Originally posted on Centre for Global Research here.
-THINKING THROUGH THE HEADLINES-
In this series of brief interviews, members of the Centre for Global Research reflect on global affairs.
On Friday the 19th of February 2016, two women scaled the spire at Melbourne Arts Centre in a 12-hour demonstration against the offshore detention of asylum seekers in Nauru.
Christina Plant gets the views of Alexander Waters, sociologist and PhD candidate at the Centre for Global Research at RMIT University.
CP: Alexander, your specialty is in local demonstrations and protesting. Could you describe your research background.
AW: My background is in sociology, and my previous research has focused primarily on ethnographic profiling and the efficacy of social movement strategies. My primary research focus seeks answer the question, “what are the consequences of social movements?”
CP: Last week protesters scaled the Melbourne Art Centre Spire, trespassing private property in protest of offshore detention of asylum seekers. The two women who undertook the protest were not charged by Victoria Police. In your opinion why was this the case?
AW: I think that you need to look at this example of a small protest in the context of the debate currently happening about Let Them Stay. While it is difficult to pinpoint the reason as to why people have become so sympathetic towards refugees, we can now see that for whatever reason there is a lot of sympathy for the people that are being held offshore in Australia. Not only this, but the Let Them Stay campaign has become hugely popular in social and print media, indicating that journalists are sympathetic to the plight of refugees. Therefore what I think is that the two women who scaled the Arts Centre Spire have not yet been prosecuted at least in part because the police and federal government, those who may like to prosecute people for standing up for asylum seekers, feel that the political costs of doing so would outweigh the benefit. Perhaps those in authority fear that community members would react badly towards them for being cruel to people defending asylum seekers.
CP: Some people might doubt that protests such as these are of any use. How do you feel about that view?
AW: Normally the message that people receive from dominant culture is that protest is pointless and that people should not be involved. Some will imply that this behaviour is essentially deviant.
Australia is an incredibly de-politicised country and you will find that people don’t have much faith in political parties and there is widespread anti-establishment and cynicism about foreign politics.
This may be evident when we consider how people don’t belong to community groups like they used to. Union density for example is a measure of this. In 1983 union density was close to 50% and today it is less than 15%. This demonstrates how people have been individualised. But what we can learn from small, aggressive and in my opinion very effective direct actions like the one at the Melbourne Art Centre Spire is that even a very small protest will attract a police presence. The fact that police turn up for this type of thing is because in part because the regime fears protest and does not like attacks on their power and will go to great efforts to shut demonstrations down. I would argue that the impact of the protest at the Arts Centre Spire has been has been significant
in terms of furthering the discourse of Let Them Stay, and it has been effective in bringing a critical discourse about refugees into the corporate media, who would normally censor it. Thus is very significant as it can flow through to policy if enough people become sympathetic and change their minds about how they go to the next election, for example. Therefore you need to think very carefully about who is telling you that protest is pointless,
because that matters. Because someone who has authority and power would be threatened by protest, and of course they would like you believe protest has no effect.
CP: What’s been the most interesting (and effective?) demonstration you’ve attended?
AW: I was recently in Paris for the climate change summit and there was a really wonderful direct action that I saw. There was a big corporate summit, which was set up as a two or three day event where all the corporate sponsors and partners of the UN would be pushing their version of green capitalism, agendas like ethical consumerism and carbon trading schemes, as opposed to shutting down fossil fuel plants. What I saw was 500 activists get inside a heavily guarded and policed space and argue that all of these solutions were false.They caused an amazing flurry of chaos for that conference. They shut down the event for an entire day and as a result companies such as Exxon Mobil and BP and other big coal companies were deprived of this opportunity to promote their agenda. Therefore I would suggests that demonstrations which have enough of a critical mass so that people go along and really make a mess of things can have a significant impact.
Christina Plant is an intern with the Centre of Global Research.