What are the Alternatives?
I have been involved with a small reconciliation group in Cairns called "People for Reconciliation" - Subtitled, "Allies to Indigenous Australians in Far North Queensland". The group is for non-indigenous people to support each other in overcoming racism, and building good relationships with Aboriginal and Islander people in our local region. One of our aims is to speak out and interrupt white Australians where they unfairly attack or criticise Indigenous people.
We have chosen not to focus on Pauline Hanson, even though a lot of misinformation and bad feeling erupts around her. We regard her as symptom, not cause - and our primary focus has been on the positive programme.
However we were asked by some local Aboriginal people to organise something when she visited Cairns on Saturday 14 June. The trend of "violent" protests had been established by then - and we had some trepidations. We networked with other groups, and coordinated with an alliance of progressive lefties and Indigenous groups that organised a "celebration of multiculturalism" away from Hanson, and earlier in the afternoon when she was to speak.
We decided on a candle-lit prayer vigil. In networking and lead-up publicity we called it a "a complete respect event". That is, everyone present was to be treated with complete respect, no matter their views or opinions.
Both these events were very successful in their different ways, and Hanson's visit to Cairns was violence free, and very nearly abuse free as well. Only one solitary man out of 250 at the vigil called abuse at Hanson supporters (unfortunately his behaviour was given prominence by the commercial TV networks in their national coverage of the event).
The form of the event was simple but revealing and powerful. A gathering song and prayer to start followed by a series of personal testimonies from individuals from the crowd. These became mixed over the next hour with songs, prayers and statements. Each person held a dinner candle with a plastic cup-shield. We had organised a banner, a song sheet, a PA, and candles.
Following are some valuable lessons I learned through the experience, which I'd like to share with you:
1. The constructive program is most important.
Although it gained no media coverage at all, the "celebration of multiculturalism" attracted about 1500 people from our local district. We were able to gauge the strength of our local movement for reconciliation and social justice. We had councillors, senators, bishops, and community leaders speaking to our values - and we got to remind ourselves how strong we were.
Key feedback we got about the prayer vigil from Aboriginal people who came, or heard about it, was that they felt supported by our presence. We have seen a lot of fear and hurt among Indigenous friends about Pauline, her supporters, and their message . After all, they've seen things very like "the Hanson phenomenon" before. By making ourselves into good allies for Aboriginal people - where we speak up, and take action based on what we know from real friendships - we work for effective long-term reconciliation.
2. Pauline Hanson is our Mother/sister/daughter/cousin.
One of the reasons lots of anglo-Australian people get really emotional about Pauline Hanson is that we have seen her (and mostly failed to deal with her) before. Hands up everyone whose mother espoused similar views as they were growing up? The kind of racism that Hanson breathes is chronic all over Anglo- Australia. I'm forty-three, and when I was growing up and going to school, Hanson's views about Indigenous people were the accepted truth.
For the last fifty years, Aboriginal people have been organising extremely well to overcome oppression. They have had enormous political, legal, and institutional success. They have gained enormous cultural recognition. However the transformation of Anglo-Australian racism has been less than complete. Hanson genuinely represents the aging and shrinking (but still powerful) bastion of English colonialism in Australia.
This voice has been smothered in recent decades by "political correctness". It meant we didn't have to argue with our mothers anymore - we could just ignore them. Hanson shows us we can't. Now we have to do the hard yards of engaging our mothers, relatives, friends, and co-workers in ways which bring about better understanding.
And of course, we have to work on our own racism so we can do the job better.
At the vigil, we held out how limiting racism was - how it deprived people of the full range of human relationships, and cost them the insights of other cultures. We recognised how hard it is to act against our racism, to take risks and step forward - to make horribly embarrassing mistakes. Then we prayed that Pauline, her supporters, along with us, would find the courage and wisdom to act against racism and for reconciliation.
3. The media offer a distorted picture of events.
It was notable that the media focus was on the potential for confrontation, presumably in the hope of actual violence.
There was next to no coverage of the 1500 strong "celebration of multiculturalism" in press or electronic media. It all focussed on the more confrontational rally. Television coverage dwelt on one man's behaviour (out of 250) for ten minutes (out of two hours). Hardly balanced coverage. The local and state press labelled the event "tame" and "a fizzer" simply because there was little abuse and no violence. The Australian never covered it at all.
The same has been the case with other constructive nonviolent actions against racism (and against Pauline who oozes it). Media coverage has ignored them in favour of sensationalism and spectacle.
4. We don't have to contend with an organised Trotskyist left in Cairns.
Although noble of intention in many ways, the Trotskyist left have never really been very flexible in how they gain publicity and recruit for their cause. Their tactics of latching onto issues of public moment and sharpening conflict to "revolutionise" the disaffected (from whom they recruit) - along with their ideas that any publicity which creates an image of rebellion is good publicity - makes the Trotskyist groups a big liability for civil protest where they are active.
There are techniques for dealing with these groups, but they take a long time and a lot of trust-building to run. People in areas where the Trotskyist left is active would need about two months of conscientious preparation - on a base of several years of networking and alliance building across the community - to organise a successful nonviolent action close to Pauline Hanson.
If those conditions can't be met, then alternative forms of action have to be pursued until the conditions can be met. Trust-building and networking are pretty good ways of working on the positive program at any time.