Marching Won’t Get Us Anywhere

I’ve been asked to attend a protest march. Another one.

For years, and for good reasons, I marched for the rights of people, animals and communities, against governments, corporations, media barons. I handed out leaflets, held placards, linked arms, and chanted in three countries. I achieved nothing.

So, hell no, I won’t go.

Before you bristle, let me be clear: speaking is important. If you’re silent about wrongdoing, you’re complicit.

I live in Australia. A lot is going wrong here, and people are gathering in public to object. But I fear that the energy of those who are railing will go the way it has in the past — nowhere. If we want to change things— not be a footnote in history, not reminisce about the time we were arrested— then marching (my stand-in word for protesting, rallying, demonstrating) won’t do it. Petitions won’t do it. Twitter hashtags/outrage won’t do it. Those shout-outs might make you feel good or send a message of solidarity, but if you want change, they do jack. Marching to celebrate collective achievements, milestones, calendar moments makes sense. Marching to oppose does not. Corporations don’t care what you think unless their profit margins are at risk. And the Abbott Government doesn’t care full-stop. It will do as it wants, fast, in the hope we’ll have forgotten before the next election.

I grew up in Queensland, at a time when the rest of the country looked on that state as redneck territory. For nineteen years, Queensland was governed by a near-illiterate farmer, Premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen, who regarded the electorate with contempt. My university friends worked for cash in illegal casinos run by the police and their cohorts in Brisbane’s Fortitude Valley. Friends who needed an abortion had to catch the bus across the New South Wales border. Friends who were gay were routinely beaten up by the police. That last one might need clarification: until 1990 it was a crime for men to have consensual sex with one another. Lesbians weren’t mentioned in the law since, presumably, they didn’t exist. In Queensland, a person could claim partial defence against the murder of a gay man on the grounds they were provoked by an unwanted advance, automatically dropping the charge to manslaughter.

Bjelke-Petersen opposed indigenous land rights, launched defamation actions against journalists who criticised his government, bulldozed heritage-listed buildings in the dead of night. He fired teachers who protested against large class sizes, banned sex education, and declared a State of Emergency once to ease passage for the apartheid-era South African rugby team and once to bring striking blue-collar workers to heel. Bjelke-Petersen didn’t just make ill-advised helicopter trips a la Bronwyn Bishop, he had a personal pilot on the payroll to fly him wherever and whenever he wished. The Queensland Literature Board banned the sale of numerous books and magazines available elsewhere in Australia.

There was more. The depth of corruption in that government is almost indescribable, and opposing it was risky and frightening — but there was ferocious, radical opposition. Activist radio station 4ZZZ broadcast from the campus of Queensland University and was a voice and gathering place for everyone who fought to bring down the government. There was a thriving political underground music and art scene. Academics and students worked with left-leaning grassroots organisations. Prisoner rights groups, land rights activists, feminists, environmentalist all shared a common enemy. It was a unnerving and angry time, one in which it was important for people to look after one another. We marched together often and loudly.

People who weren’t politically astute thought Queensland was a joke. But it wasn’t funny. Right now, internationally, Australia is a joke. It still isn’t funny. What happened long ago in one state is happening nationwide, albeit under a federal government using more sophisticated rhetoric, and working for wealthier backers. If you don’t yet feel touched by the actions of the Abbott Government, wait. They’re working their way through a conservative hit-list. If you’re a white, male, middle-class Christian with no social conscience, you’ll be okay. Everyone else should be worried.

So people are marching, again. To speak against Abbott’s treatment of asylum seekers, gags on health workers, closure of Aboriginal communities, refusal to act on climate change, ‘anti-terror’ laws, cuts to arts and science funding and education and pensions and overseas aid, refusal to allow same-sex marriage— all of it. There’s a lot to protest about. And it’s important to speak up. Marching can shine a light on things the government would prefer to do in the dark. It can show the extent of society’s fury. It can tell opposing political parties what the public wants. Marching is a way to shout to the world about war, suffrage, independence, union. It’s often life-endangering, and enormously brave. It’s a right. But…

What pushed the Bjelke-Petersen Government out of office — and this was the only way it could be stopped — was the double-whammy of a Four Corners investigation on ABC television followed by the Fitzgerald Inquiry. Media and law.

Times are different, but law (compassionate lawyers, ethical politicians, international watchdogs), money (giving it, boycotting), generosity (offering skill, time, supplies, jobs, space), and education still force change. Education’s a fusty word but it comes via conversation, art, film, websites, books and magazines, music, radio, comedy (yep), exposure to whatever it is people are scared of, travel, school. Education unlocks stuck brains. I don’t think marches are education — they preach to the converted.

Voting forces change, of course. So Labor Party, give us someone to vote for. Stop snarling about petty issues then agreeing with your opposition when they make big stupid decisions. Stop trying to appeal to everyone with tentative policy statements. The people of Australia are being bullied and squashed — come out swinging so we can back you.

There’s a moment at the end of a march that’s awkward. When, after the speeches and cheers, people (excited but fragile) shuffle on the spot, arrange to go to a cafe or bar, and assure one another there’d been a good turnout and that ‘they’ will have to listen now, will have to act. People are pumped up, and it seems a shame that organisers never effectively corral or direct this energy. Maybe there’s a call to further action — ‘this isn’t the end’, ‘we won’t stop until’ — or a petition to sign, a website to visit. A few hours later people will agree the media outlet they don’t like has underestimated the size of the crowd, and the media outlet they do like hasn’t given them enough coverage. Melancholy follows indignant, determined euphoria. There’s a rhythm to a march, right through to the very end, when the adrenaline dissipates, floats up to the clouds.

I understand why people march. I do. And although it comes from good intentions, I wish you’d stop. Stand still a minute. Find the source of your strength. Come up with a plan. Be strategic and relentless. That way, when you move forward, you can make every step matter.

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