An Interview With Gary Foley



WORDS | Sarah Garnham & Bianca Abbott

We were sitting in a café in Melbourne, when a journalist rang Gary Foley to ask his opinion on Nelson Mandela. Gary asked the journalist “What did I say back then?”  The journalist had interviewed Gary years ago, as a representative of the Aboriginal resistance, and was checking to see if his views on Mandela had changed. Gary chuckled as the journalist responded on the other end of the line. His answer was short and sharp: “Yep, I still feel exactly the same way. Mandela was a sell out.” This answer was one of the many reasons why Gary remained an icon of the left. He had no time for Uncle Toms, refused to identify with the likes of Noel Pearson, or anyone else who sided with the oppressor, regardless of the colour of their skin.

Raising a Radical

Aboriginal activist and historian Gary Foley was a rebel from a young age. Gary and some of his mates had signed up for an agriculture class because they thought it sounded easy. He soon discovered it wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. “They handed us these shovels and picks, took us to the school plot and they said, ‘Dig this up’. It was bloody hard work. “Halfway through the first day, I organised a deputation of some of my mates, and we went off to see the headmaster. We said, ‘We don’t want to do agriculture, so is there any other option?’ The headmaster looked us up and down and said, ‘Well, if you can get twelve students interested, I can start a class of technical drawing.’ It was then, when I was just 13, that I realised you could make change if you went about it in a certain way, if you went out and ‘organised the masses’ so to speak. I organised the students and I took that tech class for the rest of the time I was at Tenterfield High School”.

Radicalising in Redfern

1967 was a time when the Aboriginal population was dramatically increasing. Between 1966 and 1969, Redfern’s population went from about 1,500 to 30,000. The place became a political hotbed and the heart of the Aboriginal resistance. Gary left rural New South Wales at age 16, and moved to Redfern.

“I had a pretty good first lesson in what was happening to lots of other Aboriginal people my age, in and around Redfern at the time. You know – the constant police bashing, police intimidation, police picking up people, and throwing them in jail on trumped-up charges, all this sort of stuff.” Gary was bashed up by the cops one night at the old Regent Street police station. “That kicking that the New South Wales coppers gave me, really got under my skin. It really upset me. Not because they gave me a kicking, but because I hadn’t done what they were kicking me for. Had I had done what they were giving me the kicking for, then maybe I would never have become so indignant and political. But I hadn’t, and I was very angry about it.”

“One week later, a bloke who I’d just met called Paul Coe, came up to me and said, ‘We’re thinking of setting up a little group of us to talk about what we might be able to do about these coppers harassing us’. Coe didn’t need to ask me twice. I said, ‘Sure, I’m with you, I’m with you’. He then handed me the autobiography of Malcolm X. He said, ‘Read this before you come next week’. It was these two events – getting bashed by the NSW coppers, and reading the biography of Malcolm X; that transformed my thinking.” The discussion group that Paul, Gary and others set up, gave birth to the first Aboriginal legal service, and to the Sydney chapter of the Black Power movement. This core of people became the major force behind the Aboriginal Tent Embassy, and most of the key Aboriginal protests of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s.

The 1960s

The politicisation of the Aboriginal community in Redfern was not happening in isolation. The late 1960s was a time of immense social ferment, both in Australia and internationally. There was the civil rights movement in America, the anti-Vietnam war movement, the anti-apartheid movement, the burgeoning gay rights movement, and particularly, in Australia, a rising militancy in the trade union movement.

Gary became involved in many of the other struggles. “Thirty years later, I read my ASIO file, and I just kept thinking, ‘Jesus, we were doing so much’. We were moving around. We were linking up. It was a really exciting time because, in addition to the winds of change running through colonised countries and de-colonisation beginning to happen, it also coincided with what some people call ‘the world youth rebellion’ or ‘revolution’. It was an era of protest. There had been huge demonstrations against the Vietnam War, big anti-American demonstrations. It was a really exciting time to be 18 years old. And ‘68 was a good year, for us in Redfern anyway, in terms of the connections we made, and the networks we built.”

Links with the trade union movement

The Black Power movement in Redfern developed a strong relationship with the radical NSW Builders Labourers Federation (BLF), the forerunner of today’s Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU). The BLF, under the leadership of Communist Party members, had begun to use its industrial muscle to wage political battles in support of Aboriginal rights, gay rights, women’s rights, and to save buildings and parkland from being destroyed by greedy developers.

“We were particularly impressed with Bob Pringle, and Jack Mundey, and Joe Owens, the leaders of the BLF in Sydney. When we were trying to set up the Aboriginal Embassy in ‘72 we were trying to figure out a way to get resources out of some of the trade unions, so we had a meeting with Mundey and Pringle. They said that we should go address a meeting of the Trades and Labour Council. But in order to do that, we needed to be members. So they made me and Billy Craigie honorary members, which enabled us to get out in front of the Trades Hall and make an appeal for support and funds. I’m a member of the BLF to this day.”

Ongoing political activism

Gary remained active, well after the radical period of the early ‘70s. He still appears regularly at demonstrations, politicises the classes he teaches at university, and he regularly speaks to large audiences of young people about racism, and the need for radical resistance.

When I ask him about the high point of his political career, he said there were too many to go through. The one he chose to detail on this occasion was a campaign in the 1990s to save Northland Secondary College in the northern suburbs of Melbourne. “That was a particularly interesting fight because that was the only time when I’ve led a grassroots community campaign, where the majority of people marching behind me were not Aboriginal. It was the Aboriginal students who led the fight – but this was not an Aboriginal school; Aboriginal kids were less than ten per cent of the school population. You couldn’t think of a more powerless group of people than the Northland community at the time, just a poor white working class, migrants, battlers and rabble.

“The night Premier Kennett announced the closure there was a spontaneous community meeting. I think I was the only person in the room who had any sort of street organising and rabble-rousing experience. It was fairly easy for me to make a rabble-rousing speech, which fired up the crowd. And before I knew what was going on, they carried me out on their shoulders, and told me I was their leader. We fought for three years. The state government spent five million trying to beat us. It cost us nothing because we had nothing, except our wits. We won. Jeff Kennett closed down 300 schools in Victoria, and only one of those schools is still alive today. That’s Northland Secondary College.”

Gary is an inspiration for all of us fighting injustice today. Not only has he fought hard against the ongoing discrimination and cultural genocide towards Aboriginal people, he has also stood unequivocally alongside the oppressed in all of their fights.
He is radical, an agitator, and an example for anyone who wants to stand up against the system.

I concluded our interview by asking Gary what advice he would give young activists today. He responded by returning to a point he had made during the interview: “If you want to change the world, it’s important to get together with others and be organised, because you can’t do it by yourself. That’s the only advice I could give.”

Gary Foley will be speaking at Socialist Alternatives Marxism conference this Easter long weekend (17-20 April) at Melbourne University. For more information on the conference:

A version of this article was published on Red Flag