From the start, there’s a feeling that this year might be different. It’s the middle of summer but a thick blanket of grey cloud has appeared; it hangs above. By mid-morning, already hundreds have gathered on the steps of Parliament in Melbourne to mark 26 January – Invasion Day. The police are never quite in control. People seep past them and onto the road that they want to keep clear.
“My heart’s flowing with pride”, says Viv Malo, a Goonyandi woman pacing purposefully, microphone in hand, in front of the rally. “I feel like we’re winning.” Speaking later, she estimates the crowd to be ten times bigger than the turn-out has been for the last few years.
“It’s deadly”, say Steve Thorpe, a Gunnai Gunditjmara man. “I think there is a revival of resistance.” Today is a celebration of that resistance.
Elder and long term activist Diana Murray (Wirramul) of the Dja Dja Wurrung, Wamba Wamba and Dhuhhuroa people addresses the crowd with a message for the government: “In Australia, the Aboriginal traditional owners of this country have always been here. We always will be. It has not been wiped away.”
“Mr PM, you’re guilty of trying to wipe us away … Mr PM, you can go to hell”, she says.
As the speeches continue the crowd builds. When the rally starts down Bourke Street it numbers closer to 1,000. Chants of “No pride in genocide!” are led by organisers.
The police rush to get to the front. Within a few blocks it becomes clear why. As the march nears the centre of the city, the police form into a line. A hundred metres behind them is Swanston Street and Melbourne’s official Australia Day parade.
The cops are no match for the crowd that by now knows it: this year is different. Line by line the biggest Invasion Day march in Melbourne’s history streams past the police and onto Swanston Street. The road is flanked by onlookers, four rows deep. Their small, paper Australian flags are held still while they watch a new contingent join the parade.
Among the protesters, the mood is a perfect mix of jubilation and anger. A chant of “What do we want? Justice! When do we want it? Now!” goes up. Wurundjeri woman Mary Edwards, 29, is here with her daughter Regina, 5. She’s chanting so loud her voice cracks. Taking a quick break to get her breath back she explains why she’s here: “This is a protest for Invasion Day as we call it.”
“It’s a peaceful protest. We’re doing it for our ancestors who were raped and murdered back in the days when we were colonised. It’s just a reminder that we’re surviving.” Asked if she expected to be marching down Swanston Street today Mary smiles and says she never expected to come this far.
Answering the same question, Wurundjeri man Jesse Rotunah, 20, says, “Yeah, I expect it to happen every year. I’ll do this every year now until I get old.”
Officials are running around in a panic. “Why don’t you all just get a life?” screams one. Through the speakers rigged up on every corner a voice chastises the parade’s newest entrants. “Today is supposed to be a positive day – this is a happy day.” Eventually it gives up and directs onlookers to leave the area and join “the true Australia Day” further down the road.
But the march continues there. The rally makes it to the Yarra River which marks the end of the city centre. On the banks of the river with the crowd circled around, Viv again takes the microphone.
“This is our land. To anybody whose parade we rained on, don’t take offence. I’m not mad at the people, I’m mad at the government and the entire system. I want the genocide to stop!”
Just a few minutes earlier, as the march neared its end, I asked if she still felt like they were winning. She laughed. “We were the dark horse, 500 to one. We’ve just won it by ten lengths.”