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‘Invasion Day’ protests a call to change more than just the date

Maddy Blay
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Published: 28 January 2019

Last updated: 4 March 2024

I AM RARELY AWAKE early enough to see a sunrise, let alone tram into the city for a protest, but the idea of a dawn service, particularly for a day like this, had captivated me. Someone later pointed out to me that, unlike any other time of day, dawn isn’t owned by anybody; it’s the freest time to be awake.

To be up at that time is intentional and deliberate, and so too for the several hundred at the ceremony who chose to be some of the first in the country to meet the day, one of the most turbulent in the Australian calendar.

Attending the Invasion Day Dawn Service in Melbourne on Saturday was jarring, not least from stumbling around the Royal Botanical Gardens in the dark, bleary eyed from only a few hours’ sleep.

As I approached the top of the Kings Domain hill, it became clear that this was not an event for a few early risers who wanted to show support, but rather several hundred activists who saw through this inaugural event.

Over the course of the event it grew steadily lighter and the crowd grew, and so did the sentiment that I had not properly internalised: for First Nations people across this continent, January 26 was not only a day of protest but a day of deep mourning.

It was a day that firstly marks the arrival and establishment of the first British settlement in what is now Sydney but has also come to signify a day of commemorating the Frontier Wars and  massacres that ensued.

Addressing the crowd of several hundred as the sky slowly lightened, Lidia Thorpe, a Gunnai-Kurnai and Gunditjmara woman and former MP in the Victorian parliament, noted that the day was an “overwhelming” day for Aboriginal people – not just for what it represents, but what it has become as a national day of organised protest.

The routine exhaustion of having to organise rallies every January 26 is clearly heavily felt by Aboriginal activists, as Thorpe pointed out, despite the extraordinary turnout on Saturday - an estimated 80,000 at the main rally outside Melbourne's Flinders Street station alone.

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“Invasion Day” also presents the idea of survival as the cornerstone of protest. It is one of the fundamental bases of the fight of minority groups for recognition and justice - that in order to thrive, rebuild communities, raise children and re-establish cultures, the act of being able to live day to day remains crucial.

With deaths in custody making more headlines, ongoing child removals and resources being pulled away from struggling communities, it is no surprise that January 26 is known by many indigenous people as ”Survival Day”.

Marjorie Thorpe, mother of Lidia, spoke at the ceremony of her people and all First Nations people wanting to “survive in peace”. It is clear from the turbulent discourse around  January 26 that this country can’t even manage that.

A feature of the ceremony was the reading out of the almost 70 known massacres of Aboriginal people just in Victoria, some by individual pastoralists and others by "government troops", from 1836 to the late 1940s. The slow, painful delivery of this information over the darkened crowd was especially jarring  because it echoed the memories of how Yom Hashoah ceremonies are conducted – and the juxtaposition with International Holocaust Memorial Day the next day, on January 27.The pain is remembered and commemorated but not shied away from.

William Cooper, the Aboriginal Elder, who in 1938 was one of the only people in the world to publicly condemn Kristallnacht and Nazi regime when he delivered a petition to the German consulate in Melbourne, was mentioned several times during the ceremony.
As a people  so fundamentally centred on commemoration and mourning, as well as tikkun olam and justice, Australian Jews must do what Lidia Thorpe called for: for the rest of us to ease the burden, share the load.

Cooper remains a powerful symbol of the undeniable importance of minority communities being vocal about their solidarity for one another. As a people  so fundamentally centred on commemoration and mourning, as well as tikkun olam and justice, Australian Jews must do what Lidia Thorpe called for: for the rest of us to ease the burden, share the load, and ultimately change the system, not just the date.

Photo: Former Northcote state MP Lidia Thorpe addresses those gathered at Parliament House for Melbourne's Invasion Day rally on Saturday (Chris Hopkins)

About the author

Maddy Blay

Maddy Blay is a community organiser and campaigner, and writes about social and political justice as a proud Jewish leftist. She is the former federal director of Hashomer Hatzair Australia and studies politics and public policy.

The Jewish Independent acknowledges Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the Traditional Owners and Custodians of Country throughout Australia. We pay our respects to Elders past and present, and strive to honour their rich history of storytelling in our work and mission.

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