Introducing Woolloongabba

For many non-Queenslanders, Woolloongabba is probably one of the few Brisbane suburbs they could name. When the footy or cricket is on, it is the destination for thousands of people from around the country, but the rest of the time it is a pretty unglamourous place. The intersection of all those major roads means it is constantly bombarded with traffic noise, there are no parks, and no real central downtown area for people to congregate – the cul-de-sac at the end of Logan Rd is full of cafes but is hardly a social hub, same goes for the shopping apartment complex on the other side of Ipswich Rd.

The Gabba is a geographically big suburb where lots of people live; but carved up by the freeway and the busway, full of big warehouse style shops; it almost seems more like a thoroughfare than a place of its own.

Woolloongabba was apparently a gathering place for aboriginal people because of ready access to food. The name is said to mean “Whirling Waters”, so named because its series of hills and creeks would flood when it rained. Which early white settlers found out the hard way, hence the fact that the main horse and cart road from the farms of Ipswich into the city (what we now know as Annerley Rd) was given the name Boggo Rd.

That name these days is most linked with the prison whose buildings still stand in Woolloongabba – the place that erupted into a riot in 1983 when a protest against prison food led to Prisons Minister Geoff Muntz saying that if prisoners didn’t like the food “they can starve for all I care”. A friend who moved into the area in the late 80’s has told me that as well as hosting the city’s prisoners, Woolloongabba was known as “the murder capital of Brisbane.”

That’s hard to imagine these days, but still the suburb carries a touch of urban neglect. The ornate Broadway Hotel burnt down 10 years ago and has sat empty ever since, slowly accumulating more and more graffiti. The much loved Lifeline op shop caught on fire in 2012 and has also never returned.

I lived in a squat around the corner from the cricket ground for about six months a couple of years ago. I missed the social connections that came so easily with West End’s public life and cultural drawing power, but I quite liked Woolloongabba’s unpretentious working class style – where people in singlets and thongs relax on a public bench on Stanley St with a hundred cars a minute flying past them.

For the last year and a half I have been a suburb further out but ride through Woolloongabba nearly every day for one thing or another, and so witness the changes in the suburb as they happen.

Woolloongabba has a notably high number of pubs – probably due to the proximity to the sports ground and the suburb’s industrial background. And most of them still unashamedly cater for a working class male clientele – the Australian National Hotel advertises itself as Brisbane’s home of the Ultimate Fighting Championship. The Morrison Hotel has a ridiculously huge billboard on top of it proclaiming “Brisbane’s best steaks”. Similarly, the Norman Hotel proudly announces itself as “Brisbane’s worst vegetarian restaurant.”

Notwithstanding that the Gabba is also a hub for Indian grocery stores, the steak is the food I would most readily associate with Woolloongabba.  Which is one reason why the advertising for the new Sth/City/Sq  high rise development being built (by development companies Pellicano and Perri Projects) on the corner of Logan Rd and Deshon St is so incongruous. Because the advertising hoardings that run along the site don’t just proclaim the Gabba as “the new urban centre”, they also contain a bunch of images – some of them food. There is not a a steak in sight, instead there are plates that say “hola amigo taco” and “ciao sexy pizza” (yes, really) and picture of take-away coffee cups, lobster, even that most manly of foods – a bunch of asparagus.

Now I’m certainly not one for a one-dimensional definition of masculinity, but there’s no doubt that this advertising is not aimed at the traditional Woolloongabba demographic. Throw in some of the other pictures in the ads (coathanger, bottle of cologne, umbrella, dress shirt and shoes), and we begin to see that Brisbane’s so-called “new urban centre” is targeted to that very urban species – the metrosexual.

The development there – a proposed seven towers ranging between 14 and 21 stories, with “apartments, a hotel, supermarket, boutique cafes, restaurants and cinema” – was the subject of protests from local residents at the start of last year. The protesters were especially concerned that the development approval required relaxations of the local development plan, and have concerns about flood management (those old whirling waters again). But I think one less tangible reason why people are against the development is the rather presumptuous claim of the Sth/City/Sq website to “introduce Woolloongabba” as a new hub. For people who have lived in the area for their lifetime, and potentially generations before that, you can understand why there is some resistance to a development company “introducing” their suburb as something that doesn’t look very much like the place where they currently live.

The scope of the marketing for the Sth/City/Sq development is quite amazing really. Beyond their billboards and onsite display centre; the website promises not just a set of towers but a revolutionary new urban hub, and they have even for the last two years sponsored a free festival called “End Of The Line” that brings indie bands from around the country to play on the streets of Woolloongabba.

I like indie music too, and the things that Sth/City/Sq say they’re about – community , greenspace, style and authenticity – all sound pretty good, but the question must be asked whether this development company really cares about these things in themselves, or whether they are only useful inasmuch as they can be used to sell apartments and commercial spaces. Because these corporations are obliged to deliver results for their shareholders, and I somehow don’t think increased creativity is the dividend they are looking for.

While Sth/City/Sq claims to offer a lot to the suburb of Woolloongabba, in a lot of ways the more successful they are in marketing the suburb, the worse it will be for the people who already live there. Not just because of the loss of the place’s current identity or increased traffic congestion, but because every time fancy buzzwords, music festivals or pictures of asparagus push up the price of apartments in the new development, by the rules of supply and demand they also push up the price of all the other buildings in Woolloongabba. Which means every house or business that currently calls the Gabba home will have to start paying more money if they want to keep doing so.

If you’re into cafes and boutique stores then it’s great living in a hip suburb; but ask anyone who once lived in Fitzroy, Newtown or West End but now can’t afford to; and they’ll tell you it’s not all it’s cracked up to be. In these suburbs, even the creative types – like the bands who play at the End Of The Line festival – get forced out as real estate agents happily capitalise on the “hip, alternative” vibe to push up rents further.

Meanwhile the ability of people of low income (who didn’t come to Woolloongabba enticed by pictures of lobster or cologne) to live close to the city; or in a place where they have lived, worked, and helped to shape; just got that bit harder. As property prices go up too, governments begin to see less economic sense in keeping public housing in these high demand areas when it can be sold off at a huge profit.

Change is inevitable, and the point of critiquing gentrification is not to wish that a suburb would forever stay the same. As I said at the start, the current design of Woolloongabba is hardly ideal. But the carving up of the Gabba for construction of a web of main roads should be a warning – this suburb has already suffered once from economics being put before actual community needs. It would be a shame to see it happen again.

What’s happening right now in Woolloongabba is a great example of how a corporation, with the help of a pro-development government, can remodel, rebrand and ultimately transform a whole suburb in the interests of their own profit margin. Not only that, but it’s an example of the role that seemingly unrelated things like music, food and “hip” culture play in the process.

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My top 10 songs of 2015

It was a funny year for me and new music. For various reasons I went to less shows than I have the last few years, and a lot of my favourite musical discoveries were old albums that were new to me. So when it came to making this list I was a bit worried I wouldn’t have 10 new songs from 2015 that I had really loved. So it was nice in the end to realise that actually I had too many songs and would have to whittle down my shortlist. Here are the ten I came up with:

 

Royal Headache – Carolina

A few times over the last couple of years I’ve run into Royal Headache’s lead singer Shogun. At some point the conversation would turn to his band and he would tell me that he had broken up the band because there were “too many dickheads” at shows. “You look out at the audience,” he told me, “and it’s all the people you hated at high school.”

The hidden darkside of alternative rockstardom. But despite Shogun’s warnings, this year Royal Headache returned with their first album in four years and launched it, of all places, at the Sydney Opera House. The album, of course, is amazing.

 

mewithoutYou -Red Cow

mewithoutYou are a band that I have appreciated for a decade without ever really sinking my teeth in properly. At the start of the year though I saw them play twice on their Australian tour and was enamoured by their last album, the circus escape concept album “10 Stories”.

Their new album which came out in the middle of the year wasn’t quite as immediately rewarding as the last one, and didn’t have any songs that I became quite as obsessed with as “Cardiff Giant”, but they are such an endlessly intriguing band – the band’s sometimes delicate, sometimes heavy sounds drawing you in to dig for the meaning in Aaron Weiss’ lyrics.

“Pale Horses” is another concept album of sorts, about somebody’s struggle with their faith and attempts to see where God could fit in our world. “Was he a violent man?” Aaron asks in this song… “Well, he had his genocidal moments.”

 

Virginia Sook – Soil, Seeds, Bellies

Over the last few years I have seen Virginia Sook play many times. This year it was a special treat to have some new recordings released. But my favourite Sook memory of 2015 was a show in a West End laundromat with a bunch of local songwriters plus visiting interstater Jess Locke. We passed the guitar around a circle, requesting each others’ songs and singing along.  Riding home, I had the Virginia Sook song “Mandarin” in my head. I thought about how nice it was that I struggle to keep up with the hyped new bands or the latest releases, but the music that I really want to hear is being made by my friends.

“Mandarin” is not recorded for me to share with you though, but I have always liked this song too, and it also has a nice video of the band (which actually since the clip was made has an almost totally new lineup) having a picnic

 

Laura Mardon – Hail! Hail! The Dead Can Dance

I used to think that Laura Mardon’s music was like an incredible secret – she would come up from the Gold Coast, play an amazing set to a few dozen people and go back.

This year though she had one of those experiences that you’re never sure actually happen in real life – she opened for Joey Cape from 90’s pop punk legends Lagwagon, and a few months later ended up at his house in the US recording an album. Hopefully it’s helped her music become less of a secret, because I think her short, simple songs with beautiful honest lyrics are wonderful.

The album begins with “Hail! Hail! The Dead Can Dance”, which started life as a speedy punk song for Laura’s band Albion Gold. As an acoustic ballad it’s better though, bittersweetly singing the joys of punk music while reflecting on some of the disappointments that come from the scene.

 

Provocalz, Lady LashDjarmbi Supreme, Task, GekkZMad Madam, Mr. KrowFelon – Stand Proud

2015 was a big year for militant aboriginal protest. Starting with the G20 in November 2014, where a new group called Warriors of the Aboriginal Resistance and a new publication called Black Nations Rising announced their arrival; there was a long-running protest embassy in Redfern defying eviction notices to demand aboriginal housing on The Block; and then following the plan from the Western Australian government to shut down services to remote aboriginal communities (and Tony Abbott’s description of them as “lifestyle choices”); there were a series of rallies in major cities that aimed for, and often acheived, maximum disruption to white complacency.

Fittingly, aboriginal hip hop in 2015 got militant as well. Briggs brought politically conscious indigenous music to the Oz mainstream with his album “Shepplife”; while in Sydney Provocalz and Felon stepped into the limelight, bringing a posse of indigenous MCs with them.

Provocalz is phenomenally prolific – he self-released two albums this year plus various other tracks. The music is pretty simplistic, and sometimes I think his lyrics about shooting politicians are a bit over the top for me, but it’s nice to have an Australian rapper with actually something to say. Another really cool thing about Provocalz is that rather than an exercise in ego, his releases are extremely collaborative, as would suit music from a very communal culture.

His album “Only Built For Koori Linx” features over 20 different MCs, but if that’s not communal enough for you there was this song in response to the community closures that gives us 8 different rappers in 4 minutes.

 

Russel Svinurai – Chemutengure

For a couple of years, Russel Svinurai has lit up West End and Southbank, playing his mbira to passers by. I have always loved it, and have regularly paid him in meals on Friday nights when we have been on the street doing Food Not Bombs.

On discovering that he didn’t have any recordings, I invited Russel into 4ZZZ to do a live on air performance and to talk about the cultural and historical significance of mbira music. The three tracks I recorded (including this version of a traditional Zimbabwean song) became regulars on my stereo and on radio shows I did.

 

Ryan Gosling’s Dog – Why Do I Keep Coming Back Here?

As a lover of acoustic and punk music, it is always exciting to find a new addition to the small collection of folk punk acts around the country. So it was great to have Ryan Gosling’s Dog join the fold last year.

I saw them play a few times, but after about 9 months together (and a brief name change to Slyng Shot) they broke up, leaving us with very little recorded material and one less folk punk band. This clip is from what was possibly their first ever gig – at the Leard Forest, unrehearsed, with a bunch of ring-in musicians. But that is maybe my best memory of the band anyway, singing these fantastic songs with beautiful harmonies on the back of a truck as the sun went down.

 

George Telek – Free West Papua (One People One Soul)

Unbelievably, I didn’t hear about George Telek’s tour of Australia to celebrate Papua New Guinea’s 40th anniversary as a nation until after it happened. But as a small consolation, Wantok Music released a best of from the Papuan legend, compiling some of his best tracks over the years and a few new ones.

The record is full of amazing summery pop, but Telek is not afraid of tackling big issues either, and a new song is his latest offering for the Western half of the island of Papua – a country still waiting to celebrate their own independence.

 

Screamfeeder – Alone In A Crowd

Long before I ever came to Brisbane, I always had a strange attraction to bands from this city. As a teenager in Mudgee I owned and loved albums by The Saints, The Disables, Custard, Regurgitator and The Melniks, plus a random compilation of Brisbane punk bands.

Another band I’ve always loved is Screamfeeder. I remember years ago in Sydney working as a labourer, I would drag myself out of bed every cold dark morning by listening to the same Screamfeeder album.

Since living in Queensland, I’ve got to see them play a couple of times. And late in the year we got, for the first time in a decade, some new songs. Happily (because you don’t always get to say this about new music from old bands you like), all three songs are really good.

 

Kev Carmody – Livin’ In The Country

It wasn’t until the very end of the year that I heard the somewhat surprising news that one of my all-time favourite songwriters had released a new album. And not just one album, but in fact a four CD box set, of songs that Kev Carmody has had sitting around unrecorded, some for over 40 years.

Like every quadruple album ever made, it could probably have done with a bit of pruning. But the really wonderful thing about this album is that it was recorded in an old shed, where Kev apparently declared he didn’t want to use any drums or bass guitar – that instead they would use whatever was lying around in the shed for all the instruments beyond voice and guitar.

It’s a side of Kev Carmody’s music that has always been there but is not often discussed – he is a restless experimenter. And this album is just sonically amazing – like a bush Lee Perry. This song is a great example of that, as well as being a 2015 update on an old Kev Carmody theme – telling the stories of rural Australia.

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In the city

When I left my home town of Mudgee at 19, I had one destination in mind – the city. I maybe should have been a bit more specific, because I ended up living for the next five years in the scenic but unexciting outer southern suburbs of Sydney.

There are a lot of good things about those suburbs, and they definitely still provided plenty of exciting new experiences for a country kid, but still I realised pretty quickly that some of the things I had hoped for in the city experience were not to be found out in the ‘burbs.

So occasionally on days off I would catch the train into the city. I would get off at Town Hall or Central and just walk around – going to independent record or book stores, wandering the streets, taking myself to experience places with famous names like Hyde Park, Kings Cross or Woolloomoolloo. Sometimes I would walk all the way out to Glebe or Newtown, inner city suburbs with beautiful terrace houses and “alternative” styles that were absent from the sterile beachside suburbs.

The problem was that after a few trips I realised that these city adventures mostly would leave me feeling lonely or sad – moreso than if I had stayed at home. It made me reflect that despite the reputation of the suburbs, maybe the city wasn’t automatically a more welcoming or exciting place.

As I got older and thought more about these trips, I’ve come to see that me feeling lonely after a day of wandering around the city was inevitable – there might have been people everywhere, but I didn’t really have interactions with any of them. My relationship with the city was purely as a passive consumer – of products, places and sights.

Plus, I’ve spent a lot of time since then in inner cities around the country and still feel the same way most times. I’ve come to believe that despite all those people, the CBD is the most alienated place you can go. The reason for this I think is that since so few people live there, most people don’t feel especially connected or in control of that space – their connection is usually an economic basis. You go to the CBD to work, to shop, or like I did to consume an experience or culture. The “B” in CBD is the key part – it’s a place for business, and the logic of profit dominates the city and its layout.

For the hundreds or thousands of rough sleepers who do call the city home, it is hardly a place of connection. They are mostly there for proximity to services and people; but live with the constant threat of being moved on, without anywhere to relax or leave their stuff.

After years of occasionally going into the inner cities of Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane, the feelings conjured up are almost always the same – loneliness, anxiety, disgust at the vast amounts of pointless junk we buy and sell. And yet, I keep going back there.

This is because, as I intuitively understood when I first moved to Sydney as a teenager, the city plays another role besides the centre of business. It also acts as the hub for ideas and knowledge; the place where we meet together to hear and share views of how things are, and how they could be. The place to access and exchange all the accumulated thoughts that we call “culture”.

In philosophy there is this concept of “the city square”, which goes back to ancient Greek times, when cities were still new things and thinkers and theorists would take advantage of the people being in one place to expound their theories. It has come to signify the realm where ideas can be shared.

It’s funny that as our cities continue to sprawl outwards, our realm of ideas and access to culture has actually become more and more centralised. Where once live music could be experienced in a whole network of suburban pubs, these days no matter what the style of music you will probably have to go into an inner city suburb to see it. I’m not an expert on the visual art scene, but I certainly have never seen many galleries in the suburbs. Theoretical ideas like political discussions or demonstrations also happen almost entirely in the inner city.

It’s very hard to see this changing any time soon looking at the trend in (sub)urban development – public space where ideas could be exchanged is sadly lacking. Any kind of chance encounter with a new person or thought is almost impossible, with new suburbs looking like vast swathes of private housing, only occasionally interrupted by private shopping malls and private carparks.

Tragically, while this is the state of new developments out on the fringes, the actual inner city is getting harder and harder to access. Once, inner city housing was cheap, which encouraged artists, activists and students who were interested in continuing the idea of the “city square”. These days though, the price of living in those tiny terrace houses has gone through the roof as a generation of urban professionals have rejected the suburbs and moved back into the city. The result is that people who want to dedicate the time and effort into a realm of ideas are priced out of living in the places where that can be made into a physical reality.

And ideas outside of a production/consumption mainstream are less able to survive in the city too. Art and culture have never been very profitable, but they could carve out a space because people valued that exchange of ideas. Now though, the number of community centres, independent stores, art galleries and live music venues in the city are dwindling, priced out by trendy shops and cafes.

Public space is an endangered species too, taken over by outdoor commercial spaces and policed by security guards armed with council by-laws allowing them to eject anyone doing political protest or anything that might disrupt the shopping experience. In Brisbane, any public gathering of over 50 people is technically meant to apply for a permit, otherwise you can be fined.

Our changing relationship to the city and the way the subsequent gentrification has affected these places is well documented. But it’s also important to consider our relationship to the “city square” – the places (physical and ethereal) where we can exchange different ideas. Do we value ideas outside of dominant paradigms? If we do then how can we ensure there are spaces where these ideas can be developed and shared? I guess in a lot of ways the internet plays that role today, but I think that fundamental to any idea is the ability to put it into practice, which without physical places and relationships seems very difficult to do.

It may be that answers lie not in preserving the city as it once was, but by seeking to create new, decentralised “city squares” in different places, utilising different technologies and creative ways of thinking about space. I wouldn’t especially miss the big buildings, loud traffic and crowded streets of the CBD. But for all of us who feel a dissatisfaction with the status quo and a belief that things could be better, literal and metaphorical city squares are very important.

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Not A Number

Growing up in a small country town and being obsessed with discovering strange new music had its complications. One was that there was no “music scene”. In fact with each new style that I discovered; be it punk, reggae, soul or 80’s post-punk; I didn’t know a single other person who was into the music I was listening to.

Another complication was how to actually find music. Triple J was invaluable as a starter point, but pretty soon my hunger for new sounds was seeking more than it offered. Staying up late on a Saturday night to watch Rage was great for discovering music from the past, but I wanted more. The internet was an incredible resource, but it was not like today’s internet – no youtube, no streaming, dial-up download speed. A lot of music I would read about long before I would ever hear it.

My home town of Mudgee had one CD shop. Well, technically it wasn’t just a music store – half of it was taken up with books, and a small section sold role-player games like Warhammer and Dungeons & Dragons. The music selection was small and not very diverse. You could order in CDs they didn’t have in stock, but they could literally take months to come in. Fortunately there was one other place in town where you could buy music. The local hock shop, called “The Trading Post”, was a second hand music goldmine.

I have no idea how some of the obscure and varied music ever got on to the shelves of that shop. But it started what was to become a long-lasting hobby of trawling through the music section of second hand stores, and taught me a valuable lesson – sometimes the more random the location, the better the haul. From its ever-changing selection of second hand CDs I not only got some of the big alternative acts of the time like Grinspoon, Jebediah and Frenzal Rhomb; but I first heard a number of artists who I would go on to love – Bob Marley, The Pixies, MxPx, Billy Bragg plus many more.

And it was cheap too (every CD was $8, which isn’t very cheap these days, but back then people had to actually pay for music and $8 was cheap). So sometimes if I went there and didn’t see anything I knew, I could just take a punt on something with a cool name or a cool looking cover.

Sure, this strategy had a few misses. But it was this habit that led me, when I was 16 years old, to picking up a compilation called Not A Number.

The album cover was a fistPhoto-0144 punching through a barcode. There were 14 bands and 24 songs on it. I had heard of none of them, but even as someone fairly new to the genre I could decipher they were probably punk bands.

Once I got home and put it on, I discovered that it was indeed punk bands – it was a compilation put out by a Brisbane based label called Mouthbreeder Records. It was mostly pop punk, with some ska, a bit of hardcore, an instrumental surf band, and one slow grungey song that I didn’t like and would always skip.

I loved this album. It was lo-fi (I listened to it for the first time in many years this week and some of those songs are so badly recorded you can not distinguish any instruments except a snare drum thwacking away); the songs were about things like missing the bus, playing in a crap band, and pretending to like someone because they’re a friend of a friend. My favourites were a joyous ska song called “WOW” by Fetish that I have never had any idea what any of the words are; and “Skateboard” by Girls Germs, with its opening line “I wish I could ride a skateboard, then I’d be like all the punk rock kids.”

Photo-0145It was the joy of punk music that endeared it to me – these bands were not famous, technically brilliant or with access to good recording equipment. But they could write songs that were catchy, funny and about their own lives. The virtues of DIY. I could only imagine living in a city where a punk scene existed, and people made their own wonderful music, for their own friends, with no need for boring rockstars singing about fake emotions.

There was one other thing about that CD that influenced me a lot. Inside the front cover was a little graphic for a radio station – 4ZZZ 102.1mHz. I got on the computer and looked up this radio station. I don’t remember what I found on the website, but I do remember having my imagination captured by the thought of a community radio station that played alternative local music (even if it wasn’t the clearest recording), and covered alternative local issues.

Today I actually picked up the CD for probably the first time in a decade, and I realised that the only thing linking Not A Number and 4ZZZ is that one little graphic in the artwork. So strongly have the two been linked in my head that I have always assumed that zed  actually released the compilation. And though I loved the music on the album (listening to it again, I still do), I have heard virtually no more music from any of these bands. 4ZZZ though, I kept investigating. Further second hand shopping adventures netted me “Lots Of Brisbane Punk Bands”, curated by zed presenter Rollo and put out by the station; plus the only ever 4ZZZ Hot 100 album – before I had ever spent a night in Brisbane. When I drove through Brisbane on the M1 with some friends once, I insisted on tuning in. When I met Brisbanites, I would invariably ask about the station.

Those who know me will know where the story goes from here. It took me five years after leaving Mudgee to end up in Brisbane, and two more after that till I began volunteering at 4ZZZ, but I have come to be more and more involved – to the point that this month when 4ZZZ celebrated its 40th anniversary, I was in the studio, presenting a history of the station’s news reporting.

Having written all of this, I’m not quite sure what the moral of the story is that brings it all together. It’s definitely fun to reminisce about being a teenager and discovering things for the first time, imagining what wonders the outside world could hold. I also don’t mind singing the praises of second hand music shopping, even today when nearly everything in the world is googleable.

Maybe it’s just coincidence that I picked up that CD as a teenager and later ended up involved at 4ZZZ – certainly there were a lot of other factors involved. But I think reflecting on it all, I’m grateful for that spirit of exploration that led me to seek out music I’d never heard of as a kid, that led to me looking up information about a radio station more than 1000km away. That same spirit of exploration would keep me always asking “but what else is out there? What else is possible?”

It meant that when those city punk scenes didn’t turn out quite like I had imagined, I made my own music and organised my own shows. It led to me getting involved in community radio and trying to create the kind of media I wish we had. I’m not a teenager any more, but I hope that I can still hold onto that spirit. And I hope that more and more kids keep emerging with that same questing enthusiasm.

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Breaking the law (and the lessons learned)

The first time I was arrested, it was my first night in Brisbane. I was lucky enough to meet that afternoon a few people who would go on to become great friends, and that night they were going dumpster-diving. As somebody who lived (and still lives) off supermarket waste as well, I happily went along with them.

At the bin, the manager came out and told us to leave and put the stuff back. One of my companions refused to. When the manager threatened to call the cops, he responded “go on, call them”.

I had only met these people a few hours earlier, but it felt wrong to leave – I had been happy to join them for the free food, so surely I should be there for the consequences. So the police turned up and, looking a bit embarrassed about the whole situation, put us in the back of the divvy van. They took us back to the station and released us with an exclusion notice and an apologetic “technically, you were breaking the law”.

Not that remarkable an experience really, but the most memorable thing came later that night as I lay in bed. I thought about the lifestyle I had fairly recently taken up – live with no money, try to challenge our greed and wastefulness. Things it involved – not just dumpstering, but squatting abandoned houses, hitch-hiking, even sleeping out in a park; were all things that technically put me in conflict with the law.

But even more than that, I thought about the values of this society that were upheld by the law – the wars Australia was fighting, the mistreatment of refugees, the indifferent response to climate change. When all these things were legal yet represented everything I was against, it made sense that I would have run-ins with the law. I had been a bit nervous in the back of the van that night, but upon reflection I had to conclude that if I was serious about living a life true to my principles, this would surely not be the last time I would be seeing the inside of a police cell.

The second time I was arrested was a few months later. It was in Rockhampton, where the Australian and US armed forces were doing joint training exercises. This time there was no surprise – I had gone up to central Queensland planning on getting arrested, and had sent out a press release that morning saying that I and two others would block the gates to the army barracks where vehicles left to drive to the training.

As you could probably predict, the police didn’t take long to respond, and our blockade did not last very long. It was more symbolic than practical, really. But that short time, as well as the four hours or so in the watch-house and my first appearance in court, was an extraordinary time emotionally and spiritually.

I thought about all the years I had despaired about Australia’s involvement in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars but felt powerless to do anything about it. I remembered being a teenager when Australia had gone to war in Iraq despite mass protests. I remembered fuming at the hypocritical shows of grief from politicians on one of the rare occasions it was an Australian who was a casualty of the war. They never mentioned that between those two wars, the total death count was over half a million.

So it was a decade’s worth of Pilgrim-Bannerfrustrations that welled up inside me that morning in Rockhampton. How much it did to stop the war is debatable, but I felt the freedom of acting out what I believed, no matter what the consequences. As I sat in the police cell, I started composing a song in my head. The first lines went “the day I was arrested was the first day I could justify my actions ethically.” (I swear in the song it’s catchier than it sounds on paper).

The next few days were a crazy rush. My arrest had been shown on the local television news, which was nice but didn’t affect me that much. It was when the footage went on social media that things really took off.

In all the years I had used facebook, barely anything had ever happened on my page. I don’t think I had ever used it enough to have an argument on there, but now there were debates raging about war, protest and faith. All kinds of people weighed in with different views, from friends to strangers and even my old lecturer dedicating a blog post to (respectfully) critiquing my actions. But to me, it was all great. This war that had been going on so long it had mostly been forgotten was now being discussed. And my own position had been made well and truly clear.

The fifth time I was arrested was at about 7am, in Brisbane’s Post Office Square. It was the eviction, after two and a half weeks, of the Occupy Brisbane encampment. I had been a somewhat cynical participant in the Occupy camp – while I thought it was a great thing to be happening, I wasn’t quite as certain as some of the other campers that this was the revolution and change of consciousness we’d all been waiting for.

Still, when we got tipped off that we would be evicted the next morning, I decided that I would resist. If you tell everyone you’re claiming back a city square, there’s no point in giving up as soon as someone says you can’t, even if that someone is the council and police.

In the end it was only a handful 170331-occupybrisbane-sit-inof us that refused to leave. With a crowd of onlookers gathered in the city, the police moved in and dragged us out. We were cuffed, put in the back of the wagon, but again taken back to the station and released without charge.

This time the arrest was on the national news. And the footage was of me handcuffed and being dragged off, but smiling at the camera. Over the next few days, as we were evicted from park to park, I had all kinds of people – strangers, journalists, even cops – come up to me and say they saw me smiling while getting arrested and that they loved it.

Meanwhile, unbeknownst to me, apparently facebook was going crazy again. People I went to high school with had seen the news and weren’t impressed. Neither were some of my relatives. In the time since my last arrest, a couple of them had told the extended family that they were so angered by my actions that they didn’t want to see me again. This latest arrest (on national TV!) prompted another showing of their disapproval.

I’ve already said that getting arrested can be an amazingly powerful experience, and there is a kind of personal glory in it too – not just getting on TV, but it makes for stories to tell later, and in the kind of activist hierarchies that we all wish didn’t exist but do, it can give you some extra brownie points.

So it’s helpful to remember that there is a downside too. There are the threats that it could harm your job or travel prospects. By the way though, I think these are really exaggerated and worth questioning anyway – who says that money and comfort is more important than your conscience? If you disagree with the morality of our system that privileges those with wealth, then why expect to be able to keep accessing those privileges?

But also, there is a confrontation that comes from breaking the law intentionally – it is drawing a line in the sand, and inevitably not everyone is going to come join you on your side. In the end, it is the fact that our society places so much emphasis on obeying the law that makes acts of civil disobedience powerful. And while you can probably guess that I don’t believe in surrendering your principles for respectability; if we’re serious about actually creating change, we will need other people to help. So just putting everybody you don’t agree with offside is not a good idea, and taking on some kind of more-radical-than-thou persona that seeks out conflict is even less helpful.

Easier said than done I guess, but I’m happy to say that these days I get on with all members of my family, and as far as I know have no enemies from my brushes with the law. I have always tried to show respect to police and security as people, even if I don’t respect their powers. But it is something I try to be continually conscious of.

130719barrackblockadeThe eighth time I was arrested was in Rockhampton again. US-Australian joint training exercises again, and several days earlier I had been arrested at the same gate I have already mentioned. That action had been one proudly done in solidarity with American dissidents Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning, as well as the detainees of the Guantanamo Bay prison, who were on hunger strike at the time. But that was number seven, and a different story.

Two days after that, me and friends were still up in Capricornia, doing a few more little protests and offering support for others who were planning civil disobedience actions. We were driving around just for something to do, and out near Byfield we stopped for a swim and a bushwalk. When we emerged from the forest, there were two police officers waiting for us and telling myself and one other that we were under arrest. Our bail conditions prohibited us from going with 100 metres of any military facilities, and the road we had driven on, though it was unmarked and we hadn’t got out of the car, was within 100m of the training area.

A bizarre situation was made even more farcical by the fact that these two police intelligence officers weren’t themselves able to arrest us, so we had to wait an hour and a half sitting at a picnic table with the two of them while we waited for other cops to show up.

After our afternoon of pleasant chatting and occasional hilarious attempts at gathering information (“so… you got any plans for the G20?”), the cops arrived, took us to the watch-house and released us with a new charge (breach of bail) but the same bail conditions.

Not the most action packed arrest story I know, but it is illuminating in how completely arbitrary and pointless the law sometimes is. The ethics of our arrest days earlier was debatable – we were blocking a road to protest wars that had killed hundreds of thousands of people. Our act was a crime, the military’s a government endorsed and funded job. But what about the ethics of this one? These cops were being paid just to follow us around, and even though we were not doing anything that could possibly harm anybody, we were arrested just for the sake of it.

Something happens when you spend as much time in cells and courts as I have . You kinda lose the fear of the law we’re supposed to have, but you also lose respect for the law as a way of doing ethics. I mean sure, we need some kind of way of dealing with behaviour that is dangerous or anti-social, but does the law actually do that?

So much of the power of the law is expended on petty drug and alcohol related offences, on the homeless or aboriginal. People land in the criminal justice system at a young age and spend the rest of their lives pursued by the law. Meanwhile, other more serious concerns are never properly addressed – things like sexual assault and domestic violence for one rarely end in prosecution, but even beyond that, greed, exploitation and environmental destruction on a mass scale are never challenged and in fact are usually protected by the law.

Similarly, actual “justice” never seems to be the main concern of the law, as people are shuffled through the system like papers in a filing cabinet – who is truly rehabilitated by being stigmatised with a criminal record or sent to prison to hang out with other criminals? How does punishing one person resolve a situation of injustice?

What’s more, you could go your whole life without ever breaking a law and it wouldn’t necessarily mean you had ever done anything good or to stop evil from happening – the law exists only to stop us doing wrong and says nothing about actually doing good.

Sometimes the aim of civil disobedience is to attempt to show how a certain law is unjust, but incidents like this show – in a way that is every bit as valid – how problematic the law as a whole can be. They show how if we want to truly engage with issues of injustice and create a more just and sustainable society, maybe our system of laws is just not going to be able to do it. Maybe even when it comes down to it, the law and its enforcement will be the thing that will stop us.

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Progress vs Repentance

When I first started investigating the history of the Catholic Worker movement, it was pretty exciting. Here was a movement that had been going for most of a century that, despite a few theological differences (I can appreciate it, but have never quite managed to reconcile myself to the whole catholic thing), mostly believed all the weird things I believed and tried to live the bizarre way that I wanted to live.

I especially liked reading the brief manifestos of Peter Maurin, the eccentric French born labourer who inspired the founding of the Catholic Worker but would regularly be mistaken for one of the homeless guests in the house.

One of Peter’s sayings I found a bit harder to agree with. Even in the 1930’s depression, when working conditions were atrocious, he would respond to the Catholic Worker newspaper covering industrial actions by saying “strikes don’t strike me.” Not that he wasn’t extremely critical of exploitative bosses; but the revolution Peter believed in, of decentralised communal farms, houses of hospitality and “agronomic universities”, was one where people worked harder for less pay.

I remember being unsure what to think about this. It was contrary to leftist orthodoxy, which says that social change, and indeed revolution, comes from harnessing the collective power of workers. The standard belief also says that workplaces are a point of friction in capitalism, where the exploitation of the system becomes most apparent because those who own the means of production, though they do no work, make profit from the labour of those who do the work.

I took all this as true, yet a tiny part of me thought that actually I did kind of agree with Peter Maurin.

If I had stopped to consider the way that I actually lived (and I still believe there is no better way to test what we really believe), I would have noticed that if I really thought trade unions and workplace organising would change the world, then surely I would be putting my effort into doing that. Instead, I had gone on permanent strike and was living without any income. In the years since then, I have never worked more than half a day a week, and for all the causes that I have busied myself with trying to make a difference in, workplace organising has still never been one of them.

There are various reasons for this. I have written elsewhere about why I don’t like to do paid work, and for similar reasons, I don’t get excited about workplace organising. Work is the alienating and infuriating place where most of us drive ourselves into either stress or stupor, all for the sake of tasks that are often unnecessary or actively destructive. To me, it seems like work is the place where we are least likely to be imagining a better society.

I thought about Peter Maurin’s pun about strikes recently when I was having a conversation with a couple of friends. One of them said he felt a mass movement for social change could only come if it was linked to an improvement in people’s material conditions – better pay, better childcare, etc.

I agree with him in a way. I don’t think either a sense of moral obligation nor the charitable urge to help others are a way to fundamentally change either society or our own lives – to create real and lasting change, we need to see a potential new world as better for ourselves as well as others.

But still, I don’t have even the tiniest desire to expend my energy convincing others to fight for a wage increase. Not to say that there isn’t poverty or inequality in wealth, but still the average Australian lives a life more comfortable than almost anyone in history. Our consumption is driving the planet towards ecological crisis, and taking invaluable resources away from the world’s poorest and from future generations. Surely at some point we have to say that we have enough and don’t need more wealth.

This same conversation got me thinking more about how we envision social change. The dominant way to think about it is progress – this march forwards towards a better society. Whatever your view of the ideal future, the idea of building up towards it is pretty common. The technocrat sees improving technology as leading us there, Karl Marx believed in workers taking control of the means of production towards what he called “the end of history” – a utopian socialist society. When the Soviet Union collapsed at the end of the 80’s, that exact phrase was co-opted by American intellectual Francis Fukuyama to claim that capitalist liberal democracy had secured a victory towards its own ideal state.

But moving forwards is not the only way to change. And I’m not talking about trying to return to some idealised time in history. But a religious worldview like that which informs the thinking of both Peter Maurin and myself offers a different idea of how society and individuals change – that of repentance and rebirth.

As opposed to progress (the prefix “pro” meaning forward), the Hebrew and Greek biblical words (that’s “nacham” or “strepho”, in case you were wondering) we translate as “repentance” literally mean to “turn around” or go back. Most commonly it refers to the recognition that a person has done something to harm another and wants to make up for it and change their ways. But it is also illustrated in that classic religious symbol of the baptism – death to one way of life, rebirth into another.

How that happens in an individual’s life is simple enough to imagine (though it’s certainly not that easy in practice to give up some of the practices you have decided are not beneficial), but on a social scale it’s a bit trickier to picture.

Historically there have been religious “revivals”, where mass movements of people have converted to a religion in a certain time and place (a famous example is the Welsh revival in 1904-05, where legend has it that all the coal miners gave up swearing and the pit ponies who hauled out the coal could no longer understand their orders!). These movements have often had limited impact on social conditions, and in fact have at times been a conservative social force (historians have often speculated that the French revolution never spread to England because it was at the time in the middle of a Methodist revival led by John Wesley), but this reflects in some ways the theology of those times. The same thing could foreseeably take place with more of a critique of social and financial power structures, although any kind of social movement which threatens the current distribution of wealth and power can expect to be met with firm resistance.

Here though, I think we actually see an advantage of the repentance idea. A movement based on improving people’s material conditions would potentially struggle if the costs begin to outweigh the gains, but history has shown time and time again that people who have undergone a religious conversion of some kind will continue to practice their faith even in the face of the most awful persecution imaginable.

I have always considered theoretical discussions about what a future revolution would look like to be irrelevant and even boring. But what I do find relevant is analysing how these two worldviews (progress or repentance) influence the kind of actions we take now. Again, looking at the things I have been involved in sheds some light on how I really believe change can come.

Unlike some revolutionary groups, I have never put much effort into recruiting people to form a mass movement. Instead, I have been involved in tying to create alternative communities that live out different values. I have worked on alternative media, and often taken to the streets in small groups, handing out flyers that demand nothing from the reader other than to consider a different view and what its implications might be for their own life. At times I have done subversive, completely anonymous actions to break the monotony of the status quo.

Now I’m aware that these little actions alone won’t change the world. So I also try to support other groups and movements, including those who are doing work concerned with improving people’s day to day conditions. But I do this always with the emphasis that these small steps should be part of envisaging a radically different society.

Reflecting on these differing views of change has made me think that it’s important to value a diversity of beliefs. Some will write me off as a religious loony or “lifestyle anarchist”, point to the privileged position I hold, or call me a class traitor for abandoning the struggles of others.

But restricting talk about social change just to incremental changes in material conditions seems to me uninspiring or even tunnel vision. Especially in a society that already has so much, there must be a place for the dreamers and prophets, who can inspire us to reject the well-traveled road to wealth and power and instead forge a different path. Not to say that I think I always achieve that, but I hope at least writing this can encourage people that changing the world will take lots of different people with lots of different beliefs and skills. It would be a loss to say that we need to wait till the revolution, and it would be a waste to funnel everyone into the mass organisation. May many more seek to transform rather than conform.

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God’s Law, Or Man’s? – civil disobedience and the bible (a zine)

This zine explores civil disobedience through a Christian lens – looking at what the bible has to say about it, along with some of my own experiences and a few examples of Christians through history who have broken the law of the land in trying to live out the kingdom of God.

Now I love zines as a medium, but it does seem a shame that after finally finishing this, it now relies on me photocopying and distributing all these little booklets. So to make it a bit easier for people to access, I’m putting it up here as as a digital file. If you would like a paper copy get in contact, or feel free to print and distribute copies yourself!

God’s Law or Man’s – Civil Disobedience and the Bible

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