Stopping the runaway climate train

Trains have for a long time been constant if unheralded presence in our culture. The development of the steam engine was a key point in the industrial revolution which transformed society. Passenger trains opened the world up for travel to ordinary people in a way that must have been previously unimaginable, not to mention how the goods transported by rail have changed our everyday lives.

It makes sense then that railways have for a long time been potent symbols for storytellers of all kinds. Endless books, movies and songs refer to trains somehow. They often depict loved ones leaving or returning, and can be powerful emotional images for that reason. They can be used to depict hopes for spiritual or social liberation (eg. This Train is Bound For Glory or People Get Ready There’s a Train A’coming in African-American culture). For Johnny Cash in Folsom Prison Blues the train is the symbol of freedom lost. They can symbolise the journey through life, or be the setting for tales of adventure and crime. Trains can also represent some of the most horrific events of our times, when the images become Jews being loaded into carriages and taken to Nazi gas chambers. Whole subcultures have developed around railways, from hobos hopping freight to trainspotters waiting on platforms.

Even in Australia, which has a less rail-dependent economy than Europe or the US, trains are still there in our national legends – Ned Kelly trying to ambush a trainload of cops, or Afghans with camels lugging railway sleepers through the desert to build “The Ghan”. Some of the most iconic landscape paintings in Australian art depict the railway, like Arthur Streeton’s Fire’s On and Redfern Station.

The rise of car and aeroplane travel has made the railway less of a potent symbol. These days trains are less likely to be linked with adventure than they are boredom and feeling stuck – peak hour carriages full of bored and tired commuters, platforms lined with people glued to their phone screens wishing they were somewhere else.

But some people are out there still trying to use the train as a symbol of the things that matter most. In 2009, a group of environmentalist Sydney folkies called The Lurkers wrote a song called Who’s Got A Padlock and Chain? (“we’re locking on tight to that coal train tonight”) after being part of a protest at Climate Camp in Helensburgh just south of Sydney.

The song might not be the most accurate depiction of “locking on” (which is very rarely actually done with a padlock and chain), but it has become a standard in the repertoire of Australian protest singers and blockade camp singalongs. And as fossil fuels drive us closer and closer to predicted extreme climate change; with coal exports one of Australia’s major contributions; the act of blocking freight trains loaded with coal has become an increasingly common form of environmental protest action.

These kinds of protests have taken place all over the country – at the world’s biggest coal port in Newcastle; at Willow Creek in western NSW where coal from the controversial Maules Creek coal mine is shipped; and especially in recent years in Queensland. A number of times trains have been halted on their way to the Port of Brisbane. They have been stopped west of Toowoomba near the Acland mine which is being expanded despite a ruling against it in the Land and Environment Court. And now quite a few times in central Queensland near Abbot Point, where the proposed Adani mine, which has become the main battleground of climate change politics, would be shipping out its coal.

As well as happening at different places, these protests have taken different forms. The mass walk-on like that climate camp at Wollongong has been used several times. Also people have climbed up into treesits attached to the rail line, or suspended themselves in tripods. Some have locked themselves to barrels full of concrete laid across the train line or the train itself. Some have just climbed on top of a carriage and refused to come down.

All of these people were arrested and charged for their actions. All of them, even if temporarily, have stopped coal from being transported and exported. But this kind of protest “direct action” is always partly about symbolism. Like those storytellers of old using the symbol of the rail to say something about life. And this story is a bit like the old cinema trope of a runaway train with a damsel in distress tied to the tracks. And ordinary people, seeing the danger, are trying to avert a catastrophe.

The runaway train is a good metaphor for climate change. For one, climate change is predicted to have an actual momentum of its own – once human-caused emissions have raised global temperatures enough to melt arctic icecaps, the emission of methane stored in the permafrost will set off its own chain of climate change. Other natural systems the planet has for balancing the amount of carbon in the atmosphere will shut off once disrupted, which will further exacerbate the process.

But also, the runaway train symbolises the crazed logic that is knowingly and willingly destroying the planet we all rely on for survival. Looked at objectively, our continuing increased carbon emissions makes absolutely no sense. Even business-wise – that coal has been there for millions of years. If there is going to be a continuing demand for coal, for things like coking steel, there is no reason it has to all be dug up and sold now.

Except it makes perfect sense in the logic of profit; where making as much money as fast as possible is the only law. Our society’s complete subservience to this ideology is demonstrated in our continuing use of fossil fuels and actual resistance to alternatives that are more environmentally sustainable.

This logic is the real runaway train activists are standing in front of when they symbolically halt those rolling tonnes of steel and coal. And the actions stopping those trains are trying to point to a different story – one where ordinary people don’t feel powerless in the face of the huge and relentless profit machine.

In the last few months there has been a real clampdown on climate activists stopping coal trains. There have been some big fines handed down,and hefty restitution orders claimed against activists by police for the cost to business of the actions. And there is currently a civil lawsuit being taken out by freight rail company Aurizon against the organisation Frontline Action on Coal and five people who on separate occasions stopped trains.

It hasn’t stopped people taking these kinds of actions. But it has meant those who do are facing pretty serious consequences. 21 year old Freya Nolin was fined $10,000 for stopping trains at Abbot Point. Restitution claims vary wildly, but have at times amounted to more than half a million dollars. Aurizon’s lawsuit is claiming a total of $750,000 (presumably plus costs) – $75,000 per activist.

There are some issues that should be raised about these figures – particularly the restitution numbers. For one, they are hard to take seriously when they vary so wildly. As an example, take the cases of two different actions which recently blocked access to the Port Of Brisbane. In November, Sadie Jones stopped trains for nine hours near the Port of Brisbane having a tea party on top of a train. The figure then was $25,000. Last month Jaxom Kerlin halted trains for 14 hours at the same spot and the cost quoted was $1.4 million.

But also, actions of this kind have never traditionally been ordered to pay restitution, which kinda makes sense – after all, those in question haven’t actually damaged or taken any property, which would be the usual reason courts would impose restitution orders. All they’ve done is delay its transportation for a while – it will presumably still be sold for roughly as much money as it would have otherwise. It does seem that it is police pursuing companies for these costs to pin them on as part of sentencing, and the fluctuating figures would indicate that possibly the companies don’t really have a very good idea of what the costs are.

It also goes against the traditional legal approach to dealing with acts of civil disobedience – a principle summarised by British judge Lord Hoffman who said “Civil disobedience on conscientious grounds has a long and honourable history in this country… But there are conventions which are generally accepted by the law-breakers on one side and the law-enforcers on the other. The protesters behave with a sense of proportion and do not cause excessive damage or inconvenience. And they vouch the sincerity of their beliefs by accepting the penalties imposed by the law. The police and prosecutors, on the other hand, behave with restraint and the magistrates impose sentences which take the conscientious motives of the protesters into account.”

The lawsuit meanwhile is part of a tradition of using civil courts to stop protest action. Famous examples include the McLibel case in London and the Gunns 20 in Tasmania, both of which famously backfired on the companies in question. Aurizon’s use of this tactic doesn’t seem very honourable in that the young idealists (four of them in their early 20’s) who they are suing clearly do not have the $75,000 being sought from them each (Aurizon’s profits last year before tax were $941 million); and also obviously did not take the actions out of malicious intent to the company. Some of the information Aurizon has circulated about the lawsuit is simply a lie, for instance claiming activists jump on moving trains.

The young people who have done them at risk of arrest, fines and worse should be recognised as artists and moral philosophers, which is what they are – trying to frame questions about the ethics of climate change in a creative way and pose them to the public.

And controversial as these actions may be, statistics would suggest they do actually speak for the majority of Australians in doing what they do, with several recent polls finding a majority of respondents critical about Adani and in favour of urgent climate action.

But in reality these five people are being hounded and demonised by the corporate media (“Hit them in the hippie pocket” read one headline), and have been all but abandoned by the big environmental organisations who are scared by government threats to charities out of supporting anybody doing civil disobedience. These groups talk about resistance, but they haven’t been very keen to support those who actually stand in front of the coal industry and are now facing pretty steep consequences.

With civil and criminal court cases coming up, these folks who have stopped trains to point out the future of us all is tied down on those tracks deserve our support. Financial support if needed, moral support by sharing the stories of their resistance and by showing up to court, and companionship on those tracks to turn the symbol of ordinary people stopping the runaway train of climate change into a reality.

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Seven years at Brisbane Food Not Bombs

When I first arrived in Brisbane in May 2011, I carried amongst my few possessions a scrap of paper. It had been ripped out of a defunct anarchist zine and it listed radical social spaces in various Australian cities. For Brisbane, the sole entry read: Food Not Bombs. Fridays 6:30pm. Across from the lizard on Boundary St, West End.

The lizard, as it turned out, was easy enough to find. In fact by the time that first Friday came around I had already been shown the community house around the corner where the food was prepared; so I could turn up and chop veggies in the tradition of so many travelers at Food Not Bombs before and since. I would have stayed and washed dishes too, except that sitting down to eat I met some political types who invited me to a party a few suburbs away. It was the first of many, many Friday nights I would spend at Brisbane Food Not Bombs.

Food Not Bombs wasn’t unfamiliar to me before that night. I had also helped out for a while in Melbourne’s various locations. But before that, a similar open meal in Sydney’s inner west called People’s Kitchen had been a transformative experience for me. It took me a long time of living in Sydney before I ever found People’s Kitchen, but when I did I loved it. There, in an improvised kitchen of electric woks and sink connected by hose to the nearest tap; the practice of preparing and eating food became a glimpse of another world – people off the street mingled with travelers from around the world. Everyone was welcome and everything was free. I learned how to cook dishes I’d never heard of; while I met people of all kinds of amazing lives. After that it was hard to go back to cooking dinner for one in the saucepan or buying takeaway.

Food Not Bombs, for those unfamiliar, is a decentralised worldwide organisation of public meals that began in the US in the 1980’s. It certainly didn’t invent the idea of sharing food with strangers, but it came to represent a philosophy of how to do that – food healthy for humans and planet, linking the action to broader movements for social change, breaking down the barrier of benefactor and recipient that defines much charity work. People who agreed with the values took on the name. Now there are hundreds of groups all around the world.

In Brisbane, Food Not Bombs had been running on and off for around a decade by that night I first came. The earliest I’ve ever heard anyone remember it existing was for a series of radical street parties in the early 2000’s. After that it would run sporadically as a weekly meal, taken up intermittently by different groups feeling inspired. I saw an old zine once advertising it happening in Fortitude Valley, though I think it has mostly ran in West End.

The house where it was cooked, and still is, is an innocuous looking Queenslander in Thomas St, West End. Once a maternity hospital, in the 70’s it had been a radical christian commune called House Of Freedom. Since then it has functioned as a community space, available for use by all kinds of groups and organisations. It is owned in a very hands-off manner by a handful of community-minded folks. Food Not Bombs has never paid more than occasional tokenistic rent at the house, but we have a permanent cupboard storing our stuff, and every Friday afternoon take over the kitchen and adjoining room for a few hours. That kitchen in those early days was crumbling, vermin-inhabitated and ill-equipped, with signs on the wall warning about asbestos. A few years on the house got a government grant for a new kitchen; and these days it is a much fancier, cleaner and roomier space we use. Occasionally an old-timer will turn up and be amazed at the new kitchen, though at this point I’m so used to it I can hardly remember what the old one looked like.

The spot on Boundary St where we serve the food each week is a park by name, though it possibly stretches the definition a bit. It’s essentially a vacant block that has been paved at the front with a few scattered trees. When I first came it was mostly dirt, though like our kitchen it was given a council facelift at one point which laid turf (some of which is still there), removed the picnic table  and added a fresh brightly coloured mural on one wall. It houses a filthy set of public toilets and a small kiosk which has for as long as anyone remembers advertised 98.9 Murri Country radio. The park is occasionally referred to by the station’s call sign – AAA Park. I’ve also seen it referred to as Little Musgrave Park, or most commonly People’s Park. All of this explains why “across from the lizard” is as good a description as any.

As far as parks go, this one is not especially beautiful. It is frequently used for drinking or sleeping in by local street folk, and is often attended by police. For this reason it’s not very well loved by the local business community. I’ve been told that once before my time Food Not Bombs was threatened that health inspectors would be called by a nearby trader, though in all my time there the only real issue we’ve had with businesses was once the owner of the bar next door complained to me that the streeties we were feeding were hanging around outside his front entry. When the council opened up a newer, much nicer park around the corner; it was suggested we move the meal there. But over the years I’ve become very attached to this spot of concrete and dirt plonked in the middle of the main street and I never really considered moving.

Cafes and bars come and go in West End with some frequency, and with each of our neighbours that changes I reflect with a smile that we obviously have the most sustainable business model. In recent years there have been a few elaborate outdoor dining setups which present a slight complication for us given our method of transporting food the two blocks from kitchen to park is to load it all on a flat trestle table and carry it by hand.

The responses we get to this are great. It certainly gains a bit of attention, which is a service we like to offer as a break to the mundanity of a Friday night at restaurants or shops. Often Trevor, one of our regular diners (though he needs a bit of encouragement at dinner to venture beyond his favourite dish of mashed potatoes) will march comically in front; directing traffic when we cross the road and holding aloft our plywood sign – which he “accidentally” crashes into as many hanging shop signs as he can. I will admit the setup looks a bit like a funeral procession, though it is rarely sombre. My favourite description came from a local poet named Fern, who told me she thought carrying the table was “the most romantic part of Food Not Bombs”. To be honest though, her enthusiasm has been well and truly outnumbered by the number of people who complain about carrying it or try to suggest other elaborate ways of transporting the food. Remarkably, there have been very few mishaps involving dropping the table or food – I can never remember any that led to a loss of a lot of food. There is frequent discussion about the best technique to carry it, including my (showing my rarely seen “safety regulation” side) scolding of people for not bending their knees when picking it up or putting it down. The whole thing is made possible by the fact we possess an amazing trestle table which is very large, very stable, but very light. We have used this table ever since my first night there. Where it came from I have no idea. But I love that procession down the street.

Even some nights in pouring rain we trek down there, either driving the food down or covering the table in a tarp for the walk. There’s only the tiniest amount of shelter in the park, and sometimes even I have needed convincing that it’s worthwhile on these nights. But I think any meal served on nights like that is worth at least two eaten on a balmy Queensland evening.

The last part I should describe I guess is the food. Sometimes we get donations from supportive businesses or organisations, but overwhelming the food we have served up over those last 8 years has been rescued from supermarket dumpsters. The quantity of food thrown out is immense, the quality enough to make you shake your head at disbelief at the insanity of our society. When you’re regularly diving through bins anyway, it’s nice to have something like a weekly community meal just so you can have something to do with all that food.

The meals cooked are traditionally vegan (for ethical and environmental reasons as well as food safety). The classic Food Not Bombs dish is what I affectionately call “vegan slop” – random ingredients thrown in a pot together with a few spices. A regular buffet would look something like: mashed/roasted potatoes, lentils, veggie stir fries or curries, fruit salad, apple crumble. Often there are only slight variations on this theme, though I have tried to vary it a bit. Sometimes we’re blessed with a person in the kitchen who is especially creative, either because they’re an experienced chef or they just have a natural flair for experimental dishes. Either way I’ve always encouraged it, because what is Food Not Bombs if not a different way if looking at food? It’s rare that I’ve ever refused to serve up a dish (I do draw the line at undercooked rice), but sometimes if there is a lot of chilli I have to label it with a warning!

We have had some support from businesses. One constant part of the Friday afternoon routine has been going to Solbread cafe and picking up their unsold fancy sourdough. Until it closed, another part was walking across the road from the park to The Forest vegan cafe and filling up a tub with hot water for washing up. This arrangement pre-dated both my time in Brisbane and the the owners of the cafe; but each new staff member that did the Friday shift would just shrug and let me in. It was only one week when the boss turned up to find me barefoot in their kitchen filling the tub that the routine changed and they would leave us out the front while they filled it. Friday nights there were hardly buzzing, in the end it closed down and we haven’t succeeded in getting another place to give us hot water. Occasional support came in other forms. I must have picked hundreds of sprigs of rosemary from the house across the road from our kitchen. One day the resident of the house arrived home as I was doing it, she smiled and told me she was glad.

All that is just setting the scene really. These are all things I love about Food Not Bombs, but they are only the beginning of my experience there. Over seven and a half years, what this Friday night ritual offered my life has gone way beyond food. I want to tell this story with its ups and downs; and why it has meant so much to me.

In those early days of my time in Brisbane, the Food Not Bombs collective was thriving. There were a number of people – good cooks, with enough people to rotate weeks off, a happy mixture of West End hippies and anarchist punks. There was a great energy on Friday nights.

I was in and out of Brisbane for a while, so I can’t really recall the details. But I do remember a special collective meeting. Ostensibly about dealing with a problematic person who had been coming, it was evident that those in the room had lost the spark. Before long that whole collective had faded out and the responsibility of Food Not Bombs had fallen to me and a couple of friends.

By December of that year, I was leaving too. I had my farewell party on the street at Food Not Bombs. My friend Bobby kept it alive for a little while, and I briefly reinvigorated it during a two week visit a few months later. Other than that brief visit I was away for six months. But as various circumstances led me to decide I was returning north, a couple of women named Maddy and Jess contacted the Brisbane Food Not Bombs facebook group (the group, which pre-dates my time, is the only public point of contact. It’s useful but I don’t like the way it has over a thousand members who never come. There are enough online groups in the world, Food Not Bombs is an IRL event). They had each come back from overseas where they had been to Food Not Bombs and wanted to know if it was happening in Brisbane. We started it up again.

That first night back is memorable to me because there was an exciting new energy in the air, and because Maddy made kale chips – a dish which, given I am a long way from the culinary cutting edge, I had never heard of before. For a while we tried Wednesdays, but before long we reverted to Friday nights, where it has remained ever since.

It was a thrill having a group of people all working together for the love of this idea. But one of the things that should be said about Food Not Bombs over the next few years was that I didn’t always have a lot of company. The initial support of Maddy and Jess didn’t fit with work schedules, and while an amazing number of people came through and helped at different times, they rarely committed to making it happen – a burden that rested solely on me. When I went away, as I have been known to do, Food Not Bombs would generally just not happen as there was no one else I could rely upon to do it.

A few times I remember cooking the whole thing on my own (after dumpstering the food too) and having to phone friends who lived nearby to get their help carrying the table down. Once I remember someone saying with a touch of derision that it wasn’t really a functional collective and I was brought to tears. Must have been having a bad day. I still loved it though, and mostly it kept going because even in a big city I couldn’t think of anything else I’d rather be doing on a Friday night. In putting this article together I flicked through the journal I kept through 2012, and though it sometimes mentions not many people being around, generally all it says for each Friday is “FNB was as always great” – as if no other explanation was needed.

There was help from others though. Often travellers would come by, maybe having experienced it in other cities or just looking for something to do and some people to connect with. A vast and random set of characters came through – some just once or twice, some more regularly. Some of them I’ll describe later in more depth. Hannaka, who in those very early days used to turn up and sing the whole way through the cooking process, kept it alive at one point by doing the dumpster diving and dropping off the food on a Friday morning, just as those late night dumpster runs were starting to get too much for me.

Mostly dumpster diving is a fun activity, certainly the randomness of it makes it more exciting than the actual supermarket shelves. There have been some great nights sharing the experience with others, including plenty of times taking people for their first time. Over the years the dumpster diving for Food Not Bombs has gotten a bit simpler as I’ve lived closer to fruitful dumpsters and even had housemates with cars we could load up. But for a long time the food was gathered on often solo bike trips from West End to whichever bin at the time was the most fruitful – always a few kilometres away. It’s the simple pleasures that keep you going, and I would derive some joy from seeing how much I could load up on my bike. There’s nothing like wobbling home in the middle of the night with fruit and veg loaded in a crate on the back of the bike, a backpack, a bag tied on each handlebar and often a box balanced on top of the handlebars. As well as all the people it fed, I think of it as providing entertainment for any fellow late night travellers I would pass by.

Some nights though could be tough. If a bin was empty, I would just ride to the next closest one and try again. I remember one night actually finding a bin full of food at Toowong only to have a carload of cops stop, threaten to arrest me, and force me to put it all back. Another time after a long Thursday night I remember getting back to my kitchen with the food just as my housemate was getting up to go to work at 4am. We sat down and had a cuppa together before she headed out and I went to bed.

I wasn’t totally alone though in doing Food Not Bombs, and it was richly rewarding meeting the different people who would come and help. Occasionally I was aided by the fact that we shared the Thomas St building with a disability support organisation that had people coming and going. One of those people was Sandon. Sandon went to the high school down the road but his mum worked at Thomas St. On Fridays he would come and wait for her to finish work. One week I asked him if he’d like to help in the kitchen. He chopped a few veggies, and the next week did the same. Before long his mum was heading home without him on a Friday while he was coming down the street to eat with us. Sandon was 14, but small even for his age and extremely shy. He grew more and more confident coming back to Food Not Bombs each week, especially coming out of his shell when the conversation turned to his great love of films. When he let slip to me one day that he had been rehearsing for his school production of Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night”, we surprised him by bringing a Food Not Bombs contingent to the performance. He still comes sometimes too, though he’s now an adult with a more full social schedule.

He wasn’t the only young one to come either – over the years we’ve had quite a few. Lily was in primary school but came with her mum a few times, sculpting the mashed potato into artistic shapes. Jesse came with his mum for a while too, coming up with dishes and asking me questions about girls and politics. Years later he turned up one Friday alone with his girlfriend to show her Food Not Bombs. He still wanted to talk politics.

Others were around the house because of the different programs ran there; and the fact I was there every week, mostly in need of help, gave me the opportunity to invite all kinds of people to join me. John was a man in his 40’s who lived in a local hostel. He rarely spoke but constantly smiled and would often be much appreciated company as I cooked, helpfully chopping vegetables. He died of cancer a few years later. The Greek Orthodox priest doing the funeral didn’t have a lot to say about about a man with a disability who barely spoke. I wished I could get up and share what a blessing he had been to me on those Friday afternoons.

A long lasting contributor to Food Not Bombs was Joan. She lived in a local hostel but didn’t like to go home, preferring to wander the streets of West End. She called Food Not Bombs “Ya The Bomb” and would turn up nearly every week for a long time. She would diligently chop fruit and vegetables, though her preference for piling everything in the one pot meant I often had to do a bit of separating before cooking. Joan also still makes occasional appearances.

The list of people I love and wonderful characters who have come through Food Not Bombs is too long to do justice to in this article, or even for me to remember. Literally nearly every week for most of a decade I would speak to someone there I’d never met before. But this is of course one of the great joys of doing it, so I will do my best to list some of them.

Paul first came way back in 2011. He is a bit of a loner, and also completely deaf, which made it hard at first to communicate with him. Back then Rhyll was part of the collective and would speak to him by finger spelling. When he came back in 2012,with Rhyll no longer coming, I memorised the AUSLAN alphabet to converse with him. I wasn’t the last person who would learn to sign from Paul on Friday nights. Over the years one after another person has learned how to have fingerspelled conversations with Paul, an extraordinary feat of teaching from someone who says he doesn’t like to go to deaf social events because they talk too much.

Delilah turned up late one night as we were about to pack up. She was excited by our presence. “Feed the people, free the land!” she exclaimed. She came regularly after that, and still does sometimes. She has a great heart for people, is an amazing singer and has other talents too. “I can see angels and demons,” she told me on that first night. “I see Tony Abbott – he’s a demon! That’s why he’s trying to kill the pensioners!” It was so nice to hear someone finally talking some sense when it came to politics.

There is a taxi rank out the front of People’s Park. We rarely have much to do with the drivers, though one notable exception was Geoff. Geoff would park his cab and come over for a plate of food, occasionally annoying other cabbies who got stuck behind his empty car. A remarkable guy, he was one of the first people I ever heard express a kind of “autism pride”. He would ask for recipes, and one day dropped off his labour of love – a weighty photocopied zine explaining in some detail his spiritual beliefs.

Greg is a lovely Fijian guy who would come always near the end when we were about to pack up. He lived on the streets and was a regular at a few soup kitchens. His dream, which he often talked about, was to one day organise a big hāngi in West End and feed a lot of people in his traditional style. For literally years he would talk about this, asking if we would provide the veggies. I was very happy to be a part of it when it finally happened in Musgrave Park; bizarrely enough mostly feeding a Greens Party christmas event.

One week a man in his 50’s wearing King Gee overalls came to help cook. His daughter had been to Food Not Bombs in Europe and told him he might like it. Ollie told me later that he had made sure to dress for all the expected workplace safety requirements, only to walk in and see me barefoot, bending over the stove with dreadlocks nearly dipping in the soup (I think he’s exaggerating!). The next week he came back with cups, saucers and a bottomless teapot – which he has brought ever since. In all the years he’s been coming, I think Ollie has hardly cooked a dish. But his joyful and encouraging presence has been such a blessing.

Our presence on the street opens up new possibilities in a street that is mostly full of the “hospitality industry” rather than gestures of hospitality. I love carrying that food past all those bars and restaurants with our sign saying “everything is free”. Years ago now, there was a Turkish woman who worked in one of those restaurants. Sadly as much as I try, I can’t remember her name. She spoke little English, but each week she would take a few minutes off work to bring us delicious home cooked food. We would return her dish on our way home. Besides the language barrier, she worked every Friday night so we hardly got to know her, though she did invite us to her farewell dinner before she went back to Turkey.

Another Turkish woman who I got to know much more but also met at Food Not Bombs was Yeliz. She was an 18 year old social work student when she first came, invited by a friend I had met. She had never done anything like it before, but had an amazing enthusiasm for the whole thing and for talking to strangers. At the end of the night, she raved about how great it was. I left town after that, but the next time I saw her she came to court supporting myself and a few others who’d been arrested doing an anti-war protest. Over the years that followed she was around for plenty of Food Not Bombs, plenty of protests too – even getting arrested herself. We lived together in crazy open hospitality houses. These days she is travelling around the world teaching shiatsu massage, but I saw her just before she left. “You introduced me to all this” she told me.

Plenty of others became long term friends after meeting at Food Not Bombs. More have just been cameos in my life. Josh stopped in one night. He was a bit crazy if seemingly harmless; but had an involuntary treatment order for anti-psychotics which he was refusing to comply with. He was so disgusted by the idea of us serving dumpstered food that he accosted random passers by to warn them the food they weren’t even intending to eat had come from the bin. We disagreed on other things too, mostly political. But he liked the company enough that he came back every week for a while, never once succumbing to the temptation of the bin food. Then one week he didn’t come. I contacted everyone I thought might know of his whereabouts, but no one knew. I have never seen him again.

Sadly, that’s the case for so many people who come through Food Not Bombs. They live transient lives – on the streets of West End one night, who knows where the next. We’ve had people just out of prison, going to rehab, searching for housing. One guy who came for a while was about 40. He’d spent most of his adult life in prison after killing someone in a drug-fuelled moment to regret. Out of jail now and on the methadone program; he would eat, chat and help wash up. I don’t know where he is now, but I hope he’s doing ok.

All kinds of memories come up when I start thinking about it. Judy is a Murri woman who lives on the street and has a gorgeous toothless smile and lovely nature. Over the years I’ve watched her cattle dog and faithful companion Sasha grow from a puppy. Gabriel was an old Ethiopian guy with not a single tooth. He would come regularly, asking how soft each dish was before he put it on his plate. Russell was from Zimbabwe, and would be sitting on the corner busking with his mbira (thumb piano) singing Shona songs. He would take a break to come eat with us. When I found out he had no recordings of his music I brought him into the radio studio to do some tracks. Our current city councillor Jonathan Sri once told me he included volunteering at Food Not Bombs in his CV (that was before his job application process involved public campaigning). He still comes down for a feed and chat pretty regularly too. Brendon is blind but is Brisbane’s fiercest disability advocate, a force to be feared by local politicians. He comes mostly to talk about his latest campaigns, though he can when needed help chop veggies. Alison and Jess, two young women with some challenges in life but plenty of gifts, lift the atmosphere in the kitchen from convivial to raucous.

Convivial, mind you, is not always the atmosphere at Food Not Bombs. The nature of it, taking place in a public space where people with various issues are often consuming a lot of alcohol, means it is unpredictable and not always a pleasant or safe place to be.

Dealing with threatening or obnoxious people is just a normal part of the routine. I’ve had to witness and often intervene in so many physical fights it seems pointless recalling any one particular incident. The two that do stick in my mind are the times our wooden sign was used as a weapon. The guy who tried to smack someone over the head with it as if it was a chair on WWF was never going to do much damage. I was more worried the time one guy held it flat and threw it straight at his opponent’s forehead. Fortunately it caught a bit of an updraft and sailed overhead.

Some memories, though not much fun at the time, are comical to look back on. We had a group of streeties living in the park for a while who weren’t very pleasant (though I hope giving them a decent meal helped a bit on that front). They took a particular dislike to one woman one night after asking her for a cigarette turned into an argument. Sensing what was coming, I packed up the table, grabbed our friend and headed off. We left to howls of abuse, and were actually showered in sticky passion pop from a bottle one guy was holding. Power-walking with a table full of pots and pans, trailed by loud abuse and smelling strongly of sugary alcohol; that night we didn’t provide the kind of spectacle to the patrons of Boundary St I aspire to.

Some nights though there will never be a funny side to. The worst ever night of Food Not Bombs was when a teenage volunteer was sexually assaulted in the back of the park. Much to my regret, I was trying to help up a drunk who had fallen over at our table and never saw the incident. It was in fact a worker at the bar next door who saw it and ran out to intervene. I will never forget facing that young person’s guardian that night, or going down to the police station to file a report.

The perpetrator in that case was a local disabled man who came regularly. I told him he could never come back. Generally though, it’s not a space that excludes people. I called a meeting of the collective when one volunteer tried to rape a regular when she was passed out at his house. I was the only man at that meeting and was surprised to hear all the women say they cared about safety but didn’t want to exclude him. As it turned out, when I confronted him about it he stopped coming anyway.

These occurrences though are not the norm. Food Not Bombs is normally a wonderful atmosphere that transforms the street from a strip of concrete into a place of welcome and fun. There are few spaces where people as diverse as this get together and talk over a meal.

One thing I planned to do for ages but never got around to (it was enough work doing the food) was Songs Not Bombs – combining two of my great loves. In the end it happened through the initiative of Tom Smith, a local musician and social worker who also used People’s Park for a local songwriting group. After that it became a semi-regular event; to various results. One gig, organised by feminist punk band Hannahkisst, turned into a shambles when a drunken streetie kept commandeering the microphone to rant at his captive audience. A happier memory was when Tasmanian folk punk legend Chris Burrows toured north and the park was completely packed.

A couple of times I found romance with people who randomly turned up at Food Not Bombs. Plenty of other times date night was spent over the pots, sink and on the street. Many friendships were forged there too, helped by the shared vision of the world that those Fridays were trying to live out. Actually right now, nearly 5000km away from Brisbane, I am crashing in the shed of a friend I first met there in People’s Park; when she turned up a scruffy traveler with a mongrel pup.

Food Not Bombs being a pretty unusual and interesting place, every now and then someone approaches asking to interview us. I always make time for uni students doing assignments; but the mass media are another story. Media stories about dumpster diving are usually painful and embarrassing – either wacky novelty stories or mock serious things that ruminate on the cost of living but totally miss the point. As such, we have actually refused a few interview requests, initially including one from an ABC reporter named Kym. Kym was persistent though, and I felt rude so invited her along. The glowing article and radio story she made of a night at Food Not Bombs was what you might call a puff piece, but the truth is that is just an honest account of what happened that night. I really do believe it’s a beautiful and utopian thing, and I was quite proud to read someone else write about it that way. It was also useful because a few from the collective had been involved in a protest action a few weeks earlier that had been slammed the media. “When I feed the poor they call me a saint, when I ask why they are poor they call me a communist” said Dom Helder Camara many years ago. Both parts of the one process of trying to change the world, but it was nice to get a bit of appreciation anyway.

The anarchist nature of Food Not Bombs was important to me. There are plenty of soup kitchens, this one should represent not just free food but a whole different way of seeing the world. As such we never sought a council permit or any kind of insurance; and we always maintained a serving with no discernible difference between those who cooked the food and those who come to eat. I’ve been part of other Food Not Bombs that felt like a service, but one of the things I’ve always loved about Brisbane’s is that it feels more like a big open picnic.

Over much of the time we’ve done Food Not Bombs I’ve also been a part of hospitality houses that welcomed people in need of a place to stay. The two have worked well together, and many many people have turned up at Food Not Bombs homeless and ended up staying at our house – from pregnant mums to street kids and travelers from all over. These haven’t always worked out perfectly in the end, but it can make a big difference in a person’s life at that time.

They weren’t homeless, but when Vicente and Catalina first came to Food Not Bombs they were newly arrived from Chile and spoke pretty much zero english – communicating only in smiles. Fortunately you can communicate a lot with smiles, and so we got on great and they kept coming back. We took them for their first ever dumpster dive, and they ended up living with us. When visa purposes dictated they get married, the party afterwards happened in our loungerooom (after a morning spent being prosecuted in court no less).

At first those houses and Food Not Bombs were only really linked by my presence at them both. But in late 2015, I went interstate for a while and my housemates, led by my long time comrade Bek, said they would keep it going. It was the first time in four years Food Not Bombs managed to survive me leaving town, and was possibly the nicest gift anyone has ever given to me. From that time on it has managed to keep a continuous presence and has become essentially one of the many projects of the Dorothy Day House.

Over the last couple of years my housemates Michael and Franz have become integral parts of it happening each week. Franz is the king of veggie stir fries and after finishing a dish will often retire to the next room to sing gentle folk songs on his guitar. Michael is a less placid presence in the kitchen, and there have been a few disputes between me and him – sometimes about food prep but more likely about whether or not we need to rush. Just a slight complication that comes from a more collective format after years as a nominal dictatorship. But attendance has remained pretty healthy, and those old days of cooking on my own and then calling around for help to carry the food seem like very distant memories.

It continues to be a wonderful place; even as I’ve now left Brisbane indefinitely (of course for the last couple of months I have been helping with Food Not Bombs in Perth). Reflecting on my time in that city, Food Not Bombs is notable as a constant presence in my life, a long lasting source of joy and inspiration, and an achievement I can be proud of. Of course the things I’ve recounted in this article are just random memories. Inevitably I’m forgetting things and can’t mention everything.

In the years I spent doing Food Not Bombs, we fed thousands of bellies; provided a welcoming place to all their owners too. Hundreds of kilos of food that would otherwise have been wasted was put to use. Just our presence on the street must have opened up some tiny crack of new possibility in the mind of those walking by; let alone the many who came, cooked, cleaned, chatted and chewed.

Mostly though, the thing I love about that time is that for once a week I got to be completely honest with the world about how I felt things should be. All our lives we are either subtly or overtly told a tale of private ownership, status hierarchies, “laws” of economics, codes of propriety. Every Friday night we would push back – plonk down our table and serve up a world not as we’re told it is, but as we believe it could be.

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Prisons, jobs, and big wins

Gross National Product counts air pollution and cigarette advertising, and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage. It counts special locks for our doors and the jails for the people who break them. It counts the destruction of the redwood and the loss of our natural wonder in chaotic sprawl.

It counts napalm and counts nuclear warheads and armoured cars for the police to fight the riots in our cities. It counts Whitman’s rifle and Speck’s knife, and the television programs which glorify violence in order to sell toys to our children.

Yet the gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials.

It measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country, it measures everything in short, except that which makes life worthwhile.”

 

The above quote came from Robert F. Kennedy, during his 1968 campaign for presidential nomination. The campaign didn’t end very well – Kennedy was assassinated within a few months of giving this speech, and ultimately the far less idealistic Richard Nixon was elected president that November. But I was reminded of this quote this week when I read another politician spruiking a different set of ideals to his electorate. This was a media release from Queensland Labor MP Mark Ryan, which I quote in full:

Minister for Police and Minister for Corrective Services Mark Ryan has updated the Queensland Parliament on the major economic stimulus being delivered to the Rockhampton economy.

The $241 million expansion of Capricornia Correctional Centre is progressing rapidly.

Minister Ryan revealed there have already been approximately 193,000 hours of work undertaken on the project.

More than 172,000 of those hours have been completed by Rockhampton workers.

That means nearly 90 per cent of the work has been contributed by local workers, which is a real boost for the Central Queensland economy.

A big win for the local community!

Importantly, the work being completed by local industry to expand the prison will further improve the safety of officers and prisoners.

Importantly, the project is expected to deliver 172 jobs to the region during construction.

And the opportunities will continue once the project is complete with another 130 full-time permanent jobs created at the prison.

There will also be flow-on opportunities for local businesses to help with keeping the centre running by providing necessary services.

The expansion is a jobs winner for Central Queensland.

Queensland Corrective Services is one of the region’s biggest employers – with 310 staff committed to keeping communities safe.

We are building the infrastructure in the regions, providing the training, and investing in Queenslanders,” Minister Ryan said.

 

It’s a bit odd, isn’t it? I almost feel like I’m reading satire. Presumably in the absence of any other “big wins” it can offer, the Queensland Labor government is claiming a new bigger prison as great news for the community.

For one, this is a good example of how the idea of “the community” is always selective – here, it presumably doesn’t include the (mostly poor and indigenous) people who either are or have their family and friends locked inside that prison.

It also is a bizarre attempt to spin what most would see as a loss for the community – prison expansion not only means more people being locked up; it also indicates that prison is not doing its job in preventing crime. Rates of recidivism are high, indigenous over-representation has still not been addressed, methamphetamine addiction has emerged as another social problem we can find no other way of dealing with.

Never mind the fact that our prisons are continually being criticised. Just looking at the prisons under Mark Ryan’s department in Queensland; there was a recent damning investigation into the Brisbane Youth Detention Centre, plus the Queensland government forced to cancel contracts for privately run prisons following a scathing report from the Crime and Corruption Commission. Far from being big wins, our prisons seem to be failures on several levels.

All of this funded by the taxpayer to an extraordinary extent. The $241 million spent on this project a fraction of the roughly $4 billion (over $100,000 per prisoner) governments in Australia annually spend on prison.

If the government wanted to get creative about actually delivering good news in the face of our overcrowded prisons, they could look into ideas like “Justice Reinvestment” – a program where communities are asked to look at the amount of money spent on imprisoning drug and other minor offences; and imagine better ways of investing that money in society – ways that could hopefully prevent anti-social behaviour.

The media release, of course, is not really in response to some wonderful news. It is political spin-doctoring, undoubtedly to do with the impending federal election and marginal seats in central Queensland. But the other thing that struck me about this is the way in which it was spun – anything can be turned into good news politically by using that magic word: “jobs”.

“Jobs” is the religious dogma of Australian politics, the unquestionable virtue. It’s heresy to raise the question of whether jobs really are always a good thing, or what the jobs will actually contribute to the world. Labor’s prison construction is one example, another is the federal government’s “good news” that they want to turn Australia into one of the top 10 weapons manufacturers in the world, even when in practice that means selling weapons to Saudi Arabia to be used on innocent Yemenis. The other persistent example is the debate over jobs in the fossil fuel industry. Note the timing of Federal Liberal’s approval of Adani’s groundwater plan with one eye on those same central Qld seats; remember Adani’s original claim, like religious tricksters of old, that their project would create 10,000 jobs when the actual number is around 1,500. To raise any of these questions though is frowned upon and unlikely to be listened to anyway.

I think these are questions worth being asked though. I can think of a few others too – do we actually enjoy our jobs? One use of taxpayers money I would like to see would be a statistical analysis of what percentage of conversation is dedicated to people complaining about their jobs. I think it would give the weather and sport a run for their money. The dominance of “jobs” in our psyche has run us dry of any other topics to talk about.

To what purpose do all these jobs go? Some, as we’ve already said, are hardly the most productive pursuits in a holistic sense. Of course most jobs go towards making a profit for employers, most of which trickles up to big corporations and the wealthiest portion of society. To them, “jobs” is always code for “profits”; which gives some idea of why our media corporations are all too happy to join in the “jobs” obsession.

“Jobs” is rarely about the question of what we can contribute to the world to make it better, or about how we can allow each person to fulfil their potential by using their unique abilities to get us there. “Jobs”, in fact, is never measured in qualitative terms – only ever in numbers.

Like a lot of politics, the rhetoric about “jobs” mostly seems to be about fear – the fear of not having a job and therefore not having financial security, status, or a sense of purpose. That fear grows larger as we fight a losing battle with the processes of automation and globalisation.

Who can blame people for fearing the loss of their job? Not only because the tide of casualisation is gradually pushing more and more people closer to that point, or because our social welfare system is being ignored or actively dismantled. But also because we have all grown up in a system that tells us a job is all we have. “Study hard or you won’t get a good job”, we were told as kids; and since then we have been continually told our livelihood, value to society and personal identity all come from this thing which produces money for someone else yet we are supposed to grovel for and be thankful for. Many people probably can’t even conceive of a way to spend our time without a job; or a world where anything gets done without the carrot/stick dynamic of a paid workforce.

I personally would like to see some politicians promising less paid work – let’s say a four or even three day work week. Less stress on our lives, less stress on the earth that comes from a planet full of constant producers and consumers. More jobs to go around though. More time to pursue our passions outside of profitable work, to raise our kids, to spend time with the people we love. More time to think about what we really want our lives or our world to look like. More chance to define our lives by what we choose, not by what we are forced to do to survive.

Mostly it seems we are going in the opposite direction. Unpaid overtime is rife, while many workers in the varied gig economy never really clock off. Many people though are living out what I’ve articulated right now, choosing to work less and live with less money in order to have more freedom in life. They are generally not starving as a result, or living without any sense of purpose.

But could it ever come from our politicians or figures of influence? It’s not easy to take on the power the “jobs” narrative holds over society; especially given the way that paradigm plays to the advantage of powerful lobbyists and media interests. It would take courage, creativity, and a holistic vision of a better life and world beyond the short term thinking of job numbers.

A tough ask in other words (though hopefully the fate of poor Bobby Kennedy is not always the way it ends). But surely not that much harder than trying to sell the construction of a new and bigger prison as a “big win”.

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What does solidarity look like? (Chelsea’s in prison again)

I have written a lot about US army whistleblower Chelsea Manning on this blog over the years. A quick use of the search function reveals 11 different posts that mention her name. The first was on her 24th birthday back in December 2011. I wrote about her being transgender six months later, a full year before the mainstream media responded with shock to her coming out. I declared an annual “Tell The Truth Day” on the anniversary of her arrest.

I painted a solidarity banner in 2012 (with Chelsea’s name change I gave it a bit of a touch-up a couple of years later). That banner got plenty of use as we would hit the streets with flyers in solidarity every time she was in court. My housemate at one point literally got a map and tried to letterbox every house in our suburb with flyers about Chelsea. I made a stencil too, and printed patches and t-shirts which I distributed around. I wrote a song about Chelsea which I sang at different venues around the country. I got arrested once in solidarity with her, disrupting US military exercises in Queensland while she was in court facing life in prison for allegedly “aiding the enemy”. I wrote to Chelsea in prison a few times too, not totally sure of what to say but wanting to send love and encouragement.

I don’t say all this to boast of my actions. Just to illustrate that for a long time, a regular part of my life was trying to act in solidarity with a stranger in a prison on the other side of the world. When Chelsea was sentenced to a 35 year prison term in 2013, I assumed it would be a part of my life for a long time to come. But then in January 2017 came the news that Barack Obama had commuted the rest of Chelsea’s sentence and she would be released.

At that point I assumed I would no longer be needing to write about Chelsea being in prison or solitary confinement for standing up for her beliefs. Turns out I was wrong. Because on March 9th; Chelsea was subpoenaed to give evidence at an investigation into Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, who famously released to the public the documents Chelsea had smuggled out of her army deployment in Iraq. When Chelsea refused to give evidence, she was imprisoned. For the last 28 days she has once again been held in solitary confinement.

It’s ironic, isn’t it? First she gets imprisoned for saying things the government wants her to keep quiet about; now it’s for keeping quiet when the government want her to say things.

The reasons for this are complex. The Grand Jury is an institution set up essentially to force people to testify against others in court. It’s a way of getting around the fifth amendment to the US bill of rights – the right to remain silent. Many people consider the Grand Jury an attack on freedom, and many have gone to prison for refusing to comply with it. Chelsea has said she is doing so in solidarity with others who resist the Grand Jury process, even though in another courtroom she has already testified all the details of her connection to Julian Assange (who she has never actually met).

In her statement before her arrest she stated: “I will not participate in a secret process that I morally object to, particularly one that has been historically used to entrap and persecute activists for protected political speech.” (For a good informative article on the issue try this)

Over the years of Chelsea’s imprisonment, a question I would grapple with was what does effective solidarity look like? For one, I spent a lot of time and effort putting her face out in the public even though I knew she had said “I wouldn’t mind going to prison for the rest of my life, or being executed so much, if it wasn’t for the possibility of having pictures of me plastered all over the world press as a boy”. I guess I thought it was worth it. When we were on the streets with flyers and banner, people would often ask “what can we do about it?” A fair question really. I would say Chelsea leaked those documents so people would discuss them and act on them; so we should do that. That her courage and dedication to the truth should inspire us to live out those same values.

In the end, the immense public solidarity shown with Chelsea was probably the main reason she was released. I have heard her say that all the letters sent to her in prison made a huge difference. In fact they probably kept her alive (she attempted suicide twice in prison anyway).

I still wonder about that question of what solidarity looks like though. Last year Chelsea was booked to do a speaking tour of Australia. Naturally I bought a ticket, though in the end the Australian government’s refusal to grant her a visa meant she appeared via video from New Zealand. Someone in the audience asked her about Julian Assange, who has been imprisoned in the Ecuadorian embassy in London for nearly seven years now, and how to support him. Chelsea replied that everything to do with those documents she leaked was in the past, and she now wanted to focus on the present. Which is a fair choice in the circumstances, but it left a bit of a sour taste in my mouth. I didn’t feel like this was the real reason she was avoiding the question.

Julian Assange has been a divisive figure among left-wing politics ever since sexual assault accusations were made against him in 2011. They have never been satisfactorily resolved.  He is by many accounts a bit of a difficult person and someone whose manner towards women is not ideal. In Australia there was bad fallout from the short-lived Wikileaks political party. In the US, Assange has become essentially a hated figure in the left after his publication of leaked Democrat party documents was seen to help Donald Trump’s election win.

There are a few reasons there why someone like Chelsea, ensconced in the world of US radical politics, may not be a cheerleader for Julian Assange. But still, I didn’t like seeing her, even when asked, offer no support at all.

For one, Julian Assange is someone who has taken powerful and courageous political acts and is now being persecuted for it. But more specifically, he took a great personal risk publishing those documents Chelsea Manning smuggled out of Iraq. The very existence of that Grand Jury is proof he’s still paying the price. Those familiar with the story know that several US media outlets had rejected the documents and going to Wikileaks was Chelsea’s last desperate attempt. Julian also frequently and unequivocally spoke out in support of Chelsea during her own trial and imprisonment.

But it was more than that. Chelsea earlier in the evening had said how much difference solidarity from those on the outside had meant to her in the misery of imprisonment. She had also said that her experiences there had led to her taking on prisoner solidarity as an important cause. I wondered how she would go showing solidarity with those in prisons across the US – many of whom I can guarantee have done much worse things than Julian Assange.

I think I can say that showing solidarity with others is not really a strength of contemporary left-wing politics. It’s confusing terrain, sure. But so much political effort seems to go towards finding points of difference with others rather than points of connection. Sometimes it seems some activists lie in wait for people they can “call out” for behaviour judged to be wrong. To reach out and support causes you are not immediately affected by means navigating a minefield of “ally” expectations, falling short can mean facing abuse or exile. International Women’s Day, which in theory brings together half the world’s population for a day of solidarity, often becomes a battleground for different expressions of feminism to duke it out. Strong critiques of prison are common discourse, but you wonder what it all means when people who say prisons should be abolished and offenders rehabilitated in the community then turn around and say they can’t handle being around a white man with dreadlocks or a woman critical of sex work.

Again, this illustrates the point that doing solidarity is difficult. But besides the benefits acts of solidarity offer to an individual, surely essential to any movement that can create positive social change is that act of finding common cause with others, of taking their struggles on as our own. Solidarity with those like us is good, but it’s when our connection extends to those who are not like us, who we are not supposed to feel kinship with, that new possibilities are opened.

Chelsea Manning’s troubles started with an act of solidarity – the connection she felt with Iraqi people meant she couldn’t ignore them being oppressed or killed by the US like she was supposed to.  He current imprisonment also comes from an act of solidarity – she doesn’t have to be in solitary confinement (I’m sure she has other things she’d rather be doing), but she has chosen to take it on in solidarity with others who face Grand Juries. Someone of her profile doing what she has will shine a light on the Grand Jury process that never normally gets illuminated.

So once again the extraordinary courage of Chelsea Manning invites us to look at our own lives and ask what price we are willing to pay to live out our values. To ask what compromises we make going along with a system that when pushed will respond with brute force. And to ask what does effective solidarity look like?

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Politics as more than a dirty word

It used to be sometimes said that a good thing about Australia not having fixed election dates was it spared us from the endless political theatre of say, the US election cycle.

I say “used to” – all Australia’s states now have fixed terms; while at a federal level we haven’t even had an election date called yet are being forced to endure, like some terrible undeserved purgatory, the faces on billboards, tv screens and newspapers of the men who would be our next Prime Minister.

Plenty of this is self-promotion (especially Clive Palmer’s Donald Trump act); though both contribute by putting their opponents faces up as political bogeymen to haunt us as we go about our lives. Labor say Scott Morrison wants to cut our penalty rates,  Liberals say Bill Shorten wants to rob retirees.

The media meanwhile also work themselves up into a state of frenzy. Freed from the responsibility of actually going out and finding out what’s happening in the world, journalists relish the opportunity to sit at their desks and crank out a mixture of gossip and political propaganda. With glee they publish Julie Bishop and Malcolm Turnbull complaining about their old colleagues. Astonishingly, the right-wing media has been openly and overtly calling for a rerun of the 2001 and 2014 election monstrosities; when politicians with comfortable lives shamefully used desperate and displaced people as tools for a campaign of fear.

Even when not completely sensationalist, the media forgoes a rational analysis. Endless pages are devoted to the campaigns of high profile human rights lawyers and former olympians running for seats of prominent MP’s, as if the state of Australian politics is merely due to a couple of individuals and everything will change if they are voted out.

With stories on federal politics coming thick and fast, there is little time to reflect on how ridiculous some of them are – the CEO of government contractor Helloworld apparently telling his employee “Joe Hockey owes me”; senator Brian Burton having a fistfight with a One Nation staffer then smearing his blood on Pauline Hanson’s door; and the peak – the day a government of highly paid and seemingly fully developed adults wasted an entire day of parliament with pointless speeches and questions to avoid having to deal with motions proposed by opposition parties.

Confronted with this overwhelming barrage, the natural response is to turn away and shield your eyes; maybe lock yourself in your room like Japanese hikikomori; at the very least to conclude that if “being political” means keeping up to date with these happenings, then being political is something to be best avoided.

And that, of all the reasons, is why I hate elections the most. Because the all-consuming spectacle cultivated by those in “politics” reinforces the idea that important decisions that affect society are made by men and women in suits, and the role for the rest of us is to be like fans at the footy – standing on the sidelines cheering and gossiping.

The word “politics”, before it became smeared with these connotations, once came from the Greek “polites” – that is “citizen”. It is meant to describe the interactions of people – that is all of us, not just those shameless enough to end up as MPs. About how society as a whole affects the life of each person, and indeed how the lives of individual people affect society as a whole.

Thinking about politics in this way provides a reason why, despite everything, we should all seek to be political. Because we each do have something to contribute to society, and seeking to do that can provide a sense of meaning to our lives and a very real output for the skills we all have. Because politics does affect us all and by getting involved we could potentially shape society in a way that can make our lives very different. And because we do live in a world where our lives are affected by the actions of others. To “not be political” is merely to support the status quo – the disproportionate influence of those who were born into money and property, and who usually act in their own interests at the expense of everyone else.

While the mass media is engulfed in the spectacle of the election; there are people around the country trying to redefine what politics means – into something that includes all of us.

In central Queensland, people from around the country converged last week in response to our government’s continued inaction on climate change. It’s not just that this summer was once again the hottest on record and one full of the kind of natural disasters climate change is predicted to exacerbate. Not just that Australia’s carbon emissions increased again to our highest ever point. It’s that climate change has already demonstrated the disastrous effect it will have on all kinds of species and people in vulnerable situations. And yet people in power talk about the necessity of action then happily approve new coal mines and even coal-fired power plants.

Those gathered near Bowen, where the coal from Adani’s proposed Carmichael mega-mine will be shipped out, had decided that while not everyone has the power to consign whole species to extinction with a signature; each person does have the ability to put their body where their beliefs are. As such, this gathering of random people from across the country managed to pretty much stop any coal from being shipped out of that port for 80 hours. They did this in spite of an overwhelming police presence designed to stop them doing so. They did it with a lot of ingenuity, co-operation, and courage to face the legal consequences and public vilification of hostile media.

Further south in Queensland, the Yuggera Ugerapul aboriginal people have been for several years resisting the plans of property developers to build a new suburb on the grounds of the old Deebing Creek mission and its cemetery where many of their ancestors are buried. Their attempts have so far not been successful, so like those up north they’ve decided that physical presence is one bit of power we all have. They set up camp on the mission site.

This week police came in to clear out the camp. The Yuggera Ugerapul and their supporters refused to leave – terra nullius this is not. A few were arrested. One young aboriginal man climbed a relic “scar tree” and refused to come down. They performed their culture – singing, dancing, and affirming that aboriginal connection to country is still a living breathing thing. The next day there was a meeting of property developers, police and elders. It was agreed the camp could stay. The crowd, who been forced out of the campsite but had refused to leave the area, started setting up the tents and kitchen again. That struggle goes on.

Around the country, high school students live in the paradox of being told by their teachers to think about their future while they watch it being wilfully destroyed in the name of profit. They’ve managed to learn more about the seriousness of climate change in science class than Tony Abbott or Scott Morrison did in all their briefings with the Department of the Environment.

They’ve decided to take action on climate change, and have encountered a history of people who have been fighting for the same. The result was a mass walk-off of students from school in November to protest, and another one planned for this Friday. But more than that, the result has been a cohort of young people learning that for all the platitudes about “your future”, it is possible to reclaim the future from those who would seek to destroy it – by getting together and working on the things we believe in. The patronising responses of conservative politicians to the initial strike has only acted to reinforce the need for young people to act. And miraculously, for the first time really in over a decade, climate action is on the election agenda.

These are only three examples, I could give plenty of others. Not all dramatic protest either. But of people who rather than resigning their fate to the faces on the billboards, have decided to act on their beliefs and try to change what is in their power. People who see politics as a lived reality rather than something you watch on TV.

As politicians scramble for votes in the spectacle of the election campaign, this is the one message you won’t get from them – that our best hope for a just, sustainable and life-enriching world is for everyday people to get together and talk about what is really important and how we can bring it about. Not on the billboards, the TV ads or the baby-kissing photo ops. But if you look closely you can see that message being spread; if you give it a go you might even find that it rings true and politics can be more than just a dirty word.

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Singing from the trash

The possession I have the most attachment to is probably the guitar I have lugged around the country over the last seven and a half years. I’ve played it for all kinds of gigs in all kinds of places, jammed with friends, written songs with it and recorded albums.

I love the way this guitar came into my hands. I was running a youth group that included a few kids who you might say were from the wrong side of the tracks. I loved these kids, and they would occasionally come round to my house just for somewhere to hang out. One day they told me they had found a guitar in the kerbside rubbish collection and, knowing I played music, wondered if I would like it. The only thing was that it didn’t have any strings. I told them that was no problem. There was a pause of a few seconds, then “well, it did have strings on it. But we wanted to see if you could play it with the strings on fire. So we sprayed deodorant on them and lit it and they all snapped.”

It’s a while since I’ve seen those kids (though I can happily say they are doing ok), but like I said the guitar is still with me. Many years ago in a cheesy but sincere moment I wrote “this is a weapon” on it because I wanted my music to be a force that can change lives and change the world. I’ve twice had to lovingly repair the neck after others snapped it. I can guarantee that every gig I have ever played I have had the least fancy guitar of all the performers. But that’s the way I like it.

It certainly wouldn’t be the last thing I repurposed out of the trash. After discovering supermarket bins full of edible groceries, I never really went back to going inside the store. Almost all the food I have eaten in the last nine years came out of the bin, or occasionally even the leftovers off restaurant plates I walk past. I often try to distribute the excess; feeding others including years of street kitchens serving strangers for free.

Seeing the waste of our society in a world where people still starve to death made me resolve to be a re-user. I have honestly hardly bought a thing over the last decade – my clothes, bicycles, mobile phones and pretty much everything else salvaged from discard piles; my homes often made in abandoned buildings.

I didn’t limit it to things either. As someone who never really felt I belonged in this society, I gathered with other rejects. We dreamed of a world that was different and tried to put it into place – sharing art and music about our lives; trying to look after each other; discussing politics, religion and philosophy; going out to protest injustice and prophesy new possibilities; sitting together in handcuffs and courtrooms when our values veered too far from the world’s.

I found people discarded in other ways too. I hung out on the streets chatting to people who long ago fell off the chart of social status. I opened up the doors of my house to the homeless, the addicts, the disabled, the migrants and wanderers.

The ideals that have meant the most to me and inspired my life also seem to mostly be the ones our society discards – the idea that nature and people of other lands we’ll never meet have rights equal to our own; the notion that greed is what causes most of the world’s problems and therefore money and status are something to be avoided; the power of humility, compassion and forgiveness. The idea that you can grow older and still believe in changing the world.

A life of digging through the trash like that can bring a lot of joy – at times the kind of treasure that makes my guitar seem like an insignificant bit of timber. To see new possibilities emerge; things that have been rejected and forsaken turned into something useful and whole.

But there are a lot of unpleasant things stored in our bins, and to wade through them can certainly be difficult. You don’t often get many thanks for it either. Sometimes you do; but mostly it’s condescending looks of pity, stares of disapproval, upturned noses, occasionally abuse for violating people’s refined sensibilities.

And yet as difficult as it occasionally gets, I think the trash is where I’ll stay. Certainly the neglected margins of society is where I feel most comfortable and most inspired. Maybe after this long I’ve acclimatised to it and can’t go back; like the urban ibis or possum. I know though that this guitar I carry around with me is a reminder of the possibilities contained in things others have written off.

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Clutter

I’ve never watched Marie Kondo, but I have certainly heard of her. At the moment she is seemingly everywhere – the new guru of our society, a prophet for our times. She fearlessly delves into our immense piles of stuff preaching the message of throwing out what doesn’t bring you joy.

Without having watched her show I also know why she is so loved. Essentially I’d say it’s because we live in a world that is underjoyed and overcluttered. And while I don’t think that these two things are always related, or that things are only worthy if they bring us joy; I think most people would agree that objects become clutter when they stop enabling us to do the things we want to and begin inhibiting us. Which I think is the situation many of us find ourselves in. And so as Marie Kondo recognises, our proliferation of stuff becomes a psychological and spiritual phenomenon.

The problem of clutter is of course mostly specific to our current epoch. New technologies for manufacturing have meant there are so many more things being made than ever before. They’re cheaper to buy too (plus widespread credit means we don’t even have to be able to afford them anyway), and usually less directly linked to our everyday survival than the possessions of our ancestors would have been. Lifetimes spent immersed in a culture of consumerism; constantly wading through advertising as we go about our daily lives; means we accumulate things for all kinds of reasons other than that we need them.

Our lives are cluttered not only with all the things we own, but also plenty of things we don’t – all the products on store shelves we are taught to desire; all the things our neighbours possess that we envy or fear we are missing out on; all the new technologies being planned that render our current model obsolete.

This is one of the reasons dealing with our stuff is often so difficult – a fact anyone who has moved house can attest to, let alone the hoarders who end up on Marie Kondo’s TV show. Sorting through our possessions means confronting and potentially discarding objects that remind us of our past selves and lives. But it also means confronting all our future selves that never were – all those things we thought we would use but never did, the projects we got so excited about but never had time for.

Around the city, storage units sprout like wildflowers; the most obvious symbol of our cluttered world. So many of us literally own too many things to fit in our house, yet we can’t bear to get rid of them or share them around. On the other hand; while the ugly hoarders’ houses with mazes from one end of the lounge room to the other may repel us or give us some voyeuristic thrill, really hoarders are the ones who take the most responsibility for their consumption – many of us go through mountains of stuff but throw it in the bin without consideration of environmental cost or actual use value.

But to be honest I think the overabundance of physical objects is only one part of our clutter affliction. At the same time as we deal with physical stuff, most of us are also grappling with an over cluttered mind. New technology again is surely part of the reason. Think about work – once there was a much more clear distinction between when we were on the clock and when was our own time to relax and pursue our own interests. Now with smartphones, email, and work from home, many people never really clock off – part of your mind is constantly taken up with business.

Then there’s the other work we do constantly – maintaining our public profile through social media. The work is never-ending and all-consuming. Any moment could be snapped on our camera and put on instagram; any thought could be crafted into a Facebook status. But when is the right time to post it to optimise the number of likes? We always have had a distinction between who we are in private and the public face we maintain, but now we are constantly performing. The instant there is a pause in our lives or a lull in conversation (moments our mind could use to decompress), like a reflex action we pull out our phones and start scrolling through more information than our brain can possibly register.

The internet is like a gigantic warehouse filled with mental clutter. Every thought in human history is constantly at our fingertips – we possess it all yet absorb so little of it. Great works of art and great developments in human understanding coexist on the same level as cat videos, Marie Kondo memes and fake news. And we consume them in much the same way. These days we stream the entire universe of culture on spotify and netflix, but are attached to none of it. Every day we log on to find more new things recommended for us by the algorithm.

On top of all the things filling our mind is the knowledge that it is happening and the stress that brings. Absurdly, there are entire industries convincing us that our lives are too full and busy so we need more things to solve the problem – mindfulness colouring books, yoga classes, ASMR videos.

It is in this environment that the words of Marie Kondo resonate so strongly. “Does this bring you joy?” The answer, for so many of us, is no. It brings us stress, anxiety, exhaustion, paralysis. Trapped in our physical and spiritual hoarders’ houses, we need someone like Marie to excavate our stuff and help us get out for a gasp of fresh air.

Like I said, I’ve never actually watched Marie Kondo, so I don’t know how effective it is at combating our cluttered world. I’d have my questions – does Marie tackle the mental clutter that is also inhibiting us? Does she critique the broader society that influences us to accumulate all these things? Is a prioritising of “joy” just a perpetuation of the individualised consumer mindset that got us here? How ethical is it to treat objects as things that only affect our personal joy without reference to the environmental and social cost of their production and disposal?

Still, I’m a long term and committed believer in having minimal stuff. Over the last few years of living in the one crowded house surrounded by all kinds of objects, feeling my head fill up in much the same way, I’ve been haunted by a memory.  Of a time in my life when I owned only what could fit on my back. I had no computer or smartphone, worked happily for free but stayed flexible enough to go where I felt right. I lived in abandoned houses, often with virtually no furniture.

They were some of the most exciting times of my life, and I’m certain that part of the reason was that the vast empty spaces in my life allowed room for new possibilities to emerge – being open to new experiences but also being able to see what I had in new ways. With each attachment I picked up, good things though they may have been, that scope of possibilities narrowed just a little bit, until I felt so consumed by what I had and did that I had lost the ability to think about what a life and a world that really prioritised sparking joy might look like.

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