The anti-intervention movement and violence in remote Aboriginal communities
There is no subject more inflammatory than violence against children and sexual violence, the abuse of innocence, universally sickens and abhors. The vulnerability of Aboriginal children has been central to settler imaginings of Aboriginal people. They were early and routinely said to be victims of infanticide, cannibalism, the ‘terrible rite’ (sub and circumcision), ceremonial disfigurement and child bride capture and later the more banal crimes of poor hygiene and inadequate discipline. These confections, all based on hearsay and speculation, became commonplace, and they drove the Protection and Assimilation administrative regimes, which did untold damage to Aborigines, ‘for their own good’. Given this record, the Northern Territory Intervention and its newer incarnation Stronger Futures should be viewed with deep suspicion. These latest administrations are imposing another assimilationist regime, this one informed by the very neo-liberal economics that are presently tipping over European economies like dominos. With wearying repetition, the government wants the extensive Indigenous land holdings of the Northern territory, because a new frontier is well underway, of mineral extraction. Yet non-Indigenous Australians are faltering with this campaign. They know there is acrimonious disagreement among Aboriginal leaders on the question of the Intervention. They are reluctant to take sides, wary of the colonial strategy of divide and rule and preferring to stay with another colonial staple – that Aborigines are an undifferentiated entity rather than a diverse and contemporary people. Most discordantly they know this time the violence in remote communities is both real and fetishised. This has made it a political no-go zone. Because of the opportunising of the Howard, Rudd and Gillard Governments on the exposure of that violence and the racist identification of it as particular to Aboriginal peoples, along with people’s reluctance to shame Aboriginal women and demonize Aboriginal men, it has entered the category of the unspeakable. Those who oppose the Intervention and Stronger Futures omit it and even excuse it. Recently an activist referred to the young men who broke into a campervan outside Alice Springs and gang-raped the tourists inside. She said they were trying to get home. She said ‘You can see why these boys get into these things’. Actually, I can’t see how stealing a vehicle to overcome a lack of transportation bears any relation to rape. The anti-intervention movement has encountered stalling and evasion from the same people who readily galvanized against Howard’s anti-Wik 10 point plan and marched in droves for Reconciliation. Yet facing up to, rather than minimalising, violence against women and children in remote communities, is key to resisting the racial discrimination these latest forays into Indigenous administration have imposed. For this violence is manifestly not Aboriginal. It is everywhere endemic to our society. It is male and the perpetrators are a minority of men. Family violence is first and foremost about gender, not race, but it is more pervasive and extreme in communities where masculinity is in crisis. That crisis is identifiable, around the globe, with communities afflicted with inter-generational disadvantage, and all of the self-destructive behaviors that consistently impact on people enduring the most entrenched socio-economic alienation. Those men, consistently and manifestly, have prehistories of violent subjection, often racial, sometimes colonial. But returned soldiers and institutionalized men are also susceptible. We humans are inordinately efficient at perpetrating violence and paradoxically incapable of enduring it. But gender plays a role here to, for a minority women coping with trauma are more likely to be self-destructive, whereas a minority of men are destructive to the people around them. Violence in remote NT communities is more visible. The collusion of silence to uphold high-stake reputations, the surrounding infrastructure of services and amenities, all conspire to keep it under wraps in the rest of the country. Some have claimed Aboriginal men are customarily more violent to their women and children. Violence has spiraled in some communities because of the coupling of socio-economic disadvantage with the kind of self-destructive behaviors that ‘customarily’, in all human societies, go together with a crisis in masculine identity: particularly alcohol and substance abuse. It is Orwellian to identify pornography with Aboriginal men. As Rosalie Kunoth-Monks recently, patiently, explained, you won’t see Aboriginal people posing in pornographic material. She drew attention to a descriptive cultural disjunct. If anything, porn, most of which has undersold the ideals of libertarianism and sunk into the myopia of misogyny, is an assimilative apparatus to gender relations that I’m afraid have charactised non-Indigenous society as far back as the First Fleet. I’m talking here about the eroticizing of the power asymmetry between men and women and men and children. There is only one solution to male violence, and it applies wholesale across all communities around the world, whenever expressions of masculine identity become, with a minority of men in that community, inextricably bound up in the abuse of power. The women in that community and the non-violent men who support them, should be supported in their demand for the removal of violent men from their homes, communities and lands, until they can guarantee they will cease to pose a danger. Ironically, the exiling of violent men was able to be enforced by the entry permit system that was disbanded under the Intervention. This removal should not be enforced as a criminal matter. These men need to rebuild their lives so they can return to where they are needed most, their homes, families and communities. Before the Intervention women in some remote communities were working together in an attempt to deal with violence. They are not passive victims waiting for whitefellas to rescue them. We need to go back and look at what was already working. We need to empower the Aunties for if they and their men are disempowered, by top-down imposed administrative regimes that humiliate and discredit them, the violence can only worsen. A version of this article first appeared as ‘Some Hard Truths about the Intervention’, in The Age, 2 July 2012.