City streets

For the last year and a half or so, members of my household have committed to doing a weekly one hour protest vigil for West Papua. Every Wednesday afternoon, we take some banners and flyers and head to King George Square.

Sometimes noteworthy things happen and sometimes they don’t. Hopefully it does a bit to raise the visibility of West Papuan people’s struggle for self-determination. But it does mean I regularly do something I wouldn’t do otherwise – stand still for an hour in the middle of the city. After a while you come to be well-acquainted with the happenings of a city street, especially the little strip of Adelaide St that is our regular haunt.

Our vigil is not the only thing trying to get the attention of the many passers by. Far from it in fact. There are often buskers there, for one. They could do with a bit more originality (is there anyone in the world who still wants to hear some guy with an acoustic guitar sing Wonderwall?), but usually they are a fairly pleasant addition.

On top of that though, there are usually a group of christian street evangelists. Makes me think of the line from Elton John’s Tiny Dancer – “Jesus freaks on the street, handing tickets out to God”. King George Square isn’t Los Angeles circa 1970 though, and these guys aren’t long-haired hippies who’ve been turned on to Jesus. They are a small group of committed but fairly intense people who hand out business card sized tracts and ready-made arguments to convince people of their need to pray the prayer of repentance (since I’m there holding protest signs, the one I have gotten is why human rights don’t make sense unless we believe in God).

I’d like to think of these guys as allies in what we are doing on the street; but unfortunately there are significant differences in our conception of what God’s liberation of the world looks like, as well as the means of communicating it. For these guys, preaching the gospel is a matter of such urgency that there is no time for getting to know the people they approach in the street, or for really listening to what they have to say. They offer suggestions for how to avoid eternal damnation, but not many glimpses of what a kingdom of God based on radical love for our neighbours might look like.

Also frequent denizens here are the street fundraisers, aka charity muggers. Now I know they hate being called that, and I know they are just trying to do their (quite difficult) job and raise some money for good causes in the process. I’ll admit they must be fairly effective at raising money for charities too, otherwise there surely wouldn’t be so many of them around. But again, the street fundraisers aren’t quite the friends on the street they could be.

For one, recently one fundraiser came up to our vigil. Rather than showing an interest in the plight of Papuan people, it was to tell us he had booked this stretch of public footpath and threaten he would have us removed. But also, the street fundraisers in my opinion don’t offer many enticing visions of a better world. And not only because the whole thing is based on private companies profiting from desperate backpackers struggling through a miserable day’s work and still being able to claim moral virtue because they’ve raised money for charity. The exaggerated smiles, cheesy compliments and 30 second pitches come straight out of a sales textbook. At times they are literally as misleading as the proverbial used car salesman; like when they say “we’re not asking for any money” (by which they mean they’re not asking for cash at this very moment. They are in fact only asking for money). The street fundraiser looks at the pedestrians and sees only dollar signs, potential sales to meet their quota.

When it works it still promotes a compartmentalised view of social progress where we give money to someone else to cure cancer/save the reef/be a clown doctor; rather than assess our own lives to consider how our gifts can be best used and how our day to day actions can best align with our values and dreams. But worse than that; as the public face of social causes, they represent us as only interested in you for what money you have. They have turned the noble act of generosity into something you cross the street to avoid.

Also competing for the attention of city-goers are another army of salesmen. These ones are mostly silent (though King George Square features a large tv screen that plays obnoxiously loud to willing and unwilling viewers alike) and mostly stationary (though sometimes they move around on the sides of buses or on trailers towed by tiny little cars). They are the ubiquitous and inescapable advertisements that bombard us wherever we go in the city, showering us with false promises and needling away at our insecurities.

The commonly quoted figure is 3000 ads a day the average person is exposed to. We become accustomed to shutting them out (the hidden cost of which is what else we might subconsciously shut out as part of this survival technique), but who could measure the impact they have on us? These images that surround us are designed to manufacture desires; while the things we really need – loving and understanding relationships, a meaningful way to actually better the world around us, the freedom to chart our own course in life – have no space on our walls and billboards.

Add to this the subtle unspoken messages of things like security cameras and guards; expanses of concrete; the Greek-style columns of City Hall. As each person walks through the city they pick their way through not just all these suitors; they dodge the other pedestrians, sift through all the noise of the city. In their pocket are electronic devices that carry not just every person they know but also all the collected knowledge and entertainment in the world. The many stimuli fight for our attention.

I wonder whether in the midst of all this there is still space for what we were promised by so many books and movies – the chance encounter that changes our life. In their own ways the ads and the evangelists offer it, but I wonder how many people are truly satisfied by their encounters with either. Mind you, I’m not claiming my own efforts on the street like our West Papua vigil necessarily provide those experiences either. Maybe I’m some kind of hopeless romantic, but I’ve always somehow kept believing in this. Which is probably why so much of my life has been spent on the street holding banners, serving food or just sitting around reading. Believing that maybe I could be that serendipitous encounter that changes someone’s life, or who knows, maybe they could be that for me.

Do those moments exist? It’s hard to measure the consequences of any single action, but surely they must in some form. The city is not really designed to provide really radical ideas or moments to threaten our equilibrium. But if we’re honest, neither are our lives; ensconced in our safe bubbles of predictability and reinforcement. If we want streets alive with new possibilities, we somehow have to create them.

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