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Walking for justice

In November last year, I finished an essay on ‘Christian women in Nazi Germany’. The following day, I attended a rally for refugees held in Canberra. The two events became entwined in my mind, and not just because of the protesters wearing pink triangles.

Around 700 people rallied on the front lawns of Parliament House. It was a small gathering, but an impressive one for a weekday morning. Buses had come from Sydney and Melbourne; people from Adelaide and Canberra; and many lone members of Rural Australians for Refugees represented their communities. The crowd was mixed; retirees, trade unionists, politicians, business people, and families. Anger at Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers is not the prerogative of the left-wing urban university student, although many were there.

The day began at the High Court, which declared in 2004 that it was lawful for the government to detain asylum seekers indefinitely if there was no prospect of removing them from Australia. We then marched to Parliament House for several hours of speeches and music.

Everything about the day was warm and welcoming. Having flown in that morning from Melbourne, I basked in (and was ultimately burnt by) the Canberra sunshine. The protesters were welcomed to country by local indigenous elders. The rally was hosted by Merlin Luck, the Big Brother contestant who appalled viewers when he emerged from the house with his mouth taped shut and a sign reading ‘Free th[e] refugees’. He was, unusually, besuited, although his neat pinstripe did have www.chilout.org painted down one arm. As an ambassador for Children Out of Detention, Merlin had taken part in a media conference and was looking the part of a trustworthy citizen, but his MC’ing had a familiar
larrikin air.

Greens’ Senator Bob Brown talked about the church service parliamentarians had attended that morning. The prime minister had prayed for God’s help to make Australia just. As Bob Brown put it, ‘Prime Minister, don’t ask God to do what you can do’. Democrats Senator Andrew Bartlett, who has visited every Australian detention centre, including the one on Nauru, promised that the Democrats would continue the fight, even though it appeared to have lost them votes.

Members of ChilOut dropped 102 children’s shoes on the stage to represent the children still in detention. William Mudford, a 16-year-old student, argued that the detention of children was creating a new stolen generation. Another speaker called on those parliamentarians concerned about unborn children to show some concern for those already born.

Responses to the speeches outside Parliament were governed by protocols. Statements of which the crowd approved were greeted with cheering, whistling, clapping, ‘hear, hear’ and, occasionally, ‘hallelujah’. Descriptions of the ill-treatment of asylum seekers, the number of children in detention, the breaching of international laws, were met with cries of ‘shame’. But how could we respond to the speech of Riz Wakil, a former asylum seeker who was detained in the Curtin detention centre? Wakil talked about his friends, still detained, who had attempted suicide because they had lost all hope. There seemed no way to respond loudly to this without trivialising it. We responded in silence.

The theme of the day was opposition to mandatory detention and temporary protection visas. The sub-plot was whether it is time to go beyond peaceful protest and begin a campaign of civil disobedience. Speakers argued that there had been no mention of refugees during the election campaign, so the Howard Government had no ‘mandate’ about them. Members of parliament told the crowd to campaign. Politicians of all political persuasions have lobbied for individual asylum seekers, even if they have not crossed the floor when immigration issues have been put to a vote. There is something there to work with.

Is it time to do more? If asylum seekers are being deported to torture and death, can violence be used to prevent deportation? If people can be held indefinitely without trial, should they be hidden in the community? Some speakers suggested that peaceful protest had been tried and failed. They argued that the Vietnam moratorium marches would not have succeeded without people burning their draft papers. The time had come for the refugee movement, too, to move from protest to political resistance.

I saw everything at the rally through the prism of the Third Reich. The resemblances are obvious: racist propaganda; detention without trial; refusal to give the public access to detention centres; the use of the ‘war on terror’ to justify the removal of civil and political rights; the attempt to reopen questions about the legality of abortion. And then there were the protesters wearing pink triangles.

It is estimated that 10,000 men were forced to wear pink triangles in concentration camps. They were the most despised of the prisoners; even those who weren’t murdered by the SS never lived very long. A Jewish friend and I have debated the propriety of wearing a pink triangle today. As she pointed out, she would never wear a yellow star. Perhaps the difference is that very few people approve of genocide. The Nazi anti-homosexual laws remained on the West German statute books until 1969. In Australia, homosexuality was only finally decriminalised nationally in 1996. Various laws try to prevent homosexual people from having children. This year, parliament passed legislation to prevent same-sex marriages being performed in Australia, and to ban the recognition of same-sex marriages performed overseas. Post-Holocaust, anti-Semitism is a bad look. Homophobia continues to suit politicians and churches.

No mention of this was made at the rally. But, here and there, protesters wore pink triangles.

Looking back at the Third Reich people often ask why there was not more resistance to the National Socialist regime. My question is why there was so much? In a totalitarian state in which people were killed for handing out anti-government leaflets, how did anyone find the courage to hide Jews or to conspire to assassinate Hitler? How did they even find the courage to dissent from ideological conformity?

In Australia in 2004 dissent did not require courage. As we marched from the High Court to Parliament House we were accompanied by police officers. They were there to protect the High Court and Parliament House from us; they were also there to protect us from the traffic. Our protest was not merely permitted; it was facilitated by the law. All my comparisons between Howard’s Australia and Hitler’s Germany founder on that fact.

At one point during the march a chant began: ‘What do we want? No mandatory detention. How will we get it? Fight for it!’

I stopped chanting and began talking to the student marching with me. Were we prepared to fight? He is a pacifist, so he wasn’t. I suggested answering the chant with ‘Work for it!’ or ‘Pray for it!’ Recently converted from Anglicanism to atheism, he thought prayer would be useless. He was less scornful of the
suggestion that we work. We are not yet ready to commit acts of civil disobedience. We do not rule them out forever.

In Hitler’s Germany, those who opposed the government risked death. In Howard’s Australia, those who oppose the government risk being ignored or laughed at. There is some excuse for the Germans who accepted the existence of concentration camps and the mistreatment of racial, sexual and religious minorities. Australia is not a totalitarian state. We have no excuse for accepting the existence of detention centres and the mistreatment of racial, sexual and religious minorities.       

Avril Hannah-Jones is a student at the United Faculty of Theology, Melbourne.



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