Sunday, July 19, 2015

#noroomforracism

Rally number 2.

You probably saw this on the news last night or in the newspapers.  Reclaim Australia together with the United Patriots Front decided to stage another rally.  No Room for Racism organised a counter rally.  This time there were over 400 police and barricades keeping the two groups apart.  What you will have seen or heard on the news is the fights and pepper spray.  What they won't show you is the other side to the day.

So here's my story.

In the days leading up to the rally I had gotten scared.  I'd heard stories about the Nazis posting footage on youtube showing a guy in Spain getting stabbed and dying on a train platform. There was commentary from an Australian guy saying how great it is to watch leftie scum die.  I had heard that people were threatening to bring weapons to the rally.  After witnessing their wrath and hate last time, I did not consider this out of the realm of possibility.  I didn't sleep well the night before.

Peter and I arrived early.  There was already a group of a few hundred anti-racism protesters.  Someone bounded up to us and offered us placards to waive.  How brilliant!  I chose the classic 'Hey Racists. Go Home' while Peter went for 'Nazis off our streets'.  There were tons of banners, including one with the words 'Never again' and a swastika crossed out.  And I guess this sums it all up for me.  Didn't people learn last time?  If this was the battle line, I knew which side I wanted to be on.

The crowd grew and I looked around.  There were people of all ages.  Many elderly and also many young kids.  You won't see them on the news.  Protesting pensioners don't make for salacious prime time viewing.  There was also a larger showing of Muslims.  I saw young women walking around with clipboards and high viz tape with 'legal observer' written on them.  The Melbourne Street Medics were there and many people acting as marshals.  Tons of people were also there with cameras recording everything.  It seemed really well organised and people's well being was paramount.

A marshal asked if we could go and help form a line at the back, towards a barricade lined with police.  All I could see were police.  Everywhere. I was happy to be wherever the organisers needed me.  Peter stood next to a young muslim guy, who shot us a wide smile.  He asked Peter if he could take a photo of him holding up his 'Not yours to reclaim' sign.  I spoke to him later after he'd been interviewed by the ABC.  I asked if he was going to be on the telly.  He smiled shyly and said his friend might, but his english wasn't very good.  I said it sounded fine to me.  He said people's problem is that they needed to talk to sort this out.  I said the problem was in a conversation it's just as important to listen as well as talk.  And noone in the racist camp would want to listen.  He nodded, 'yes, listening is important'.  I held his sign as he raced off to take more photos.  Next to me was a guy who'd never been to a rally before.  We chatted and wondered how society had gotten here.  As the crowd swelled, all of a sudden behind us we saw the UPF arrive and be escorted by police across the steps of Parliament to join the Reclaim Australia group.  We were carolled at the top of Bourke street with a whole intersection between us and the racists.

Seconds later we turn around again and see that most of the anti-racism group marching down the street.  A marshall informed us that a decision was made to get closer to the other protest.  He urged us to stay and hold our line.  So we did.  As it turned out there were over 3000 people saying no to racism, and less than 200 people from Reclaim Australian and UPF combined.  We may have been away from the action, but periodically small groups of racists came towards us.  We all linked arms and held our line.  These thugs wandered right up in the faces of the front line, trying to intimidate us.  They shouted abuse, gave nazi salutes and tried to goad us.  We yelled back but held our line.  I think this sums up everything.  We had a barricade behind us and police.  There was no way for the racists to get though.  They simply came to try to provoke us, and intimidate us.  We didn't bite.  We yelled and I have to say the thing I love about holding the line is the humour of the people.  We laughed as people mocked the racists.  We chanted and clung tight in a show of community.  I had a group of young punks next to me and we all joked around in between the visits from different racists trying to start fights.

There was an older woman standing behind our line.  She had not drawn breath for about an hour.  Not only was she engaged in a philosophical discussion with a couple of people, but she was also arguing with us all.  Her stance was that in a democracy everyone had the right to an opinion and free speech.  Peter asked her why she was here.  She then accused him of being a rent-a-crowd placard waiver.  We laughed and others rolled their eyes at her.  She may have preferred the free speech stance but I argue that there is a difference between free speech and hate speech. Thinking back now, I wish I'd asked her what she was doing here, safely behind a line of people taking a stand against racism.  If she wanted to discuss her views on free speech, the real philosophical challenge for her would have been to go and stand amongst the racists and see if she felt the same.  Seeing them close up terrified me at the last rally.

All the action happened around the corner.  After about an hour the UPF were again escorted across parliament by police.  We jeered as they flipped the bird and yelled at us.  A guys near us yelled out 'Say hi to your Mum for me' and we laughed.  Then someone started the chant 'Please don't breed'.  With wicked joy in my heart I yelled this out and laughed.  Yes, for all our sakes, please don't breed!  We talked to more wonderful people and water bottles and trail mix were offered between the group.  Then we heard a roar.  The main protest group arrived back.  They were cheering victorious and we cheered them home. Many of them showed signs of pepper spray all over their clothes and red swollen faces.  A new cheer went up 'You'll always lose in Melbourne'.  It's moments like this that I love this community.  Diverse. Multicultural. Witty. Caring.

We listened to a couple of speeches, including a muslim leader who quoted Nelson Mandela:
'No one is born hating another person because of the colour of his skin, or his background, or his religion.  People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite'.  I got a lump in my throat.  Under my jacket, pinned to my top was a brooch that simply said 'Love'.

We do have a choice in how we live our lives and I've said before that I am firmly and steadfastly on the side of love and inclusion.  Seizing that moment I ran through the crowd.  I walked up to a 6 foot 3 bearded guy wearing an anarchist tshirt.  He had a shaved head and a grey beard.  He was cuddling up to his partner.  I explained that I had held the line today a bit further down from them, and that seeing his presence made me feel safe.  They both beamed and laughed.  She explained that he knew karate so was handy to know.  I said I was definitely seeking them out at the next rally.  We all smiled and I said thank you to them and rejoined Peter.

The rally coordinators told us that some of the racists had been spotted around the surrounding streets.  So, for safety they wanted everyone to leave together.  We walked down Bourke street and a huge group of us walked all the way to Melbourne Central station so people could get the train or trams together.  In my head was the chant 'Who's streets? Our streets!'

So that was my rally.  I talked to interesting and entertaining people.  I smiled through the crowd to others holding the line as we all watched out for each other.  There were tense moments and also a despairing at the hatred and racism that walked on our streets. But as I walked down Bourke street, chatting to a guy with face tattoos, I realised how important it is to get to know people.  Talk to them, understand them, listen and talk...and love.

One of the young punks had a great quote on his jacket. 'The heart is a muscle the size of your fist.  Keep loving. Keep fighting'.  I promise I will.











Sunday, July 5, 2015

The struggle

Something big happened recently.  I'm sure you saw it on the news.  America made a very clear and legally binding statement about gay marriage.  This follows the Irish referendum showing community support and highlighting the change in attitude that seems to be enveloping the western world.  As a fan of equality I think these are great advances in politics and the law.  But of course we are still waiting in Australia.  The fight still continues here.

I am someone who thought about the idea of marriage growing up, but thought it unlikely that I would do it.  Until, of course I met Peter.  Like a flash of light we knew we had something special and we joked that the two least likely people were going to do something conventional.  Yep, it's good to keep people guessing.  We shocked people by doing something traditional...in a non-traditional way, of course.  We had a whirlwind romance and decided very quickly to get married.

Marriage isn't for everyone, but we were lucky.  We had a choice.  We know people in long term committed relationships who don't need a piece of paper and a party.  And that's cool.  But we also have gay friends who would love to do what we did.    And for the life of me I can't understand why outdated ways of thinking should stand in the way of their happiness.  Love should win.

There were also comments on social media after the American announcement.  'Hey, that's great and all, but what about other more important LGBTI issues'.  Perhaps my response to this is simplistic.  Every single step forward should be celebrated.  It highlights the change that is going on.  Some areas of society need to be dragged along kicking and screaming to a more accepting mindset.  I think perhaps people have seen how quickly an online petition or social media campaign can grab the headlines.  We have become used to an instant response to outrage.  We want and expect change NOW.  This works sometimes, but it doesn't always bring politicians, the church, pockets of society and the law along with it.

Think of the Women's Suffrage or other civil rights movements.  It has taken years for change to occur.  And in looking around today I can see that even though some things are enshrined by law, society needs reminding constantly and new generations educated.  There are many that don't see the importance of equality.  Hell, it's hard to believe that in 2015 we are still talking about a referendum to acknowledge indigenous Australians in our constitution.  But the reaction of the media to indigenous issues are part of the problem.  When rallies held across Australia to protest the closures of remote communities, some news outlets missed the point entirely.  Sure, over 4000 people took at stand against this issue but the focus was on the chaos this caused commuters, rather than the issue people were protesting about.  Well, I salute you 'selfish rabble'.

Every day we are reminded that although the law and some areas of society are moving forward in their thinking, there are others that aren't.  The recent outrage when Clementine Ford took a stand against victim blaming, and was subsequently threatened and verbally attacked online.  The idea that women are 'destroying the joint' as pointed out by Alan Jones, which hilariously has now become an battle cry by feminists.  Destroying the Joint is a Facebook page highlighting women's issues from domestic violence to sexism. And speaking of sexism, the everyday sexism project allows women to catalogue the way in which they are treated in society.  The flip side of this Amy Poehler's Smart Girls, highlighting girls and women's issues, 'providing a healthy alternative to so much that is being marketed to young people on the internet.  Our motto is: Change the World by Being Yourself'.  A message I would have loved to hear when I was younger.

In many ways I can see how we have moved forward regarding gay rights, even in my lifetime.  But then something like this makes you stop and think.  The Humans of New York Facebook page recently posted a photo of a young boy, saddened by his future as a homosexual.  "I'm homosexual and I'm afraid about what my future will be and that people won't like me."  The outpouring of love and friendship and wise words brought a tear to my eye.  Reading some of the comments I was reminded how far we've come but also how far we have to go.

Equal rights are worth fighting for.  We are shown every day that unfortunately this takes time.  But also that each step forward, whether it's a change to law or a groundswell of community support, should be celebrated.  There is so much awfulness in the world that victories, now matter how small, need to be acknowledged.  And with each step forward, we are closer to the destination of equality and respect for all people, regardless of colour, religion, socio-economics, sexual orientation, gender identity or gender.

I saw this quote yesterday and cried.


I am a dreamer and lover of wishing on stars.  But I have also earned my backbone.  I have found my voice and try to speak up regarding issues of equality.  Why?  Because that is the world I want to live in, and I will be cheering every single step forward towards that vision.  The struggle may continue, but I am hopeful that one day my friends will be able to get married here in Australia, just like Peter and I did. #marriageequality