By Liam McLoughlin 14/03/14
Stared down by a wall of riot police, I stand with fellow citizens outside the immigration department in Sydney to demand freedom for refugees. We are one or two hundred in a city of nearly five million. We are outnumbered.
We protest because we are shocked by the scale of the injustice. 10,000 people are imprisoned by our government without cause. 90% of these are fleeing persecution in their own countries, only to find “the best persecution in the world” in the lucky country. We hold 1000 children in detention. Since 2001, more than 1400 people have drowned off Australia’s north-western coast. Innocent human beings detained on Manus Island are subject to physical abuse, rape, and deplorable living conditions. Now, as for Reza Barati and his friends, they are also at risk of murder and serious injury.
We chant because we know the perpetrators. Howard, Gillard, Rudd and Abbott have forged a lasting bipartisan consensus around harming vulnerable peoples for political gain. A decade of nationalist and militaristic propaganda has convinced the majority of the perverse and mythical logic of deterrence.
We rally because we see humane and effective policy alternatives. First, as argued by Richard Ackland and Malcom Fraser, we can end deaths at sea by increasing our humanitarian intake and reassigning most places to Indonesia. Second, proposed by Julian Burnside, we can end mandatory detention and adopt community processing. Detention would be capped at one month for security checks, before release and access to Centrelink, Medicare, and jobs. This could encourage growth in regional Australia and free $2 billion per year for national investment in health and education. Such policies would grant asylum seekers their basic humanity, and begin to reclaim our nation’s soul.
We remember the words of abolitionist leader, Frederick Douglass, who said “Power conceded nothing without a demand. It never did and never will”. The imprisonment, drowning, rape, abuse and murder of asylum seekers are as much matters of injustice as slavery and civil rights ever were. Then, as now, only social movement pressure grants justice to the oppressed.
We worry that our numbers are small and that the powers arrayed against us are overwhelming. Then we remember the words of Greens Senator Lee Rhiannon from earlier in the evening, that Vietnam protests started the same way. And we think of American poet and philosopher Henry David Thoreau, who said “a minority is powerless while it conforms to the majority...but it is irresistible when it clogs by its whole weight”.
We fear the consequences of our actions. Verbal abuse? Fines? Arrest? Then we think about the guilt of inaction. To have known full well that innocent people are being persecuted in our name and to have done nothing? The shame and regret would be terrible consequences indeed.
We are heartened by the thought that with tried and tested tactics of nonviolent direct action, we can embark upon a serious campaign for refugee justice. As for Martin Luther King in the midst of the civil rights struggle, we have “no alternative except to prepare for direct action, whereby we would present our very bodies as a means of laying our case before the conscience of the local and the national community”.
We draw hope from the successful history of creative direct action. We are inspired by the sit-ins and bus boycotts of the civil rights movement and the massive demonstrations and teach-ins of the Vietnam protests. We remember the 1965 freedom ride for Indigenous rights here in NSW, as well as the boycotts of the apartheid era. We consider the globally viral nature of Occupy Wall St. We look to the 1252 people arrested in civil disobedience actions outside the White House in 2011, which delayed work on the Keystone XL pipeline. And we are consoled by recent nationwide candlelit vigils for Reza Barati.
We believe the voices of resistance at the Refugee Action Coalition, Asylum Seeker Resource Centre and Refugee Action Collective will soon become clarion calls resounding throughout the schools, universities, unions, ngos, churches, newspapers and parliaments of this nation.
We know that good citizens will not tolerate this wanton cruelty to innocent women, men and children. We know, with the right campaign, they will stand with us for refugee justice.
We face up to the riot police and the immigration department. As the skies darken and the light fades, we shout, as one “We’ll be back, we’ll be back”.
You better believe we will.