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The value of protest lies in ritual not results

Andrew Hamilton |  30 March 2016


The Palm Sunday Refugee Marches have come and gone; the travails of people who seek asylum continue. In a recent article that reflects her rich experience, Moira Rayner was right to say that marches are not effective in changing policy. She was also right to emphasise the importance of small local groups that beaver away. But there may be something more to be said for marches.

Protestors at the Victorian State Library on Palm SundayMarches are certainly not usually effective. Where they are, as in the Vietnam War marches in Australia or in Manila under Marcos, the fortress was already crumbling.

But more typical was the march, one of the largest held in Melbourne, to dissuade the government from joining the prospective Iraq invasion. Very shortly afterwards, supported by compliant commentators and public opinion, John Howard sent Australians to join that deceitful and foolish adventure whose costs the world is still paying.

If marches are often without effect, they are not a waste of energy. Their value lies not in their effectiveness but in their ritual. They are a form of celebration, appropriately held on the weekend, the descendant of the Sabbath day that freed people from work for more important things.

Marches belong to Carnival, interrupting the severe regime of fasting from justice and from compassion that marks the long political Lent.

The energy of marches comes from the small groups of whom Moira spoke so tellingly — the rural congregations, the community organisations, the special interest groups, the committed individuals, all joined together in a raggle-taggle line frayed by the bobbing placards of different heights and shapes.

They bring to life a great tradition, as nonagenerian members of the post-war peace movement mingle with children of environmentalists.

In marches, people spruik their wares, seeking disciples and advertising their events. Banners badge organisations and their work, but their badging is often undercut. A life-size Pope Francis carried on a stick marches alongside a boy in a T-shirt that invites its readers to do unseemly things to Tony Abbott.


"Ultimately marches are important because they enact a full, vibrant and humane vision of society in the face of a narrow and vicious version."


Good marches are a place for play, and so are never far from anarchy. Small boys make their own double-sided placards, one side of which invites the sympathetic to ban uranium mining. The other side invites the hostile to support it.

To many of us, too, they offer the delight of walking with police alongside us down the main city streets, gazing condescendingly at the prowling cars that snort impatiently at the cross streets, frustrated in their passion to skitch straying pedestrians.

Marches also declare a ceasefire. People stand alongside each other on issues promoted by the march, who regard each other as enemies on many other matters. Marchers from faith groups explore rather than dismiss where Marxists, anarchists and ecofeminists are coming from, and vice versa.

Of course, marches have a serious purpose. It is put into words in the ritual speeches and endorsements by politicians and other serious people.

But it is more strongly embodied in the presence and tribulations of the people whose cause the march takes up: young men in community detention, a refugee doctor walking with Doctors for Asylum Seekers, a young Muslim women with her children, and the people whose haunting faces are displayed on placards. These people are the royalty of the march because they embody its cause.

Ultimately marches are important because they enact a full, vibrant and humane vision of society in the face of a narrow and vicious version.

The peaceful anarchy, the clashing of symbols, the enthusiasm of generous small groups, the reconciliation for the day of natural enemies, the enthusiasm that comes from unexpected connection, all compose a living sketch of society in which strangers are welcome, people meet in joy and not in fear, in which broad and hospitable values prevail over the narrow calculus of self-interest, and where people practice, not for war, but for peace.

Marches are rarely effective in achieving their immediate goals. They live on only in the memory of the participants whom they encourage to keep the faith. But the hope for society that they embody in time will shame and finally judge the powers responsible for the brutalities against which they protest.


Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street.



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Submitted comments

In her short story "Forging Friendship" Karen Hitchcock wrote about the friendship between two women, now estranged. These words may be relevant to this article: "I once read that the reason we are able to walk down a crowded street without continually colliding into others is because we detect subtle movements in the eyes of the people coming towards us - movements that somewhere deep inside our brains we understand as an intended direction and make the necessary adjustment in our trajectory. We make way for each other through a mutual understanding. Perhaps this is why we can feel comforted by a crowd. Our eyes send signals so we avoid the barest touch. Perhaps this is why we can feel so lonely in a crowd."

Pam 30 March 2016

How nice that you haven't heard some of the things that get shouted at demonstrators - it's not always a festival of tolerance. But I agree with your points, and would add that in a world with a narrow, nasty mass media, a demonstration is sometimes information to people. They see that there's another point of view, that perhaps things aren't so simple. And they see that you can object rather than acquiesce in the way things are presented to you. Instead of just muttering to yourself and moving on, you see that in fact it isn't just you alone - there are other people who share your values, and that you 'can keep hope alive' by joining with them.

Russell 30 March 2016

I often wonder why same sex marriage protesters always march up Oxford Street. Yeah, we know!

AURELIUS 07 April 2016

What we need is creative protests to get into the uncommitted minds and those set against the right thing. Student Kim Beasley was campaigning for school crossings in Perth was ignored. So on Anzac Eve took out a miners right for King's Park Anzac Memorial site which meant site would be closed for three days. Crossings painted that day. Or similar action against

Wayne McGough 09 April 2016

Thankyou Andrew, as an organiser of many a rally this review is helpful and energising. I am assisting in the organising of a national peace and antiwar gathering in Alice Springs to mark 50 years of Pine Gap- if you are interested see the IPAN Facebook page. With thanks Annette

Annette Brownlie 26 April 2016

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