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Roxley Foley: The Keeper
of the Flame
– Gus McCubbing interviews Roxley Foley | April 11, 2016
Due to the work of Gary Foley, the Foley name is synonymous throughout Australia with Indigenous rights activism. However, at a touch over thirty years of age, Roxley Foley, the son of Gary Foley, was the official custodian of the Tent Embassy for over a year and is fast carving out a name for himself within the grassroots movement. Over lunch at the ANU Food Co-Op, Roxley shared with me his family’s background in activism and how this had a profound impact upon his worldview from an early age, as well as his own experiences in activism.
Growing up around the time of Bicentennial protests in the late 1980s, Roxley says that his early exposure to grassroots activism instilled in him an appreciation for an element of insouciance within activism.
“Before I got to the age of kindergarten and primary school, I was just one of those activist babies, travelling all around the country, running up and down police lines on scooters.”
He believes this element of activism has dried up over time.
“It seems be much more an exercise of venting frustration, and the acceptable theatre of protest…there was a lot more creativity and sort of doing things in a way they weren’t expecting back then.”
His upbringing also provided him with a sense of self-esteem and independence which has never been lost.
“…Unlike a lot of my cousins and brothers and sisters, because I grew up with my Mum and Dad away for a lot of shit going on, I was brought up with a very strong sense of self. I was never given this image that there was anything negative to take as a connotation for being Aboriginal.”
Roxley’s long-held pride can be seen in one particularly nasty encounter with the man responsible for expelling him from school.
“I got kicked out of high school when I was about fourteen, and to quote my year level coordinator who kicked me out, ‘Your people are not academically inclined, and my school’s an academically inclined school, and I don’t want no bloody Abo’s [sic] in my school’.”
Roxley can look back and laugh at the incident, as at the time he simply responded, “My grandfather was a senior PhD chemistry lecturer and my father’s one of the most respected historians in the country, what’s your family’s academic history?”
So, despite a prickly high school experience, Roxley, under the care of his mother, enjoyed great exposure to activism during his early years. Throughout his youth, Roxley says he often worked as a figure of support for both his parents in their endeavours, as well as his maternal grandfather Dr. Dennis Matthews, who was both a chemistry professor at Flinders University and a leading anti-nuclear advocate involved in the shutting down of the Jabiluka uranium mine.
“So I have the upbringing of both Indigenous rights and environmentalism,” he says. “I think the focus on grassroots activism was always very strong, especially in both sides of those movements.”
“…In Indigenous rights one of the main things we were fighting was the ‘Aboriginal Industry’—this industry enveloped in paternalism, and this move towards self-determination, which of course has to be rooted in the grassroots direction of the community.”
Photograph by Courtney Hebberman
Snowballing into Activism
During his stint as a mature-age student at Adelaide University, Roxley began to get more directly involved with grassroots activism. Having enrolled in an Indigenous foundation course, known as the Wirltu Yarlu program, he would eventually become dismayed by the university administration’s ongoing attempts to not only cut the funding of this program, but also the Indigenous students’ housing budget. This, Roxley says, led him to defer for six months, and use the extra time he had to help organise rallies—the first of which was established in response to Julieka Dhu’s death in custody in WA in August 2014.
Following this, Roxley played a hand in the organising of the Summit for Freedom, which took place in Alice Springs in November 2014. The purpose of this summit, which brought together hundreds of elders, as well as community and activist leaders, Roxley says, was to “talk about a state of the union and how fucked it was at the time.”
“I was actually expecting to get speared coming out of Alice Springs because I would constantly end up yelling and screaming at people…and somehow that ended up in them trusting me.”
On the day of the failed Liberal leadership spill in February 2015, Roxley and a group of other delegates from First Nations Freedom Movement then entered Parliament House to deliver the Aboriginal Sovereign Manifesto of Demands to the Minister for Indigenous Affairs, Nigel Scullion.
“I came down with a very large group of young people, and we quickly became the organisational backbone of the camp [at the Tent Embassy] and just kept things running. When the initial meetings were finished and the elders requested we start performing a sit-in which would continue on for time undisclosed, they essentially left me behind to maintain a camp of four hundred people for as long as possible.”
“It was just all a series of snowballing events which then saw me handed the custodianship role of the Embassy and given a green-light by multiple groups of elders who said that this space was originally founded by young people—my father one of them in his early twenties—it was a space about young ideas and trying things differently, and they wanted it to go back to that.”
Although overcome by internal problems for the time being, Roxley had a firm idea for the direction he wanted the Tent Embassy to take in the future.
“We [were] looking at building on that space and opening it up to a range of issues, re-strengthening it as a bit of (a) pressure valve to show some discontent on their lawns, a space where they can’t just get rid of it after sundown as the ‘acceptable protest area’ has ‘acceptable protest times’ attached to it.”
Photograph by Valerie M. Bichard
On the Modern Nature of Grassroots Activism
Despite bemoaning the very structured nature of modern protest, Roxley nevertheless upholds the ongoing relevance of grassroots activism, arguing that change is easier to effect than we might think. As Roxley indicates, this steadfast belief is built upon his own knowledge of the history of resistance within Australia.