A fiery community meeting of several hundred people convened on Tuesday to oppose plans to close the National Centre of Indigenous Excellence (NCIE) in the Sydney suburb of Redfern.

NCIE, a sports, fitness and community centre primarily used by the local Indigenous community, is set to close on 8 August after negotiations between its previous owner, the Indigenous Land and Sea Corporation, and the new owner, the New South Wales Aboriginal Land Council, failed to secure funding for its continued operation.

The 50 staff at the NCIE were told on 1 August that they would be sacked. Adding insult to injury, they were offered $500 to sign non-disclosure agreements with the Land Council. On the same day, Redfern Youth Connect, a local NGO, shared a video on social media showing dozens of Aboriginal school kids crying outside the locked gates of the NCIE, which they regularly visit after classes.

The community meeting in response was organised jointly by Redfern Youth Connect, fired NCIE staff, local users of NCIE and hundreds of supporters, who gathered inside on the basketball court to protest the closure.

Co-founder and CEO of Redfern Youth Connect Margaret Haumono told the meeting that she and others had spoken to the Land Council and had been told that the closure was “not our [the Land Council’s] problem”. The meeting responded with cries of “gutless dogs” and “shame”.

A 16-year-old Indigenous woman, who is also a member of the Koorie Youth Council, told protesters, “I come back from these big discussions about the voice [to parliament] to see Aboriginal kids crying on the street ... it’s a disgrace, how can we allow this to happen?” Other speakers explained that the centre was important for working-class Indigenous and non-Indigenous families in the area, who send their kids to the centre for classes after school instead of paying for expensive after-school care.

Many of the speakers focused their fire on the bureaucrats in the Land Council who had allowed the closure to happen. Wiradjuri, Yuin and Gadigal woman Nadeena Dixon said that “too many of our community leaders have become dictators”, while fired NCIE staff expressed disgust at being thrown out the door with little communication.  

As if to confirm Dixon’s words, two representatives from the Land Council then pushed their way to the front of the meeting and demanded the right to reply to their critics. One of the representatives, Uncle Joe, berated the crowd, explaining that “we can’t run this place on a loss” and that the only alternative to closing down NCIE was to sell off the whole site to developers.

Another representative argued that there simply isn’t any real money to be made out of swimming pools and gyms, and revealed that the Land Council was considering handing over the whole operation to the PCYC (Police and Community Youth Club). This was met with outrage from the crowd, most of who were all too familiar with the history and culture of the police in Redfern. It didn’t help that Land Council representatives had recently been spotted wandering around Redfern with a group of police escorts.

Like the 2015 battle over the Aboriginal Housing Corporation’s “redevelopment” of the Block—a meeting place in the heart of Redfern—the fight over the NCIE has revealed an important division between Indigenous bureaucrats, who primarily care about money and power, and the still mostly working-class community of Redfern.

In 2015, this division led to establishment of the Redfern Tent Embassy and a series of protests against the Aboriginal Housing Corporation’s profit driven restructuring of the suburb. This attack from a new section of the Indigenous bureaucracy looks set to provoke a similar response. 

The meeting agreed to hold daily meetings and a protest and sit-in when the NCIE is officially slated to close, on Monday 8 August. Supporters are encouraged to attend.