The war we didn’t notice

Years ago, when I was involved in much less activism than I am today, I used to play footy with a number of guys who were in the Australian army. One of these guys missed a chunk of the season when he had to go to Afghanistan on service. When he got back, I asked him what it had been like over there. He told me he didn’t want to talk about it.

I instantly realised what a stupid question it was. Of course he didn’t want to talk about it! I was genuinely interested in what the situation was like in Afghanistan, but I had asked him as if he was getting back from a holiday, completely ignorant of the trauma and mental struggle that a soldier in a warzone has to deal with.

I still cringe when I recall that moment, but I also think that in that environment I can’t completely take the blame. In fact, while the first and second world wars virtually shut down societies around the world (even to the point where the Olympics and all other sporting competitions stopped running); while the defining images of the 60’s and 70’s are of mass resistance to the Vietnam war; if history tries to record how our society was affected by the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, it will have to note that it was overwhelmingly the war we didn’t notice.

Several years later, I was arrested protesting the still ongoing war. As I was taken into the station, a policeman there asked what I was there for. When he was told it was an anti-war protest, he responded by making a joke that went something like: “What? There’s a war going on outside? Why didn’t anyone tell me?”

I didn’t know what to say. I couldn’t have explained why I was doing the protest better if I had tried. Of course there was a war going on outside. It’s just that it wasn’t our towns that bombs were being dropped on, wasn’t our family who were being killed because they happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. But it was our taxes that were paying for the bombs and guns.

Of course, many people will remember that the beginning of the Iraq war was met with millions of people taking part in protest marches around the world – possibly the biggest mass protests in history. But they were ignored by governments, and the protests didn’t last. Before too long it was possible to forget that the war was even happening.

And that’s pretty much the way it remained, despite huge death tolls, despite the sheer length (the Afghanistan war was longer than the first and second world wars combined, and even that stat is assuming that it actually ever finished), despite the legacy of PTSD and radiation poisoning from depleted uranium weapons, the war was the furthest thing from most of our minds as we went about our daily lives.

Now it should definitely not be claimed that this is just the result of people’s apathy. There were powerful forces who did their best to make sure we didn’t hear too much about what was happening – a military that kept a tight hold on what information could be made publicly available, and a mass media that rarely showed much interest in trying to dig deeper.

For the world to actually find out what was happening in Iraq required brave whistleblowers like Chelsea Manning risking life in prison to leak classified information to the public. When she leaked those files, Chelsea said she hoped they would bring “worldwide discussion, debates, and reforms… I want people to see the truth, regardless of who they are… because without information, you cannot make informed decisions as a public.”

I think that these leaks were phenomenally important for showing us both what was happening in the war and what lengths our governments and military would go to ensure information remained secret. But unfortunately, Chelsea Manning is now serving 35 years in a US military prison, and it’s hard to argue that those things she hoped for have come to pass.

I thought about all this last week. As the media was entranced by stories of the first world war and the ‘centenary of ANZAC’, the Australian government announced that we would be sending infantry troops back to Iraq, that place we had supposedly left triumphantly having turned an evil dictatorship into a healthy democracy.

Given the respective media coverage of these two deployments of Australian troops to the Middle East, you could be forgiven for mistaking which one happened last week and which one happened 100 years ago. I guess with the passage of time it’s easier to make a good story about Gallipoli, one based on virtues of courage and sacrifice, where a military defeat can be viewed as an act of heroic bravery.

Of course, there are things we forget in our stories of Gallipoli too – while it might be mentioned that the ANZACs were sent to the slaughter by foolish British generals, rarely is the question asked what we were doing invading Turkey anyway. Nor is there much mention made of dissent to the war at home, despite the fact that two separate referendums to introduce military conscription were defeated (they learned their lesson for Vietnam and just skipped the referendum). And rarely do we try to draw links between that war and the one we are still fighting a century later, despite the fact that the nation of Iraq only came into existence in the post-war carve up of the Middle East by the colonial powers who emerged from World War One victorious.

Not paying close attention to the wars we are involved in means we can avoid tricky questions about our involvement – the reasons why we’re there and what the consequences might be. It means we can look at things like terrorist attacks or refugees and think that they are completely isolated issues in which only other people are responsible, not us. It means we don’t have to empathise with those who are on the other side of the conflict, that we can keep the morality black and white.

But unfortunately it means hiding from the truth. It means not seeing the part ourselves and our lifestyles play in the story. And it leaves us no closer to avoiding the next war, one where we possibly won’t have the luxury of being able to forget it’s happening.

These days I don’t claim to know everything about the wars that Australia and our allies are fighting. I don’t claim to hold a perfect moral position. But one thing I try to do is to not be ignorant or inactive about what our military is doing and what my role is in it.

Unfortunately this has at times meant that I’ve offended people, or been seen as starting conflicts with others (probably including some of my old footy mates, though I don’t see them much any more). But there’s still a war going on after all, and I don’t want to just forget about it. I want to play a role that I can be proud of, both today and in the future. Because not doing anything about it doesn’t mean you’re not involved in the war.


Filed under Uncategorized

Living Without Money – How and Why (a zine)

Click the link below to read a zine I made in the middle of 2014, in response to the proposed federal budget that included a recommendation that unemployed people under 25 should be refused the dole for six months at a time. I spent a week feeling powerless and frustrated, and then thought that making something like this might at least help a little bit. It turns out that things aren’t quite as bad as I sometimes think – the budget measures never made it to legislation.

Still, I’m glad it inspired me to write this, because as well as containing some practical tips, this zine is a good way to share a lot of the philosophies by which I attempt to live. As much as I think we need to resist government policies like the ones in that budget, living free is a glorious thing which I unreservedly recommend. Hope you enjoy the zine, feel free to print and share copies of it if you like.

Living Without Money – How and Why

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Selling manhood

Travelling around the city the other day, I couldn’t help but notice a billboard in Highgate Hill (it was about 10 metres wide after all). It was an ad for the Queensland Reds rugby union team, and next to a photo of three of their players was the slogan “HOW WE CONFRONT OUR RESPONSIBILITY IS WHAT DEFINES US”.

Surely I’m not the only person who finds that slogan a bit strange. I’m still not sure exactly what it means, but I think what this ad is trying to do is to play on some of our culturally ingrained notions of manhood in it’s talk of “responsibility”. The image of men as providers and defenders – of their families, their communities, their nation. Of hardworking, resilient pillars of strength. Most males probably in some way see this as part of their role as men, and the idea of “confronting our responsibility” resonates with us on some deep level.

Of course, there are things worth questioning in these traits that are supposedly inherent to those of us born with a penis. Like; if the roles of provider and defender are masculine traits, where does that leave women? Are they just the ones who need to be provided for and defended? What are they meant to do when men don’t always provide and are sometimes the ones who they need defending against? And how far does manly “responsibility” extend? Do we have a responsibility to respect women (or men who don’t meet our expectations of masculinity) as equals? Do we have a responsibility to be emotionally available to those close to us? To spend time with our kids? To do an equal share of the housework?

But like all ads, this one is not so much about who we are or what we have; instead it aims for the negative space in our identity – who we wish we were, what we wish we had.

And this ad seeks to exploit the fact that most of us probably don’t feel like we do many heroic deeds or lead a life full of the actions and virtues we associate with being a man.

Now I’ve got nothing against football (though rugby union has never been my preferred code), but it’s pretty ridiculous to think that all this talk of “confronting our responsibility” could be satisfied by watching football. I mean, this ad isn’t even suggesting that we play sport ourselves and satisfy our manly urges that way. No, the “responsibility” it speaks of is that we should pay money to watch other men play football.

I would suggest that our response to this ad should be to ask ourselves this: If our lives are lacking these virtues and activities that we consider to be manly, is that void something that we need to fill? And if so, how can we do it in a way that will ultimately be more real than just watching footy?

A bit further up the road, there is another billboard. This one is for beer brand XXXX. It is an electronic one that cycles through different images, so we get a couple of XXXX ads. One is a picture of four men sitting by the water in deckchairs, the slogan is “Working Late.” The other is a picture of a four wheel drive splashing through a puddle of water. Its caption says “The Daily Commute.”

These ads are selling a different kind of manhood – the opposite in fact. While one ad tries to sell its product by convincing us that it is fulfilling our “responsibility”, these ads are all about dodging responsibility – buy this brand of beer and you can become a free man, no longer shackled by the duties of family and work; free to spend time with your mates and have adventures conquering the wilderness in your 4WD.

Again, we should be wary of these notions of masculinity and whether they actually represent virtues (or traits particular to those born men). But again we should also ask the classic question of advertising – what are the gaps in our lives that this ad is offering to fulfill?

In this case it is that we want the adventure, the freedom and the camaraderie that are so often lacking in our stifled world of concrete cities and 9-5 jobs.

But can XXXX truly offer us this? Or does it merely give us the illusion of these things as we while away the hours sitting on the couch drinking? I think that alcohol and other types of intoxication actually stop us from pursuing truly fulfilling lives of adventure and meaning. Because it gives us the counterfeit happiness of momentary intoxication that can keep us doing things we hate long after we otherwise would have stopped; and because if our sense of escape and happiness comes from a product we buy, that actually will keep us chained to the 9 to 5 (and its much less glamourous daily commute) to pay for the booze that we need to tolerate it.

So again, we should ask ourselves: Are the desires this ad is trying to stoke up things we actually should be trying to live out? And if so, how can we do that in a way that will actually last?

At the end of the day, while both these ads purport to be selling us some masculine virtues, neither of them have any actual interest in our manliness. Both of them exist solely to sell the products they promote. The issue of how we express our gender identity; of how we live lives of meaning, freedom, adventure and responsibility; is up to us to work out. No product is going to do it for us.


Filed under Uncategorized

Guantanamo Bay – 13 years too long

I hung out in the city today for an hour or so handing out these pamphlets. I was met with a little bit of support, a bit more disagreement, but almost unanimous disinterest. Not the response I would hope for to the fact that our allies in this never-ending war have forced unimaginable horror on completely innocent people. Do people think that the recent spate of Islamist terrorist attacks have come out of nowhere? One lady did stop and talk for a while. She asked me what we could do about it. “I don’t know”, I said, “but we have to try”.


In December, Australian Attorney-General George Brandis gave an address at the human rights awards at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney. After he had finished speaking, a man from the audience stood up. He said “Hey, my name is David Hicks! I was tortured for five-and-a-half years in Guantanamo Bay in the full knowledge of your party! What do you have to say?”

That day, the US Senate’s report on torture in the war on terror had been released. Though most of the report is not available to the public, what we got still contained reports of a person left naked and chained to a cement floor until he died of pneumonia, people being anally force-fed without any medical necessity (pretty sure that’s called rape), and innumerable other torture techniques that will give you nightmares just from reading about them.

After recounting the horrific details of the torture techniques used, the senate report unbelievably concludes “there is no evidence that terror attacks were stopped, terrorists captured or lives saved through use of torture.” In fact, because most of the people arrested and tortured by the US were completely innocent, to stop the torture they had to fabricate information. Which of course, would then lead to more innocent people being arrested, tortured or killed.

The torture report shines an unkind light on America’s self image as the defenders of the free world. It shows up a government which funds, develops and implements sadistic torture techniques as bad as you could find anywhere in the world. That kept on doing so even when it wasn’t gaining any useful intelligence. That will trample all over any human right just to maintain its place as the world’s superpower. And like the smaller kid who latches himself on to the school bully, there are a decade’s worth of Australian governments pledging unequivocal support, even when it was Australian citizens like David Hicks and Mamdouh Habib that were on the recieving end.

Thirteen years ago today, on the 11th of January 2002, the US opened its offshore military prison at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba. As well as these two Australians, at its peak it held over 600 prisoners. Most of whom were arrested in questionable circumstances, suffered things most of us could never imagine, then were released without charge.


Detainees at Guantanamo have been beaten, drugged, sexually assaulted, sleep deprived, and forced into solitary confinement for extended periods. Those who were devout Muslims had the Qu’ran destroyed in front of them, or had female interrogators rub breasts in their faces or pretend to smear them with menstrual blood.

Barack Obama pledged to close Guantanamo if he was elected in 2008, but like many other promises made during that election campaign it hasn’t come to pass. In 2013, most of the 160 remaining detainees, who had at that point been imprisoned there for over 10 years without ever being charged, went on a hunger strike to try to force action on their cases. Some of them stayed on hunger strike for over 150 days. Guantanamo staff responded by force feeding them, sticking tubes up their noses. In 2014, 28 detainees were transferred to other countries to try to resume the life that has been taken from them. But there remains 128 men detained at the prison.

The real effect of torture is that when the US government dehumanises these men, it diminishes the humanity of us all. For every moment that we allow torture to go on, we injure ourselves by denying the rights that belong to all people.

Barack Obama has called Guantanamo Bay “a sad chapter in American history.” Policies like these torture camps have probably prolonged the war on terror by acting as a recruitment tool for more anti-US militants. But the US government has not been willing to loosen its grip on the power that a legacy of torture has given them.

To stop torture we need fundamental changes to a system based on violence and domination. We need everyday people challenging their governments and standing up for the dignity and humanity of our brothers and sisters across the world, whatever their race or religion. We can live in a world without torture, but we will need to create it.


Filed under Uncategorized

My top 10 songs of 2014

This is now the fourth year in a row I’ve done one of these posts, and I really enjoy thinking back through all the music I’ve listened to through the year to remember the songs that really impacted me.

I think I listened to more different bands this year than I have for the last few – that comes from spending a lot of time at a radio station where you are always trying to find new music. I think a problem that a lot of music nerds like me have is that the more music you listen to, the less attached you are to any particular artists or songs. That’s one reason why no music ever means as much to you as it did when you were a teenager and only had a few albums.

Still, it’s a privilege to get to listen to lots of music that people have poured their heart and soul into, and of course during 2014 I heard a lot of amazing songs. Here are ten of them.


Babaganouj – Bluff

Early in the year I was part of a group that organised a fundraiser for the Maules Creek coal mine blockade. I wasn’t the one who arranged for Babaganouj to headline, but I liked their music and was impressed by the grace with which they took the news that their set was going to be cut short and they could only play for about 15 minutes (sorry guys!)

Later in the year I started hearing this song on the radio frequently. It would stand out both by how raw the intro sounded (just guitar and vocals, singing “you make me feel like I’ll never be good enough”) and then by the fuzzy pop glory that was the rest of the song. It reminded me of The Hummingbirds, the tragically under-appreciated legends of Australian indie pop.

I obviously wasn’t the only one who loved the mixture of sad lyrics and joyous melody and distortion – it got thrashed on 4ZZZ and ended up in the top 20 of the year end Hot 100. Hopefully there will be more to come soon from Babaganouj.


Big Iron – Milton

With each year that goes by, I listen to more country music. I don’t know if this is just me or if we can make a generalisation out of it, but either way, I was lucky this year that to go with all the classic country artists (including Chad Morgan, who I actually got to see play), I could listen to a surprising number of really good Brisbane country bands.

Among these bands, there were great new releases from Halfway and Carrie and the Cut Snakes, plus the possibility of some other new releases on the way, but the shows and the record that probably gave me the most enjoyment were from Big Iron.

My favourite Big Iron song somehow never made it on to their EP of this year – hopefully one day “Ain’t Got None” (“you say money don’t mean a thing, that’s good ‘cos I ain’t got none”) will be recorded, but in its place I’ve picked “Milton”. I like the group singalong, and I like that it’s written about a local place. There are enough songs written about places in America, it makes much more sense to write about Australian places eve if it means writing country songs about inner-city Brisbane suburbs.


MC Triks and bAbE Sun – We Still Right Here

I spent the 26th of January this year, like I have most years for the last half a decade, with aboriginal people. While for many Australia Day is for flag-waving patriotism or drunken partying; for aboriginal people it is Invasion Day or Survival Day, a time for remembering the injustice that has been done to their people and celebrating that a proud culture has been able to survive the attempt to wipe it out.

This year, a few local rappers and activists managed to hastily throw together an Invasion Day Mixtape to mark the occasion. There are a number of artists on the record, but some of the highlights come from MC Triks, who on this one is joined by bAbE Sun to lay down the simple message of Invasion Day – “We Still Right Here”.


Caitlin Harnett – Wandering Man

In the last few days of 2013, as I often do, I went to the Gulgong Folk Festival in western NSW. It’s a nice relaxed festival with a good variety of music. That particular year my highlight was Caitlin Harnett, a former indie singer who had been to North America and returned with a banjo, an open tuned guitar and a wonderful set of songs that sound like Joni Mitchell gone country.

I wanted to buy her record then, but none of her new songs were recorded at that point. It took until the second half of the year for Caitlin’s album to come out.

It’s a great country tradition to sing about the joys and sorrows of being a drifter, and there are a few songs on the album that fall into that category. “Wandering Man” is one of my favourites.


Crow Eater – Spit On This Floor

When the organisers of the DIY Hard punk festival in Sydney announced there would be an acoustic afternoon show to end the festival, maybe even they didn’t foresee the national convergence of folk punk bands that would come – Heaps Tuff and Glitter Rats from Melbourne, Crow Eater from Adelaide, Lordy Lordy from Hobart/Alice Springs, an unexpected acoustic set from Byron Bay’s Sin Fondos, and myself from Brisbane.

Now I’ll admit this isn’t quite Coachella in terms of an all star lineup, but not that many people play folk punk in Australia and it was amazing to have all these groups playing unplugged in the same room. It was a very fun show which I was grateful to be a part of.

It was also my introduction to the music of Crow Eater, which was nice too. They were still badly hungover when the show started at 2pm, but it was a great set. In true folk punk style they had half a dozen of them up there playing whatever acoustic instruments they could get their hands on, including a drumkit that was just a hi-hat cymbal and a beer bottle.

Also in true folk punk style, they’re not very organised at getting their music released. But during the year they did a live appearance on an Adelaide radio station which meant two of their songs were put up on the net to listen to. I played both these songs heaps, somebody take a dictaphone to one of their shows so we can hear more.


Against Me! – True Trans Soul Rebel

It’s over a decade since I first heard Against Me!, and over that time there have been different periods when they have been the band I listen to more than any other, especially their first two albums.

Theirs has also been an interesting career trajectory to follow. I must admit though that I, like a lot of people I think, had not been particularly excited by their last few albums. But the story of Against Me! had an interesting twist to come yet.

A couple of years ago, lead singer Tom Gabel made the somewhat surprising announcement that she would henceforth be identifying as a woman and going by the name Laura Jane Grace.

The band still toured, still played the same songs, it’s just that Laura now sang them while wearing makeup, a miniskirt and high heels. The new album that was promised, called “Transgender Dysphoria Blues”, promised to be an interesting insight into an incredibly difficult journey that not many of us have to make – to the point where the way you look matches up with the way you feel inside.

The lyrics of the album are definitely the highlight, and “True Trans Soul Rebel” is a brilliant tribute to the struggle of transgender people around the world – “you should have been a mother, should have been a wife… should be living a different life.”


Moonsign – Live Yr Own Life

It was a big year for transgender artists – Conchita Wurst won Eurovision and two trans songwriters got in Andy Paine’s top 10 list!

Seriously though, I have loved the music and writing of Bastian Fox Phelan for a few years now and am always excited to hear and see the things Bastian is creating. I haven’t managed to yet see Moonsign live (come to Brisbane!) but have listened to them a lot since the release of their first demo. This year we were blessed with not one but two Moonsign albums, although I must admit I do like the first one (released in January) more. And Live Yr Own Life is the gorgeous highlight, with it’s pulsing keyboards and multi-tracked harmonies. I’ve never quite worked out exactly what the lyrics mean, but I love them anyway.

Bastian’s songs contain the same mixture of vulnerability and life-affirming positivity that make their zines so amazing to read. They write so honestly and beautifully about a life that has been full of extraordinary experiences.


Kate Woodhouse – Dumpers

At the start of the year I had never heard Kate Woodhouse’s music. In the space of 12 months she has put out a great EP and played a whole heap of shows, to the point where she is now a fixture of Brisbane’s punk scene, seemingly playing every gig I see a poster for.

It’s awesome to see Kate’s success, I really like her songs. With emo and country music as the two main ingredients, her music is unlikely to liven up your next party. But if you’re in the mood for it, they are beautiful songs. I’m not sure how much it was affected by the fact that I had just gone through a relationship breakup, but I listened to those four songs a lot when they first came out.

“Dumpers”, with its striking opening line “home towns make me feel like I’m collapsing” and a wonderful instrumental section, is my favourite.


Tichawona Mashawa and Velvet Pesu – Kedush

I don’t know if it was officially released or just sent to radio stations (it’s certainly hard to find much info about it on the net), but one of the best releases of the last few months of 2014 was a compilation called “Echoes – World Music From Qld.

It’s full of brilliant songs, but maybe my favourite is this one from a Zimbabwean and Japanese duo living in Brisbane. They are normally part of a bigger band Umkancho, but this stripped back version of the song (just thumb piano and voices) is breathtaking.

I had already had my mind blown seeing Tichawona play earlier in the year at the World Refugee Day festival, but finding out more about his music is not easy. Surely one of Brisbane’s best kept musical secrets. Hopefully I’m doing my bit to get his music out there by uploading this song. And maybe one day music like this will be as prominent as white men playing guitars.


The Painted Ladies – Stranger In My Country

The story of Vic Simms’ album “The Loner” deserves to be an Australian music legend. I don’t have space to do justice to it here, but basically it’s the story of a 50’s teen star who through life’s ups and downs ended up in the Bathurst jail. While there, a stroke of good fortune led to Vic being able to record an album containing some of the first and best aboriginal protest songs to be recorded.

Naturally the album sank, but the few copies that did get made became cherished relics. Luke Peacock was working at Murri Radio in Brisbane where he came across a burnt CD copy, had his mind blown and ended up recording an album of covers from “The Loner”.

It succeeded in bringing attention to the original Vic Simms album (which apparently this year will get a brand new cd reissue), but it’s also created a great album in its own right.

The song that deviates most from the original is “Stranger In My Country”, which became a slow burning psychedelic rock song from the country-soul original. It’s also probably the highlight of the album. It’s a little bit cheesy having the all star lineup of singers (Paul Kelly, Ed Kuepper, Bunna Lawrie) take turns at the mic, but I can forgive them when the incredible voice of Roger Knox “the black Elvis” comes in.

There were only two live Painted Ladies performances for the year. I got to see one of them, and live this song transformed into an extraordinary experience, especially when it begins to build up around the 4 minute mark. I found myself shaking in time with the kick drum, my spine tingling with Kahl Wallace’s howls, brought to tears by the emotion of the song and all the pain and injustice that it captures. I was speechless, blown away. I know from afterwards when I was able to talk to others that I was not the only one who felt that way.

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Merry Christmas, and a hopeful new year

It’s Christmas again, and whatever the year has brought, it shudders to a halt for the last week. Which gives everyone a chance to catch up with family, time for reflection, and a much needed break from the busyness of our normal lives. In some ways, it seems a bit like the biblical nativity story of Mary and Joseph trekking it out to Bethlehem – hitching south-west to my hometown I met all kinds of people who are on the same journey, back to places and people they rarely see to celebrate Christmas together.

I think a lot about the biblical story of Christmas this time of year. Of course we are surrounded with the Christmas carol or nativity display version; but the story, like any story, is more nuanced.

This year I’ve been thinking about the Jewish people, who for 400 years had been living under the burden of oppressive empires – invaded and enslaved by the Babylonians, they were now subjects to the Roman empire and its appointed powers. We get a sample of what life might have been like being pushed around by a foreign power with the report (Luke 2:1-3) that the emperor Augustus could order a census and force everybody to travel to different provinces just so the empire could count its subjects.

But before the story even gets to that point we get some insight to the feeling of the Jewish people at this point in history. Mary’s song of praise (Luke 1:46-56) is a remarkable statement of oppressed people and what their hope for salvation looks like:

“My soul glorifies the Lord
    and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior
He has brought down rulers from their thrones
    but has lifted up the humble.
He has filled the hungry with good things
    but has sent the rich away empty.”

It’s hard for most of us today to understand exactly how the Jews would have felt. I find it interesting that for the history of the English speaking church (whose role in society is much closer to that of the Romans in the Christmas story than the Jews), the idea of salvation has been turned into a metaphor for freedom from our sins, without any mention of liberation of oppressed people from empires. Certainly it’s hard to find many Christmas carols that contain lyrics about bringing down kings from their thrones or sending the rich away empty-handed.

Remembering the social conditions puts a new perspective on the shepherds who leave their flocks to visit the baby Jesus as well. But while happy shepherds and singing angels are a part of the nativity story we know so well, the story has another interesting twist.

Joseph and Mary take their son to the temple for the Jewish ritual of dedication, where they meet a prophet named Simeon. Simeon has been waiting for the salvation of Israel, and God has told him he will not die until he sees the messiah (Luke 2:26). When the old prophet sees the baby Jesus, he firstly tells God that he is ready to die now, but he also gives a chilling warning to the parents:

“This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword (some translations have “sorrow like a sword”) will pierce your own soul too.”

Sorrow like a sword piercing your heart is not something we often include in our nativity displays. But of course the next part of the Christmas story (recorded in Matthew 2 but not in Luke) is the horrific genocidal purge of Jewish children under two years old by the power-mad king Herod. Matthew (2:18) quotes the prophet Jeremiah, who wrote during the Jewish exile:

“A voice is heard in Ramah,
    weeping and great mourning,
Rachel weeping for her children
    and refusing to be comforted,
    because they are no more.”

We are told in Luke 2:19 that “Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart”; and she must have thought a lot about Simeon’s words to her as she saw the adult Jesus persecuted, plotted against, and finally brutally murdered by the state. The Jewish people who believed Jesus would be their saviour must have had their doubts too. The temple where Simeon said “my eyes have seen your salvation” was destroyed for the final time by the Roman army in 70AD following a Jewish uprising.

But Jesus was never going to liberate the Jews in a single generation. Simeon knew the truth. The message of Jesus – that freedom comes from loving your enemies, service “to the least of these” and non-violently speaking the truth to those in power – is certainly a revolutionary one, but some revolutions take longer to turn than others. And while that message brings great hope and extraordinary transformation, even today it is still a guarantee of a lot of sorrow mixed with the joy.

I know that for a lot of people who believe in justice and peace, 2014 has been a very difficult year. We have in Australia a government whose priority is the rich getting richer, no matter who gets left behind. Their budget and their climate policy set back gains that had been hard fought over years.

For those who; like Jesus, Mary and Joseph; have fled persecution at home to seek refuge elsewhere, Australia was like the fire to welcome them out of the frying pan. With a promise that no asylum seeker will be settled in Australia, the government has left them to go crazy in top secret detention centres with no rights and no hope. The tragic deaths of Reza Berati and Hamid Kehazeai on Manus Island this year certainly left a lot of us in sorrow.

As if the violence of fundamentalist groups in the Middle East wasn’t bad enough, media hysteria here in Australia led to numerous attacks on and a permanent state of fear for Muslims here. Has that contributed to the likelihood of retributive violence? We’ll never know I guess. Definitely don’t expect our media to be asking the question calmly. The never-ending and destructive war in Iraq stumbles on decades after the US first dropped its bombs there. Of course both sides are fighting with American weapons, but it’s still civilians that are the ones dying.

And that’s just the start really. Government corruption, crazy new laws, persecution of those who tell the truth, police violence, plenty of other violence, the list goes on. The report into CIA torture methods was the stuff of nightmares and a reminder of what empire looks like today. And the year ended with a couple of terrible very public acts of violence. After one of them I said to a friend “I wish this year would just end already”.

Of course with a new year the only thing guaranteed to change is the calendar – it’s people that have the power to create a better world. But at Christmas we get to take a break, celebrate being with our families and loved ones, and try to draw on some of the hope in that Christmas story. The hope of Mary, of the shepherds, of Simeon. The hope that a different way is still possible, and that we can keep struggling despite the heartbreak. The hope that that little baby born in a manger really does have the ability to bring “peace on earth”.

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Welcome To Brisbane, Ferals. (a reflection on the G20)

I can’t remember the first time I found out the G20 would be in Brisbane. That in itself says something. We’re not in the mid-2000’s any more, when leaders summits like this were the focus of the anti-globalisation movement. I never went to an anti-summit rally back then, and it seems like the activist world has moved on from that moment and tactic, exhilarating though some of the summits might have been.

Still, I can remember a couple of years ago, talking about what we could do, and people starting to call meetings and form groups for planning.

But it was not the activists who were the ones leading the discussion. Last October, the state government presented us with the extraordinary G20 Safety and Security Act, a set of laws breathtaking in how overwhelming and dangerously vague they were, giving police unbelievable powers.

In December the right-wing media got in on the action as well, with the Courier Mail managing to dredge up a quote on an internet message board from a fictitious anarchist group that had been written 6 months earlier and claiming it was conclusive proof that anarchists were vowing to bring “anarchy and chaos” to the summit.

At the time I made a parody radio news story saying that the Courier Mail had vowed to report anarchy and chaos at the summit no matter what the reality was, and it seems that was pretty much the plan they stuck to from that moment on, as they fabricated one sensationalist front page story after another, interspersing fear-mongering about anarchists/terrorists with excited stories on all the new weapons and toys the police would be showing off.

Don’t get me wrong, I would love it if there was an anarchist movement large and willing enough to challenge the $400 million paramilitary police force and disrupt the summit. But there isn’t, and the only purpose of the Courier Mail’s continual reporting of the issue was to build up a fictional enemy that they could construct some hollywood narrative around instead of reporting on actual news.

A few weeks out from the summit I did an action attempting to spin the talk of “violence” from the make believe threats of anarchist violence to the very real everyday violence perpetrated by the economies represented at the G20. Despite misgivings about how I would be represented, I did an interview with a Courier Mail journalist, calmly and rationally putting across my point. The next day’s paper contained no mention of the interview with a real life anarchist, instead showing on the front page a picture of storm clouds looming over the Brisbane skyline with proclaiming “anarchists corporate chaos threat”.

The media narrative never changed. When the summit happened, there wasn’t a single act of violence from a protester and (unsurprisingly) no international terrorist groups appeared. The police still managed to arrest 14 people and hand out 27 exclusion notices. The Courier Mail didn’t think to question the need for the spending on security. Instead they praised the police for keeping everything under control! It was a win-win situation for the state – if there had been any incidents the reporting would have been that we needed more cops. There wasn’t, but still the police got the credit.

Naturally, all this hyperbole came at the expense of actually reporting any of the points protest groups had to make about the excessive laws, the the policies of the G20 or the way the summit affected the everyday life of people in Brisbane.

courier_mail3couiermailfrontpagecourier mail2

At the same time as this was happening though, activists and interested people were starting to meet together to talk about a people-focused response to the economic summit. There were stuttering attempts at setting up a coalition response, and then eventually after a couple of meetings, one group settled on the name Brisbane Community Action Network, or BrisCAN.

As with any attempt to work across different political groups, BrisCAN had a few obstacles. There was the debate about whether the group endorsed or condemned violent protest, and then the debate about what is violence anyway?

Some of us who have a more decentralised view of organising found this a bit frustrating. I didn’t intend on ever attempting to speak for all the members of BrisCAN and I didn’t expect that anyone else from BrisCAN spoke for me. I’m against violence both practically and ideologically but don’t believe property damage necessarily constitutes violence (especially not in the face of the extreme and wide-ranging violence done by the G20 leaders) and would never dream of, as was suggested several times in the meetings, turn into the police a protester who didn’t match my beliefs on the matter. The real shame of this long and painful conversation was that we had bought into the mainstream media myth of the “violent protesters” when in fact the reason we were there was because we were against the destruction caused by G20 economic policies.

Working with indigenous people, who had always said they would be organising in response to the G20, represented its own challenge. All of us agreed on the importance of supporting the indigenous struggle but there were frustrations when it was tried to work out how. I remember a meeting around the fire at Musgrave Park quite early on where some of the people from the Aboriginal Sovereign Embassy said pretty bluntly that it was a case of join in the Genocidal20 events organised by the embassy or nothing. Which was pretty harsh considering the effort other people had put into other issues and struggles, and the potential gains of working together. It was a shame in the end that BrisCAN and the embassy seemed to be viewed as competing events by a lot of people who came for the summit but weren’t there for the organising, because I know that wasn’t people’s intentions.


After the long buildup, it seemed like the summit came up all of a sudden. I noticed more and more fences going up around town, the police to civilian ratio seemed to be increasing, as was the number of helicopters flying overhead. A series of government funded “cultural celebrations” (including music, a plywood “BRISBANE” sign at Southbank and wrapping scarves around trees in the city) occurred. Thankfully we began to also see some of the Brisbane artistic community being a bit more critical of the event, after what seemed like a long silence there were creative responses popping up in different places.

The terrifying G20 Act (“a lot of it will be up to the discretion of the police officers” said the police chief) came into effect a week before the summit. On the night the laws began, there were media reports that someone was arrested for taking photos of the convention centre. I never heard anyone say they knew who it was, so I’m going to assume that it was either an unlucky tourist or a local trying to preserve for posterity the sight of Brisbane turning into a police state.

The indigenous encampment set up a week before the summit as well. That involved a bit of drama too. A week before the embassy were due to set up camp in Musgrave Park, Lord Mayor Graham Quirk announced with remarkable timing that Jagera Hall (at Musgrave) was to be closed due to asbestos which has presumably been in the building for 40 years. One of the real gains to be found from the activist response to the G20 occurred when a group of 80 indigenous activists turned up at City Hall demanding the hall be signed over to aboriginal control, which it was.

Too often our institutions are happy to pay lip service to aboriginal culture, assuming that the culture is dead and an acknowledgement of country or a painting on the wall is all you need. Aboriginal culture is alive and well, as shown by the Genocidal20 protests, and the elders sleeping in that hall so that they have the energy to do as week of protests is the way it should be used.

march photo

The first group G20 protest was a week before the summit; NGO coalition Micah Challenge organising a public tropical tax haven to raise awareness about corporate tax evasion and its cost to developing countries. No one was quite sure what to expect, hence the fact there were half a dozen “independent legal observers” (who said they were strictly impartial, as if the law is impartial) there to observe the world’s tamest protest. A few media outlets came as well, after all the hype it was becoming clear that the media would be interested in reporting the protests. Which makes sense really, since so little actually happens inside the convention centre. Having built it up as this massive thing, they have to report something.

We got a taste of the weather to expect as well. Which was scorching, with hotter predicted for the actual weekend. It was like mother nature was doing her part, trying to set the stage for some epic confrontation.

On the Monday morning as I rode into the city for the first of the Genocidal20 rallies (against the removal of aboriginal children), it was like some kind of surreal dystopian vision – unbearably hot and humid, with a group of police officers on literally every corner. At the rally a battalion of liaison officers in light blue caps were there, the friendly face of a $400m army. The rally though went off without a hitch.

The next day I got a taste of the city chaos we would have for the next week. I arrived late for the rally, and the group had already left on the march. I tried to join, but had negotiate a labyrinth of closed roads, temporary fencing and police blockades. When it became apparent that I actually wasn’t going to be allowed to join the march, I went back to Musgrave Park to help set up there.

police bike barricades

Musgrave Park would be my home for the next seven days. Though I live only a couple of suburbs away, I set up camp in Musgrave to be close to the action and didn’t go home for the whole week. Despite police patrols around the clock, helicopters overhead and the insanity of the city around us, Musgrave was like an oasis – friendly conversation, a lovely vibe, volunteers working together to feed everyone, strangers welcomed and often music playing. And there were very few problems there during the week. It made for a very poignant comparison with the fences and guns surrounding the convention centre.

On the Wednesday the People’s Summit began. It had been one of the key things BrisCAN had planned for the G20 and a phenomenal amount of effort had gone into organising from a small group of people, including trying to piece together multiple venues in a climate where a number of places refused to support anything that could be seen as anti-G20.

Actually, let’s digress for a moment here to talk about the repression of dissenting voices in the temporary fascist zone that was Brisbane circa G20. Besides all the laws, cops and military specially brought in to control where we could go and what we could carry; besides the media who instead of speaking to dissenting voices, made up hysterical stories about violent terrorists; we got a more subtle form of censorship too.

I already mentioned venues not wanting to get involved. The Brisbane Airport refused to put up billboards paid for by some NGO’s because they had pretty benign anti-corruption or climate change messaging. Officeworks refused to print any material with the word G20 on it, apparently under police orders. Both companies said they didn’t allow “political massages”. Let’s be honest for a second here. It’s very difficult to define what actually is “political”, and I don’t think these corporations had any interest in doing so. What they meant was that they didn’t want a certain type of political message. Nobody was taking down”welcome to G20″ signs or  billboards advertising mining companies or military recruitment. As for Officeworks, this pathetic company that would so pettily deny people their freedom of speech deserves to be boycotted as soon as possible. It’s a real shame that so many of us within radical political circles frequent their megastores as often as we do, and hopefully this censorship will be the boost we need to build alternatives.

But back to the People’s Summit. I didn’t get to as much of it as I would have liked because of other duties, I know some people were disappointed by the turnout. But I can only commend everyone involved for the work that they did in difficult circumstances. There was a wide range of topics represented, an inclusive atmosphere and the workshops I went to had ok attendance and good discussion.

The summit and the G20 response in general weren’t quite the convergence of everyone in Brisbane (or Australia) working on people-focused organising that they could have been, but I think we can put this down more to the media fear campaign and a radical community that didn’t see much worth in the concept than we can to any of the groups attempting to organise what things did happen.

On the Wednesday night, a guy I had met during the week named Wayne was stopped by police. He was on the very edge of the G20 declared zone and walking away from it (into the non-fascist rest of the city) but still was arrested, detained for a couple of hours and given an exclusion notice for the rest of the week because he was carrying a portable sound system (one of the prohibited items in the G20 laws).

By this point in the week there had been half a dozen arrests and a few more exclusion notices given out, most of which had nothing to do with the protests. Mostly they were people, homeless or otherwise marginalised, who had been stopped by the cops and arrested for obstructing police when they refused to give their name. I know of another instance where a person with disabilities was told they would be detained if they kept going to places in the city where they (unbeknownst to them) were no longer allowed to go. This is what you get for $400 million – a clampdown on trivial offences, a copuple of thousand bored cops ready to arrest anyone just for something to do. A city whose inhabitants are no longer free to walk the streets. Did this get reported in the media? You bet it didn’t. Even with every TV camera in the country in one place, some people will always be invisible.

The next day saw more police action when long-time peace activist Ciaron O’Reilly became the third person (but first Brisbane resident) to be added to the “prohibited persons” list. The day before, Ciaron had put out a media release, humourously saying he would “shirtfront” Barack Obama over his persecution of whistleblowers Manning, Snowden and Assange. Now he was sitting on a bench in West End holding a sign when an unmarked cop car pulled up and a couple of detectives gave him his notice saying he would be arrested if he entered the declared zone. He made the most of it, getting a few interviews and then a few more the next day when he walked one block into the red zone and was arrested. He refused to sign a bail agreement saying he wouldn’t re-enter, and hilariously spent the weekend as the sole occupant of the special G20 watch-house at the Supreme Court made to hold up to 150.








I was inspired by Ciaron’s ability to change slightly the media narrative, so I went away and wrote a press release on behalf of the Brisbane Lizard Liberation Front responding to the fact that our reptilian friends had been included on the prohibited items list. As if in a world of wear, climate change and economic exploitation; lizards are our biggest threat. Disappointingly most of the nation’s media failed to run with it, but it did later became a bit of a social media hit.

Friday morning the rallies went up a notch in intensity. In scorching heat, with the sound of helicopters overhead, the Genocidal20 mob protested against aboriginal deaths in custody. There had been four deaths in custody in the previous four weeks (did you hear that in the media?), but the community was also mourning the death a couple of months earlier of 22 year old Julieka Dhu, who died in a West Australian watch-house; imprisoned for $1000 in unpaid fines. What’s more, the G20 week marked the anniversaries of the deaths of Daniel Yock (murdered by the police in West End in 1993) and Cameron Doomadgee (murdered in the Palm Island watch-house in 2004). I’ve been to many death in custody rallies over the years and they are always highly charged events. That day was no different but the timing of it did mean that a lot more of the world’s eyes were watching. And it was a necessary contribution to the narrative of “violence” at the G20.

I spent a bit of time that day thinking about how to do a public response from the anarchists of Brisbane. Up to that point we had mostly just not replied to incessant contact from journalists wanting to talk to us about “our plans at the G20″, knowing full well that they would squeeze in whatever quote they wanted to legitimise the crap that they were consistently printing. But I figured that every news outlet in the country would be writing a story on the G20 and a lot of them would be hungry for a quote from the anarchists – the bogeyman du jour. And I did think we have something worthwhile to say about the G20. To try to stop them putting words in our mouths, we would send out a communique with no media contact details. In the evening we sat in the park nutting out what we wanted to say. I felt like the plan was vindicated when we were quoted in various online publications the next day saying

“the true nature of our system has been on display during the summit, with mass state surveillance, armed police controlling dissent and fences dividing those who are allowed to make decisions from those who are not.”

We also talked about what to do at the march. Once upon a time marches were the public show of strength of a movement – workers would stop the city to show what they could do if the issue they were protesting wasn’t changed. There was nothing very powerful about this march – forced through the back streets, outnumbered and surrounded by police. Still, doing something is always better than staying at home and there are always little victories you can claim along the way.

I wanted to do something again because we anarchists had been demonised and misrepresented and I felt we should speak for ourselves. My suggestion was that we paint a big banner and carry it (banners bigger than 2x1m were among the many prohibited items) as a statement that you don’t have to always fear the state, and if a law is stupid then it needs to be broken for everyone’s sake. Someone suggested “shirtfront the state” for the banner (for those who missed it, Tony Abbott’s ridiculous pre-G20 promise was to “shirtfront” Vladimir Putin regarding the shooting down of the MH17 over Ukraine. “Shirtfronting” is a term from australian football that means to smash into someone leading with your shoulder.),  and we liked the humour implicit in that slogan as opposed to the fear-mongering of the government and media. So we spent the night painting and the next day snuck it through the police blockades to unveil it at the start of the march. Happily, our five metre long banner was actually dwarfed by the 20m long “GENOCIDAL20″ one that I helped paint at the park that morning. Both banners made it through the march without any hassles from the law enforcement.

shirtfront 2

Not so lucky in the morning were two young women I consider friends and comrades who were stopped and searched outside the train station. Worried (fair enough too) about what the police at the march would be like, they had brought gas masks, which along with another banner, were confiscated and they were arrested in front of the TV cameras. I found out afterwards that a couple of other friends had been given exclusion notices before they even got to the rally. Their crime was being dressed up in fancy frocks, having planned to do some street theatre. Hardly the “anarchy and chaos” the media had hoped for; but the quote “it’s ridiculous” as Sophie was dragged off by the cops, which ran on the television news that night, was probably the most succinct appraisal of the whole G20 schemozzle I had heard yet.

The rally itself was mixed. The idea was to have a mixed rally with aboriginal speakers from the sovereign embassy talking first, followed by a few others who had been brought to Brisbane from around the country by BrisCAN (which also featured another indigenous speaker – it wasn’t that segregated) then have everyone march together, led by the indigenous contingent. Inevitably, the rally started late and ran way over time in unbearable heat, meaning that by the end the crowd was impatient and not really paying attention to the last couple of speakers.

So it was a sunstroked and tired crowd of a couple of thousand that was corralled through the empty streets of Brisbane by the police. One of the more surreal things was looking around at the city. If you took away the protesters, cops and the media, the city was a ghost town. I couldn’t help but laugh when I recalled Campbell Newman pleading with people to still come and shop in the CBD. The place looked like a warzone. I felt like putting out a statement claiming responsibility – “you said we couldn’t do it, but despite a $400m police budget, anarchists have succeeded in shutting down the city!”


Back at the park, the crowd dissipated, wilting in the heat. There had been so many different issues and groups (including big Falun Gong and Ethiopian contingents), but getting together to build a new society in the shell of the old wasn’t going to happen that afternoon. Still, I think people talking down about the march (and comparing it to previous G20 responses) was unwarranted. In the face of a sustained fearmongering campaign, paramilitary security and brutal weather, people still came and a number of people I spoke to found it inspiring. While it might feel like a missed opportunity, a better world won’t come from a single march anyway. It will come from the communities and bonds that are built over a long period of time. The question should be whether our response to the G20 contributed to that.

climate guardians

There was a bit more action that night. A group of women dressed up as the “climate guardian angels” unsuccessfully tried to arrange an impromptu meeting with Tony Abbott. A few of us talked about wanting to organise an action for the next day since the leaders summit was still going. I put the word out then crashed. For a week I had been walking around in a haze of sleep deprivation, staying up late and waking at 6 with the blazing sun, continually trying to work on different things. I consoled myself that it would soon all be over.

I wasn’t the only one lacking energy it seemed, as there wasn’t a lot of movement in the morning at Musgrave Park. For a while it seemed that the scheduled indigenous march wouldn’t even happen. I went to do some media stuff and then headed into the city just too late to see some of the young aboriginal activists burning Australian flags and effigies of indigenous leaders whose authority they don’t recognise. It was bound to bring controversy, but coming at the end of a week where the group had announced the formation of a collective called the Warriors of Aboriginal Resistance (W.A.R.), it was a symbolic gesture that there was a new generation of militant young aboriginal activists rising and they were ready to carve out their own space.

I remember earlier this year seeing an interview with Gary Foley talking about activism in the 70’s . When asked about things now he said “that’s for the next generation of young people with a conscience to discover.” One day the men and women in WAR will be older and a bit more circumspect too, but it’s the radical firebrand Gary Foley from the 70’s that people remember and that continues to catch the imagination, so I say go for it to those young guys. One of the legacies of this G20 resistance could be what that group gets up to in the next few years.

flag burning

After all the buildup, there were only hours left of the G20 leaders summit. I was exhausted but wanted to do one more action while we had the chance. Nobody had yet exploited what seemed to be an obvious opportunity – standing on the street at Ernest St. where the motorcades were exiting the convention centre. So I talked to a few people and we decided to do an action there for West Papua in the hope we would by chance catch the Indonesian convoy, or at least show whoever did come past.

We had been there a couple of minutes when the police came over. Our banner was bigger than the allowed size of 2x1m. Plus we were holding it where the world leaders could see it. I had never had a cop so blatantly tell me that the reason he was intervening was to suppress a dissenting voice. After telling him what I thought of his censorship I figured there wasn’t much point in arguing, so I folded up the banner and started to leave. But apparently not quickly enough to appease the sergeant, who took the banner off me and gave me an exclusion notice from the G20 declared zone for the rest of the weekend. It was petty and basically just a power trip (I was already leaving, so he clearly wasn’t preventing any crime), but I must admit it felt kind of satisfying. Like I had tried as hard as I could for the G20 and then ended not by giving up and going home but by being kicked out. Plus it was Sunday night and time to go to church anyway.

west papua g20

west papua g20 3








During the G20 I had been too busy to really stop and reflect much on the whole thing. I took a break the next day before I went back to the police HQ to try to get back my hand-painted “Free West Papua” banner that had been confiscated. The cop told me that it had been destroyed , under a special provision in the G20 law that allows police to destroy political material.

It’s weird the things that set you off I suppose, but I was seething. I spent the next couple of days fluctuating between depression and anger – anger that they had turned our city into a fascist police state and were completely unrepentant about it; anger that so many of us pour endless time and energy into activism for no motivation other than we want to see a more just world, yet we are the ones who are regarded as criminals. Anger that despite everything I had done I felt completely powerless.

It’s now over two weeks since the summit and I think I’m still trying to get over those feelings. But in the big scheme of things, the G20 is nothing – two days where world leaders get together to talk? Does anybody actually believe that what happens at the summit affects anything? Capitalism doesn’t come from 20 people, it is a way of organising society that affects every moment of our lives. And it is over a lifetime, not a weekend, that we need to struggle for a better world. Which people have always done and will continue to do. The world leaders, helicopters and bullet-proof fences are gone from Brisbane, the media have forgotten the G20 and gone looking for the next big story. But we are still here, with the challenge in front of us of trying to create the world we want to live in.


Filed under Uncategorized