Sunday, April 5, 2015

Love versus Hate

In the last six days I have attended two rallies.  The first was last sunday - palm sunday.  Many thousands of us gathered at the State Library of Victoria to hear some speeches before marching down Swanston Street to the Queen Victoria gardens.  If you've never been to a rally before, I recommend starting with this one.  It's inclusive, caring and the coming together of different groups.  Schools groups, various church groups, political groups (Greens, Socialists, Marxists etc), atheists, refugee action groups, Amnesty International and caring members of the public.  The message - peace, tolerance, diversity, acceptance.  There are many families in attendance and the crowd is compassionate, empathetic and caring.  In many ways it is the best of people.

Yesterday I attended another rally.  This time to counter a rally being held by 'Reclaim Australia'.  I hadn't heard much about this, but Peter was keen to go.  You only seem to find out about this through  alternative media via Facebook or Twitter.  We arrived and it was in full swing.  Two groups of people separated by lines of police and riot police on horseback.  I lost Peter in the crowd and just stood to see what was going on.  Reclaim Australia were holed up on the steps of Federation Square (ironically outside SBS headquarters), their messages of islamophobia and xenophobia on placards, held aloft by people draped in Australian flags.  The riot police horses created a barrier at the bottom of the stairs, and in front of them, linked arm in arm to create a wall were protesters. Their message, simply - no room for racism.

Late comers were trying to reach the Reclaim group on the stairs, but the wall held tight.  There was pushing, shoving, yelling, swearing, tension and fear.  A procession of people walked past me, draped in flags complaining about the crowd.  A woman looked at me and said how awful it was.  In the crush I asked her if she was with the group with the flags.  She smiled and said yes.  I called her a racist and then an argument with her and her husband ensued.  I said unless she was indigenous it wasn't her land to reclaim.  She rolled her eyes.  Her husband asked what I thought of the soldiers who died for me to be able to stand here.  I was gobsmacked.  I had seen many guys in camouflage fatigues or wearing tshirts saying they were soldiers.  Is this what it has come to?  I didn't have an answer for him, well not a quick, pithy response anyway.  He said he had a right to his opinion and pushed on through the throng.  At that moment I realised I was on the wrong side of the crowd.  I pushed through and joined the wall of protesters.  To paraphrase Gandalf - they shall not pass.

Within the wall I found Peter, with a riot police horse muzzle just behind him.  Contrary to what you saw on the news or read reported in the newspapers, it was mostly a war or words and wills.  But the No Room for Racism side was filled with caring, compassionate and empathetic people. We all looked out for each other, smiled at our neighbours and linked arms with new found like minded friends.  Quiet organisers moved through the protest to keep people informed and make sure people were ok.  Water bottles were shared amongst the crowd (chanting is thirsty work!) and the main MC on the microphone was inspiring, engaging and full of humour and wit.  The anti-racism group was comprised of such diversity.  Political groups, punks, average looking kids off the street, older men and women who looked to have been involved with politics for many years. and...a couple of librarians.  Two of my favourite moments from the protest were captured in photos.  A fantastic and glorious woman in a Yoko One 'War is over' tshirt and a helmet with toy soldiers painted white, who spoke to Reclaim protesters quietly of peace.  With big eyes, a bigger heart and a beaming smile she radiated the strength of passive resistance.  My other fave was two Muslim guys wearing tshirts saying 'Islam = peace, phobia = fear.  So you are scared about peace  Are you logical?'.  No guys, they aren't. None of this is.

photo by @ally.havas
photo by @emmsyish

So my lack of pithy comeback has been playing on my mind.  If I had my time again what would I say?  Here goes:

I'm sure if you asked the soldiers from WWI & II what they were fighting for it would be freedom from tyranny.  Against fascism, and the belief that certain groups in the community are less than human, deserving of derision and eradication.  They fought so that people have the right to live peacefully and without fear.  They did not fight for white supremacy or the quashing of people who do not think the same.

Terrifyingly, there were guys in the crowd with swastika tattoos on their heads.  Yep, even though the Reclaim group held up signs saying 'we're not racist, just concerned' their supporters consisted of neo-nazis and racists.  Most of the signs made little sense and argued that halal and sharia law meant terrorism.  I think they've missed the point that all moderate people of faith and most atheists believe in welcoming diversity and acceptance of your fellow man and woman.  It is the fundamentalists ruining it for everyone (westboro baptist church or other right-wing christians anyone?) and yes this includes extremist terrorist groups.  But these people are not representative of their 'faith'.  They're...um...nuts.

So - was this guy entitled to his opinion?  Yes, but to a point.  At work I volunteer as a discrimination advisor.  There are laws protecting people from being discriminated against because of their race, colour, descent or national or ethnic origin.  We also have racial vilification laws making it unlawful to insult, humiliate, offend or intimidate another person or group in public on the basis of their race.  But as we know (well, the Reclaim group don't) Islam is not a race.  So we also have laws governing 'Freedom of religion and belief'.  But what scares me most, is that if the Reclaim group bothered to look at the stats they would see something shocking.  The Australian Bureau of Statistics highlights peoples religious affiliations and there are more atheists, buddhists or presbyterians in Australia.  Only 2.2% of Australian's are muslims.  One of the fastest growing groups is 'no religion' at 22.3%.  So what are they actually afraid of?

By perpetuating fear and hatred you marginalise people and this is shown to increase radicalisation of  the disenfranchised.  Whether it is to terrorist groups or neo-nazis. Academics and community leaders should be listened to on this topic.  Not ignorant hate mongers - and this includes politicians and some news outlets.  If we want the peaceful country that soldiers actually died for, perhaps we should start by living in a tolerant and accepting manner.  Extend a hand of friendship to those different to ourselves.  Appreciate diversity and focus on being a decent and good human being.  You might just find that people have more in common than the differences you see in skin colour or dress.

Reclaim Australia have threatened to come back.  So this is the time for good men and women to do something.  That's not my Australia. Keep your ear to the ground and see you arm in arm in the wall.  Racists shall not pass.  In the battle of love and hate, I am always, forever on the side of love.