matter, because Black Lives Matter doesn’t mean your life doesn’t matter. We know that non-Aboriginal people’s lives matter but we need our lives to matter right now in terms of creating a change for all of us.

*This is an edited version of an extended interview. To watch the original Facebook Live interview hosted by Jamila Rizvi go to the Future Women – Members Only Facebook page and search: Teela Reid.