Resistance From Beyond the Coloniser State: reflections from a few days at the DjabWurrung Heritage Protection Embassy

(from my notebook): The embassy is spread across three camp sites, each a few kilometres apart. It is a beautiful stretch of bush, a land signposted by awesome gums with secret hollows and gnarly limbs – the sacred birthing trees of the DjabWurrung people. You feel the presence of history in this country, of lives having passed through here for millenia, existing in symbiosis with everything this landscape provides. And all fully framed by the stunning, imposing presence of the sandstone outcrops and ranges known as Gariwerd. The highway cuts through like a scar, and the state of Victoria now intends to prise it open, creating a seeping, exposed wound.

DjabWurrung Heritage Protection Embassy stands as a blockage against the incessant flow of colonising, state violence that attempts to wash away all trace of the cultural and environmental custodianship that Aboriginal people claim over this land. In this moment, that violence takes a most banal form – a state infrastructure project to widen the already existing highway between Melbourne and Adelaide. This would eradicate a site of sacred importance to the DjabWurrung people, including an 800 year old birthing tree that has seen over 50 generations born in the hollow of its trunk (more here).

Whether colonising violence takes the form of banal infrastructure projects, voracious resource extraction, barely-disguised policies of assimilation or direct, brutal repression, the resistance of Indigenous people here, and around the world, takes on the urgency of a fight for cultural and bodily survival. It becomes a radical imperative for those of us who aren’t Indigenous to act in solidarity with these struggles. However, in the face of such an onslaught, it often becomes difficult to see that such anti-colonial resistance contains an element beyond the immediate necessity to defend what’s left and beyond restitution for the damages of colonisation. These struggles are also, more often than not, generative. That is, they foment the necessary conditions – outside state control – that create collectively lived moments in the present that can demonstrate potential ways out of the mess we find ourselves in. DjabWurrung Embassy is exemplary of this.

the primacy of Indigenous struggle

One of the moments that has stuck with me from spending time at DjabWurrung was when Traditional Owner D.T. Zellenach asserted that this struggle was the center, the frontline. I wanted to ask what his full meaning was in saying that, but I figured that there were more immediate, important matters to attend to. The urgency of preparing to defend this sacred site and the birthing trees from destruction is enough to encapsulate the need to center this campaign. But I also felt that there were other layers that Zellenach was alluding to, a possible reference to unceasing ecological crises, the ravages of colonisation and capitalism that exploits and diminishes all of our lives and the environments that we exist in. So while the DjabWurrung Embassy has specific roots that determine it’s importance in the here and now, it is also the center because it is a manifestation of resistance and alternative possibilities to the totalising, empty lifeworlds that capitalist, colonisation has spawned. Or rather it is one center, because this frontline is dispersed, taking new shapes in many different places: from the Ihumatao in Aotearoa to Mauna Kea in Hawai’i to Unist’ot’en and Standing Rock on Turtle Island and from those sites to everywhere*.

It has been interesting to note that, while the DjabWurrung campaign is about protecting trees, it is recognised and understood as being an Indigenous struggle around land and culture and not simply another environmental campaign. From my experience, this is rare in so-called Australia and reflects that it has been initiated and determined by the Traditional Owners themselves. This is an important shift in emphasis that contains a far greater radical potential. Environmental struggles are often too narrow in focus and mostly exist within a white, liberal framework of ‘justice’ that fails to properly account for the full scope of colonisation in the present. Yet, in being the center, DjabWurrung is also an environmental campaign. It stands as an alternative way to relate to and protect the environment which the colonisers simply never understood, or cared enough about, as it wasn’t based in extracting maximum value. Now that the ravenous accumulation of colonisation and capitalism has provoked nothing short of endless crises, it is these sites of Indigenous land defence that will be at the core of any resistance, both for the necessity of staving off further catastrophe, but also because of the pre-emptive, intimate knowledge of country that has been retained.

When we come to recognise the primacy of Indigenous, anti-colonial struggle, it becomes increasingly evident that within these struggles a range of issues tied to the oppressive functioning of capitalism coalesce: exploitative resource/ profit extraction (all profit extraction is exploitative), racism and white supremacy, environmental degradation, etc. This is to say, that as well as our responsibility as settlers to be accomplices in anti-colonial resistance, we can also find in these moments the most encompassing revolutionary way forward. Hate the drudgery of work under capital? Start here. Pissed off at racist, white Australia? Start here. Sick of misogyny and toxic masculinity? Start here. Care about the environment? Start here. This doesn’t mean that none of these issues arise within anti-colonial struggles or that such struggles explicitly provide resolutions to them. Instead, centering our action and solidarity in Aboriginal resistance is a pushing off point, a place from which the inter-connectedness of oppressive systems is plain and new angles of attack become apparent.

* And certainly many more sites of resistance through Africa, Asia and Central and South America that also have commonalities. However, I used these examples because they are the most direct parallel due to existing in other similar, settler-colonial countries. Open to being told that’s too reductive though.

generating collectivity from a space beyond

Although tension about possible eviction and the need to prepare for a physical defence of the site underscored some of my days at DjabWurrung, the most radical aspect is based in a different form of action, the moments where a collective presence ensures the ongoing functioning of the camp. At camp we find ways to sustain ourselves and each other and maintain the space. Food is cooked communally, but anyone hungry is free to walk into the kitchen and sort themselves a snack. Drainage ditches are dug, cleaning is undertaken collectively. Smokes and rides are offered and shared. The fire becomes a gathering place for folk to listen and have conversations. It is at once a generative space of solidarity with, and learning from, First Nations people, a space of intentional radical collective presence and an act of direct resistance.

What i’m trying to describe is how – apart from the immediate task of defending sacred sites – being at camp was also a radical refusal of the isolating numbness of liberal individualism and acted as a living alternative. It replicates in a physical space some of what Harsha Walia describes in the essay ‘Decolonise Together’:

“Decolonisation is as much a process as a goal. It requires a profound re-centring of indigenous worldviews in our movements for political liberation, social transformation, renewed cultural kinships and the development of an economic system that serves rather than threatens our collective life on this planet”.

A cynic might be critical of the significant presence (at least during the days where eviction seemed imminent) of urban hipsters from Melbourne’s northern suburbs, but in this case I find it surprisingly easy to push that cynicism aside. Instead, I feel that it points to the radical weight that the embassy carries and that flourishes in the acts of communal functioning and support that under-ride it. Anti-colonial struggles, and all revolutionary struggle, will involve putting ourselves outside our comfort zones and people bursting the bubble of Melbourne’s all too well-intentioned, pretence of progressivism to actually do something that is collective and uncomfortably radical (and dangerous) is a good thing.

DjabWurrung is a liberated place outside the control of the state – even if only temporarily. A space of radical (anti-colonial) rupture. It is no hippie commune, as it’s existence is not about dropping out, but determined as an engaged act of resistance against the ongoing destructiveness of colonisation. These moments of rupture are ghosts, flickering errors emanating from within. The presence is both solid and grounded (situated as a real camp, as part of an immediate campaign defending living trees and sacred sites), as well as ephemeral and general (an example of an idea that can be taken and tried out again in other places as parts of further acts of resistance). Such spaces of encounter are precious. They may be situated at a specific site or be transient places. We should seek to create them in our everyday lives and connect them with each other as a base for our opposition to the systems of violence that have been imposed on us. They will be for the future, but just as importantly about sustaining us right now as we generate our capacities for solidarity, collectivity and resistance.

the problem of (mis)understanding police, the law and violence

There was a galvanising sense of bravery that circulated in camp as people prepared for possible eviction. In the meetings of accomplices (ie, made up almost entirely of non-Indigenous folk), people were willing to put themselves on the line, risking arrest and where this wasn’t possible found other ways to conceive of their action that would serve the collective act of resistance. However, as part of steeling themselves for what was to come, there were endless questions about the line where actions became arrestable, wanting specific details about what words you could say to police, how many seconds you had, etc. This at times frustrated the facilitators, who understood the importance of sharing information about legal rights and outlining what generally happens in these situations, but did not want to present this as a formulaic process. It is not formulaic because the police are not bound by rigid understandings of ‘right’ and are not neutral adjudicators. Also because different bodies will be policed in different ways. This, alongside a conception of non-violence that went beyond it being a tactical choice to being a morally superior one, reflected a failure to understand how violence functions in the context of the state and in the hands of the police.

I won’t go into extended arguments around the state, policing and violence here because that might take away from the more important points i’ve been trying to make. Additionally, none of this is in opposition to the understanding that a tactical decision has been made by the Traditional Owners at DjabWurrung that our actions take the form of not being outwardly hostile or antagonistic even while attempting to block incursions by the state. I understand this choice to a large degree and, to the extent that I don’t, I am able to respect it. Arguing against a liberal, state-centred delineation of violence/ non-violence is not equivalent to always arguing for ‘violence’.

So, briefly… My main concern here isn’t around tactics, it is around what ends up becoming a liberal ideological phantasm that the state generally presides over and administers a neutral peace, while our infractions are the source of violence. This is wrongheaded. The state administers violence, often in banal forms, to ensure its totalising control. We take whatever necessary course of action to protect ourselves, look after each other and, hopefully, find a little peace. While I think that people at camp would generally recognise that, for example, state violence towards Aboriginal people is at the core of it’s very existence (the need to eradicate Indigenous presence to assert its own sovereign possession of country), there remains a counter-intuitive tendency to hope that the state can be reformed to serve us and that individual police can be ‘turned’. This is a misdirection. I’m willing to believe that most people at camp aren’t running with this line for ideological reasons (although it certainly can be that), but rather because it is difficult to break from the comfort of what is known. But there is no way around having to step into the uncomfortable (and potentially dangerous) if we are interested in decolonisation.

I’ll finish with a passage from white writer Natasha Lennard’s essay ‘Riots for Black Life’ (from America, but relevant here):

“Riotous protesters do not bring violence; the violence was there in the DNA of white supremacy and our world through which it permeates. Protester violence here is counter-violence in history’s unbroken dialectic of violence and counter-violence. Even the rhetoric of police turning violent during a specific protest ignores that policing, as an institution in this country, functions as a force of consistent violence against black life”. (found in her book Being Numerous: Essays on Non-Fascist Life).

*** With legal avenues exhausted, the threat of eviction at DjabWurrung is now ongoing. So far this has not eventuated, with the large numbers of people attending camp in solidarity a likely disincentive for the state. However, maintaining this presence will be crucial, so let’s make plans to spend time there!

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