A few days ago, Tracie Aylmer wrote “Protesting for protesting sake?” for The Australian Independent Media Network. Having attended the 5th of April protest at Villawood Detention Centre, her second after March in March, Aylmer was astounded by the level of disrespect and violence shown towards the police. Her accusation was that protesters were there to clash with police, and that we should have been more like the Mothers for Asylum Seekers (MFAS): “gentle and caring ladies, who deserved respect.”
The main problem with the article is that it reeks of pacifist liberalism. I have no issue with MFAS and the work they do inside detention centres; people contribute in different ways, and they certainly do more work on the inside than I could hope to do. But I do have an issue with the author (who apparently isn’t part of MFAS but defends them as model dissenters) arguing that passivity is the best form of action, and publicly throwing the protesters under the bus by claiming they were violent.
I won’t focus too much on the racial and exoticising elements of her article, droning on about how she really like Hazaras because they are “peaceful” and “gentle” and “refuse to fight back”, as if fighting back is a vice and being slaughtered is a virtue, and as if this is even true with Hazara militias in various places around Afghanistan and Pakistan (but thank you for your evaluation of different ethnic groups, white saviour.) Her caricature of the defenceless Hazara victim parallels her analysis of protest: that people should not fight back, that people should stand still and get mowed down so white Christian mothers can weep for you.
The problem is, this is what happened on Saturday. There’s a reason there were no police injuries, but dozens of protesters were injured. If fighting back is holding each other and withstanding the full force of police driving into you, if fighting back is holding strong while you are taunted and threatened by big men with guns and tasers, if fighting back is standing your ground, then why is this something to be ashamed of? It is telling that Aylmer was not there for the entirety of the protest, missing out on most of the clashes and the bus leaving, because she completely mischaracterises the protest as one where people came to fight with police, not riot police turning up to then push protesters back. Protesters were there since 11pm, peaceful, while violence only erupted when the riot police came in the morning. Who can really look at this image, the one used for her article, and say it’s protesters who are being violent?
We shouldn’t fall into a mentality of focusing solely upon the police presence on the day. The true tragedy was what happened to the asylum seekers. The police are a decoy of sorts, a group that brutalises people in order to distract them from the cause for which they turned up in the first place. But it’s also important to fight against cop apologetics from people like Aylmer. Let’s look at a line like: “A police officer escorted me to my vehicle. He was kindly and respectful, as I showed respect. He said he was only doing his job, as told by higher authorities. I said I was only there for the asylum seekers.” She presents herself as a model citizen, being friendly to police, being “respectful”, and that he was only doing his job (now where have I heard that before…). She claims that her first protest, March in March, was peaceful and not disrespectful to police, and it had the enormous number of attendees that it did because of it.
But this is privilege. This is the privilege of not having to hide when you see police due to PTSD. It’s the privilege of not being targeted by police. It’s the privilege of not being historically persecuted by police. It is the privilege of not having mass police surveillance and harassment at a rally because the rally isn’t organised by nice friendly white people, but is to protest the death of TJ Hickey, an young Indigenous man who died because of police. Of course the persecution on the day was of asylum seekers, but let’s not forget that there were people in the protest who have also been persecuted: queer people, Indigenous people, trans* people, people from migrant backgrounds, the proletariat and lumpenproletariat, etc. To dismiss the protesters as just being there to fight with police misses the fact that the riot police was formed just to fight with them. Ayler should check herself before arguing that the police were just doing their job and accusing protesters of being frivolous with their clashes with police. How offensive, the sort of victim blaming that pacifist white liberalism is known for: a good protester moves on when police tells them to, a bad protester gets what’s coming to them; a good Hazara refuses to fight, a bad Hazara deserves to die.
If we are going to create a discourse that abhors fighting back against brutality, then we are also saying that asylum seekers in detention who fight back are in the wrong, that their self-determination to riot or to break out is wrong. Is that a culture we wish to support? We must unite in solidarity with refugee actions on the inside, just like how people on the outside need to stand in solidarity with those who’ve had enough of police repression.
I have no problem with people being pacifist. Not everyone wants to clash with police, not everyone can get arrested, and not everyone can fight back against the Taliban, of course. The discourse that pressures people into violent situations is as bad as one that tells people not to get into violent situations. But it is about one’s personal ability and values, not some respect for police and authority, which should direct people in one way or the other.
P.S. Was just reminded from someone with connections to people currently in detention that people on the inside were for the protest, and that the characterisation that they were not by Aylmer is false.