Tonight the air smelled of rain as I stood in King George Square for one hour, holding a sign over my head protesting the brutal bipartisan practice of off-shore detention. I have done this – somewhere in Australia or overseas – for more than 150 days, much of it consecutive.
The question I am most often asked is why I do it.
I am a writer of fantasy. I spend my time in imagined worlds. I have won book of the year twice. I have mainstream publishers waiting for manuscripts and a dozen smaller deadlines for articles breathing down my neck. I am trying to complete a PhD. I have thousands of followers on Twitter and Facebook. But I stand, deliberately anonymous, a lone person with a sign.
The seeds of the answer lie in the protest at the Lady Cilento Hospital in Brisbane, centred on the refugee baby Asha and her mother. One night I was home in Brisbane, where I am living while I complete my PhD at UQ. I saw a tweet saying a few people were gathering at the hospital in solidarity with Doctors blocking the Immigration Department’s attempt to deport the baby back to a detainment camp on Manus Island. The tweet urged people to join those protesting. The thought of a baby being sent to off shore detention sounded unthinkable to me. I said I was tempted to join the protestors but I was about to make dinner.
‘I can make my own dinner,’ my daughter said. ‘Go.’
I didn’t know the way, I didn’t have a car and it was late at night, but I found my way there via public transport and a bit of walking around, only to see five people in the empty square beside the hospital, one kneeling on the ground making signs. I thought how absurd they looked. I felt I ought to go home and get on with real life. It was silly to join these few strangers in what was clearly a lost cause.
And yet there was something so irresistibly quixotic in their minimal presence. I felt a rush of love for these people with their mad courage and decided to be with them in solidarity. I crossed the road to join them that night, never knowing I was crossing the Rubicon, and that there would be no going back.
I returned hope at dawn, and slept a few hours before undertaking normal life. I went back every night thereafter to protest all night long, when the blazing sun set and the day watch wearied, went home, or rolled themselves in sleeping bags.
Sometimes, being naturally insomniac, I was the only one awake while all the world slept, and I sometimes looked up at the windows of the hospital imagining Asha’s mother, silently pacing, the baby sleeping safe, oblivious to us or Peter Dutton and the Border Force guards, the Media and the Oligarchs who own and manipulate it. I thought of how it had been to be in hospital after giving birth to my daughter; the quiet purposefulness of the nurses, the Coca-Cola and mars bars they consumed to stay alert.
Some nights, people came by wanting to know what we were doing. One night two drunk foreigners who had passed in a taxi, came back with alcohol and chips. We accepted the chips, refused the alcohol, explaining it might be enough to have the police move us along. One my one, the other protestors slept, until I was the only one awake. I spent an hour trying to answer their questions, correct their misapprehensions, encourage them to look up information for themselves. They sobered slowly, and by the end, leaving, both of them hugged me. After they went away, leaving me feeling exhausted but content, several of the ‘sleepers’ applauded.
The number of protestors grew. People all over Australia and beyond began sending pizzas and coffee. I was dazzled perhaps because I had seen- been part of- the tiny seed of resistance that grew and grew until politicians came to talk to us, the media turned up with cameras, and we had to ask people not to toot in solidarity because it would disturb the patients. Sometimes, parents of children in hospital came out to talk with us. Once, a protestor drove a terribly distressed mother home, when she realised there were no more buses.
It was a potent experience for a person in whom the lonely, often frightened child of primary school years still resides. As a teenager locked in my sense of being an outsider, I had watched friendship groups form and fall apart, envying the friendship but not the conformity that seemed to be required by it. But this solidarity I found at Lady Cilento was something else entirely. It was not about us and our needs and wants. It was all those people, standing day by day in defence of the human rights of an unknown asylum seeker and her injured baby. We never saw Asha or her mother in all that time. Not once. Not then and never since, even though we won to the extent that they are still in community detention on a bridging visa that could be snatched away at any time.
So does the Government silence the oppressed among us, preventing them telling us their stories, or anyone else’s.
It didn’t matter that we did not see her. Asha stood for all the oppressed and broken, all the lost souls crushed under the oppressive neoliberal world that cared nothing for ordinary people like us, let alone desperate traumatized seekers of asylum like Asha’s mother. We were standing for them, and for ourselves. We were not sitting at home wringing our hands. We were acting.
The fact that we were supporting the doctors inside, and the nurses, who were getting in the way of the immigration department, gave us a gravitas that drew many to the protest who might otherwise have turned away.
There were people from all walks of life, and for the days that the protest lasted, we lived and existed in that small space, enduring one another’s differences, enlivened and inspired by one another. I remember thinking how seldom in life you ever feel so potently that you are in the right place at the right time doing the right thing as strongly as I did, during that protest. And it was not only me. Everyone who took part in that protest was changed by it, and many, like me, were inspired to a higher level of activism.
It was not only that we were protecting Asha and her mother. Not only that we succeeded in stopping her from being deported. It was that I saw up close how our protest inspired hope and even a fierce rebellious joy in a time when people were hungering for justice and courage in a world that seemed to be arranged to take care only of the rich and powerful; When poverty was judged a moral failing, and people seeking rightful asylum were branded by a thousand names designed to demonise them, so that they could be pushed into off shore detention camps.
Before Lady Cilento I had felt frightened, depressed, helpless and hopeless.
The feeling that I could not change anything led me often to despair.
I did not imagine how taking part in that protest would empower me, give me a way to act that embodied my ideals and anger and outrage, my abilities. I did not know that it would set that frightened child inside me free.
I did not know where it would lead.
I started standing alone with my sign, protesting off shore detention almost a year later, during the final days of the siege of Lorengau on Manus Island. A siege that was, conveniently, and late, found to be illegal by the PNG High Court. Ever since the Lady Cilento protest, I had kept an eye on the situation on Manus Island. So I was informed and I watched on social media as refugees refused to leave in the countdown to closure, protesting their removal to another camp, which we now know was not complete, not adequate to the needs of the people who would be put there, and not big enough to hold all of them. In addition, it was situated in the midst of enraged locals on Nauru, and island about the size of Tullamarine airport.
Their refusal to leave was regarded by many Australian as pointless and puzzling, even ungrateful, due to a media blitz of misinformation representing the ‘new accommodation’ as unthinkably lavish, and refugees as undeserving. The media presentations of the desperate protest might as well have been choreographed by the increasingly powerful, increasingly oppressive Department that had since morphed into Peter Dutton’s empire. We know now from a hundred reports and eye witness accounts that everything the refugees feared was correct. The UN has condemned us over and over, accusing Australia of serious human rights violations.
I watched in horror as power and water were cut and the camp was inexorably dismantled around sick, traumatised, desperate refugees protesting with the only thing they had – their bodies. I was packing to fly to Oregon to do research for my PhD and knew I would be on the other side of the world when the last day came. I felt suffocated imagining how those refugees, innocent people trapped for years, now being forced from one camp in to another, knowing they were hated by locals, with no end to their captivity in sight.
The night before I flew, I posted in despair that all of us who opposed offshore detention should just go into a public place and sit down and refuse to shop or work or move, until the inhumane practice was ended. If there were enough of us, no politician could stand against us. Someone responded saying that Australians would never bother.
A stubborn furious outrage flared up in me, and yet here was I about to fly away. Impulsively, I posted that I would make a sign and stand with it alone, then, in Oregon. I didn’t care if it was pointless and mad. I had to do something. I flew to Oregon and in between doing my research while the archival library was open, tweeting and posting my support for the besieged refugees, I made a sign accusing Australia of humanitarian abuses on Manus and Nauru and stood for an hour a day with it somewhere in public. I posted a daily picture of myself on Facebook and Twitter, doing it and related any conversations I had as well as information about the siege.
It was not easy to stand alone with a sign far from home, yet I felt that in a small way, I was sharing in the vulnerability of the refugees.
Of course, people there wondered what on earth I was doing. I told them: ‘I am accusing my country. I want the world to accuse them. I want them to stop off-shore detention.’
‘I didn’t know Australia was like that,’ one woman memorably said. ‘I thought it was better than that.’
Returning home after a month away, seeing the ever worsening situation in off shore detention, I made a new sign and went out into Brisbane somewhere public, day after day, standing for an hour. I made no overtures. I answered questions asked by passer-by’s and I kept myself informed, so that I could do that efficiently. I urged people to check for themselves and let me know if I was wrong. I had also realised that people were using my Facebook page and twitter site as an information hub about the refugees and I wanted to offer up to date information.
Some days I could not stand. I took to carrying the sign with me as I did the things I had to do on those days. I carried it on buses, along streets, to the pool, to cafes and movies and even to the doctor. Incidental activism I called it, recommending it to people. I had hundreds of conversations with people who wanted to know what the sign meant, why I was carrying it. People took photos to post and asked if they could hug me, they smiled and nodded and told me it was hopeless but applauded my stand. Most seemed to agree that off shore detention was an abomination, and those that disagreed always did so in Government approved language. ‘Queue jumpers’, ‘economic refugees’.
Sometimes those that disagreed, told me I was brave. That seemed a kind of triumph because it played against the government’s attempts to demonise activists and advocates, because they would not silence us. Surprisingly few strongly disagreed, which surprised me. People often told me stories about their parents coming to Australia, their friends having visa problems with for partners or children, someone they knew who had been a refugee, immigrant, a person seeking asylum.
‘What can I do?’ I was asked often and earnestly. It was not a rhetorical question but I had no answer.
‘Something,’ I said. I say. ‘Do something.’
One day out front of the Convention Centre during SupaNova a security guard ordered me away, saying he had been a guard on Manus Island. Chilled at the thought, I pointed to the dozens of people sitting or standing on the steps in costume and refused. More security guards were summoned. I was told that I had to get off the steps because they said so. It didn’t matter if other people were there. Intimidated, humiliated, uncertain of my rights I went to the taxi rank opposite and for the first time, held the sign defiantly above my head, facing the steps. People coming streaming the steps stared and pointed and came to ask me what I was doing. I realised I was far more visible than when I had sat modestly on the step with the sign resting on the ground.
Since then, I protest standing, holding the sign over my head. In the beginning my arms trembled. Sometimes with fatigue, sometimes with fear. I don’t listen to music. I stay focused. I think about the refugees and any new information I have learned, how it fits with the other things I know. I compose the thoughts I will post that night, along with my proof of life picture.
The hour I stand is often eventful in small vivid ways. I am a magnet for crazy and angry and sad. Often refugees on temporary visa come to thank me and say they dare not stand with me because they might be deported. One night a young man sniffing a can of what seemed to be underarm deodorant stared at me with dead strange eyes. I can still smell the horrible sweetness of the stuff bubbling down his arm.
The day before Christmas Eve, I stood in the Queens Street Mall, as I had done before. My sign asked people to think about the refugees, some children about to spend their fourth Christmas on Manus Island or Nauru. Two security guards ordered me to leave. I refused. I was doing none of the things listed in the bylaw they were citing. The security men fined me anyway, then called the police to remove me. The police came and threatened me with arrest if I refused to go. They pointed out that I would not be arrested for disobeying the bylaw but for refusing to obey the police – this was a different and more serious charge. Unsure of my rights and due to fly out of the country the next day to spend Christmas with my daughter and partner, I did not dare to let them arrest me, though I despised myself for not standing my ground.
But I did not pay the fine and notified the Council of my intention to contest the charge. Recently, I went to court for what is called a Mention. That is, the charge is read out by a judge and I say not guilty. Then I am given a date for the real court case. That case will come up in late July.
Sometimes when I stand, I feel lonely and the words of those well-meaning friends who doubt the value of what I am doing weigh me down. Yet there is never a day or night I stand, when I don’t have people tell me they agree. More importantly. standing stops me feeling that sick, helpless hopelessness I once felt. I had always felt myself to be a bit of a coward, but after all these months I know that although I am often nervous or afraid, I can make myself brave.
I have discovered, too, that it is not I who am confronted by all those people coming towards me. Theyare confronted by me. And it is not I who look away.
I have read so much in the faces that pass that I will use as a writer. And I know that whatever it is that makes me a writer, makes me write the things I write, comes from the same part of me that is outraged at the injustices being authorised by our politicians for the sake of votes, and accepted by Australians so frightened of everything that is not them.
But the most important thing I have learned is that there is hope. Because in standing, I am hope. And I am not alone.