As political awakenings go, it was an unusual one. Christmas Eve, 1971: in the height of the Brisbane summer 16-year-old Marlene Cummins had gone to watch her brother’s band play at a local community hall. It was an evening that would change the course of her life.
Denis Walker and Sammy Watson Jr, the founders of the Australian Black Panther Party – an offshoot of the militant black power movement then sweeping the United States – were also in the audience.
“My ears pricked up. They were talking politics,” says Marlene. “About black people, about oppression. I’d never heard anybody talk like that before. But I recognised it all.”
Marlene, one of nine children from a penniless Aboriginal family in outback Queensland, had left home a year previously and since then she had been living a chaotic, transient lifestyle as she hitchhiked the country, at first with friends and later alone, stopping whenever she found work or a bar to drink in. In this time she’d seen just about the worst the country had to offer.
While working as a hospital cleaner in Alice Springs she had seen Aboriginal babies in the hospital dying of malnutrition, their families banned from the wards. “They were treated like dogs. I had to listen to my coworkers discussing the Aboriginals, running them down with no consideration towards me. I needed the job, so I sat there and said nothing.”
At a party in the same town, a man singled her out: “Who brought this fuckin’ gin?” – an offensive, colonial-era term for a Aboriginal woman – and tipped a jug of beer over her head. “The guy who’d brought me just stood there, so I literally crawled out and left.”
Elsewhere, she says, a new “friend” sold her to a truckdriver for sex; another time she had to throw herself from a moving car to escape two white men who were threatening to rape her.
So it was with these experiences fresh in her mind, and still raw from the helplessness she had felt in the face of racism, that she encountered the Black Panthers. It was Denis, in fact, who particularly caught her eye – handsome, clever and charismatic, he had hit the headlines earlier that month with a call to arms: “Everything was taken off you with a gun,” he was reported as saying. “The only way you are going to get it back is with a gun.”
To Marlene, every word rang true. “He said I wasn’t the problem. There was nothing wrong with me. It was the rotten system.”
The pair struck up a relationship, and she moved into the Black Panther headquarters, where she found herself at the epicentre of the burgeoning Aboriginal Rights Movement. Taking charge of their own political education, the group found parallels with the struggle being fought in the US, and reworked the aims and objectives of the American panthers to emphasise land rights and their status as Australian citizens. They joined the newly established Aboriginal “tent embassy” – a semi-permanent protest on the lawns opposite Canberra’s Old Government Parliament House, which this year celebrated its 43rd anniversary – and mounted “pig patrols”, to monitor police encounters with the Aboriginal community and record infringements of civil rights.
But even surrounded by those fighting for equality, Marlene found herself at risk.
Denis proved unpredictable. His and Marlene’s relationship did not last; he was unfaithful, and later, Marlene claims, attacked another woman with a glass. (Denis declined to comment, telling me by email: “It’s not worth giving it oxygen.”)
And other men – respected men within the movement – were no better. In one instance, an Aboriginal elder in his forties sexually abused her, recording the whole incident on tape – something she learned from another community member who told her he’d heard it, and propositioned her afresh.
At the time, Marlene kept all this to herself. She and other women, she says, felt that by complaining they would discredit the movement. Only now, 40 years on, has she gathered the courage to go public: a documentary about her life, Black Panther Woman, aired on Australian television last week, in which she called upon other victims to come forward.
Marlene’s campaign is particularly significant to a community where rates of domestic violence have reached epidemic levels. In Australia, indigenous women are 34 times more likely than non-indigenous women to be hospitalised by domestic violence.
They are also less likely to report these crimes to the police, partly due to community loyalty and partly due to fears that their complaints will be discounted or ignored. Marlene herself can attest to the latter: having once attended a Queensland police station in deep distress to report a rape, instead she found herself strip-searched and locked in the cells overnight for causing a disturbance.
Nevertheless, the response to Marlene’s documentary from within the Aboriginal community has been mixed. Three prominent female activists took to the pages of the First Nations Telegraph to register their displeasure, claiming that it played into racist narratives – such as that used to condone highly controversial methods such as child removal or blanket alcohol bans.
A recent report by the Australian Human Rights Commission stated that Aboriginal people continue to face “systemic” racism 40 years after the introduction of the Race Discrimination Act.
On this point, Marlene is defiant. “This is not an attempt to demonise Aboriginal men, I want to make that clear. The behaviour of those men then was happening everywhere, in every country, and still is today. It is a documentary about why Aboriginal women stay quiet.”
Many women in Aboriginal communities find it hard to relate to, and find allies from – the wider feminist movement – she adds, due to culture clashes or differing priorities. “It’s not that we don’t agree they aren’t oppressed, but wrap that all up in black skin? It’s another story. An Aboriginal woman is on the bottom rung of humanity.”
Because of this, it’s down to men, not women, to drive change, she believes. “I’m talking to men in the police, men in politics, men in education: You can reach other men better than we can. This is a man’s problem, a man’s sickness. It is men who have got to step up, and tackle the sickness of misogyny.”
More information about Marlene Cummins can be found here.