“I want to say to every Muslim here- we are your family. We are with you”- Aboriginal elder, 19 July 2015.
On Sunday July 19, I attended the counter protest against the Reclaim Australia movement in Martin Place in Sydney. For those who don’t know who Reclaim are, they are a political movement who claim to be fighting for a return to the ‘Australian way of life’. Apparently, our way of life is threatened by Islam, halal food, people seeking asylum, and a myriad of other things, all which seem to have pretty obvious racist and discriminative undertones. They have staged several rallies across the country in recent months. I believe that they plan to stage several more in the months to come.
In the past, these rallies have been attended by several members of various Neo-Nazi and White Supremacist groups, who have openly displayed their tattoos, handed out hateful and fear mongering literature, and in some cases, openly tried to recruit people to ‘the cause’. I’ll give credit where credit is due- the Reclaim organisers have openly attempted to separate their movement from these people. Well, in the media they have, at least. The rest of the people who get in involved in such rallies are ordinary people- mums, dads, uni students, trades people. Regular Aussie citizens.
I have been reading the news articles about these rallies, and the counter rallies that were organised in response. Most include statements about “angry clashes” and “violent outbursts”. They mention “boiling tensions”, and mention that people were arrested. I don’t think they paint a true picture. I don’t think their sensationalised reportage does either side any favours.
My friend and I arrived just after 9am. We wandered through Martin Place, a little lost, until we noticed a “No Racism, No Islamophobia” sign. The group was pretty small initially. The wall of Police officers outnumbered the early crowds. We spoke to an organiser, and I wandered around and took some photos of some signs. It was relaxed, kind of like a music festival, but without the tunes. As we mingled with other like-minded people, the crowd grew. And grew.
Just over an hour after we got arrived, it looked like at least 1000 people were there. Channel 9 had the estimate at 2000. In any rate, it was a pretty decent turnout. At various stages, activists got up and spoke passionately into the microphone. There were people chanting against racism in unison. The Riff Raff Radical marching band turned up to provide musical entertainment.
On one occasion, a small group of Reclaim supporters walked through. I have no idea why they did. They could have very easily walked around and avoided confrontation. Not wanting to be involved in any kind of negative behaviour, my friend and I walked away. However, despite what was reported on the news, there were not many moments like this. For the most part, it was a peaceful affair.
One of the most expressive speakers was Ken Canning, an Indigenous Australian writer and poet. His message was peaceful and inclusive, and it really resonated with me. He encouraged the group not to react with anger. He spoke out against violence. He gave a brilliant explanation for what he saw as one of the biggest reasons for the division in our community:
“At the moment, this society has lost touch- all you see is violence. This [the rally] is about restoring the unity back in our community………you can’t forget your past. We are your past, we are the present, and we are your future.”
Ken’s words really summed up the reasons that being present at this rally was so important to me. Myself and fellow attendees were from all kinds of backgrounds. All with different faiths, beliefs, passions. Different people, with different passions and different ways of expressing ourselves. United, with a common goal- to show the world that we do not tolerate the divisions that some seem to desire. He expressed, so perfectly, the reasons that protesting peacefully and in solidarity are so important in times like this.
Towards the end of the rally, one of the men who essentially MC’ed the event stood up and spoke for a final time. He spoke about the importance of action, the importance of activism. About making action against racism and intolerance a part of your every day life, not just an occasional habit on the weekend:
“Don’t just come to one rally- go home and make a lifestyle of it. Talk to your neighbours.”
This rang so true for me. We demonise the Reclaimers. We assume that they are all cut from the same cloth as those individual members that have large profiles on social media. We let ourself believe that people like Shermon Burgess and Pauline Hanson are accurate representations of their movement. But they are not. The Reclaimers are the teachers that educate your kids. They are the hairdressers who you visit for your 6 weekly cut and colour. They are the small business owners who make your morning coffee. They are middle class, working class, regular everyday people.
Engage them. Challenge their views. Challenge your own views. Step outside your regular routine, and call someone out on their casual racism. Support the person who is a victim of such racism. Let it be known that you are the kind of person who does not tolerate division. Make it as much a part of your life as brushing your teeth. Making it your lifestyle is being committed to being part of the change. I believe that our small steps in our own lives towards this change can be instrumental. They are the little things that turn the wheels for the bigger things to come.
Despite the media buzz, overall Sunday was a peaceful affair. It was uplifting to see so many people united in one small place. It was far from the violent, angry mob that many media outlets would like you to believe.