Heirisson Island: ‘We were hoping it wouldn’t come to this’

The standoff between police and Aboriginal protesters at Heirisson Island continued overnight after riot police raided the “tent embassy” and arrested four people at the site yesterday afternoon.

Both sides of the confrontation have pledged to remain on the island, with police declaring they would continue to have a presence for as long as was necessary, despite the “frustrating” and “expensive” cost, estimated to so far be $20,000.

“This is going to be up to them,” Central Metropolitan District Superintendent Scott Higgins said.

“We’re prepared for the long haul; we’re prepared to support the City of Perth with whatever they need to do.

“We’ll maintain patrols through the island.”

But according to reports there were no police at the site this morning.

The protesters are not backing down nearly six weeks after setting up their campsite in protest over the state government’s $1 billion native title offer over Noongar land in Perth and the South West.

Many non-Aboriginals also have joined the action.

Yesterday the group claimed genocide was occurring and police were breaching international law by dismantling their “tent embassy”.Even after a second campsite, set-up as the original was cleared, had been disbanded, activist Herbert Bropho declared none of the protesters would leave the island.

“They want to come tomorrow, we’ll [be here],” he said of police.

Former Fremantle Dockers player Scott Chisholm, who had visited the “tent embassy” each evening, said the island always had belonged to Noongars and they would fight to retain it.

“These people are sovereign people, they have every right to be here,” he said.

“This [land] was claimed under Native Title… it always was and always has been since day one.

“The Government are saying this is a public area, that was before, this is now, it’s 2012.”

He predicted this year would be the beginning of a new era for the Noongars.

“Dreamtime is awakening and it’s time to wake up,” Mr Chisholm said.

“Things have got to change and [the government] needs to look at things seriously.”

Despite the ugly scenes and lack of finality, Superintendent Scott Higgins described yesterday’s raid as a success.

Four men were arrested in dramatic scenes near the Yagan statue and have been charged for offences such as obstructing police and resisting arrest.

A woman holding a 12-week-old baby also complained of being charged at by a police horse. Police have denied the incident and told her to make an official complaint.

Mr Higgins said the afternoon was regrettable but the protest had become too out of control.

“We were hoping it didn’t come to this, we were hoping people had their say, made their point and then moved on,” he said.

“We regret that it came to this, we’ve got much more important things to be doing.

“[But there was a] worrying change in their behaviour, an escalation in violent incidents, which really made it necessary for us to go in as soon as possible.”

Firefighters had attended the island earlier in the day after trees caught fire. Protesters also allegedly smashed bricks at the site and Channel Nine claims one of its reporters and cameramen were assaulted last week.

The police and activists came face-to-face shortly after 2pm yesterday.

About 70 police, including the riot squad, mounted police and the dog squad, as well as the police chopper, descended on the island after several days of planning.

Filing out of “riot vans” they lined shoulder-to-shoulder at the entrance while concrete barriers that had been erected earlier to prevent cars entering were removed by machinery.

They were confronted by protesters claiming that police had no right to be on the island.

Activist Herbert Bropho, dressed in traditional gear and carrying what he said were traditional spears, stood 30 centimetres from the police line-up, staring at an officer’s face, and warned there would be violence if the officers forced their way onto the island.

“This is not their country, this is our country and they are invading our country,” protester Alison Fuller yelled further behind.

But barely 10 minutes into the confrontation, Mr Bropho led most of the group, including women and children, to the western side of the island to the statue of the Aboriginal hero for contesting colonialism,Yagan.

They draped flags over the statue and set-up two tents.

Meanwhile, police and 15 City of Perth rangers swooped on the abandoned campsite.

Officers from the riot squad created a security circle around each of the original tent site to allow the rangers to clear out the belongings.

Two small tip trucks were loaded with scores of items including plastic swimming pools, TVs, chairs and mattresses used by the protesters during their 40-day sit-in.

The protesters will have 28 days to claim the items. Two cars also were impounded.

As the raid continued, mounted police who had moved to the statue called for backup, sending 10-man teams of riot police running to the other end of the island.

There, three men, aged 28, 33 and 20, were arrested for allegedly obstructing police and resisting arrest. Two were non-Aboriginal.

A third man also was later arrested for similar charges.

The second makeshift campsite was stripped by police but yet again the protesters settled at another spot on the island, this time 200 metres away.

Mr Higgins said yesterday’s police action and the ongoing presence was “definitely expensive”.

“It’s definitely frustrating … and there’s other ways to be using those officers,” he said.

Premier Colin Barnett was unavailable for comment last night. Earlier he had given his support for police to take action, including forcibly removing protesters from the island.

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