On “Australia Day” / Invasion Day

Black Panther Billy X Jennings and Aboriginal activist Gary Foley will be speaking at Marxism 2013 28-31 March in Melbourne. Jeremy Gibson introduces these two anti-racist heroes.

In the wake of Invasion Day on the 26th of January, questions of racial identity and racial discrimination in Australia have once again been thrown into the spotlight of discussion. Despite protestations to the contrary, racism is alive and kicking in Australia today, in as virulent and oppressive a form as it has ever been.

Alongside the sordid history of racism, however, is an inspiring history of anti-racist resistance and struggle. There are countless examples of the latter, but two figures that are especially impressive in what they’ve attempted and achieved are Indigenous activist Gary Foley and Black Panther Billy X Jennings. Whilst they worked in different countries, and under very different conditions, their common fight against racism is one rich with experience and lessons that anyone concerned about racism today can draw upon.

Gary Foley is perhaps the most prominent Indigenous activist in Australia today, having been fighting for Indigenous rights for over 40 years under successive governments that have attempted to continue the same set of discriminatory policies and practices that so viciously target Indigenous Australia.

Foley’s first venture into the realm of Indigenous campaigning was in 1972 when he helped set up the Aboriginal Legal Service, the establishment of which was aimed at providing accessible legal counsel to the Indigenous population of Redfern, a Sydney suburb known (then and now) for its large police presence and high rates of harassment and arrest of Indigenous people.

Going on from this, Foley was a key organiser of the 1971 protests against the touring Springboks, the apartheid-era South African rugby team. The parallels between the situation of black South Africans and Indigenous Australians were clear, which led to an important point made by all the great anti-racist struggles of this era: a victory against racism anywhere in the world made it that much easier for that same victory to be won elsewhere. Or, as Martin Luther King Jr. conversely said: “ Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere”.

Perhaps Foley’s most famous contribution was his central role in the Aboriginal Tent Embassy, first established in Canberra  1972, in order to pressure the federal government into granting Aboriginal Land Rights; in other words, Indigenous control of Indigenous land. The embassy format is a powerful message in of itself: Indigenous Australians were so marginalised and abused by the Australia state that they felt like an alien people, disenfranchised and completely unable to be represented by the government. Foley is involved withy the Tent Embassy to this day, as its work is far from over  – recent developments like the Northern Territory Intervention are a testament to this.

Across the Pacific, In the 1960s, the heyday of radical political struggle in the United States, one anti-racist organisation stood head and shoulders above the pack in terms of its militancy and commitment to fighting racism – The Black Panther Party. Founded in 1966 in response to increasingly violent police attacks on black communities, the Black Panthers aimed to politically organise black Americans to defend themselves from racist violence and wrest control of their lives from the American state. As declared in their founding Ten Point Platform: “We believe that black people will not be free until we are able to determine our destiny.”

Billy X Jennings joined the Black Panthers in 1968, upon moving to Oakland, the home of the Party. This was a period immediately following the civil rights struggle of the past decade, during which many legal reforms were won to formally end discrimination against blacks. The appeal of the Black Panthers was their analysis of the fundamentally racist nature of the American state; they argued that whilst legal reforms had been won, these were largely tokenistic as long as black people were still being harassed and murdered by racist police, and continued to suffer from dire economic oppression and poverty.

The Black Panthers are best known for their use of guns as a means of self-defence against racist violence, but Jennings believes that the most important work the Party did was the programs that reached out to the mass of black Americans – free breakfasts for schoolchildren, free medical clinics, free transport for families of jailed people to visit their relatives. Jennings argues that these programs were at the core of the Black Panthers’ fight against racism, not just because they helped poor blacks, but because they brought together massive numbers of black people, who normally would have no opportunity to fight against the system that oppressed them, into an environment where they could talk to each other and become involved in the struggles of the movement.

Billy X Jennings now runs It’s About Time, the archive of Black Panther Party publications and memorabilia. The commitment to this project is based on his belief that, despite the eventual collapse of the Black Panther Party, the racist oppression it fought against is still present in American society, and has in fact worsened over the past few decades, meaning the lessons that can be learnt from the history of the Black Panthers are essential to those looking to fight against racism today.

The International Socialists are supporting the Marxism conference.