Sunday, November 19, 2006

Suburban revolutionaries

I didn’t feel like attending the G20 protest at all today. I was going in the first place because a mother at school had asked me to, and it was such a novelty in that environment, I couldn’t refuse.

Last night, I was already regretting my decision. It was the end of an especially long working week and I was feeling, frankly, a little depressed. The last thing I wanted was to tear myself away from the house (let alone bed) and walk around the city, for any reason. Ditto talking to people. But I’d made the commitment and would feel shallow and self-involved if I pulled out.

This morning, after an uncharacteristic (these days) one drink too many, I eye the bedside clock with trepidation. The phone rings. My husband answers. It’s the Mother, relaying the message that she will be arriving early. She wants to make a banner, and she needs my help.

I’m barely dressed and out of the shower when she arrives. I haven’t brushed my hair. I’m not wearing shoes. Remnants of last night’s make up are smudged from my eyelids halfway down my cheek. (I won’t become aware of the latter until I glance in the mirror on my way out the door.) The Mother is dressed for protest in a t-shirt, jeans and sneakers, sensibly armed with a backpack and water bottle. She also has two absolutely enormous slabs of white card (discarded advertisements that she has salvaged from Mitre Ten this morning) and three rolls of packing tape. She means action.

I sleepily and probably not-too-graciously lead her down the hallway and out the back door, wrestling with the placards, which are each roughly my size.

Do I have scissors? String? A lead pencil? A cloth to wipe down the cardboard? I obediently fetch the requisite tools. I have been to protests in the past, but didn’t prepare to this level. I think I kind of shambolically grabbed supplies for the day (water, camera, purse) and lurched out the door.

‘What do you think we should write?’ asks the Mother.
‘I don’t know,’ I say dumbly. I’m wishing we could forgo the banner in favour of breakfast along the way. Perhaps at a café in the city. Perhaps Degraves. Poached eggs on toast, latte …
The Mother has a few ideas, she says. Her first one is pretty good: ‘Free Trade Makes Third World Into Fourth World’. I certainly don’t have anything better in mind. My mind is selfishly preoccupied with food and what I might have said over drinks last night. And whether my husband is planning to strip our lemon tree in its entirety. (He’s gathering lemons to donate to an anti-whaling boat this morning.)

I watch as the Mother carefully traces out the letters of her slogan on the newly clean cardboard.
‘I don’t meant to be rude,’ she says. ‘But do you think you could help?’
‘Oh. Sure.’
I get up from the Outdoor Couch and join her kneeling on the deck. We chat idly about school as we form letters using strips of tape. I begin to enjoy myself. It’s a bit like high school art class, or playing ‘making things’ with F. I wish he was here. He’d be having a wonderful time. (He’s at his dad’s for the weekend.)
‘Don’t you think,’ says the Mother, leaning back on her heels and frowning critically at my handiwork, ‘that you should be using three strips of tape for each stroke of your letters?’

My husband leaves for the anti-whaling boat in Port Melbourne with his three bags of lemons. The tree is still groaning under the weight of the remaining fruit.
The Mother glanced at her watch. ‘Shit,’ she says. ‘We’d better hurry.’

When we get to the State Library (half an hour late, but with a great banner), there is a crowd, but it’s not an overwhelming one. It’s far less than the 5000 figure estimated by the media, which we’d scoffed at as inadequate.
‘Oh,’ says the Mother. ‘I thought there’d be about 10,000.’
‘Yeah.’ I feel a wave of exhaustion already. I’m lightheaded, and glance hungrily across the road at Melbourne Central, where there must be some food. The Mother takes out a lunchbox and offers a shortbread biscuit. It’s a practice run for baking with the kids at school. I’m impressed, and wonder wearily where she gets all her energy. I’m vaguely aware of being a grump and a wet blanket.

The Mother talks animatedly about George Monbiot’s The Age of Consent and the notion that third world nations should withdraw from dealing with the first world and trade among themselves, have their own treaties. I don’t know what I think. I’m aware that my brain, my thinking and reasoning, is fuzzy. I say something about the fact that the corporations are in the third world now and it’s them who are shaping what’s happening. What can governments do? I wish I knew more. And that I could mount a coherent argument.

If only more stay-at-home mums used their free time reading Monbiot and the like and forming theories about global justice. After all, it’s the middle-class, home-owning, interest-rate-fearing mums and dads who drive politicians’ actions.

I realise that I see myself as a socially aware, politically informed person. A veteran of protests. A Greens voter, preferring Labor to Liberal of course. But somewhere along the way, thinking about jobs and overseas trips (and, let’s face it, before that, impending marriage and career), I’ve lost touch. I’ve been skimming the right papers and websites, watching Four Corners and occasionally Lateline (in bed, to fall asleep to). But I haven’t really been engaging with the ideas I find there: teasing them out, developing theories. The last protests I attended were the anti-war ones, just before and after we invaded Iraq. I read books on the situation. I organised forums on the topic for the bookstore I worked at. My co-workers and I took time off work to march under a banner bearing the name of our store. I was engaged. That was four years ago.

Today, I might look socialist-chic in my scruffy jeans, sensible sandals and Indian shirt (or I might not). I occasionally write (book reviews) for a right-on magazine. I know all about Tariq Ali, John Pilger and co. But the Mother is the one surfing this particular zeitgeist. I’m just paddling in the shallows.

A dreadlocked twentysomething in cargo pants gives up the thumbs-up. ‘Nice banner.’ A black-clad hipster with a white card at his belt reading ‘MEDIA’ snaps a photo, followed by another twentysomething, this time with a camera phone. He grins at us in solidarity.
‘She did most of it,’ I admit.

A diverse crowd lolls on the library lawns. Some listen intently to the speakers who stand, megaphone in hand, on the back of a ute parked in Swanston Street. Others talk excitedly amongst themselves. There are earnest-looking student types in jeans and slogan t-shirts (‘Capitalism makes me see red’). A couple of men with bandanas tied across their noses Zapatista-style amble past. Others seem to be making their political statements in a more abstract maner. One girl wears a hot pink tulle fairy skirt. A bearded young man flickers past her, also wearing a pink tulle skirt over tights. But there are also middle-aged mum and dad types – like us, I suppose – some of them with kids in tow. Drums play and clowns dart in and out of the crowd. It’s like a street fair. But that’s how I remember the S11 protests, too.

The carnival atmosphere is only made incongruous by the overwhelming presence of police, many of them wearing riot gear: plastic face masks, batons. A line of officers in reflective yellow vests (all men) stand behind the stage and line the kerb of Swanston Street. Clusters of them infiltrate the crowd, apprehensive, alert to any change in the mood. Watching them, my confidence erodes at the edges, just a little. I remember arriving home from the S11 protests flushed with the satisfaction of a good day out, then fielding phone calls from my mother and ex-boyfriend, both full of the sensational news reports. I’m pretty sure it will all be fine, but in the midst of the ‘war on terror’, I’m not 100 per cent convinced. Some of the police are on horseback, and I remember footage of baton-wielding police riding into crowds six years ago.

When it becomes clear that the march is finally starting, half an hour after we arrive, I make sure we’re not in the first few rows – just in case. Our banner takes up roughly one lane of the road. My shoulders ache as we bookend the banner, and start to walk. A young guy in a red Socialist Alliance t-shirt shouts chants through a megaphone at our backs. ‘Whose streets? Our streets. Whose war? Their war.’ I am happy to march, but too self-conscious to chant. I feel like I do at school assemblies when they sing ‘Happy Birthday’. Silly not joining in, but sillier still at the thought of doing so. The Mother chants in unison with the crowd. Megaphone man moves in front us, directly in front of us, and I decide to chant. ‘1, 2, 3, 4, we don’t want your racist war.’

The Saturday shoppers lining the streets have mostly stopped to watch. Many of them have brought out their cameras and mobile phones and are snapping away, waving and smiling.
‘See, all those people are on side,’ I say. ‘I think that counts.’
‘Why don’t they join in?’ replies the Mother.
We turn past the Nike store and up Bourke Street.
‘I’ve got a Nike bag, look,’ says the Mother. She does, too. ‘And shoes.’ I glance at her sneakers.
‘No one will notice.’
‘I thought about covering them with paper,’ she continues. ‘But I decided that was silly. They’re old. I’m not going to throw them out.’
‘No,’ I joke (badly). ‘You don’t want to waste the labour of those tiny hands that made them.’

We reach Collins Street, which is blocked off, and the crowd comes to a halt. The Socialist Alliance hand out red flags as if dispensing lollipops, and another red-shirted student leads another round of chants with the megaphone. A sea of flags wave in unison. Exotic birds perch in trees – men with cameras. One of them is definitely a professional. His enormous camera is trained on the barricades. Nothing seems to be happening. I can just see a row of police at the front, some of them on horses. I swing my camera towards them. One of the policemen has his own camera directed at the crowd. Overhead, helicopters circle the sky. I see more police on the roof of a nearby building. In another, media crowd an office window. Everyone is watching everyone else.

Down on street level, we are stuck in place, encumbered by our enormous banner. Toddlers sit on their parents’ shoulders. A Superman in drag, inexplicably slathered in blue face make-up, strides about purposefully. A grey-haired man in red suspender braces holds a sign high above his head: ‘Queer, straight, black, white, one struggle, one fight. RADICAL WOMEN!’ A hippy couple clutching an angelic bare-chested child weave through the crowd. Occasionally a chant goes up. I buy a magazine from a passing Big Issue vendor. We finish our water. I run into friends and we all talk about the absence of violence. A cheer goes up as a protester on the roof outside the media window brandishes a fire hose and turns it on the crowd below. I vaguely presume they are enjoying the relief from the heat.
‘It’s not like S11,’ says my friend. ‘People have lost their taste for violent protest after the other September 11.’
‘It’s good to see a bit of a scuffle, though,’ sighs his companion. ‘It’s nice to see a bit of passion.’

We decide it’s time to go. My friend suggests we leave our banner behind.
‘Yes!’ I agree, too eagerly. I want to give my arms a rest. And I want a coffee, maybe some food. ‘We’ll be gone,’ I say, trying to sound persuasive. ‘But our message will remain.’
‘Wouldn’t it be better to take our message out there, onto the streets?’ argues the Mother.
‘No!’ I say.
I photograph her with the banner and we farewell my friends.
‘Maybe we’ll get home and find out that it’s all happened after we left, or when we weren’t looking,’ I say, and we all laugh.
The Mother and I go for coffee and cake.

I check the Age website when I get home. Apparently, there was a scuffle when we weren’t looking. Plastic-clad protestors threw urine and safety barriers at police. I see photos of faceless bodies in anti-contamination suits, and remember seeing them dancing in the street.

Soon after, my husband arrives home from the anti-whaling ship. He had a great time; met the crew, including the founder of Greenpeace. They loved the lemons. ‘Look!’ he says, taking something out of his bag.
‘Oh,’ I drawl. ‘So you’ve been to the revolution and bought the t-shirt.’
He looks hurt, and I apologise. He’s passionate, not cynical.

What am I?


Genevieve said...

You're aware, and you don't want to get fooled again. YEEEAHHH.
Good account, and thanks for the link to my blog - ours both have great names, huh? yours belongs in my Australian blogs list.

Ariel said...

Yeah, that's it! Thanks Genevieve - and no probs re. the blog link - I like it (and the name, of course!)

I think those events are, by and large, made up mostly of the well-meaning (and well-behaved) and perceived mostly by the actions of the noisy minority who attract the media attention. *sigh*

Genevieve said...

I went to the first IR rally, (had to miss the one on Thursday unfortunately) and it was astounding how few of the 'well meaning and well behaved'(to which category I slavishly belong) had forgotten how to chant at a rally. Even the unionists were pretty pallid. Not enough megaphones, I think.