The security guards who pulled us out of the Rod Laver Arena were confused: ‘But the Australian Open isn’t against refugees!’
The Australian Open was not the target of the organised political action that interrupted play during the men’s final on 1 February. It was a forum, a conduit for mass public attention. For what? To draw attention to the gross torture, abuse, and humiliation of asylum seekers held on Manus Island by the direction of our government; and to recognise the power of the struggle of those resisting it inside.
This issue needs to concern everyone within and bordering our nation. It is coming to define what it means to be human and how we live with one another. Our ability to empathise and share common values is becoming more and more muted. Australia’s treatment of refugees dehumanises everyone and leaves everyone vulnerable to the capacities of the state. As uncomfortable as it is to tell a preoccupied audience they need to think about these things, even while watching the tennis, we have an obligation to publicise this issue, in every possible way, at every juncture. We are unapologetic spoilsports.
Interrupting the Australian Open was an attempt to push through the media blackout around conditions on Manus Island. No journalists are allowed in the Manus Island detention centre, detainees have their compounds regularly raided for their phones, whistle-blowers are threatened and punished and any journalist who has written about asylum seeker issues in the past year has had to provide details of their sources to the AFP.
This has a dramatic effect on the quality of information getting out and, in turn, the public psyche. It has unquestionably affected those living in the Island camp:
Respected people of Australia, what the Liberal government told you during the last 14 days was nothing but lies. Just as before, our movement was peaceful, free from any sort of violence and we believe in discussion and discourse in order to solve our problems. To our astonishment, different groups of Australian people and institutions, including the High Court, have chosen silence in the name of the national interest.
– Excerpt from the open letter: From AUSTRALIA’S GUANTANAMO – Message from Manus Island
Our action tried to interrupt this silence and bring back into focus the kind of information that needs to be shared.
We think we were successful.
Within minutes, news of the action had spread favourably through international and domestic networks. Most quoted directly from our media release and talked about what was happening on Manus Island and for asylum seekers more generally in contact with Australian immigration.
However Channel 7’s decision to pause live coverage during the protest mimics the Australian media’s broader disinterest in this issue. It has failed to openly report what is happening within its immigration detention centres. What reporting there has been has conflated terror and asylum, which continues the longstanding demonisation of asylum seekers as terrorists and criminals.
Curiously, mainstream media will gloat about capturing live streams of a very unwell gunman in a chocolate cafe, but switches off when systemic violence is in question. This cuts to the core of the issue, exposing the traditional agenda of this tired old war on terror – fear, social control, and the silencing of dissent, in this case for both refugees and those that stand with them.
Despite this predictable fear mongering, we believe our action, along with the Hunger for Justice’s banner drop on Tony Abbott’s office in Sydney and the prevention of the deportation of Puvaneethan from Melbourne airport, has reverberated within the refugee rights movement and beyond. These stunts and actions interrupted the atmosphere of despair and hopelessness which had begun to settle within the Australian psyche. This is significant and deserves interrogation, as well as celebration. Media stunts are not an end in and of themselves; they are a tool to disrupt and rupture dominant narratives. Once that fracture is exposed, it can enable a new confidence and articulate alternate questions for how and why we struggle.
And this is our present vantage point.
Many cite our action as a possible new trajectory. But it is not new. In fact, over the decades that policies of mandatory detention and remote or offshore processing have endured, there have been multiple incidents of creative, high-risk media stunts. Probably the closest precedent to our action was 2004’s Big Brother contestant, Merlin Luck, staging a silent protest during the live eviction show, holding a small banner which read ‘FREE TH REFUGEES’. His actions received both support and vicious criticism as well as the usual, well meaning ‘I support your message, but the way you went about it…’.
Other high risk solidarity actions such as the Woomera breakout and Baxter actions from 2002 onwards also garnered significant media attention. They were highly visible and influential solidarity actions that galvanised broader recognition and support for the refugee movement, as well as having serious legal repercussions for the members of the movement and asylum seekers.
Others have cited the anti Apartheid struggle, particularly the actions around the 1971 Springbok tour, as another possible point of reference for how to organize and resist. Although these are remarkably different contexts, there are lessons to learn from all these periods of struggle, including from within the refugee movement. We need to be reflecting now on where we are, and where we want to go.
Australia’s own Gulag Archipelago now stretches to ever remoter locations. In turn we rely increasingly on the whistleblowers, journalists and refugees themselves to delegitimise Australia’s detention policies. But when a government takes this issue off the table as something that can be discussed, disputed and reported on, then we cannot hope to change the course through business-as-usual tactics.
The actions over the past weeks had resonance because they manifested and impacted a symbolic resistance that many have been desperate to express. We should take great heart in this. We’ve been part of demonstrations where thousands of people have rejected government policy on refugees. We’ve been part of countless social media and click-bait fundraising campaigns. But as the government reaches new lows on this issue, we need to be defining new highs in our resistance to it.
In a way our action was a call-out to these folk to stand up and speak out. You have a voice. You can use it. We refuse to despair or lose hope while those in detention continue to mobilise against it at all odds. We don’t want to stomach another sombre vigil to commemorate the murder of a detainee whose only crime was to seek our protection. We want to fight for them to live. We don’t have the silver bullet strategy, but we have the conviction to stand up, in every possible way we can.
Today, everyone who is detained on Manus Island has become a community called ‘asylum seekers’. We are now talking to you. We have formed a nation and we have taken an oath of continuing our battle until achieving freedom. Two weeks of hunger strike was evidence of our unity. The government policy towards our hunger strike was failed from the beginning. By deploying hundreds of guards on Manus Island compounds in order to break the hunger strike of nine hundred people who, as a result of dehydration and starvation were about to die, you (Australian government) revealed your weakness, and your weakness is a positive energy for us to be encouraged to continue our effort in this path.
– Latest Statement from Manus Detainees
We’re asking for people to refuse this system of suffering, stand with those resisting in detention centres, and once and for all redraw the lines of this game.