Last Friday to celebrate US independence day I took to the streets of Brisbane dressed as Uncle Sam. I was holding a sign that said “Happy Independence Day! Let’s Make Australia Independent One Day!” and handing out flyers which quoted the declaration of independence and applied it to Australia and our need to free ourselves from the American Empire.
It was all very last minute. I’d spent the week reading Iain McIntyre’s history of Australian agitation “How To Make Trouble And Influence People” and listening to Jeffrey Lewis sing Crass songs, so I was itching to get out and do something. I’ll admit that it probably wasn’t the best action I’ve ever done (I know some people didn’t pick up on the irony), and due to a combination of factors I ended up going on my own, but there were some interesting things that happened and made me think, so I thought I’d write this.
King George Square was a bit quiet to start with, so I decided to wander through the Queen Street mall for a bit until they kicked me out. That process took probably about 5 minutes or so, except this time the council ranger not only wanted to stop for a chat but also to fine me $113 for the offence of “distributing any written material whatsoever”. Apparently holding a sign is a separate offence, but in a heart-warming act of generosity he let me off that one.
Needless to say, I have a problem with these laws. For one, these laws clearly don’t apply to everybody. I mean, in the middle of the mall is a newsagent which does nothing except distribute written material, and the entire stretch is filled with signs advertising endless businesses and products. So obviously this law isn’t for any moral reason since the exact offences are permitted on a mass scale by the right people. Why is it there? To make sure that it’s only businesses who have the right to do these things? Well the mall is public space, I don’t see why a privately owned business should have more rights there than anyone else.
I asked the council ranger if he was familiar with the (successful) campaign in the early 80’s for free speech in the mall. He said he was but wrote the fine anyway, he can rest assured that like those activists back then I won’t be paying the fine nor will I stop exercising my free speech. I lost quite a bit of time being held up by him but wasn’t going to let him stop me doing anything, so after leaving him I walked the entire way around the perimeter he had told me I wasn’t allowed in, continuing to hand out my flyers.
As I walked around occasionally stopping for conversations, a few people asked me why Australia should be more independent from the US. “America,” I replied, “is the world’s biggest terrorist. They invade other countries, overthrow governments, crush dissent and abuse human rights all to expand the wealth and power of their own elites.” To my amazement, several people said “I know that, but doesn’t that mean we want to be on their side?”
I didn’t know what to say. I don’t even agree with that for one – the US is in decline and can only really bring Australia down with it. But more importantly, what kind of reasoning is that? I know that no one ever completely lives up to their ideals, but surely morality is meant to be the basis for our decision making and pragmatism comes in when that is impossible, not the other way around. I wonder how many other decisions people make each day using the same reasoning – “I know this is wrong, but I’m going to do it anyway.”
This world is full of walls and shackles that restrict us, but regardless of any of them, nobody can ever claim to be free while they act against their own conscience. To those people I met, and indeed to the council ranger, I can only hope that the effect of my action was that they saw someone standing up for what they believed was right, no matter how futile and ridiculous it seems.
Which is a good segue into my final observation. Somewhere between the council ranger, the somewhat unenthusiastic response and the fact that I was out there on my own, by the evening I was battling on but feeling a little dispirited. By the time I was ready to go, I still had a small stack of flyers in my hand. Again unwilling to feel like I had been defeated, I went to a couple of train stations and stuffed flyers inside copies of mX that were sitting on their stand.
Obviously my little one-man act was never going to bring down the US Empire. Not even challenge Australia’s support of it. I don’t even pretend that I’m building some kind of revolutionary organisation – the flyer was completely anonymous with no contact details on it. Why even bother?
I guess there are a few reasons. I’ve already mentioned a few times doing small actions just to remind yourself that you haven’t been completely defeated. In my less hopeful moments I think that’s why I do these things. Like Ammon Hennacy said so beautifully, “I might not change the world, but I’m damn sure it won’t change me.”
Or sometimes I think that it’s to honour those whose voice goes unheard, or those who came before me and gave their all for the struggle to make a better world. That when I think of the opportunities I have and others who would wish they had the same, I can’t just do nothing.
But mostly I think that doing acts like this one is like broadcasting radio waves out into the atmosphere. Not knowing if anyone is listening but knowing that as long as your transmission is going, others can tune in. That maybe it resonates with what they are already doing or thinking, or maybe it is a message that they’d never heard before but were waiting for.
And once you’ve broadcasted it, no one can stop it. It stays there in the air, keeps travelling, maybe even gets relayed by a bigger transmitter who sees it and is inspired to take their own action. Maybe nobody is even tuning in. But as people scan from one station full of ads and rehashed ideas to another, they’ll catch just a flicker of something different. A frequency you’d never noticed was there. And just hearing that glimpse of it makes you wonder what else could be possible.