The 1988 March Across Australia

Some months before the Bicentenary Celebrations of Australia, Charles Harris, a Uniting Church aboriginal minister had an idea. Why not organise  a march along the lines of the famous Martin Luther King march and have a great gathering in Sydney on the same day as the celebrations?  The banners would bear the slogan “We Have Survived”. He shared his vision with some of us. We thought it a great idea and set about organising a group to go from West Australia. My old van was painted up and bore prominently a black and a white hand grasping each other and underneath the words “The event we want to celebrate hasn’t yet occurred”. Marching to Sydney wasn’t feasible so we settled on a compromise: on the way we would march through every town in Western Australia.

Although it was twenty six years ago, I remember clearly the day we set off in that two of our number, in true aboriginal style, said it was too hot to go and “couldn’t we go tomorrow?” The power of persuasion was exercised and after a gathering at Yagan’s statue on Herrison Island we set off with the trial run of “marching” being conducted at Mundaring.  Trevor, an aboriginal minister, led the procession carrying a  large cross, the rest followed,  and I came at the end in the van with PA system wound up to full volume. This was re-enacted through every town to the West Australian border. Most of the towns received us in shocked silence with a few vociferously engaging in gratuitous advice. We stayed in Church halls with our staple diet being muesli and meals arranged by various Church organisations

“And the rest,” as they say “is history!”  The TV documentary gave a fair and accurate presentation of the events in Sydney, even to the extent of giving promo prominence to the yellow van which resulted in many friends ringing me up to make sure that I saw it.

One event, however, was not portrayed.  Fourteen thousand was the estimate of those of us who gathered in Hyde Park. We were seated on grass that sloped down to a stage from which the gathering was addressed. When I entered the park, I noticed that there were a number of buses lined up outside. I walked over to them and was somewhat shocked to find that they were filled with uniformed police. I reflected to myself “Fair enough! Emotions are high today and there may be a few hotheads”. The number of police, however, continued to concern me. The speeches were half way through when some of the aforesaid police, complete with truncheons and side arms, started walking through the closely packed crowd seated on the ground. All it needed was for one of them to step on the hand of one of those seated on the ground and we would have a riot on our hands! I got up and asked one of the policemen with as much politeness as I could muster what they were doing. The answer was “We have some outstanding warrants and thought this might be a suitable occasion to enforce them”. To say that I was shocked would be the understatement of the year. It was a recipe for disaster! And it was then that I remembered the busloads of police just outside the gate. I went down to one of the organisers on the stage and informed him of the position. His brow furrowed, he uttered a few well chosen expletives, thanked me for acquainting him with the situation, and said “leave it to me.” He then got up on the stage and with microphone in hand informed the crowd along the following lines. “We have some special visitors with us this morning. Could you please make them welcome to our celebration.” The crowd picked up the cue magnificently and jumped up and shook the hands of the police with words along the lines. “Great to see you here, officer. Welcome to our gathering”. The police were completely non-plussed. They looked to their CO standing at the back and with a wave of the hand received orders to withdraw.

It was the greatest example of the effectiveness of non-violence I have ever seen and tears filled my eyes with admiration.

I returned home a week later still conscious of the event and shuddering at the different outcome that could have occurred. I decided that I really had a responsibility to follow it up. I knew I would get nowhere with the police so decided to lodge an official complaint with the Commonwealth Ombudsman.

On paper replete with my legal qualifications, I lodged a formal complaint and was informed that an enquiry would be instituted. Six weeks later I received official notification from the Ombudsman that enquiries had ascertained that “there was no record of any police being at the gathering”.  My first reaction was “What do they need? Fourteen thousand witnesses?” This soon devolved into a “Such is life!” sigh and renewed thankfulness for the astuteness of that organiser with the microphone.

If he hadn’t got up there, it is likely there would never have been a documentary like the on we saw last night about “Australia’s Selma” with its banner “We have survived!” There would have been only the record of an ugly riot resulting from ……………..

Interesting point that! To what would they have attributed the riot? I do not know but I could make a pretty good guess!




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