I’ve relayed this story many times over the years: the first rally I remember going to was in May 1988 when I was ten years old. At that time, my family lived in Canberra. My family attended the rally under the guise of attending something else – the day marked the official opening of the “new Parliament House” and government-planned festivities were going on. Yet Parliament House on this day was also the site of a massive convergence of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people from across the country. We were protesting the gross display of imperialism and colonisation that was the “Bicentenary” of so-called Australia, whilst highlighting the unfinished business of land rights for Indigenous peoples and treaties.
We joined the Aboriginal protest that day as politicians made platitudes about the virtues of democracy and how far our “young country” had come in those two years. A child’s mind does tend to fondly remember the time her parents allowed her to swear in public and as protesters chanted “land rights now! Bicentennial bullshit!” drowning out the official speeches, mum and dad happily allowed us to yell out the same.
To be honest, I am not entirely certain ten year old me understood the full meaning of that protest and what an iconic moment myself and my younger siblings were joining in on. The power of retrospect, however, highlights the meaning only too well. This was one of a series of convergences Indigenous people held in 1988 and are now seen as iconic historical moments. Given all that has unfolded in the 33 years since that march, I believe without a shadow of a doubt that Indigenous protesters who gathered on that day would not have dreamed that this many years later we would still have to be taking to the streets for these exact same causes. In 2021, we still don’t have land rights, we still don’t have treaties and we still have to endure gross displays of colonial supremacy on a regular basis.
This act of youthful dissent is one which, in turn, has informed my subsequent acts of dissent over the years. I learnt, for example, that it’s important to show up and to make noise. It’s important to disrupt. It’s important to challenge. Mainstream society is predicated on the maintenance of the settler-colonial status quo and unless you do make noise, the majority of the country who do not think beyond how OK their individual circumstances are will carry on as usual. They will do so no matter how awful a legislation is, how shitty and incompetent a government is, and how much people not as fortunate as them struggle.
We moved to Melbourne when I was nearly 14 years old and my personal forays into dissent and protest continued. Though no “red socks rebellion” such as that staged by Pandora Braithwaite in the then popular Adrian Mole series, I had my moments. Such as the time I was asked to give a speech at a one-off multicultural school assembly as the then only identifying Aboriginal student in the school and so I chose to read out Oodgeroo Noonuccal’s No More Boomerang. Or when we started doing “issues in the media” as part of our year 11 English classes and I seemed to have an opinion on almost everything my classmates brought to class to discuss. Or the time the school ran a lunchtime open mic session and I got up and did a speech on feminism.
Showing forms of dissent in high school was often a tough exercise though. By year 12, my peers had mainly accepted that my world view and social agenda were just a part of me that was prone to bubbling out. Prior to then though, I had been derided continuously as “opinionated” and even been labelled as a “problem” by the school principal. The year I read out the protest poem, year 9, I had been the victim of continuous bullying and isolation. Whilst this action was partly me using the words of an incredible activist to fight back, most of my teachers had done utterly nothing to stop this often racialised but always awful bullying. As an individual, this experience taught me that most would prefer to turn a blind eye to the harassment that an Aboriginal woman (then girl) endures when trying to speak out.
Not much has changed from those young years of exploring having a voice. Only the goal posts have shifted so that it’s not kids on the playground anymore. It’s now trolls in online spaces, legislators chipping away at civil rights and a complacent public. Growing up, I was told that the most important thing we could do to have a say was to exercise our right to vote at the ballot box. Yet this is not actually true. Whilst there is some capacity to ensure representation in the upper houses of Australian parliaments, or in a couple of states and territories which use proportional representation, for the most part this is not how Australian governments are decided. The lower houses are often less about representation and more about power. We have two major parties in this country and both feel that they have a right to that power so that even if we do cast a vote ensuring one of them wins government, our own electoral voices are reduced to the whims of a party room. Where, therefore, in the halls of power, can our dissent be heard when people are committed to toeing party lines to ensure their power is maintained?
In addition, people often talk about the Indigenous right to vote as one which was an act of benevolence – as something that was kindly given to us by a population which had evolved and begun to see us as citizens. Yet, reading the history taught me that this was never the case – our granted rights to vote were more successive acts of assimilation than anything else. For example, Aboriginal people already had the right to vote in some states prior to Federation. With the installation of the Australian constitution, this right was removed at the same time that Australian women were granted suffrage. It was then floated in via dribs and drabs – returned Indigenous servicemen and women could vote, or people who had been given an “exemption” from their Aboriginality on other grounds. It only became compulsory for Aboriginal people to vote in the 1980s. Even then, our enrolment rates remain low and of those who are enrolled, only around 50% will cast a vote. Either people are merely disengaged, or they see disempowerment via buying into a system which is continuously used to discriminate against our communities.
I say this as a political candidate myself and one who has chosen to run, in large part, because 2020 opened my eyes to an obvious issue which for years as a voter that I had just accepted as normal: an incredibly small group of people make decisions which impacts the lives of millions. Due to the need to obtain or maintain power, the ability to challenge these political decisions is almost nil. The ability to therefore assist the Greens in dispersing major party power dynamics so socially progressive challenges can be mounted from a crossbench was therefore deeply appealing to me. What’s more, I live in the most left-voting seat in the country and as I long-term resident, I feel that the progressive, compassionate and environmentally conscious views of this seat have not been represented in this existing “House of Representatives” power dynamics.
I feel I am writing this piece at a sobering time for dissent, the art of protest, and the building of communities. Never mind the criticisms of clicktivism and the idea that movements are now a bunch of individuals only committing as much to a social justice movement as signing an online petition. COVID lockdowns have brought a whole new dimension. Now people are all isolated and dispersed, with only our internet connections linking us. What’s more, policing has become the default way governments are choosing to deal with a public health crisis. Indeed, they and the media, encourage private individuals to engage in their own “policing” measures by calling in the alleged misdemeanours of other citizens. A population is fearful and compliant is not one that demonstrates dissent.
The left needs to begin critically examining this in some real ways because right now, I am seeing far too many of those allegedly on “my side” being okay with rapidly escalating policing powers without considering what the cost of this might be. Here in Victoria, we have seen the right to protest being chipped away at long before the pandemic hit our shores. We’ve been lucky here – protest particularly in Melbourne has been viewed as a pretty normal occurrence and unlike in other states, things such as permits from the police to stage a protest have not been necessary. This is changing. Anti-masking laws, for example, were brought in by the government a couple of years ago in response to far right protests and anti-fascist counter actions. The community appeared to support this despite the fact that masks are not only a way of concealing identity, they also protect protesters from police weaponry such as capsicum spray. I couldn’t help but be struck by the fact last year that at the Black Lives Matter rally in Melbourne, by wearing masks at it, we were breaking the Victorian anti-masking laws whilst also adhering to public health laws.
The government had also previously brought in “move on” laws which could be enacted by police to disperse a rally. Last year, we did start having to apply to the government to hold public gatherings. It’s not the same as applying for police permission to hold a rally but I have concerns that if, post lockdown, the left doesn’t apply pressure for laws like this to be wound back then rights of assembly and other civil rights will have been eroded in the blink of an eye.
I also think of those who are currently being punished for engaging in dissent. The Black Lives Matter rally organisers, for example, were all issued large fines for apparently breaking health directives by organising a rally where all were masked, we were mostly socially distanced, and people – given the fact that the rally was about the preservation of Black lives in the face of ongoing global police brutality – were actively there to save lives. Or the protest which happened at the Mantra Bell City Hotel to highlight the plight of the Medevac refugees who had been locked up in that hotel for nearly a year. Protesters socially distanced either by protesting in cars or standing apart from each other and wearing masks so they were adhering to public health directives. Many participants are still fighting the large fines they received in the courts given out because they were apparently disobeying the law by attending the protest in the first place.
As I write this today, I am watching footage from the so-called “Freedom Day” rally in Melbourne. Despite what I might think of these protests and the participants’ lack of care in a global health crisis, in this footage police are seen using capsicum spray, as well as deploying assault weapons to release crowd dispersal pellets. It’s terrifying to me to watch because FOR YEARS, I have seen police presence grow at Indigenous rights and other anti-racism rallies. At every single Invasion Day now, you can expect to see Special Operations police in kevlar carrying assault weapons. Indeed, I have been told by police this is “ordinary practice”. When did this actually become the case? The right to protest and assemble is mentioned in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights but where is the need to be policed mentioned? Why is it considered a default that police must be at protests and why do so many in the Left seem to be okay with increasing shows of police brutality because it’s a group of people they do not agree with? If the parameters of acceptability regarding police action continue to shift, where can we expect this brutality to shift to next, particularly when we already have over-policed communities by virtue of race and class?
Often, I think of the dissenters who have inspired me the most: the Warriors of the Aboriginal Resistance; unionists on picket lines; the anti-war rally participants I marched with back in 2003; the Indigenous convergences of 1988; the Jabiluka activists. There are so many others. These are all people who fostered collectivism, stood strong and attempted to effect change. I think about this and I wonder how these movements and these actions will be possible in a “COVID-normal” or post-COVID world if we, as the Left, don’t start posing some hard questions to our political leadership. We must question the erosion of civil rights, and build new and innovative ways to foster collectivist action at a time when so many people are isolated, fearful and are becoming increasingly comfortable with policing being used as a default answer for any and all crises.
The answer lies in community building and grassroots action – ensuring people are safe, have what they need to survive, are feeling supported and are feeling empowered. It’s never been more important to fight for an educated public, a removal of the racism which permeates our society, a robust social safety net, and clean energy targets so that we all actually have a future to look forward to. These goals require community action and cohesion, not policing.