5,000 people attending a candle-lit vigil for a man they did not know. Describing it as touching seems inadequate.
This was the scene at Melbourne’s Federation Square on Sunday night. Part of a national evening called ‘Light the Dark’, the event was organised by GetUp and a collection of refugee advocacy groups. The organisation in under 48 hours was impressive.
Others have different takes on these events (see here for an excellent New Matilda round up). For me, the following defined my experience:
Listening to people gave me pause. While people’s motivations to attend were relatively similar, when prompted about policy, this similarity faded:
Q. What motivated you to come to this event?
“Regardless of your stance on immigration policy, we need to be treating people humanely. We have become responsible for them and the way we treat them in our detention centres is unacceptable.”
“My voice isn’t being represented by the current government.”
“I’m sick of the inequality, the arrogance, cruelty and ignorance of the federal government.”
Nearly all people I talked to appealed directly to a sense of fairness, equality and humanity. Every single person mentioned the government was not exhibiting these qualities. Many also raised the stance of the Opposition.
Q. Do you agree with offshore processing? Do you believe there should be a cap on the number of asylum seekers allowed in Australia?
“If offshore processing was more transparent, I could make an informed decision but its not.”
“This is hard to say because there should a limit. We are not at the limit, not even close to it.”
“People who arrive should be allowed to present their situation, onshore and promptly.”
“I don’t think imprisoning people is the way to go. This is a form of violence, acting violently towards people will only breed violence.”
“We must give people the benefit of the doubt.”
“I don’t pretend to have the answer.”
“There is a way to save money, if that is what they are worried about, by placing people in communities.”
“No country has the obligation to take everyone. The country has a right to decide how many to take permanently but we should be a haven for those who need it.”
“We need to help everyone who is sincerely a refugee.”
“What the cap is now is pathetic, but if they can make the caps more reasonable then yes, a cap is fine.”
“You can’t talk about in terms of caps or quotas, we have to look at the situation and see how people immigrate through Indonesia and Malaysia. I think Malcolm Fraser’s ideas are the best and most sensible to go forward, increase the quotas through Indonesia.”
The range of responses surprised me but perhaps it shouldn’t have. Listening to people demonstrated a perspective that doesn’t litter the internet, op-ed pages or talkback radio. The uncertainty of people when faced with complexity. The individual understanding that comes from how people relate to experiences they only hear and read about as opposed to experiencing themselves.
In addition, watching people interact in a shared public space amongst many disparate groups was fascinating. While questions of motivations drew out a common wariness of politicians, people’s actions also demonstrated a distinct aversion to hard-core activists. No-one purchased New Left Weekly, actively avoiding the seller by walking around him while others told a group of activists to be quiet when promoting the next rally. These little actions show some of the difficulties facing social movements but also how public opinion can be too easily polarised by its extremes.
The overriding sense I took away was the simple, but human, act of remembrance. Perhaps others disagree, but my feeling standing amongst those 5,000 people was one of sorrow for those affected by death as opposed to mass anger at government policy. In part, I suspect this is me projecting my emotions onto a much larger group. I’m unsure. What I do know is the largest response from the crowd were reserved not for policy denunciations but reflections on the man who died as well as others in detention centres.
Finally, a comment on how how each of the speakers appealed directly to a sense of morality for changing asylum policy.
“Manus Island must be closed, because this is the right thing to do”. “Offshore processing is wrong”. “End mandatory detention”.
In a vacuum, I would have said the vast majority of people agreed with these rally cries. Yet is this the way to change asylum policy in Australia? Does an appeal to what is right and wrong, black and white, represent the best way forward?
I’m not as optimistic as those speakers who couldn’t seem to find space for the grey, the uncertainty which has stalked asylum policy for over a decade.