Paradigm Shift (4zzz fm 102.1 fridays at noon) 25 Sep 2015
A tribute to Kevin Vieritz, a proud Jagera man.
Murrumu bedazzles Cairns court on the failings of the Australian constitution.
Announcer: Ian Curr
Photo: Brendon Qu
Vale Kevin Vieritz (1958 – 2015)
I met Kevin in the last three years of his life. There is one important story I wish to tell; it is Kevin’s story for without him the fight to save the sacred fire that drew us into common cause would never have happened. While I knew him for only three years I learnt some important lessons from our struggle against the state and local government’s refusal to permit the sacred fire in Musgrave Park during that time.
As many would know Musgrave Park (named after an interloper, the Governor of Queensland, Sir Anthony Musgrave K.C.M.G. in 1884 ) has a special significance for aboriginal people and for residents and activists who have spent time there over the turbulent years of protest and open revolt against repressive Queensland governments since the 1960s … and before, since colonisation.
Before Brisbane became a British colony and before settlers began arriving in the 1830s, Musgrave Park was a different place. It had paper bark trees which is the more common tree found near rivers like the Brisbane. The Bunyas that are there now were planted later.
Before colonisation Musgrave Park was not a natural place, it was managed by Jagera people through the judicious use of fire to clear the undergrowth, it was an open and attractive place to meet; tribes from all points of the compass came there; there is evidence of a bora ring and no doubt corroborees were conducted there.
Conspiracy of Respect
I first met Kevin Vieritz in Musgrave Park in 2013. We drove to a petrol station in Milton to buy some wood. It was on that short trip over the Brisbane River and back that Kevin explained to me how important the sacred fire is to Jagera people, to all aboriginal people.
‘The sacred fire is lit and maintained so that those who gather around it can freely express themselves. The fire is used in our culture to burn away old and to bring in the new. The fire is cleansing because when people pass through the smoke it excludes bad things and bad thoughts.’ Kevin told me.
He described what he understood by cultural responsibility saying that it is something that a person takes on as an individual, you don’t go and talk with others about what needs to be done, you take on your responsibility and stand by it.
Kevin was true to these words.
From the 40th anniversary of the original tent embassy in 2012 onwards, state and local government enforced prohibitions on the sacred fire in Musgrave Park.
Kevin took on his responsibility to continue practicing his culture and defending the sacred fire in the face of considerable force exercised by the state to prevent aboriginal people from doing so. Over two hundred police attacked the sacred fire lit by the Brisbane Aboriginal Sovereign Embassy in March 2012. Thirty-five people were arrested.
On that trip to get wood for the fire Kevin told me his traditional name is Arjin Warrugar. He asked me to help him saying that if he were arrested lighting the fire that I should keep it going. I promised that I would help. I did so because I respected Kevin and because I respected his law regarding the sacred fire. Over the years I had participated in welcome and smoking ceremonies in Musgrave Park. Effectively we were agreeing to break local laws together because of the prohibition on lighting the fire in Musgrave Park. We stuck to our plan and we stuck to each other despite arrest, fines and threats by council, police and court. Ours was a ‘conspiracy of respect’ for aboriginal custom, practised on Deed of Grant of Land in Trust (DOGIT) designated for aboriginal purpose and no other.
On 29th and 30th April 2013, Kevin was arrested for defending the fire as was our friend Maurie. Kevin stood his ground and denied Brisbane City Council officers access to the fire telling them that it is sacred and that he was a traditional owner.
The fire was well maintained, secure and safe, having a firebreak around it. But council officers and police ignored what Kevin said and arrested him. A Kuku-Yalanji woman who was standing nearby told police and council officers that they had made a big mistake, that Kevin is a traditional owner implying that they should not ignore what Kevin said and show some respect.
At first police claimed Kevin was in ‘breach of the peace’, handcuffed him and took him away. Ironically, council officers gave me an infringement notice for lighting the fire that had actually been lit by Kevin. The infringement notice was given under the Health Safety and Amenity Local Law 2009. It was as if the charges against were contrived for our observance of the law, not for our breaking it.
Police and court imposed a condition of bail that Kevin should not return to Musgrave Park.
Denied the human right to walk on his ancestral lands and to practice his culture, Kevin would camp opposite Musgrave Park and not enter the park to avoid going to jail. Aboriginal kids would ask why Kevin was always in ‘naughty corner’. Kevin engaged a lawyer to help him fight his cases but a magistrate told this proud Jagera man that he would be jailed if he returned to Musgrave Park.
The magistrate made Kevin a refugee in his own country.
One day, prior to the bail condition being imposed, I saw Kevin standing quietly by the fire. I asked him what he was doing. He told me he was trying to get rid of angry thoughts. It seemed that by standing near the fire was a way to dispel negative emotions, a calming influence. Kevin was angry at what had been done to the land and to the original owners. On another occasion he explained to me that there were other places more sacred to Jagera people (than Musgrave Park). He told me about the beach at Kangaroo Point. Kevin explained that this was more sacred because it is where you could first see the morning sun, the beginning of each day.
Kevin spoke of legal strategies to gain recognition of sovereignty for his countrymen. He said that he had gone to Western Australia because he had heard how bad it was over there and that he wanted to take up a court case to challenge government’s refusal to recognise aboriginal sovereignty. However he returned saying the courts would not listen to him.
On the first anniversary of 35 arrests of people defending the fire, Kevin carried the smouldering ashes of the fire down to the lower part of Musgrave Park, thus beginning the traditional welcome ceremony and corroboree. He told me how heavy the burning piece of wood was to carry from the DOGIT land near Jagera Hall down to the area below.
After a long wait Kevin gave evidence in the trial about the sacred fire in the Brisbane Magistrates court. Magistrate Callaghan accepted his evidence in full stating:
“There was evidence from Mr Vieritz which I accept that the fire which he asked Mr Curr to light and maintain was a sacred fire in the culture of his people. Mr Vieritz explained that there are two types of fires. One is a communal fire and has significance for the family and community and the other type of fire is the sacred fire around which the truth is to be spoken. It is a place for seeking help and is a place where new ideas are borne.”
The magistrate used legal fiction to repudiate Kevin’s right to practice his culture by claiming that all are equal before the law.
It is a basic principle that all people should stand equal before the law. A construction which results in different criminal sanctions applying to different persons for the same conduct offends that basic principle (see Racial Discrimination Act 1975 (Cth), s 10). Chief Justice Mason in (Dennis) Walker v New South Wales  182CLR 45
The magistrate’s thinking was that if the local law imposes a criminal sanction on lighting a fire in Musgrave Park then there can be no exception that all must stand equal before the law. But there is no equality before the law, the magistrate acknowledged that himself stating:
If the prosecutions contentions that the lighting and maintaining of fires on this land were on 13 and 19 December 2012 prohibited by local law are correct then it would be difficult for them to maintain an argument that the purported permission given by the Lord Mayor to light the fire in May 2012 was lawful.
Or as Anatole France said with more than a little irony:
‘The poor have to labour in the face of the majestic impartiality of the law, which forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread.’
I suspect it is this injustice that made Kevin an angry man.
Yet, in my experience, he was always polite and did not direct his anger at others. He did not like bullies and stood his ground when police and council officers moved against him. He did not resist when police arrested and charged him with ‘Assault or Obstruct Police Officer’. Kevin was put through the indignity of handcuffing, body search, getting him to spread his legs and taking his few possessions including his tent and his mobile phone.
Eighteen months later when we finally got to court the magistrate found me guilty of lighting and maintaining the fire that Kevin had lit saying:
“ … the fact that he (Curr) is a non Aboriginal person acting on the instruction of or at the request of an Aboriginal elder (Vieritz) doesn’t assist the defendant’s argument.”
The magistrate did not impose a sentence or penalty yet he was at pains to pinpoint exactly why I was guilty and why I could not use Kevin’s permission to maintain the fire as an excuse:
The proposition that those laws could not apply to particular inhabitants or particular conduct occurring within the State must be rejected. As Gibbs J. (with whom Aickin J. agreed) said in Co v The Commonwealth ((1979) 53 ALJR 403 at p 408; 24 ALR 118 at p 129) ‘The Aboriginal people are subject to the laws of the Commonwealth and of the states or territories in which they respectfully reside’.
Magistrate Callaghan referred to the Queensland Constitution Act 1867 stating:
“ (The Act) provides that the legislative assembly can advise and consent to the Queen making laws for the peace, welfare and good government of the colony in all cases whatsoever and through the Land Act, the Local Government Act and the City of Brisbane Act the Brisbane City Council is empowered to make these by-laws which it is alleged the defendant has offended. As Mason CJ said as quoted above, the proposition that these laws could not apply to particular inhabitants or particular conduct occurring within the State must be rejected.
Kevin had finally got his day in court, but it had ruled against us. But in so doing the court was forced to acknowledge claims made by Kevin. The magistrate made this concession to Kevin:
Mr Vieritz gave evidence that the fire was a sacred fire, evidence which I accept. He said that ashes from the Canberra fires that had been lit outside the tent embassy there 40 years ago were used to light this one. He said he understood that there was a smoking ceremony when this fire was originally lit. He said the fire was significant. He said that even though the fire went out when the tents were cleaned out of the site, the fire had not been extinguished.
Sam Watson also gave evidence in the trial of the sacred fire that supported and expanded on Kevin’s statement to the court. The magistrate said this about Sam Watson’s evidence:
Mr Watson gave evidence that the fire was a sacred fire. Again I accept this evidence. He said though that the fire was more for symbolic value. I accept this evidence. The fire was a symbol of the protest that had been occurring in Canberra over the previous 40 years. It was a symbol of solidarity with that protest.
I know little of Kevin’s earlier life. He told me that he had a daughter who he had travelled with across the north of Australia and that she had got sick and they had to stop in Darwin. Kevin was a devoted son looking after his mother in her old age. They lived in a housing commission house in Inala. After she died Kevin lost the house and had to move into temporary accommodation. Eventually he rented a unit in Kent Street New Farm. I know that Kevin’s actions in support of his culture had the support of the Bonner and Carter families.
“This is a country very concerned about making things seem to happen without actually doing anything. They like to talk about progress, but that comes at a cost, and the cost is on us”
— Kevin Vieritz at first Sovereignty & Land Rights Conference in Brisbane in November 2012.
Farewell my brother, you have gone to your dreaming and we are the better for your efforts and leadership to save the sacred fire, your culture, our justice.
We will miss you.
24 September 2015
Murrumu was held against his will in captivity some days before this interview for driving a car with Sovereign Yidindji number plates (gold plated). He was charged with six offences, including unlawful possession of an article resembling a licence and driving unlicensed and uninsured. When asked by magistrate Jane Bentley if he was Jeremy Geia, he said, ‘I am Murrumu’. He told the court that as a member of the Yidindji society, he was excluded from the Commonwealth Constitution Act of 1901. Murrumu was a couple of days in jail, but the Judge basically agreed he was not Jeremy Geia, his previous name, before he rescinded all contracts and handed back instruments such as his Australian passport, drivers license, car registration papers and super fund entitlement. The magistrate, Robert Spencer is reported to have said: “I’ll take it on that basis that effectively you are not Jeremy David Joseph Geia” and let Murrumu go free and Murrumu has said he will thank him for this.
- Bec Horridge