The following reflection was written whilst sitting on the tarmac outside Flinders St station, Melbourne, with protestors from the Artists Against Abuse initiative. It was the third protest against the treatment of the refugees in Manus held that day and it was also the smallest, commencing with a performance outside the National Gallery of Victoria to urge the termination of their contract with Wilson Security – a company involved in running our detention centres.
I guess this is the closest I am going to come to being in a conflict zone. (Ha. Sheltered much?) I’m sitting on St Kilda Road outside Federation Square and Flinders Street Station alongside 100 or 150 protestors who are also sitting or standing, and some of whom are singing. Opposite them on the road are what feels like nearly 100 police officers, eight or ten on horses. People of all ages and backgrounds.
It never occurred to me until just now that this is where protest ‘ends’ – in attending to the final picket line and the stalemate that happens when the protestors and the police meet and it becomes a wait out. Who will last longer? How will the protestors be removed?
I am shocked by the level of police force that is being shown. I can’t understand it. I feel like there was less police force shown at the Australia Day protests, which had thousands more people. Later people will tell me that it’s because of how big all the other protests have been, or a show of force for the media, or that it’s to quash any attempts at violence, or out of genuine concern for how big the rally could become (no one knows).
There is also the absurdity: The protestors carrying banners reach within half a foot of the police blockade and then… nothing. They stand. Onlookers pause, probably waiting for the scenes they have observed so often on television of screaming protestors being dragged from the street. But it doesn’t happen. Cigarettes get passed. People take turns carrying the banner. After a while, the grim looking police with their hands clasped before them start to loosen up and chat amongst themselves. (This makes them lose the veneer of ‘evil oppressor’ somewhat.) Protestors attempt to keep holding up their gesture, fists crossed at the wrists above their heads, but we are hot and tired and it doesn’t last long. There is a palpable sense that no one knows what comes next – some of us are beginners, adhering to our roles in this strange theatre of democracy. We the people object, here we are objecting, and then…..?
3:16pm: the refreshments are being brought out. Umbrellas, Starbursts, muesli bars and sunscreen for the protestors, bottles of water for the police. Everyone is woefully underprepared for a long-term sit-in (a knowledge that tinges the environment with a sense of idiocy). I assume I appear on the side of the protestors, and I am too , but at the same time the reason for my presence has morphed. I am here because I am curious about the state of the Machine – how is this supposed to work? How is this accommodated within our system of governance and democracy? The half a foot between the protestors and the police is a chasm quickly filling with questions. In this scenario, there is the unspoken but overwhelming evidence that eventually the protestors will leave (they do) because they are not equipped to take on 100 police and 10 horses. Perhaps, though, the protestors don’t care for that; perhaps they just want to stall city traffic for four hours on a Sunday afternoon – a fair disruption some might say. But what each person wants to do, what each person expects, how far each person is willing to go – this is a mystery. It wasn’t on the Facebook event: “must be willing to get arrested”. The only certainty, it seems, is that the police will win.
I wonder: What if there was 10,000 of us? What if St Kilda Road was packed solid with our bodies? What then? How would we be cleared off? How would this affect the choices made?
It is tense.
(I think about how Police States begin. I think about how revolutions are started. I think about my partner, and safety, and moving to Portugal.)
I regret that at some point I will have to leave. I am not willing to be arrested or forcibly removed. I am too scared. After all, I only just started my career as a reporter 15 minutes ago after getting spooked by the police presence. And now, embarrassingly, I am captivated by the drama.
I wonder how many artists and protestors came today with the intention of staying all day, of sitting in all day. I wonder how many are prepared to be forcibly removed or arrested.
A thought gnaws: The fact is that the protestors cannot overthrow the police in this State, no matter the injustice we are protesting. The fact is that we cannot (or just have not been able to) disrupt to the levels that would be necessary in order for citizens to form the kind of threat or volatility that would actualise a change in law or national policy. This one fundamental hinge of democracy has seemingly been dismantled in Australia. The might of civil society, moderated through “anti-terror” laws and protest regulations, seems almost ornamental. Are we pretending to have a democracy?
I come home and tell my partner about everything that has happened and we research more about Manus, about Nauru, about Christmas Island, about detainees being beaten and murdered or sewing their lips together in protest, or killing themselves; about almost 2000 refugees awarded compensation for ill treatment by the Australian Government from the High Court; about women being raped by employees at detention centres; about ex-military open firing on refugees; about Medicine Sans Frontiers being denied access to the men currently held on Manus; the list goes on. We look up these places and they.are tiny little islands, forgettable to the rest of the world, dotted across the northern shelf of Australia. I wonder how much money has been paid to them, I wonder what they have consented to, how they were duped into this agreement. I think about John Pilger and about A Secret Country and I wonder where we actually are living.
I think about what it means that an anti-abortion bill was voted down 31 to 21; that 21 people voted for an anti-abortion bill and that is nearly half of the total count and that is terrifying. I imagine protesting for the rights to my body, and standing at a picket line and knowing I will lose. I think about what happens when it gets to the point where the extremes are more extreme and I wonder if something ugly will have to happen here before something good can come.
The previous night I am at a party with my best friends. One of my friend’s is in drag, his checked shirt tied at his belly and his shorts folded up to his thighs. He is wearing red lipstick and an Akubra and playing cricket in his cowboy boots. We drink and laugh and sing and we are as we are, all happy and lost and all nowhere, in a backyard in Coburg with our gaping mouths thrashing out the songs of our youth in some voracious catharsis of living.
Some part of me thinks: this is Australia. And I don’t know what exactly that means and I try to locate it, but it is this indiscernible, ungrounded quagmire of being, where we hold on to the threads of community that we can muster from virtually nothing, thread our sense of displacement into the greater lattice of everyone else’s seeming displacement and hold on to each other, muted to the absence of connection. This is what it seems to me it is to be “Australian”. To go ever deeper into the bland oblivion of an identity that cannot authenticate itself, and cannot recover itself in the face of a globalising world as anything more than a pawn colony for America and Britain. A country with so many secrets that patriotism can only be upheld by shallow and loosely strung tenets of shared suffering and compassion, rather than an acknowledgment of humanity.
I wonder if any immigrant ever knows what it means to move to a Western country. Falling over themselves, we line up and “jump queues” and pay and negotiate to drag ourselves and families and children faraway from homelands that are slowly being ravaged, or that were once so violently raped they remain in disrepair. The spoils are sold back to us by the very countries we now seek protection within; this in itself a delayed act of refuge; a sickly, transnational Stockholm Syndrome. Such genius then, to shower us with comfort, sedate us with economic insulation, assure our loyalties with privilege, and as a last test of allegiance, swear us to believe whatever we are told: cross our hearts and hope to die.
I used to pretend to be a social justice activist. I didn’t know I was pretending, but I was. I am not brave enough, passionate enough, selfless enough, faithful enough, to really put my life on the line. I have blinked away hundreds of injustices and gone on with my life of excellent coffee and food and friends and unbelievable privilege. When it gets too much I am empowered to turn the feed off and withdraw. And it’s not because I don’t care: it’s because I am sedate with comfort and assumed powerlessness. This, if anything, is Australia’s disease.
Later I am having a drink with a fellow documenting straggler at the protest. We both sense the mounting tension and decide to leave before we are forced. He has a camera and a gorgeous Japanese Akita named Aki. He was around for the anti-apartheid protests of the ’80s.
“What did you do?” I ask him.
“We fought.” he says. “We wore helmets and we organised and we fought. You can’t do it if you can’t get people on the street.”
We both look up at the people celebrating at the Greek festival being held in Federation Square – all of whom have no idea of the protest happening a few hundred metres from them. A newly married couple, glistening in their finery, walk through the square with their photographer.
“I don’t think anybody knows that there is anything to fight”. I sip my drink.
“They’re too comfortable. This country has had too many decades of uninterrupted wealth.” he says emphatically. ” The GFC happens and we roll right through and everyone thinks its going to be fine forever.”
Neoliberalism says otherwise. Climate change says otherwise. Populist politics says otherwise. History says otherwise. And any time we do our own research, it says otherwise. But we don’t raise a fuss. We don’t panic. We just carry on. She’ll be right. She always is (right?).
No one can force you to protest. You have to want it yourself. And you have to want it because you want to know for yourself whether there is any sense to what we call a society. Whether we are all pretending that this works, or if it actually does. And if it doesn’t, then what? You have to want the answer to that question, not because you’re morally superior, but because you are flesh, and blood and life and your purpose here is to live. And if we are all pretending that this works when it doesn’t, then we need to acknowledge that wilful blindness – even if it is the only coping mechanism we know. We have to acknowledge the reality of how we are governed, and that we consent to it when we are silent. As it stands in this country, 2 + 2 = 5, and one day we might turn around and not see anything wrong with that.
I don’t think I have been reformed as an activist. I think, rather, that this small and tame display of what happens when people confront the State machinery, considered against the factual history of this country and its current politics, has put a tangible sense of reality in me. One so sharp that the cushiony goodness of my privilege can’t seem to suppress it.
As I said, no one can force you to protest. But it’s important to know that no matter the petitions that are signed, the phone calls to Ministers made, the long rants on social media, the shares and the cares, change is articulated when actions occur in real time. Possibly when 10,000 or 100,000 people organise effectively and sit on a street refusing to budge until those who govern us exchange ideas with us meaningfully. Until such acts occur, the sentiments we express remain theoretical. For a generation consumed by media and wracked with increasing levels of anxiety, the notion of reality becomes fluid and illusory. It is perhaps because of this that actualisation – of what you claim to believe, of the values you think you uphold, of the humanity you feel in yourself – is where our greatest salvation lies.
At least this is what I think. What about you?