David Kelly and Libby Porter
Globally, there are nearly two billion people inadequately housed amid a rapidly growing and protracted housing crisis. In Australia, 1.5 million people rely on rent assistance, a further 120,000 are homeless on any given night, and over 727,000 people are in urgent housing need. Housing prices and rent are growing at astonishing rates, with recent research identifying a cohort of tenants ‘lined up on the brink of a financial precipice’. In settler colonial contexts like ours, and other places where the afterlife of imperialism continues to resonate, housing and land policies have always been deployed to eradicate some relations and renew others.
Colonial logics that have always had racial banishment and displaceability at their core are increasingly apparent in a widening and diffuse range of extractive practices, militarisms, carceral institutions and revanchist urban practices. Contemporary forms of housing precarity and injustice are deep and systemic, inextricably linked with the wider criminalisation of poverty, punitive welfare systems and deepening displaceability.
The Forum for Dwelling Justice, held in Naarm (Melbourne) in August 2022, aimed to examine these relationships and forge solidarity between sites of resistance. The Forum brought together leaders, activists, community-based practitioners, scholars and film-makers to stage a conversation about precarity, racial violence, incarceration and dispossession and how these dynamics shape the ways we dwell, and fight for dwelling justice, here on stolen land.
To ground the discussion in the fact of sovereignty-never-ceded, the Forum opened with sovereignty keynotes from Linda Kennedy, Senator Lidia Thorpe and Uncle Robbie Thorpe. Three panel conversations then brought diverse thinkers and activists into conversation. In the first panel, Natalie Ironfield facilitated a conversation about sovereignty, abolition and mutual aid in the colony with Roj Amedi, Idil Ali, Witt Gorrie, Debbie Kilroy and Vickie Roach. The second panel focused on the politics of dwelling justice, with Libby Porter facilitating a conversation with scholar-activists Eugeni Flynn, Tasnim Mahmoud Sammak, Liz Strakosch, Tina Grandinetti and Natalie Osborne.
In a third panel at the Forum, peer-led dwelling justice projects were the theme, with film-makers Jazmine Barzani, Lucie McMahon and documentary radio hosts Kelly Whitworth and Spike Chiappalone in conversation with the Secretary of the Renters and Housing Union, Eirene Tsolidis Noyce. Attendees at the event were treated to preview showings of two films documenting dwelling justice struggles—Bendigo Street and Things Will Be Different.
What follows is an edited version of some of the speeches and panel presentations from the Forum. We have edited for clarity and brevity in some places, but a recording of the full event is available and audio recordings of the panels and keynotes were broadcast on 3CR.1
I’d like to acknowledge the Kulin Nation, that we are on their sovereign land, which was never ceded. I acknowledge the displacement histories in this place where we meet today and the privilege that it is for us to meet here considering the histories of where we are. I am a Yuin woman from the south coast of New South Wales and my bloodline connection goes back to Gunai, Wotjobaluk and Wiradjuri Country.
One of my sister girls rang me last night, and I’ve been feeling pretty nervous about coming here today. This is the first time I’ve spoken at something like this since having my daughter, who is now three years old, and this is the first time I’ve been away from her for such a long period of time. Having a daughter has shifted for me—and perhaps for other people here who have got people in their care—what it means to actually have security in housing and how that impacts their everyday life as parents or carers and people who have responsibility for other people in their lives.
My background is in architecture and planning where I am focused on decolonising design, looking at ways in which we can undo some of the systematic processes within architectural design to shift more focus and balance towards Aboriginal ways of knowing, doing and being. Design in Australia has been used as a tool to control and assimilate Aboriginal people ever since invasion. Missions are the easiest way to understand how design has been used to control us. Cultural genocide is about disconnecting us from the ways that we’ve lived sustainably for thousands of years. Architectural practice is a very exclusive industry—not just in the way design occurs but in the systems that surround it, and a big part of that is governance as all the decision-making power lies within the mainstream system. These limitations have impacts not just for Aboriginal people but for everyone.
I’ve been working on my own projects back on my home country, in the Illawarra. The region has a complex social and displacement history, similar to other areas along the east coast of Australia, where Aboriginal people were moved off Country into missions or reserves. Yet a lot of our family groups still have connection to Country. One huge issue we have on Country at the moment is underground mining. Extractive industries have been the basis of industry in the Illawarra since invasion, beginning with cedar logging. It took only forty years for the colony to extract all the cedar from the escarpment in the Illawarra. Mining for shells from our middens for lime to create colonial buildings destroyed a lot of our middens very early on after invasion. The railway built to get down to Port Kembla has impacted the ability of water to flow from our mountains on the escarpment down to the lake to filter out to the ocean.
These impacts continue today, with mining still the basis of how economic development is understood in the future planning of the region. The conversations attempting to stop this go through the Land Councils, which are set within a colonial governance system. These are significant flaws where our position to have voice and power sits within a system that disempowers us from the outset.
A lot of the energies I see being put into change-making today focus on building the capacity of non-Aboriginal people to engage with Aboriginal cultures. I understand why this is important, especially with the level of racism we experience.But it is equally and even more important that we start to invest our energies in building the capacity of Aboriginal people to engage in these systems. That is my main takeaway today: when you are looking at creating change within your organisation consider who you are creating that change for and how that benefits Aboriginal people.
Senator Lidia Thorpe
I’d like to acknowledge that we are on stolen land, on the lands of the Wurundjeri Woiwurrung people of the Kulin Nation. I pay my respects to Wurundjeri people who have maintained their existence and survived genocide, colonisation, assimilation. People who continue to share their Country, language, culture, dance and song with us today—I pay my respects to these warriors of the resistance.
We are sovereign people and we have never ceded our sovereignty. We’ve maintained our language, we’ve maintained our dance, song and connections to Country. We continue to resist colonisation at every possible level. But we cannot do that by ourselves. We need the rest of the population to stand with us. That’s not about simply turning up at a rally and yelling Black Lives Matter. It’s about what you do every day to let go of your privilege and allow First Nations people to have the platform. Our people are homeless in our own Country and struggling to maintain their lives through the racist regime of colonisation. It is colonisation that brought disease, took our land, took our children and tried to take the very essence of who we are as Aboriginal people. Everything that we’re dealing with—domestic violence, alcoholism, homelessness, incarceration—are symptoms of colonisation. We are not the problem, as Aunty Rosalie Kunoth-Monks said, colonisation is the problem.
We are the oldest continuing living culture in the world, with the oldest Constitution on this planet. The law of this land is about looking after it. Pretty simple, right? Looking after each other, ensuring that our totems are kept alive. But our totems are becoming extinct because of land destruction. When a totem becomes extinct a part of us goes with it. That’s what we want you to feel—the pain and the loss that we have been feeling since invasion.
We want you to understand that you cannot negotiate in good faith when you continue to destroy our Country, our water. As my uncle Robbie Thorpe has ingrained in me since I was a teenager, we must follow the law of the land, not the coloniser’s law. There are certain things that should stay in the ground. Drilling for gas and digging for coal and poisoning our waterways and taking the water puts us all in danger. There are reasons why we have the stories associated with the Country that we come from. These are not just ‘dreamtime’ stories, these are serious laws. And they are calls to action.
There are ways that you can help heal this country. Stop so-called Crown land being taken in the way that it is, stop manufactured consent where we have dodgy Black corporations selling us out. As Gary Foley has said for years, native title is not land rights. Uncle Bruce McGuinness said that native title is racist. It is a way to gain consent and create division within our families and our communities. We see this right now in the Tiwi Islands, where Santos has been found guilty of manufacturing consent. They called the traditional owner corporation a couple of times, spoke to someone on the phone and ‘got permission’. That is how manufactured consent allows the destruction of Country. It is sophisticated genocide. We have communities who can’t even go and fish in their local waterways because either there’s no water left or the water is contaminated. The livelihood and the health and wellbeing of that family clan is jeopardised because they don’t have what they’ve always had to keep them thriving. That’s why we need an alternative for our people where they can live and work on Country and look after Country as we have for thousands of generations. We want land back. You have an opportunity, through your influence, to start talking about giving land back. Treaty is a way forward, and we can do this ourselves, now.
We can’t have housing justice and climate justice until we have First Nations justice. We want justice through the mechanisms that our old people have put before us and that have been sitting there for decades. That justice will bring peace to families tomorrow, not next year or the year after.
We need to implement the recommendations of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody. One of the recommendations is housing. Another recommendation is mental health. Those recommendations have been sitting there for thirty years. Those recommendations must be fulfilled so that our people can have a home to go to instead of being kicked out of the prison system at 2 am in the morning and having to steal a car to find somewhere to sleep. There are so many Blakfellas in this country who are struggling to survive. They are struggling to put food on the table. Forget about a home because that’s just not possible, with long waiting lists for public housing and our homes overcrowded as we won’t let people sleep on the street.
We need you to stand with us and call for justice. Call for the recommendations to be implemented so that our people have an opportunity to have a home. Call for the recommendations to be implemented so that our children stop being removed.
I urge you all to come on this journey. This is about maturing and it is about decolonising. It is about economic empowerment and self-determination for our people. The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People, Article 10 states you cannot remove Aboriginal people from their home. We need you to help get that declaration into the laws of this country because they won’t just benefit us, they’ll benefit you all, and so will a Treaty.
Panel: Sovereignty, Abolition and Mutual Aid in the Colony
Natalie Ironfield, Roj Amedi, Idil Ali, Witt Gorrie, Debbie Kilroy and Vickie Roach
I am a Dharug person and PhD student and Higher Degree Research Fellow at the University of Melbourne, where I research and teach on abolition and the violence of criminology, policing and incarceration. A crucial thing that stood out while Senator Thorpe and Linda Kennedy were speaking was that we cannot have housing justice without First Nations justice on this continent. Here we’re going to have a conversation about the carceral logics that drive dispossession and displacement and how the state uses systems of surveillance, policing and imprisonment as solutions to the housing crisis. We are also going to speak abput how the struggle for housing justice is intimately connected to the struggle for abolition, because abolition is about a lot more than just getting rid of cages—it’s about drastically changing the society we live in.
(A letter to the Forum read by Debbie Kilroy)
The struggle for housing justice must be at its core an abolitionist fight, one that is led by those who are the most marginalised and affected by the struggle, because housing precarity is both a class and race war. I want to talk to you about the criminalised community and how we are affected by housing injustice. A lack of housing is at the core of injustice for criminalised women and others.
Every day there are people languishing in prison because of the housing crisis. Right now there are women sitting in cages who have been approved to be released from prison but cannot be released until suitable housing is found. They will sit and they will be forced to wait days, weeks and many months and sometimes years until a house can be found. It will not be found in the public housing system but by their family, who more often than not have to front the money to pay the rent to hold the property while Corrections do their checks. Those who don’t have strong family support will continue to languish. There are also women on parole who lose their private rental through no fault of their own and are then breached by the parole board for not maintaining suitable accommodation and then returned to prison, losing their freedom and often their children in the process. There are women released from prison into unsuitable and unsafe housing spaces run by support agencies, housed in vulnerable situations, and isolated from family and friends due to the strict ‘no visit’ policies.
The state specifically targets those unable to secure housing due to policies crafted to maintain the prison industrial complex. The nexus of carcerality, property and racial capitalism is made evident in the ways those who are homeless or unable to pay rent are criminalised, evicted and excluded from the housing market. The carceral state depends on the reproduction of housing precarity and racial dispossession for its endurance.
This is the reality for the criminalised communities that have always been overlooked in housing policy because we are the disposable population group, despite being one of the most marginalised. This is because those who are criminalised are considered undeserving of housing. We aren’t worthy of sympathy or assistance in the eyes of the state or larger community. We have done things that people don’t like and we are being punished. It seems that stripping us of all our rights, including those fundamental to our survival such as shelter, is one of the ways you choose to punish us. So let’s not pretend the housing system hasn’t been architected in this cruel, unjust and inequitable way.
The housing market is politically, socially and economically engineered to keep certain people out of it. Housing is absolutely implicated in the scheme of racialised and gendered social control, and racial capitalism and the carceral state are set deep in the project of maintaining housing inequality on stolen Aboriginal land. Abolitionists understand that a crucial element of housing justice must be that every person has a right to a safe place to call home. We understand that certain population groups, including the criminalised and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, have systematically been excluded from opportunities for homeownership. It is in the fight for housing justice that we are able to draw attention to the long-standing inequities and discrimination in all areas of housing, from housing and finance to public housing, policymaking and planning. And through abolition we are able to identify the conditions necessary to achieve a goal of housing justice and to determine which structures must be dismantled, fortified or newly constructed.
Abolition provides us with a space to dream collectively about how we might create abundant quality and affordable housing in amenity-rich areas. It enables us to consider how we can emphasise housing stability, imagine a world in which no one faces the threat of losing their home, and ensure that housing is decommodified and made universally available.
Together we can rescind paternalistic requirements for shelter services while we work to change the conditions that create the need for those same services, because, ultimately, abolition is at its core a building project. And we acknowledge that doing away with the ‘punishment state’ will require us to invest in education, housing, health care and mental health services as well as other social supports. Abolitionists like myself argue that resources should be directed towards these ends and away from institutions where reform has always failed. In doing this we have a chance to uphold dignity, safety, privacy, personal and public health. Abolition enables us to create a movement that can articulate a vision for dignified housing beyond the confines of existing systems of social provision.
As a Kurdish woman and former refugee I am interested in how to communicate with communities who have been victims of colonisation elsewhere who are suddenly here and being told that their new home is not theirs, that their desire to belong or claim agency in a colonial state is an act of violence itself.
My work involves understanding how to get people of colour to think about how the incarceration they may face, the over policing, the lack of housing, the discrimination and the inability to go about their lives without the surveillance state— how all of those things have an origin story in the establishment of Australia as a penal colony and the ongoing displacement of First Nations people, and then building solidarity across communities through that understanding. One of the most compelling insights I’ve gained through my work is that political engagement in this country is often distorted through a white lens.
Out of necessity people of colour from migrant backgrounds can perform a kind of white exterior and voice before they answer questions about their political experiences in so-called Australia. My intention is to help people not have to don the voice and mask of whiteness in order to engage politically. And it’s through this unpacking process that we collectively may understand colonisation in this context and build authentic communities.
One of the things that has felt most enabling is the work I do with communities that is unstructured and sits outside of institutions. One recent example was being part of the community response to the detention orders implemented across the nine public housing towers in Victoria’s COVID-19 lockdowns. Through our collective efforts we came together and showed the incredible community that we had built across diaspora African, refugee and First Nations communities. We all gathered together to support one another. That is a story outside of the not-for-profit sector response to that crisis that hasn’t been told and should be. Organising across disparate marginalised communities is often deemed too difficult to even begin to do by many groups and organisations. Such relational work is difficult, messy, because it involves deeply traumatised people facing multiple structural barriers trying to connect. But in a moment of crisis all the genuine relational work that you do in the lead-up, all the ways that you educate each other and yourself, all the ways you hold each other accountable can be activated.
In having this type of dialogue we are talking about how, as a Somali woman, I’m on this land because of displacement, because of colonisation elsewhere. From that perspective I want to talk about the criminalisation and policing of communities in public housing and the conditions prior, during and post-lockdown. The hard lockdown was the combination of so many things, and these came together in a big way. We saw how the media shaped the public’s view of what was happening, how health and medical professionals interacted with our communities, and how our landlords acted with violence. We also saw how communities responded through the solidarity we had built, how we didn’t wait for an external response. For a long time now we have witnessed the selling of public housing to private entities, and how private housing has been built alongside public housing, at a time when we have had declining public housing. The waiting lists for public housing are well over ten years. When we first learned about COVID, community members and organisations reached out to the state and asked about things that we wanted to support our community: hand sanitizers, more regular cleaning of communal spaces, more access to mosques for people who found it difficult to access them. Nothing happened and next minute we were being locked up.
People only found out about this when the police came from every direction. Most community members automatically thought they were under siege, that something horrific must have happened for the police to be coming from every side. A lot of how communities found out what was happening was by community members responding to each other. Our response was quick because of the relationships we had built. It meant that by the next day we’d set up a base in the Australian Muslim Social Services Agency. Donations were coming in; we established a campaign, a media strategy and legal support. We responded by getting material needs to people. All the while local governments in the area and government as a whole had no plan for what they were going to do.
The most ridiculous part of this was that when we responded we found the state scrambling to regain control. There was no clear chain of command and police officers downstairs at the flats decided that they would go through anything we as volunteers were bringing to community members. Sometimes people needed condoms, alcohol, cigarettes or drugs. The police went through everything and removed items that people needed, even if they weren’t illegal. Given the type of work we are trying to do around intimate partner violence and drug addiction this was a massive slap in the face because we had people going through withdrawal, experiencing domestic violence and having no way of leaving. If our communities hadn’t looked after themselves and each other we would have been left in the hands of the people who seek to oppress and harm us. I don’t think a community that had more resources would be put through an experience like this.
Carceral processes are central to the colonisation of this continent. Over the last couple of years I’ve been involved in building projects supporting trans and gender-diverse people in prison and returning to the community. The work is called Beyond Bricks and Bars. Our team supports trans people in Victorian prisons and in the community and also sits on a committee of a mutual aid project that provides financial and material aid to trans people in prison and post-release payments.
Trans and gender diverse people, in particular Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and people of colour, face frequent and significant abuse, racial and sexual violence, harassment and social exclusion. As a community, we experience homelessness, underemployment, family breakdown, complex mental health issues and isolation within the community at far higher rates than the cisgender population. These factors place trans and gender diverse people in the margins of society at times and at greater risk of criminalisation and imprisonment because of that marginalisation. Every form of discrimination that exists in our community is magnified and used by prisons to cause greater division and undermine solidarity.
Aboriginal transwomen are disproportionately incarcerated, reflecting how racism, white supremacy, transphobia and misogyny intersect with criminalisation. At the moment we support about thirty-five trans and gender diverse people who experience multiple forms of intersecting oppression. Of those, 90 per cent are placed in men’s prisons and the reality is that sexual violence, physical violence, psychological violence is something they navigate every single moment that they are in there. Of the 10 per cent we work with in women’s prisons, they have all been placed in long-term solitary confinement: twenty-three hours a day locked in a cell no bigger than a small car park with a yard that is entirely fenced in. The mental health impacts of that I can’t even begin to speak to it is so profound. Twenty per cent of the people we currently support are Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander trans people; 15 per cent are people of colour, mostly from Pacific or Southeast Asian communities; 50 per cent had experienced homelessness or were in crisis accommodation before entering custody; and nearly 80 per cent are exiting into homelessness. Over 50 per cent have difficulties with substance use, which led to criminalisation or compounded criminalisation; 70 per cent have limited to no family support; and 85 per cent were unemployed prior to custody. The majority of people I’ve spoken to link this to a lack of support. In terms of housing, it is incredibly difficult to find safe options. There are one or two crisis housing services I feel comfortable referring people to, which have massive waitlists, and we can’t support the number of people trying to get out on parole because there are no housing options.
I think we have to imagine ourselves into existence and dream what we cannot see fundamentally from within ourselves. This is even more profound in the prison context, which is founded on stripping away identity and human rights. This reminds me of a quote from Angela Davis: ‘I don’t think we would be where we are today encouraging even larger numbers of people to think within an abolitionist frame, had not the trans community taught us that it’s possible to effectively challenge that which is considered the very foundation of our sense of normality’. If it is possible to challenge the gender binary, we can certainly effectively resist prisons, jails and the police.
Panel: The Politics of Dwelling Justice
Libby Porter, Elizabeth Flynn, Tasnim Mahmoud Sammak, Liz Strakosch, Tina Grandinetti, Natalie Osborne
In this conversation we are focused on the politics of dwelling on stolen land to consider what it means to dwell and to dwell justly. How can that be possible when the very ground beneath our feet is stolen? This conversation is focused on dwelling justice, understanding dwelling as more than simply housing, more than just the bricks and mortar or a form of tenure. Dwelling is fundamental to any life on this planet, human and more-than-human. Kombumerri scholar Mary Graham teaches us, ‘I am placed, I am located, therefore I am’.
But the forms of emplacement in a colony like this one is organised through forms of carcerality, oppression and dispossession underpinned by the racial violence of colonisation. To tangle with these ideas of home, being and belonging we must tangle with them as political questions that are fundamentally inseparable from racial, colonial capitalism and the carceral state. We have to engage deeply with what that means and what responsibility that brings no matter how we are located here.
Five panellists to help us think through these questions from different perspectives and locations: Elizabeth Flynn on the racism inherent in colonial education systems; Tasnim Mahmoud Sammak on the racist legal narratives that unhome Palestinians; Liz Strakosch on dwelling justly in ways that are not possessive; Tina Grandinetti on houselessness and militarism in occupied Hawai’i; and Natalie Osborne on the promise of housing and the creation of settler-colonial futures.
I live a Black life, I always have. In this country what that means is exclusion from institutions, institutions that are designed specifically to exclude First Peoples. All of our struggles with health or housing, education, the justice system, each are part of living everyday with ongoing colonial violence. I say this acknowledging how privileged I am, particularly in terms of education, despite all of the oppression I face.
Racism against blackfellas and racism against non-white migrants are really two sides of the same coin. I know this as it is part of my embodied, everyday experience as a Chinese and Aboriginal person growing up racialised in White Australia, and then having that experience deepen after I became a Muslim and started wearing hijab. All of the institutions that make up this society—media, the health system, the education system, sporting institutions—were set up from the beginnings of the colony to exclude First Nations peoples based on racism. Distinguished Professor Aileen Morton Robinson talks about Captain Cook’s journey up the East Coast and how he described us based on our skin colour and other racist stereotypes. Race was used to justify the theft of our land. The British decided that we were not civilised, that they could use the legal fiction of terra nullius to say this continent was nobody’s land.
While we reclaim that blackness for ourselves in a positive sense, that very same racism exists today in Australian society. Through terra nullius this racism was embedded into the early institutions of Australian society. Often people struggle to make that connection. They say we should just ‘get over it, it was in the past’. But the kind of exclusion and violence that we see within these institutions today is the legacy of those very early days of the colony.
I want to use the example of Australia’s education system. This is a white Western education system in which we are indoctrinated from a very early age to believe a range of racist notions about education. We are told that there is only one body of knowledge and there’s only one education system. These are not named as Western or white but are normalised as the only body of knowledge and education system that might exist. We go from primary school and kindergarten to university thinking that this is the only knowledge system. When another knowledge system is acknowledged, such as in brief mention of Chinese philosophy, it is marked as inferior, as having no rigour and as not useful in modern Australian society.
We can see in the push to teach children in Aboriginal languages that this is not considered useful for a modern society. I want to be really clear, going back to that early point of Captain Cook and his journey up the East Coast, that these institutions were built to exclude First Peoples, and the purpose of this exclusion was to ensure that privilege and power remained with wealthy white men. Our institutions exclude First Peoples first, but they also exclude non-white migrants, people with disabilities, queer people, poor people. We have to understand that racism is about the ongoing dispossession of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, and the other side of that coin is that we don’t want non-white migrants to ruin the white purity of our White nation. Both are excluded through the establishment and policing of borders and through incarceration.
My work revolves around two key elements: art as activism and resistance and building solidarity and working with other structurally oppressed groups. One example is the Get Elbit Out campaign. RMIT University maintains a research partnership with Israeli weapons manufacturer Elbit Systems, Israel’s largest privately owned weapons company, which is proactive and complicit in the ongoing colonisation of Palestine. Elbit provides the Israeli military with 85 per cent of its killer drones used to terrorise and surveil Palestinians. These drones are mounted with Elbit’s missiles. Israel’s fighter jets and attack helicopters are furnished with Elbit equipment and munitions and used to attack residential neighbourhoods, family homes and refugee camps. Elbit weapons and technologies have killed thousands of people in Lebanon, the West Bank and Gaza while also destroying vital health and cultural infrastructure.
Artists have been instrumental in leading this campaign. Lidia Thorpe spoke earlier about Gary Foley and Bruce McInnes. People often don’t realise that in addition to being activists they were both artists, that they used art as activism as part of establishing organisations and leaving the legacies that we have today.
Tasnim Mahmoud Sammak
When I was invited to participate in this forum I wasn’t sure what I could say about housing or the housing crisis given I haven’t engaged in activism for public housing or against homelessness in Australia. Palestine seems foreign to these issues, even though our struggle is primarily about our (un)homing.
A Palestinian friend who lives in San Francisco often says that he has a skyscraper waiting for him in Palestine. It is his ‘go to’ in battles with Zionists who claim Palestine as their ancestral land. I think it is a cool power fantasy to have given Israel’s dedication to the modern logic of improvement and development. Every Palestinian gets a glistering skyscraper as reparation, although only an American modern activist subject could imagine that. In the ridiculousness of this claim, however, we unsettle the ridiculousness of settler-colonial notions because it is settlers who are possessing, accumulating, building a hierarchical society based on commodifying land. Settler claims are of course counted as legitimate; they are part of the natural order under colonial modernity. It is we Palestinians who are dismissed when we assert that we have a right to return to Palestine. When we say that we are a nation in exile and we are going to return, the millions of us, we are considered excessive and oppressive in our imagining of justice, of dwelling justice. We are supposed to make productive, workable demands that are comprehensible to the liberal international community and its post Second World War sensibilities. Our dispossession makes sense while our return is beyond any sense.
When the stateless defend their homeland and demand freedom for their homeland, and when the homeless demand housing, their requests are considered ridiculous. There is a similar modern scolding and disciplining of the political ambition of these two groups because colonial modernity is not made for them.
The book Colonial Lives of Property came to mind as I contemplated the provocation of ‘dwelling justly’. In this book Brenna Bhandar shows how the colonial appropriation of Indigenous lands depends not only upon ideologies of European racial superiority but upon legal narratives that equate civilised life with English concepts of property as well. In this way, property law legitimises and rationalises settler-colonial practices at the same time as racialising those deemed unfit to own property. The solution, as argued in the book, is to develop a new political imaginary of property in which freedom is connected to shared practices of use and community rather than individual possession. Palestinians find all sorts of ways to continue having a sense of home, not necessarily tied to physical property, and even in the face of Israel’s destruction of their homes.
We see the necessity of alternative imaginings of home and dwelling as Palestinian homes are confiscated today through Israeli court documents and legal mandates. It is futile to resist on legal grounds and through respectable rights discourses. These are the Master’s tools for the Master’s house.
As a Palestinian born in Amman, I have grown up to know that dominant knowledge does not totalise. In the milk bars I walked to with my cousins in the alleyways of our urban refugee camp hung maps of the region that marked the historical land of Palestine. The stores there were Palestinian-owned, packed side by side now cement homes, which used to be made of tin, which prior to that were tents, after decades of waiting a few kilometres from home for the right to return. Shops hold such names as ‘Jerusalem Boutique’, ‘Bethlehem Bakery’ and ‘Jaffa Jewellery’, with Palestinian flags flying in front and cheap golden-framed pictures of the occupied Al Aqsa mosque hanging behind the cashier. This is the way Palestinians preserve a sense of home in exile.
To maintain this kind of epistemology in a diasporic, settler-colonial context requires continued resistance to whiteness, making sure that we do not embody white ways of dwelling in this place. Many Palestinians and Arabs come to the West to escape impoverishment and dispossession. The promise provided by white modernity is obviously appealing and we need to talk more about approaches to actively resist inhabiting its ways through epistemic and ontological co-struggle between our communities. That is the kind of work our movement has been investing in, connecting Indigenous struggle and Palestinian struggle, both as a tactic here of decolonial resistance and also as a way to educate and do political work without reproducing whiteness.
I want to pick up some of the themes already been spoken about today, especially the operation of white supremacy in our struggles, because white supremacy is here. It is deeply connected to settler colonialism in this place and is very much present in progressive struggles and spaces.
I want to think about what it looks like to dwell differently and dwell justly in this place as so many of us here share a commitment to wanting to live differently, to feeling at home in the world differently, because it is an incredibly violent world—for all people, in different ways. We want to engage in creative labour rather than be exploited. We want to live safely. We want to live with care, rather than competition. We want to live more fully human lives, and that is tied to a desire to be in place and be at home.
For me, as a white settler in this place, the question is what does it mean to think about dwelling justly in ways that are not possessive. Indigenous critical thinkers and settler-colonial theorists have told us that the settler colony is characterised by a particular kind of homemaking by settlers. This is not a condition where a minority of Europeans come to try to exploit people. This is where a majority of colonists come to try to replace Indigenous people on their land and to naturalise that replacement—make their being at home here feel legitimate, feel safe and feel right. In colonial contexts like this, there is an affective drive for white settlers to want to be at home, and that drive is a violent one.
Today I want to consider what dwelling justly is not, and especially to consider possessiveness. This is a feature of white supremacy not just attached to capitalism but part of a broader structure of what Aileen Martin Robinson calls ‘patriarchal white colonial sovereignty’. It is a political structure that finds its nexus in the Western sovereign state, which divides the world into groups of people who can own property, groups of people who can be made property, and groups of people who can be dispossessed so as to ground the property regime of the first group.
Progressive struggles against capitalism are incredibly important because capitalism is very violent and is interconnected with race and colonialism. But we need to remember some things about Australian history and socialist history here, as Australia was often configured as the white working man’s paradise. There’s a very strong history of progressive activism here that was grounded in white possession, which was instrumental to, for example, the White Australia Policy, which was very strongly supported by labour movements.
This also brings into question some of the new movements to reclaim the commons from the neoliberal state that has enclosed them. This naturalises and reaffirms white ownership. There is no way settlers could legitimately collectivise the land here, so to speak about redistributing the capital that neoliberalism has accumulated, ignores how these are the spoils of war. Trying to refashion the state, even if we think we might be doing so in a more just and legitimate way, fails to understand how the state is grounded in fundamental structures of racialised dispossession.
Finally, I want to speak about this in a more personal or embodied way because these are not just concepts and structures; they come to rest in us, in our wounds and fractures, and also in our values and ethics. One of the things that has become clearer to me through my engagement with the demands of both Indigenous and Palestinian sovereignty is the way that our commitment to virtue and—speaking about myself here—how victimhood can become sites of repossession. I come from a Jewish family and the Holocaust sits like a wound in my family. I feel it in my body, I feel it in my psyche. Even in the context of the structural repositioning of Jewish people in the contemporary world since the Holocaust, producing a hyper humanisation and a grievability of Jewish victims, I still feel that wound.
There has been an invitation to Jewish people to come into the Western colonial project— into the very heart of it—and I understand why, as people are being offered a sense of place in a world that is not safe. As Judith Butler says, our psyches are formed in the shadow of the Holocaust. Yet the demand that’s always placed on us is will we speak up against illegitimate state power, no matter the cost to us, or will we be silent? In the context of Israel, criticism of Israel is configured as insensitive to Jewish suffering. As Judith Butler says, this springs precisely from a desire for suffering itself to stop. But what that reveals to me is the assumption that progressiveness and victimhood under conditions of structural domination can lead to some of the most resilient and violent forms of ongoing oppression. We see that in Israel and its self-justifications. We are all part of violent systems; we are all complicit in them. Some of them we can divest from but some we cannot. I cannot divest from the fact that I could go to Israel next week and circulate freely there while Palestinian people I care about cannot, even though they know the location of their grandparents’ homes.
Indigenous sovereignty doesn’t invite us in: it makes demands on us to understand the complexity of our relationships to it. Some of these are relationships of complicity and violence. Instead of trying to escape them, we can work from them. This is work we can start immediately, and I think that is dwelling differently in this place.
When I think about the struggle to dwell in Hawaii, and how it’s being experienced in this very moment, I think about two crises that appear in newspaper headlines every single day. The first is the affordable housing crisis, noting that half of Hawaii’s houseless are Native Hawaiins—houseless in their own homeland. The second is the Red Hill water crisis, which began in November 2021 when thousands of gallons of jet fuel stored in the US Navy’s Red Hill fuel facility leaked into Oahu’s sole-source aquifer poisoning thousands of families who lived on the Navy’s waterline and cutting urban Oahu’s water supply by 20 per ent, potentially forever. Yet to this day the Navy has not shut down the facility and one hundred million gallons of fuel are sitting in corroded tanks just a hundred feet above our aquifer, which is considered sacred water.
Of course, both violences are treated as acute crises that conveniently demand a reinforcement of the very same systems that caused them. To solve the housing crisis we need to help developers build us out of it, by incentivizing construction and deregulating planning. To solve the Red Hill crisis we need to lobby the federal government to give the Department of Defense millions of taxpayer dollars on top of their $773 billion annual budget to clean up their mess.
But we know that these crises are products of long-standing and interlocking systems of oppression. Settler-colonial capitalism and military occupation in Hawaii have worked together since 1893, when American-born sugar barons overthrew Hawaii’s Queen with the help of the US Marines. The struggle to dwell in Hawaii takes place in the context of these two predatory systems. People experience this struggle very differently, according to their different positionality across race and class. But at the root are systems that seek to eradicate the familial and reciprocal relationship that Kanaka Maoli share with the aina, or the land, known as ‘that which feeds’.
I want to share a moment that I’ve thought about every day for the last couple of months. One evening I was at a Zoom meeting of people organising around the Red Hill crisis. It was after work so I called in while I was taking my evening walk down to Waikiki, which is a world famous tourist destination. We were talking through my headphones about the recent announcement that Oahu residents were being asked to voluntarily cut water usage by 10 per ent to avoid over-pumping that might suck the fuel plume from the Navy’s well towards civilian pumping stations. If the fuel got into civilian distribution pipes tens of thousands of homes could become unliveable because petroleum would sink into the PVC pipes. At the same time I am looking and I see thousands of tourists. These are just a fraction of the ten million who visit annually, compared to our population of 1.4 million.
Each tourist presumably is oblivious to the everyday violence felt by the people of Hawaii. Their hotel pools were full while we were questioning the ability of our island to sustain life with a poisoned water supply. And they were cushioned from the harsh realities of dwelling precarity by a city ordinance known as the ‘sit-lie ban’, which criminalises houselessness, making it illegal for people to sit, lie or store possessions on the sidewalks of Waikiki. Remember that half of all houseless people here are Native Hawaiian, or Pacific Islander. I remember fighting back tears. In Hawaiian language, Waikiki means spouting waters. It is named for the springs that fed the abundant wetlands that were dredged and filled to create tourist dream worlds. If we really reflect on that name, I think we can see how dwelling injustice begins with the transformation of aina, or land. The spouting waters are dredged and then contaminated, the Kanaka Maoli who cared for them are displaced, and then the tourists, settlers and military welcomed. Somehow all this violence gets packaged as paradise, and people buy it, making the struggle to dwell for many Hawaiins even harder.
Last year we held a forum in Meanjin (Brisbane) addressing similar questions to those being addressed here called the Housing Justice and Unjust Cities Forum. We were grappling with a similar set of questions about how supposedly progressive struggles make claims for justice on stolen land. I want to speak to that kind of tension in the organising work that many of us do relating to both housing and public space and think about how we are framing that work.
Speaking from my own position as a white settler from a middle-class background, in the discourse on housing precarity we often invoke a sense of loss. Loss that so many of my generation or generations coming behind have lost the future that we thought was on offer, where increasingly precarious and shitty work conditions, climate conditions and housing conditions are conspiring against us, which means we won’t have the future our parents had, much less improving on what they had. For many of us there is a grief in this kind of accounting for what is going on, a grief for lost hopes, a loss of the Australian dream. It is important to acknowledge those feelings, to acknowledge that affective experience but then, importantly, to use it to connect us in relations of solidarity and accountability. For that dream was never available to everyone. The Australian dream of property ownership and security through private exclusive possession and accumulation was never available to all. It was always founded on violence. It pretended to be universal, but that masks the racialised, colonial violence that underpins it. That offer of the suburban dream was political work to write our presence on the landscape as a matter of fact—an entitlement rather than the deeply contingent situation that it is. That offer would enrol me in the project of white possession of stolen Aboriginal land, and particularly in white futurity.
I think a lot about this in the context of planning, which is a very future-focused profession, fundamentally reimagining and reinscribing settler futures on this landscape. The promise of housing and the approach to housing we were offered was very much about that project of white futurity. It functions to make us conservative, because it makes us want to protect the political and economic systems that underwrite and defend that possession, regardless of the harm they are doing. That dream is becoming unreachable to more and more people and this is an urgent problem. But surely it is also good for us to be failing at this. This moment of injustice, of disappointment, of anger or fear of loss and outrage I hope can connect us to possibilities for solidarity and reimagining the terms on which we dwell in this place.
That is going to require a bit of humility, a lot of reflection and perhaps a bit of shame over the things that we were taught to desire. But in grappling with that, perhaps we can begin to imagine other modes of dwelling and see that it is good to fail at being capitalist subjects—that it is good to fail at colonial dreams. Colin McFarlane describes dwelling as a set of relations: how we compile a space for our lives, with whom, from what taken from whom and where, and everything that makes that inhabitation possible. If dwelling justice is a set of relations, then how do we get into better relation? How do we be in better relations in this place? Anishnaabe scholar Heather Dorries writes that we need to ‘identify and strengthen the practices that allow us to locate ourselves within the web of rationality that makes life possible’. Locating ourselves or being in place goes back to that wonderful quote from Mary Graham above. Nishnaabek scholar Leanne Simpson also tells us that the opposite of dispossession is not possession; rather it is deep, reciprocal, consensual attachment.
While there’s certainly no clear path forward, when we are reflecting in our own organisations and movements we can think about how we are either reinscribing settler-colonial futures or working to undo them. There is no middle ground; it is one or the other. Perhaps in those moments we can return to those principles of deep reciprocal, consensual attachment and really try to think about what that might look like and offer in these struggles.
1 Introduction References
AIHW, (Australian Institute of Health and Welfare), Housing Assistance in Australia, No. 2020–21, Canberra: Australian Government, 2022, https://www.aihw.gov.au/reports/housing-assistance/housing-assistance-in-australia/contents/about.
Emma Baker, Rebecca Bentley, Andrew Beer and Lyrian Daniel, Renting in the Time of COVID-19: Understanding the Impacts, Melbourne: Australian Housing and Urban Research Institute, 2022.
Julie Lawson, Todd Denham, Jago Dodson, Kathleen Flanagan, Keith Jacobs, Chris Martin, Ryan van den Nouwelant, Hal Pawson and Laurence Troy, ‘Social Housing as Infrastructure: Rationale, Prioritisation and Investment Pathway’, AHURI Final Report, Melbourne: Australian Housing and Urban Research Institute, 2019, p. 315.
Elizabeth Strakosch, Neoliberal Indigenous Policy: Settler Colonialism and the ‘Post-Welfare’ State, Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2016.
UN-Habitat, Housing Rights, Nairobi: United Nations, 2021.