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Where have all the flowers gone?

"Where's all the Blackfullas? All the young men?" I asked my cousin Johnny-boy a couple of weeks ago as we stood at the top of Eveleigh Street, Redfern writes Paul Collis in this Redfern Feature on the ABC’s Indigenous website on 20 January 2009.

The street that was once a hive of activity and interest was all but deserted save for a couple of hungry dogs that busied themselves searching empty cartons for scraps. There were no cars, no houses, no kids, no drinkers; the old street was emptied and had a sense of despair about it.

"Dead. Jail. Government moved all the rest outta here to somewhere else. S'pose ta be buildin' a park 'ere or somefin", was John's sad reply.

As I walked away, I thought how this modern day removal of an entire small community of Aboriginal people from Redfern is consistent with Government politicisation of Aboriginal people since white people's arrival here in 1788.

The writing was on the wall for the Eveleigh Street mob way back before the 2000 Olympics. Eveleigh Street was an eye-sore and with the world media about to arrive to report on the world games it was too accessible for snooping journalists looking for a negative story about the way Australia values, or perhaps devalues, Aboriginal people, culture and communities.

A concerted effort was made to re-house as many of the Eveleigh Street mob, either in alternate mainly government housing, or in jail. It mattered most, it seemed, that the people were gone from there. The usual arguments were given as valid reasons for the actions- the place had become a 'drug dealer's paradise'; it's a dangerous place for other citizens to walk past on their way to and from wherever; the houses themselves were beyond repair; it was hard to police. The Aboriginal Housing Company was consulted and negotiations were made and actions taken on, with or against those who had made the Street their home.

The 'Block' (Eveleigh, Vine, Lewis and Caroline Streets) has long been a source of interest from the police point of view. Many programmes directed at improving safety or opportunities for the young people there, had been thought of, were implemented and often failed those who were the intended beneficiaries. Government money and patience, along with the broader Sydney support would end up running on empty and then a re-think...a new idea. Another 'programme' would come around.

Oh well, there is always jail. That seemed to give the Police pleasure and the Government some breathing space. Keep them outta sight, and perhaps outta mind. It isn't uncommon in Aboriginal communities that come under the extreme scrutiny of the authorities (including the Police), to find that there are at many times, very few young people and/or mature young men. They are mostly in jail, quite often for what I would describe as crimes of poverty - break enter and steal, DSS fraud, supply or possession of drugs and because of the over policing of the communities. In 2004 for example, Aboriginal children between the ages of 14 yrs and 17yrs, made up 0.94% of the total population but in Juvenile Detention Centres, Aboriginal children of that age range made up 84% of the total prison population! (1)

The statistics are outrageous when it comes to Aboriginal people and incarceration rates. Equally as terrifying are the extreme differences in life expectedness between Aboriginal people and non-Aboriginal people in Australia. Kevin Rudd has said that his Government has as a priority, closing the 17 year gap in life expectedness between Black people and the rest of the country. It will be interesting to see how Rudd goes about this business. Will he take Government statistics and command yet another report into the 'Aboriginal problem', and take advice from high-profile Black academics, bureaucrats, media or sporting identities and perhaps a hand full of 'Aboriginal leaders' to construct his plan? It seems to me the problem is always the same. Talk to everyone else except those who the programme is directed at or intended for. This politicisation of Aboriginal people sends Aboriginal affairs up the same proverbial creek!

When China commenced the Three Dams project, their Government forcibly relocated millions of its citizens and emptied cities to do so. Likewise, China forcibly removed citizens and abused some of those citizens’ human rights in order to host the 2008 Olympics. Any protestors were quickly dealt with by the State. Images of Chinese Police in riot gear bashing people on the streets were beamed across the world, as the country readied itself for its 'coming out' parade. These actions taken against citizens in China are not dissimilar to the way many Aboriginal people are treated here in Australia by the State.

The relocation of the Blackfullas from Eveleigh Street is now a fact. The street is empty. All those old terrace homes are gone. It doesn't surprise me that it has happened. It has happened to us before in other communities and locations. When the authorities or mining companies or pastoralists or some other 'worthy cause' want the land, it's the Blackfullas that are dispensable. The only thing left is the memory and our ghosts that haunt the old places. We're invisible when it comes to other people's needs and wants.

(1) (Yap, M. and Biddle, N. (2008). Indigenous demography - a gender and spatial dimension. Presentation to the Australian Population Conference 2008, Alice Springs.)

Australian National University, Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research.