OPINION: The Keep Sydney Open Movement Fails to Meaningfully Engage With Indigenous Rights
By Madeline Ward
It’s been almost 5 years since the Lockout Laws were introduced in NSW. In those few years, we’ve seen many iconic venues close: the Sydney Morning Herald estimated as many as 176 by May of 2018. The effect of the lockout laws is highly visible: the streets are quieter, the jobs are fewer, and the energy of the city has decreased. It’s due to this, and the persistence of groups such as Keep Sydney Open (KSO) and Save Live Australian Music (SLAM), that the issue of a dying Sydney nightlife has dominated the press cycle for at least the past 4 years. Rallies organised by Keep Sydney Open attract crowds in their thousands, with the latest spate of festival closures and public discussion on pill testing only increasing the wave of public support for the issue. The effect of the lock out laws, as well as the government’s attempts to regulate festival culture into an early grave, is a worthy issue. It’s understandable that people are upset at the what they perceive to be an attack on youth culture, as well as the hospitality and live music industries. I seek not to question the importance of these issues, but to question the importance of these issues to the exclusion of all others, particularly Indigenous rights.
Much of what is being reported as the effects of the lockout laws: increased police presence, strict regulation of alcohol consumption and a renewed push in the war on drugs are things that have been used to impose state violence on Indigenous communities for decades. In 2018 The Guardian found that 147 Indigenous people have died in police custody in the past decade, and that 407 Indigenous people had died since the Royal Commission into Deaths in Custody in 1991. Indigenous people are disproportionately targeted by police for alleged offences relating to public drunkenness and disorder, many of which result in incarceration. KSO lists 6 policies on its website relating to civil liberties and “the nanny state”, not one of which mentions Black deaths in custody. “Police are there to protect us, not arrest us!” accompanies the second last policy in this section. This statement, a vast oversimplification of the role of the police force in a settler colonial state, is in particularly poor taste. The idea that police provide protection in any capacity, when knowing the extent of the violence they perpetuate against Indigenous communities daily, is a fallacy.
On Thursday the 21st of February, thousands gathered in Hyde Park for the Don’t Kill Live Music (DKLM) Rally. The Anti-Colonial Asian Alliance (AAA), a grassroots activist group that works in solidarity with First Nations Peoples, peacefully disrupted the event, holding banners that read “Whose Land are You Partying On?” and “Always Was, Always Will be Aboriginal Land.” In an email to DKLM organisers prior to the event, the AAA said:
“You’ve named your protest “Don’t Kill Live Music” and we absolutely agree with you that Sydney’s music scene has been under attack for some years now, but that same state government that is killing live music is at the very same time killing rivers and waterways, destroying cultures and countries that have been maintained for thousands of years before we even got here, and murdering Indigenous folk with impunity through the brutal and racist prison system and decades of political and economic disenfranchisement”
DKLM responded to the Anti-Colonial Asian Alliance by acknowledging the privileged space that they occupy, and explaining that they were seeking guidance in their solidarity with First Nations Peoples: and yet the MCs of the rally delivered a speech wherein they stated that Sydney was “founded by Drunken Sailors”. The insensitivity of such a statement is profoundly dissapointing. As the AAA pointed out to rally organisers, the DKLM rally was likely the first many in the crowd had attended. If DKLM, SLAM and Keep Sydney Open had engaged meaningfully with First Nations issues and voices, it might not have been their last.
The only policy on the Keep Sydney Open website that explicitly pertains to Indigenous Rights is found at the very end of the list, and seeks to “Permanently fly the Aboriginal Flag from the Sydney Harbour Bridge.” In 2018 the Berejiklian government introduced a forced adoption bill that Indigenous community leaders and activists have said will create another Stolen Generation. Keep Sydney Open are running a candidate for State Parliament. Where is their engagement with this issue? Why are they not encouraging the thousands that attend their rallies to attend those organised by groups such as Grandmothers Against Removals or FIRE? Indigenous rights should be more than a tokenistic sentence at the end of a policy list. A “progressive” political movement that does not centre Indigenous rights and activism in its own work can never truly call itself progressive.