Jenny Munro is a Wiradjuri woman from Erambie Reserve who has fought tirelessly for Aboriginal people in their quest for social justice and land rights. She became politically active in 1972 at the age of 17 and hasn’t wavered since. In May, she helped establish an Aboriginal Tent Embassy at the Block in Redfern to protest against a decision by the Aboriginal Housing Company to commercialise the land.
The following is an interview with Munro, conducted by Socialist Alternative’s Kay Dook, about the founding of the Block and the fight for its soul today.
The Block was just a set of derelict houses when I came here in 1972. I finished high school that year. It was probably the most exciting period I could ever imagine: the politics, the land rights movement, the Tent Embassy. There was a chapter of the Black Panther Party here in Redfern as well.
Two organisations that were trying to improve things for Aboriginal people at the time were the Aboriginal Legal Service and the Aboriginal Medical Service. The dynamics with those groups led to the creation of the Aboriginal Housing Company (AHC).
The constitution and everything was drawn up, membership was sought, and the company was registered in late ’72 I think. They went to Canberra in ’73 and spoke to the then minister for Aboriginal affairs, Gordon Bryant, and they were successful in obtaining funds for the purchase of the houses.
So the houses were bought freehold at auction, and that was the beginning of the AHC. The houses were restored and renovated. It was all done bit by bit. The next lot of houses were bought and restored. It probably took five to ten years just to acquire the houses around the Block.
It was the first piece of land we got back in our fight for recognition and land rights – and this was freehold land; we owned it. It was an icon for Black people. People from all over the country could come here, get a bed, get a feed and probably find a family member without too much trouble. So it served its people very, very well during those early years.
Back then, if you were Aboriginal, you couldn’t get a rental property anywhere. It was racism in the extreme, and that racism still exists in the agencies and bureaucracies; most real estate agents today are still very averse to renting to Aboriginal people.
It was only during Michael Mundine’s time as head of AHC that the notoriety and the dysfunction came to the Block … Mundine was involved in dobbing his own people in to the police, certainly not dobbing in his family members though. This was all through the middle to late ’80s and through the ’90s.
Mundine has profited from the whole arrangement for a long time. The AHC have got no money for houses or anything but he can still find a good wage for himself. There are some serious questions that need to be asked about the funds – the company exists for the houses, not Micky’s wage.
Australia is getting more, not less racist. They are getting more desperate to protect what they have stolen. They still want to assimilate us into being white. We have to insist that we are Black – we don’t have to live their way if we don’t want to. We have our own system that has held us in very good stead for many years, and we have the right to practise it no matter what racist white Australia uses to justify their murder, their theft and their rape of the Aboriginal people.
We are now going through the appalling situation where the crimes that were committed 200 years ago are happening again – they are stealing our children, stealing our land. They keep trying to divide and conquer us with idiots like Warren Mundine [chair of the government’s Indigenous Advisory Council] and Noel Pearson. These people want to be white; they want to roll over and be white. But they can’t demand that the rest of us roll over and be white with them. We don’t need it.
We have a proud lineage, a proud history. Warren Mundine and Pearson and the like are ambitious. Warren is a classic example of ambition ruling over logic. Pearson is a dangerous person; he really believes in the ideology, is very conservative. Pearson is a commodity that both Liberal and Labor can roll out to justify their racist legislation.
We have to stand up to the government – tell them what we think. Tell them that we don’t need you, don’t want you, you’re not welcome. That’s what the Tent Embassy is about. There is now a 42-year tradition of tent embassies, of agitating for our rights.
Our people have survived the white invasion. We are still Black. We are still a community. And we are much more astute than we are given credit for.
What has happened is a genocide by bullets and genocide by policy. We have fought throughout our history. We have fought the Red Coats, the mounted police, and now we just fight the police. We’re still fighting. Today the street police are just as racist as they always have been. There is an institutional, entrenched racism. The racism exists in all of the institutions across Australia, so just fucking around with legislation isn’t going to change anything.
Our people have maintained connections, through song lines, for thousands and thousands of years. And now we have these people who came, uninvited, who imposed their barbarity upon us.
We will stay here. We’ve got no inclination to move. We’re gonna smoke them out, call their bluff. It always was, and always will be Aboriginal land. We have the right to decide, as a community, what happens on our land.