It's the Action that's Important (Gandhi)
Updated: May 26
The response to the outbreak of post Budget protests has been revealing. Protesters have ranged from students to pensioners. The fact that there is widespread discontent seems to be less important than the way the discontent is being expressed. I’m not talking about the usual suspects absurdly portraying protesters as violent rabble rousers who are threatening our way of life. Or those who have characterised student protesters as “self obsessed”. I’m talking about the politicians and commentators who may have misread the zeitgeist.
Some commentators have suggested that there are better, more effective (even more creative ways) to protest than falling back on the methods of the 70’s. Part of that, quite rightly, is about being tired of hearing baby boomers banging on about “good old” days.
But, let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater.
At the end of the first Aquarius Festival in Canberra a protest was organised against apartheid. It’s hard to believe today but at the time Australia supported apartheid. We supported the government that put Nelson Mandela on Robben Island. A march on Parliament was duly organised. There were thousands of students who marched and chanted and waved placards. Just like the students who are protesting against the proposed changes to university funding are protesting today. Some were arrested too. In fact, there was an infamous moment when the NSW Police, imported from across the border, ripped off their badges and flailed into us with their batons. That was when the “Summary Offences Act” tried to make demonstrating illegal.
The march closed Commonwealth Bridge. Not surprising as students from all over Australia had descended on Canberra and protest was in the air.
What was surprising was when we marched past the public service offices thousands upon thousands of public servants poured out of their offices and joined the protest. They tore off their ties, kicked off their shoes and walked arm in with the long haired, bare footed hippies .
It was incredible. And it was effective. It showed the government that they couldn’t marginalise the anti apartheid movement. It was too big.
Nelson Mandela later wrote that marches like that one emboldened him and helped him keep going. They, and the disruptions to Springbok Rugby Tests by whistle blowing protesters, had a huge impact on public opinion. And, when public opinion turns so do politicians.
That period of history proved that public protest is effective. It not only helped free Mandela and end apartheid it also helped end a war.
Much like today those protesters were dismissed as ratbags from the extreme left. Much like today that was nonsense.
One of the things that struck me about the march against apartheid was that the organisers stressed the need for peaceful, non violent protest.
“Don’t give our critics ammunition”, they seemed to be saying.
They urged us to adopt the lessons of non violent protest as espoused by Mahatma Ghandi and Martin Luther King.
The other thing that made those protests work is that they were focussed. Everyone knew what we were protesting against.
Just like the marchers in Michael Long’s Long March and the hundreds of thousands who marched on the Bridge Walks for Reconciliation.
If I had any criticism of the March in March was that it seemed to be, understandably perhaps, a protest against everything. The problem with this is that the message of the protest is diluted and that allows critics to dismiss it as being a “grab bag” of protests.
The Newtown High School of the Performing Arts student’s interview of Tony Abbott was rightly saluted at Melbourne’s March in March and went viral on You Tube. What has been missed about that and the student protests that are happening around the country is that Gen Y (or is it X?), far from being the “me me generation”, are politically active and socially aware.
The wheel may have well turned and a new generation of protesters may well leading the way.
We dismiss them at our peril.