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Change is possible when democracy runs deep



Life is there ahead of you and either one tests oneself in its challenges or huddles in the valleys of a dreamless day-to-day existence whose only purpose is the preservation of illusory security and safety. The latter is what the vast majority of people choose to do, fearing the adventure into the unknown.

— Saul Alinsky, Rules for Radicals


When I received my invitation to 'lead' the Palm Sunday Walk for Refugees my first response was to ignore it. This was partly ego and partly disillusionment. I don't think marches help any more.

Palm Sunday march in MelbourneIt's true that in Melbourne at least 6000 people walked or struggled or strode along Spencer Street, some behind banners (Labor for Refugees, The Greens, Socialist Left), some from religious groups (from Quakers to Jesuits), and some with other agendas, such as the beefy unionists who haven't done well in the public eye of late.

Also a fair few ordinary mums, dads and grandmothers for refugees, and dismayed Liberals offended by the cruelties inflicted in our name.

These were the sort of protestors who picketed Lady Cilento hospital in Brisbane to stop Immigration contractors from forcing a burned baby and her mum back to Nauru against medical advice. So the minister moved her to community detention whence she may be removed at any time without notice.

I no longer believe that broad marches for huge national issues have any effect on local powerbrokers. I believe as Saul Alinsky said that the most powerful force for change is local activism on local issues and generational organisation from the grass roots up.

Alinsky wrote the 'bible' for protest-led change. He was a Chicago organiser whose tactics Obama used as a young civil rights lawyer to build 'change you can believe in for local Chicago families'. He wrote a lot between the 1940s and the 1970s, when he wrote and I read his Rules for Radicals [PDF].

Some of his 24 rules are gospel today. Thirteen are rules of 'power tactics', including:


1. Power is not only what you have but what the enemy thinks you have.

2. Never go outside the experience of your people.

5. Ridicule is man's most potent weapon.

6. A good tactic is one that your people enjoy.

7. A tactic that drags on too long becomes a drag.

8. Keep the pressure on, with different tactics and actions, and utilise all events of the period for your purpose.

12. The price of a successful attack is a constructive alternative.

13. Pick the target, freeze it, personalise it, and polarise it.


I have been involved in protests, but few. When Kennett demolished the public sector in 1992 I stayed behind and answered the phones in the Equal Opportunity Commission when 100,000 folk marched on parliament. Nothing changed.

I'd taken part in a moratorium march way way back in time, but only because I was personally affected — a malevolent colleague of my father had 'dobbed in' my brother as a draft-dodger, which forced me to look at the evils of conscription in a dirty little Asian war.

I went to a Palm Sunday march in which we sang 'We Shall Overcome' and linked hands to encircle the city centre of Perth (1972), St George's Anglican Cathedral, with love.

And in 1976 I took part in a well-attended lawyers' protest against the local law society inviting Sir John Kerr to lecture their annual dinner about constitutional law, wearing a 'Gough Whitlam' mask out the front of the Parmelia Hotel while he scuttled in the back entrance.

Nothing changed. But then, I believed. I believed in 'movements'.

I now believe that there are rules for effecting change by protest and they are meant to be adapted for efficacy — and that organisation and self-interest, friendship, and building on local centres of power such as churches are what make change possible.


"I have been involved in protests, but few. When Kennett demolished the public sector in 1992 for example I stayed behind and answered the phones in the Equal Opportunity Commission when 100,000 folk marched on parliament. Nothing changed."


Alinsky did too. He said that mums and dads around kitchen tables and local group meetings on local issues are the core of organisation, which is a generational thing and cannot be quickly raised or maintained. He said that the future of effective change is based on friendships, and small projects and small wins, which build confidence.

The most important principle is to understand the fundamental purpose of our lives, and work together to improve our own world. When the roots of democracy run deep, change is possible.

That is the principle behind the success of Melbourne citizens responding so immediately at Spencer Street when the new Border Patrol sought to co-opt the Victorian police and public transport inspectors to stop and demand passers-by to prove their citizenship and residency status. Had they not acted at once and with originality Australia could have become a police state overnight.

That is not what the Walk for Refugees can ever deliver.

We should be building on church groups as centres for community activity about the quality of our own lives and our own streets and homes.

It is in our interests to protect the fundamental human rights of anyone who comes here in search of help. We should see the need to improve the quality of our lives by meeting them where they are, and where we may be one day, offering practical help in a spirit of love.



Moira RaynerMoira Rayner is a barrister and writer.

Photo by Wilbert Mireh SJ

Topic tags: Moira Rayner, Palm Sunday, refugees



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Existing comments

Does the writer not understand that BIG meetings/walks can help sustain the enthusiasm of people involved in the small local groups? They can help people focus, knowing they are not alone.

Rose | 22 March 2016  

Movement building is what is happening in Canberra & the March makes that visible

Doug | 22 March 2016  

Marches help - and marches certainly help those who feel helpless about responding to people in need. Successive Australian governments have shown a hard-hearted attitude towards asylum seekers but that doesn't mean giving up the fight. It probably means that not enough people are prepared to march and protest. Or are galvanised into doing so by others. Perhaps church groups should be doing more at a local level about this issue. Should I leave it to someone else?

Pam | 22 March 2016  

Thanks Moira. As a member of a parish social justice group, I find your article really encouraging.

Clare | 22 March 2016  

So, do you really believe that your march against conscription had no effect?

Marlo Drake-Bemelmans | 22 March 2016  

"and building on local centres of power such as churches are what make change possible." A social justice committee was formed at St Ann's parish in Seaford, the committee became aware of the extent of homelessness in and around Frankston and Seaford with people living rough on the foreshore and in their cars, many others in rooming houses. The Frankston council intended to close the Seaford Beach Cabin Park which would have resulted in 70+ people being put out onto the street. The social justice committee and another community committee held a public meeting and pressured the council to abandon their closure policy, which they eventually did. This committee now has 4 groups involved plus 3 tenants from the cabin park. People are still living rough and in their cars so the committee is working on the possibility of providing a gated car park. We meet monthly, email regularly and at our next meeting the secretary of the Homeless Persons Union Victoria will be our guest.

Kevin Vaughan | 22 March 2016  

One of the problems about local churches becoming the sorts of places you talk about is that many have shrunk and become irrelevant to the community. What happened in Melbourne in response to the proposed Border Control initiative was a deep realisation that there was something worth preserving: our civil liberties. Most people still don't get involved in protests because it's beyond their comfort zone. Some - not all by any means - protests alienate as many or more than they attract. I think alienation is becoming a real problem in our society. The churches are often filled by lonely ageing people wanting a laager to hold back what they see as the horrors outside. The wider community often see refugees as something outside the laager. Protests on behalf of the refugees only confirms that. It's a Catch 22.

Edward Fido | 22 March 2016  

I agree with the general premise here about where change actually happens. However, I want to comment on the goal of marches. Often, it can be for supporters of an issue to enjoy the spirit of solidarity, rather than to create the flashpoint for change per se. Alinsky's rule number 6 is instructive here: a good tactic is one that your people enjoy. When we meet together and see how many are committed to the goal, it can give us the strength and inspiration to go back into the field and keep up the grassroots organising. Alinsky's rule number 8 is also useful - many tactics, with multiple pressure points suggests that there is no one single tactic that provokes the change a movement is going for - what works - over time - is consistent, persistent pressure, in all its forms, and using all the levers of change.

Jane Stenning | 22 March 2016  

Thanks Moira. the key it seems to me is the very last word. The "fundamental purpose of pour lives", when we are mature enough, is to allow Jesus to transform us into being his love, compassion and mercy in the world. Then we can and must try and transform the world, without anger for the most part and certainly without rancour. The church should certainly not be the place to hide.

Eugene | 22 March 2016  

The statistics analysed by Prof Tony Vinson in his reports for Jesuit Social Services and Catholic Social Services Australia appear to confirm that those suburbs with the highest indicators of “community” (social intercourse among neighbours, sporting team participation etc) do better in terms of measurements of “disadvantage”, despite all other factors being equal. After parents and teachers, knowing a neighbour with a job and stable relationship inspires youth to better things, says the literature. Social researcher Hugh Mackay devotes books (eg The Good Life) to this subject: even eye contact walking along your street helps build local community. Christian churches (to say nothing of synagogues, mosques and temples) still probably constitute the largest community presence in Australia. In addition to these material and human resources, we have an explicit duty: to address the question “Who is my neighbour?” Families, and sometimes neighbourhoods, are falling apart around us, but we often don’t see, or think we can do anything. But many good things are being done (see the ACBC “Building Stronger Parishes” report), and the recent initiatives by Catholic Social Services Victoria to provide a forum to connect parishes which are helping asylum seekers is a wonderful example. Dioceses need to recognise the civil potential of parishes. It would also be good if parishes had access to a method to help them look around them, consider what they see in the light of gospel values, and to then do what they can to act (the Cardijn / YCW approach). It would be good to have an ES article on the great things happening in parishes.

David Moloney | 22 March 2016  

Moira, the Purple Sage project that the Victorian Women's Trust undertook just prior to the Victorian election year that ousted Jeff Kennett from office, is a fine example of what you are talking about. Kitchen table politics turned into State-wide momentum that formulated alternatives to the concerns of Victorian women (mostly) at that time. Since then, job insecurity and all the concerns that come with that, have kept the masses distracted and unable to participate in civic political life to the extent I encountered during the life of the Purple Sage project. It's got harder not easier ... sometimes, as stated in number 7, a tactic can become a drag ... but persistence & endurance are very powerful strategies over the long haul. Changing the Aussie mantra "I'm alright Jack" is the most challenging motivator for change.

Mary Tehan | 22 March 2016  

Moira, this is one of the best articles on Eureka St I have read for a long time.Could even encourage me to return to my local parish community. Well done.

Helen Gaffey | 22 March 2016  

See, judge and act, the old YCS and YCW mantra. Them were the days. Actually the influence of good leadership , camaraderie and the sense of belonging and empowerment of the Cardijn approach may come in handy today. David and Kevin ,it was good to hear of your practical approaches in your communities. To help one person to have a safe place to live or even help build cohesive neighborhoods just by eye contact and a smile you are "offering practical help in a spirit of love" as suggested by Moira. Today's topic and comments were refreshing to read. Thanks everyone.

Celia | 22 March 2016  

Cheer Celia, you might be interested to have a look at cardijncommunityaustralia.orgThe Training Manual tab includes a "My Community" inquiry, which is what started the parish 'homelessness' initiative mentioned above.

David Moloney | 23 March 2016  

All catholics of my generation know the story of the mustard seed, the tiny seed that grows to a mighty tree. Twenty years ago I read a theory that the story is wrong; Jesus did not say that. The author’s belief was based on two things – a fragment of Dead Sea scroll or something of the sort, giving an earlier version of the story, plus the fact that there was no such thing as a mustard tree. There were two shrubs called mustard and both were noxious weeds. According to this theory, what Jesus was saying was: “Let me into some corner of your life and I’ll get into everything, like couch grass, like kikuyu, like paterson’s curse, depending on your background”. I like this and I relate it to a wise saying I picked up somewhere: “More cities have been destroyed by grass growing through the paving than by heavy artillery.” The government and the Labor Party get a fair amount of heavy artillery from writers such as Tim Winton, Christos Tsiolkas, David Malouf, Richard Flanagan among others, from journalists, from lawyers, from scholars, from preachers and I hope they all keep firing. But as well as that we should consider humble forms of attack. We could start a campaign of postcards, with protocols like this: Send postcards to your local member, including a senator who is, in any way, local, to the minister and shadow minister, to the Prime minister and the leader of the opposition. Use postcards with local pictures. Always include your name and address. Comment briefly – after all it’s only a postcode – on topical matters. E.g. “ Please ask the minister why he said such and such”; “Please explain why you voted for such”; “Please speak up about such”.

Jim Jones | 23 March 2016  

Thanks for saying this Moira. I felt the point you were making was that marches have a place in protest, but should be used tactically. I often think rallies are about as useful as Facebook campaigns for effecting change, i.e. it helps participants feel they've 'at least done something'. They both raise awareness, but are ephemeral. Committed grass roots action means being willing to go unnoticed, the antithesis of marches and Facebook campaigns.

Paul Mitchell | 24 March 2016  

There is official history and there is the history of the local supermarket and Bunnings as one history professor described it at a History Conference in 2013. Outside the city library you will find the committed and the occasionally interested onlooker but in our local areas you find the other half who have supported anti refugee policies back to the Tampa. They are not racist or racialist but simply scared because they are manipulated by the lack of facts and political leaders who lack the fortitude to do their job.[ as their own internal reviews have told them] Australia like the Americas and New Zealand are lands where everyone is a refugee or migrant who sought a better life. Australia showed with the acceptance of the Vietnamese refugees and European refugees before them what benefit these new arrivals bring. That's the message we have to deliver at the checkouts, isles and congregations every week.

Wayne McGough | 24 March 2016  

There is a place for the 'march' /'procession' solidarity tactic: perhaps as noted, to connect people, or to involve small children or as a show of different groups uniting. I think Moira may be expressing her general discouragment. I'm sorry it found expression here in Eureka Street in Easter week, a week known for unbridled hope. Especially when Eureka St won't print stuff around smaller nonviolent direct actions by for example the anti militarist movement because quote "the readership would not be interested". So Eureka St appears to speak to a comfortable, slightly discouraged middle class who don't want to know about how direct action tactics fit together to build a movement and create change. Obviously we can have both and it starts with relationship building at the Parish, school and environment group. BOTH: As the COP Redlines March in Paris showed, where our own Climate Angels led thousands to civil disobedience in blocking a Parisian bridge. Civil disobedience is what we need and a protest march is part of the repertoire with good leadership which lays out next steps and encourages risk and bravery is a plank in building a strong structure. Come on Eureka St...

Margaret Pestorius | 25 March 2016  

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