When I was 12 I went along to a protest with my parents, against the war in Iraq (specifically Australia’s involvement). I wore the “Make Chocolate Not War” hat I’d bought at a music festival and I felt so excited and so validated by the event, as a good person, as someone on the right side of history.
I grew up in a regional city, so we didn’t really have big protests and I can’t remember any others growing up. People talked politics… but not much more than that, not much more than hating on or applauding whichever political party was in at the time. But at this anti-war protest, it felt like the whole town was there, doing more than just talking. It was huge. I felt so empowered, I felt like we were actually being heard. Of course the big cities had massive turnouts, but us? We did this in our small city? I felt so fucking righteous.
And then the bomb shell hit. It didn’t change anything. The war continued.
It was an outrage, but it was happening. What could we do? We had already protested en masse. Like a catholic mother accepting her stillborn baby as a test of faith from a loving god, we bowed our heads and thought that some things must just be beyond our control. At least we stood up, at least we tried.
Years later as a recent university graduate I got back into the protest world after I realised there was a world outside of my 12 hour study days, and that world was really fucked up. Tony Abbott had recently been elected and Operation Sovereign Borders was just around the corner. My grandparents were refugees, so whenever I heard about abuse and oppression like that inflicted on asylum seekers by the Australian government, I think about them. I imagine them living through that system. So I wrote letters, I wrote facebook statuses, and I went along to protests. People would question why “we” bother, say “get a job” and “we have to think about our own people”, and I always thought “At least when people look back at this time they will see there was resistance to all of this, even if we don’t change anything!” Because I was so fucking righteous. Now 23-year-old me was back “in the streets” feeling validated, this time by a belief that no matter what happened, at least when future generations look back on this time they will see me there “resisting”. See me lookin’ good.
It’s only three years later now. And I say: fuck looking good.
The Brisbane G20 protest in 2014 paraded around inside its tight police escort, away from the actual G20 proceedings, outside of the “exclusion zone”, to achieve what? The G20 was not disrupted. The city spent hundreds of millions of dollars on the event. Protesters were easily intimidated into making their tools of protest “acceptable” shapes and sizes. What we did achieve though was… lots and lots and lots of people marching around and lookin’ good!
The Refugee Action Collective frequently hold “peak hour protests” outside Peter Dutton’s office in Brisbane. They stand outside on the street-front and hold up signs to the passing traffic, who sometimes beep their horns in support (a much celebrated reaction). We have seen people die at the hands of the Australian government. We have seen women raped and children tortured. But somehow the focus is still on “raising awareness” so we can raise more awareness so we can raise more awareness so more people can raise awareness, until we’re all aware enough that borders and detention facilities evaporate? Getting up at 6am to protest for refugees sure does contribute towards lookin’ good, though.
A group called Women in Black was founded in 1988 by Israeli and Palestinian women; an international peace network. The Armidale Women in Black has met outside the local courthouse (now out of use) every month for a silent, half-hour vigil, for over 13 years. It is a vigil to mourn victims of violence globally and to protest expanding use of military action. Major expansions in the Australian Defence Force are already underway for the next 20 years, including development of a drone program, missile defence systems, a long range rocket system, and a doubling of the navy’s submarine fleet. Hats off to the Women in Black for longevity, but I don’t think their 13 years of silence have been heard.
Maybe people aren’t intending to be heard, or to close down detention centers, or to stop the G20, or to stop wars. But what are they intending to do? Are these actions about some kind of personal reflection? A public statement of beliefs? A getting-together of like-minded people to share beliefs and interests? I don’t really have any problem with any of those things… except I don’t think that is how we view ourselves during these “actions”, and if those are our objectives, we could probably do those things much better, too. If we want space for personal reflection, perhaps we need space for conversation, self-education. If we want space to state our beliefs in a public manner, perhaps we need to develop educational models for genuinely informing and engaging others, rather than shouting slogans and carrying banners. And if we just want to get together with like-minded people, why don’t we just have social events where people can chat, where the space isn’t dominated by a speakers’ list and the loudest chanters?
We seem to embrace difference in an “agree-to-disagree” manner, even when it comes to matters of government policy. This policy affects our lives and other people’s lives. It can be a matter of life and death, and safety for people. A refugee policy that is in place for three years can mean three years of torture for some; death for others. An unproductive education policy in place for five years can damage the foundation learning of an entire generation of children. But we just wait for something to happen, and make some noise until it does, or until something else distracts us, or until we get burnt out making so much noise and achieving nothing. So long as we are on the “right” side of the argument, we’ve done our bit, right?
As hilarious as it is, are we really so far from Arrested Development’s “free speech zone”? (apparently not)
In Montreal, protesters confront police, banks and high-end stores. They name their enemy and they face them, and they make marks. They do not worry about being polite to the representatives of the very structures causing the grief we oppose. And they don’t worry about what the media (that also represents those structures) has to say about them or their actions.
In 2012, students protested proposed increases to university tuition in Quebec. They went on strikes, they protested constantly and many protested “violently”. A few months later, a tuition freeze was put in place. When the state introduced new laws laws in response to these protests they could not control – outlawing masks during protests and declaring it illegal to participate in a protest if the route had not been provided to the police – protesters continued to take the streets with their faces covered and their routes private knowledge; collectively fought thousands of tickets handed out by police to protesters; and just last year have seen the anti-masking law overturned in court. I doubt that would have happened if they had merely stopped wearing masks and talked about things changing or what the “right” law should be.
They disregarded laws and the opinions of the mainstream media, because these structures disregard our lives, and they succeeded in slowing down further destruction of freedom. They interfered with “progress” that would have paved the path to universities-for-profit and the acceptability of criminalising effective protest.
In Greece, people have broken the locks on an abandoned hotel, reconnected utilities, cleaned up the rooms and opened the space for hundreds of refugees to find solace. They not only provide shelter, but have created a space where community is built and strengthened through shared labour to maintain the accommodation, and activities organised and led by those living there. These actions are illegal; they look beyond the petty world of the law, they see our potentials and they bring imagination to life.
This isn’t so much a question of “looking good” or “looking bad” or not being seen at all. I think it’s a question of being helpful. Not in a charitable way, but helpful in bringing about changes we wish to see or at the very least in stopping change we don’t want to see. We can’t build a world that we are truly happy living in without doing more than expressing dissatisfaction.
If we bite into a rotten apple, we throw it away, and we find something fresh. We need to trash this rotten system; we need to imagine and build something fresh.