From the back of a beaten white truck, demonstrators took to a microphone to deliver speeches before a heaving crowd. They urged strong action and told painful stories, narratives remarkably similar to the plight of Native Americans in the United States. Stories of being sidelined into the far corners of society. Stories of death, murder and a troubled justice system, of poor health care, poor education, destruction of the land and extreme poverty.
“No pride in genocide!” they shouted, a slam to the boosterism many in their country feel about Australia Day.
“No pride in genocide!”
The march moved slowly through downtown, stopping traffic in all directions for nearly a mile. Among the organizers — a group made up mostly of local women known as Warriors of the Aboriginal Resistance — apprehension filled the air. On Bourke Street, normally choked with cars and light-rail trains, everyone stopped for a while. Word had seeped through the crowd that white nationalists were nearby, looking to taunt, or maybe something worse. From the heart of the demonstration, the thick of it, nobody could see if this was true.
Then the throng pressed forward to finish the three-fourths-mile demonstration at the city’s Flinders Street rail station. There were tears of joy, anger and devastation, and Indigenous elders wearing T-shirts with the red, black and yellow Indigenous flag, and families walking with children. “I came here to show my kids that there has been resistance, that we were not just victims, which is what we are taught in the schools,” said Clayton Ison, 41, a social worker, balancing his young daughter on his broad shoulders so she could get a better look. “I came to show them that there are people who stand up and fight.”
What about the Indigenous athlete in Australia?
“They have to be very careful,” one protester said, echoing a refrain I heard repeatedly. “They have to choose their words carefully, or they get told they are out of line. We understand and we support them still.”
The Aboriginal athlete whose name I heard mentioned most often was a cautionary tale: the Australian rules football player Adam Goodes. Among the best players of the early 2000s, Goodes was outspoken about the racism he faced and publicly celebrated Indigenous culture. He paid a stiff price, becoming the target of sustained booing and taunts that caused him to take a leave from the game in 2015, and then retire at the end of that year.
What about the Australian Ashleigh Barty? Barty, 23, is the top-ranked female tennis player in the world. As it happens, she has Aboriginal roots on her father’s side and calls herself “proudly Indigenous.” She is only the second Indigenous Australian to make a mark in top-flight tennis. The first was Evonne Goolagong, a seven-time winner of Grand Slam singles events who reached No. 1 in the 1970s.