- Protests, Land Rights and Riots: Postcolonial Struggles in Australia in the 1980s by Barry Morris
The “Brewarrina riot,” around which this book pivots, looms over Australia today in a manner far outweighing its immediate reality. One might ask how a single event, one characterized by Barry Morris as a “melee” that lasted some ten minutes and resulted in serious injury to one policeman, could resonate so strongly. In part, this is a function of the unusual presence of an abc news crew who recorded the moment for broadcast. But the importance of the “riot” lies, Morris argues in Protests, Land Rights and Riots, in the way it condensed specific political discourses at a moment of transition, laying bare both change and continuity in the settler colonial dispensation.
The melee took place in North West New South Wales in August 1987, beginning when police, armed with batons and shields, charged into the public park where the Aboriginal community of Brewarrina was holding a wake for Lloyd Boney. Boney had died a week earlier, hanged in a police cell, and the presence of Aboriginal mourners in the park was the result of careful negotiations that had delivered an understanding, breached by the police intervention, that Aboriginal access to the space would remain undisturbed. Some mourners had thrown rocks at the adjoining Brewarrina Hotel after verbal exchanges with a number of white patrons, one of whom held a shotgun, who were drinking on the Hotel balcony. The police were called and identified the mourners collectively as a source of trouble, determining to remove them from the park. Their failure to do so and their retreat without making a single arrest or establishing control was, as Morris describes, a moment of dissonance that demanded further interventions from a range of interested institutions (p. 132). [End Page 566]
The book can be read as a series of essays on this theme, situating the “riot” in relation to an underlying structure of settler colonialism at the cusp of a political transition from self-determination and welfare to neoliberalism, and tracing the ways this restored and rearticulated non-Aboriginal authority. To this end, Morris identifies the riot across three registers: one an effect of media representation; another narrated in the courtroom; and a third that initiated and was heard in the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody. Each instance affirmed, in distinct yet complementary ways, a recognition of Aboriginality as problematic and out of place in modern Australia.
This form of recognition was distinct from that envisaged by the Aboriginal Land Rights Act 1983 (nsw) which recognized the Aboriginal corporation as a body responsible for self-government and self-management. Morris traces the distinct politics of recognition operating at the same time in the North West of the state where this era of vibrant and effective Aboriginal rights politics effected little more than the transfer of the functions of coercive government from the Aborigines Welfare Board to the criminal justice system. Aboriginal communities in the region were dominated by extraordinary rates of incarceration, an effect of the intensification of coercive policing that worked through highly discretionary public order offences to govern towns like Bourke, Brewarrina, and Walgett (p. 94).
Self-determination almost passed these towns by. Over-policed and over-incarcerated, the Aboriginal communities of the region were besieged by an assemblage of welfare regulation and judicial processes that represented the face, or perhaps the frontier, of settler colonial governance in the region. This was, of course, contested. Morris provides an illuminating analysis of the interplay between Boney and police as a contest over sovereignty, as well as a reading of Boney’s wake as an expression of Aboriginal autonomy in one of Brewarrina’s public spaces. But he also traces the way these interpretations were rendered unrecognizable through the riot’s three registers. Media coverage of the melee, of the ensuing trial, and of the Royal Commission occluded the state of siege by focusing on such figures as the “drunken” or “welfare Aborigine” to...