Zen's Arcade


Today, we should retain the same circumspection. It is a day for a dwindling number of soldiers to remember fallen comrades. To deny anyone that right would be less than human. To pile on it for other reasons — and to underwrite the wars of the future with the pointless ones of the past — is a travesty of what remains genuine at the heart of the day. Don’t march with someone else’s medals. They’re not yours, you didn’t earn them, and you might not feel so good about them if you had. Unpopular as it may be, we need to keep questioning the “ecstatic myths” of war in the hope that by doing so we may actually save some — Australian, Afghan, Iraqi, Iranian — lives to come, not those that have been.

- Guy Rundle in ANZAC Day and why we need to question the ‘myths’ of war

Cover The Night: The Kony 2012 campaign and Activism as Marketing

With April 20th having come and gone we have seen the first mobilisation of the Kony 2012 campaign, which aims for the capture of Joseph Kony, the leader of the Ugandan terrorist organisation the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA). Unfortunately from the perspective of supporters, reports from around the world show the protest has fizzled in a spectacular, rarely gaining more attendees to drag itself into double figures. Whilst many will contribute superficial explanations for this it actually provides a unique insight into the changing nature of activism and its limitations.

Make no mistake, the ‘Cover The Night’ events have been by all reports a dreadful failure. In Brisbane, the event managed to attract 50 people. In Sydney only 25 people attended, and the Melbourne demonstration also struggled. The Vancouver event managed just 17 people, Toronto got a dozen and the Montreal event was cancelled. Many of these protests were accompanied by Facebook events with attendees numbering well into the tens of thousands. As I write this, the initial video by the charity Invisible Children charity has received over 88 million views on YouTube, and 18 million on Vimeo. 

Serious questions have to be asked on why such a massive disconnect exists between the initial hype behind the campaign and the complete failure of its mobilisation. Many will simply dismiss the campaigners and supporters altogether, labelling them as ‘slacktivists’ and committed to any image of social justice rather than serious political action. Others have already blamed the length of time between the appearance of the video and the protests, as well as the quick moving nature of social media.

But none of these explanations really explain the magnitude of the failure of Cover The Night. Twitter and Facebook played a vital role in organising people throughout the Arab Spring, allowing for rapid dissemination of information on protests and state repression. Nor is time necessarily a major factor. The video debuted only 6 weeks ago, a relatively small period of time in movement politics. For comparison, the initial Occupy Wall Street protest had inspired similar protests in 2000 cities after six weeks

Rather, the near complete lack of activity around Cover The Night seems to reflect deep political and organisational problems with the Kony 2012 campaign. Indeed, early political criticisms of Invisible Children, the charity organising the Kony 2012 campaign, have clearly impacted its success. One of the initial interventions into the debate by sociologist Grant Oyston remains one of the best, outlining most of the reasons to oppose the group and the campaign: that Invisible Children spends very little money on direct help for child soldiers, that the LRA has been significantly weakened of late and is no longer active in Uganda, that the group openly supports the brutal Sudanese and Ugandan militaries and that military efforts to capture Kony would and already have harmed innocent civilians. Since then further revelations have harmed the campaign including the charity’s links with some of the more extreme homophobic elements of the US Right as well as repeated criticisms by African activists and victims about the campaigns implicit paternalism. It’s interesting to note here that Ugandan blogger Javie Ssovi predicted that the threat of military intervention could lead to an increase in child abduction by the LRA, which is exactly what happened. On top of this, the breakdown of Invisible Children’s co-founder Jason Russell added an element of farce to the whole mess.

However the approach to activism used by Invisible Children in the Kony 2012 campaign also provides key points for understanding how it has failed to develop as a protest. Namely because it isn’t anything like traditional grassroots activism, but is rather an exercise that more closely resembles corporate marketing. 

Almost every component of the campaign reflects this. Go to either the Kony 2012 or the Invisible Children websites and you can quickly find yourself in the web store with a wide range of t-shirts and Mother’s Day specials. You can download templates for door hangers and stencils, as well as videos directing you how and what to chalk. There’s a customer service link in case you get confused when e-shopping. That’s not to mention the “Action Kit” which comes with everything you need to get active with some pre-made bracelets, posters, stickers and buttons, all cover in the Kony 2012 brand. None of this is available in stores. Maybe if you call in the next 30 minutes they’ll throw in a #stopKony shoulder bag FOR FREE!

Looking through the store there’s hardly anything to distinguish it from what you would see on any generic retail outlet. In a serious political movement you would expect democratic collectives to produce such things themselves. People participate in open meetings where they can debate how they want to frame the campaign’s arguments, how they should propagate them, what actions they will organise, who or what it will target, and how to take the movement forward. The result is that activists are intimately linked with the movement. People become united and empowered, which is what carries political movements onwards and allows them to grow.

None of this exists in the Kony 2012 campaign. People are expected to acquire everything they need from Invisible Children. Rather than encouraging people to form their own collectives and debate one another on what to do as soon as possible, Invisible Children rely on individual consumption of their products. The supporters are infantilised, mere consumers of an ideal and propagators of a brand. The campaign is in no way democratic, nor is ‘grassroots’, and in many ways it is borderline exploitative.  Is it any wonder that people would have as much loyalty to the campaign as they would the latest fashion label or style given how little participation they are afforded?

Understanding the Kony 2012 campaign as mere marketing also allows us to understand many of its tactics. How else does one explain the celebrity culture fetish that surrounds Kony 2012? As Victor Ochen, the director of the African Youth Initiative Network, told The Guardian:

"This is a day when communities are trying to heal broken hearts, but Invisible Children want to plaster Kony’s face everywhere," he continued. "People in the affected areas find it very difficult when an organisation encourages people to wear T-shirts bearing Kony’s face. How do you think Americans would have reacted if people in another country wore Osama Bin Laden T-shirts? All of this just confirms to us that they do not care about the victims and ignore their suffering."

Surely a focus of any truly grassroots political movement would be to make strong connections with victims and African peace activists. The overuse of the Kony image makes no sense in this context, but it makes perfect sense if you’re trying to manufacture a brand. 

It also helps to explains who Invisible Children aims to target to spread its message. In the initial video, it is said people should aim to influence celebrities like Lady Gaga, Rihanna, George Clooney and Ben Affleck. How this would actually help the victims of the LRA remains a mystery to me, yet support from such sources would clearly boost the profile of Invisible Children. The video also calls on people to contact commentators and politicians including Bill O’ Reilly, Rush Limbaugh, Condolezza Rice and George W. Bush. To simply ignore the roles each of them played in supporting, and in the case of Rice and Bush, carrying out the devastating wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the scores of civilians killed in each conflict, highlights the complete apolitical nature of the entire campaign.

However it is important to note that the sort of political marketing used by Invisible Children is hardly an historical abstraction, but rather the latest in a clear trend towards an apolitical and corporatised form of activism. This can be seen within the ‘Make Poverty History’ campaign, which moved away from progressive calls of debt cancellation and disbanding of unjust free trade agreements, to selling wrist bands and organising music festivals. Another obvious example is Earth Hour, itself a creation of the advertising industry and with great support from the Fairfax press, aimed to create awareness of climate change through the community and business sector by convincing them to switch off their lights and non-essential items for an hour. Whilst it maybe a nice gesture, it certainly acts to distract people from the more pressing issue, namely that reducing individual consumption of electricity is likely to have little effect on carbon emissions, especially as we see record production and investment in fossil fuels by government and industry.

The trend can also be seen in mainstream political campaigning. In Australia, The ‘Kevin 07’ campaign focused on personality differences between Kevin Rudd and John Howard, distracting from the relatively minimal differences that existed between the major parties outside of WorkChoices. The result has been a demobilised base which has largely abandoned the party. The superficiality of the whole campaign was epitomised when Neil Lawrence, the man who coined “Kevin 07”, went to work for the mining industry in crafting the anti-mining tax ads that would help kill off the resource super profits tax and Rudd’s leadership. Similar is the case of the 2008 election of Barack Obama, which effectively relied on the rhetoric of ‘hope’ and ‘change’ to sell an essentially conservative candidate who has since continued much of what was started by the Bush Administration. As Noam Chomsky noted at the time:

The Obama campaign greatly impressed the public relations industry, which named Obama “Advertising Age’s marketer of the year for 2008,” easily beating out Apple. The industry’s prime task is to ensure that uninformed consumers make irrational choices, thus undermining market theories. And it recognizes the benefits of undermining democracy the same way.

………Obama’s organizers regard the network they constructed “as a mass movement with unprecedented potential to influence voters,” the Los Angeles Times reported. The movement, organized around the “Obama brand” can pressure Congress to “hew to the Obama agenda.” But they are not to develop ideas and programs and call on their representatives to implement them. These would be among the “old ways of doing politics” from which the new “idealists” are “breaking free.”

This highlights the worst feature of activism as marketing. Not only does it alienate people from campaigns by disempowering them, making campaigns unsustainable, but it is also bound to uphold the values and opinions of the status quo. This sort of marketing can only be performed by the type of large professionalised NGO’s that can afford to run these types of expensive campaigns. They require the support of wealthy donors and large advertising agencies, all of which perpetuate only the dominant privileged ideologies. Hence why agencies like Invisible Children support Western military intervention rather than respecting the agency of African peoples. 

The ultimate irony of the Kony 2012 campaign is that it has occurred shortly after the recent explosion in true democratic grassroots movements worldwide. From the Arab Spring, to the Indignants movement of Spain, to the Occupy protests, the World is once again seeing mass mobilisations that arguably haven’t been seen since the early opposition to the Iraq War. Importantly, the demonstrations in Tunisia and Egypt, where long term dictators were forced to step down in a matter of weeks, show the power that true democratic movements have to lead to the betterment of ordinary people, something no amount of marketing can ever provide.

Mar 7

Visible Children: We got trouble.


You do not need to ask my permission to share this. Please link it widely. For those asking what you can do to help, please link to visiblechildren2.tumblr.com wherever you see KONY 2012 posts.

I do not doubt for a second that those involved in KONY 2012 have great intentions, nor do I doubt for…

Mar 3

What A Real Climate Policy Would Look Like

Realised I’ve posted close to nothing here recently so I thought I’d let y’all in on an article I wrote for the Sydney University Climate Action Collective, of which I am a member. It’s shorter than most of the stuff I write on here, and an even *shorter* version appears in our Zine. Enjoy!

In Australia, the majority of carbon emissions are produced by the burning of fossil fuels, mainly coal and gas, to generate electricity. When adding in the emissions from transport fossil fuel usage amounts to 70% of Australia’s national greenhouse gas emissions. A rapid transition away from fossil fuels must be the most crucial aspect to any plan to fight climate change.

Renewable energy technology is quickly reaching the stage where it can replace fossil fuels. A 2010 report by the non-profit group Beyond Zero Emissions in conjunction with the University of Melbourne estimates that Australia could generate all its electricity needs by 2020 with renewable energy technology that is already available. Under the plan, 40% of Australia’s electricity would be generated by wind farms placed strategically around the country to ensure baseload power. The remaining generation would be provided by concentrated solar thermal power plants. The plants consist of thousands of mirrors that concentrate heat energy from the sun on a single molten salt tower. The salt can in turn be used to generate steam for use in turbines, as well as being stored for 17 hours, allowing for the generation of electricity well into the night or during cloudy days.

Such plants are already in existence around the world. The best example is the Gemasolar plant in Spain. Opened just last year, the plant has already generated electricity continuously for 24 hours, and is able to run consistently during the peak demand period between noon and 10pm.

The Beyond Zero Emissions plan is estimated to cost $370 billion over ten years, averaging about 3% of GDP a year. Whilst this would clearly be a very large expenditure it would still be within the amount that was spent to put Nations on a war-footing during World War 2, or what has been spent to bailout banks during the global financial crisis. Importantly it requires government intervention. Renewable energy technology is prohibitively expensive to the private sector, with little short term profit to be made. Yet the only way to reduce the cost is with a massive rollout of renewable energy infrastructure, which would bring with it experience and mass production. Only the Government and the Public Sector would be able to provide such investment.

Not only is renewable energy required to fight climate change, but a series of infrastructure is required to reduce emissions. A new grid would have to be planned and constructed to connect the new power plants to places of production and residence. Houses would need to be retrofitted with insulation and solar water heating. A massive upgrade of electrified public transport is needed to reduce reliance on automobiles, trucking and even aeroplanes. City planning would need to be used to increasingly integrate rural and urban centres to reduce unnecessary transport. All these elements necessitate central coordination and funding which could only come through the Government.

Instead of implementing such a program, the Gillard Government is relying on market mechanisms to drive the climate agenda. The $23/tonne carbon price is generally accepted as being too low to make renewable competitive. Even if the price was higher it would not deal with the structural disadvantageous that renewables face, such as the lack of an adequate grid. Government investment in renewable energy is based on the existence on private sector funding, further tethering public funds to the will of the market. In contrast, the Government is content in providing $12 billion per year in subsidies for fossil fuel use

Rarely is the hypocrisy as clear as in the recent decision by the Federal Government to withdraw funding to the Moree Solar Farm on the basis that it failed to attract outside finance, whilst extending a $100 million grant to the HRL coal plant in Victoria. On top of this is the Liberal State Governments in both NSW and Victoria, which have recently passed legislation to severely restricting the construction of wind farms.

Despite the urgency with which climate change presents itself, both sides of politics refuse to deal with the crisis. Whilst the Coalition continues to wink at denialists, the ALP maintains its support for market based false solutions. What is needed now is Government investment and intervention to ensure the closure of the fossil fuel industry, with a massive ramp up of renewable energy technology in a democratic and equitable way.

Feb 7

So this is the news story of the year: “Las Vegas Grindcore Band Interrupts Newt Gingrich”.

A rally for Republican Party nominee Newt Gingrich in Las Vegas on Thursday morning was interrupted by local Nevada grindcore band Traumatic Anal Devastation. Apparently the band members showed up outside the rally, plugged their instruments in, and generated what Gingrich staffer Terry ‘The Stick’ Foley called “the sound of a tank driving through a minefield.”

Police showed up and pulled the plug on the band after about five minutes (twenty songs). Singer for the group Chip “Gravelthroat” Corbin said the impromptu performance was a political statement based on the band’s agenda for equal rights, animal rights, and support of anti-war movements across the world. When asked how his band’s name reflected its political beliefs, Corbin stated “Traumatic Anal Devastation is obviously metaphorical for the way the government and capitalism has continually raped the public at-large.”

When asked how people were supposed to understand the political nature of the lyrics given the undecipherable delivery of them, Corbin responded “Huh? What do you mean?” No reports of hearing loss or more than usual psychological damage from the Gingrich supporters who were present.

Beautiful. Can’t say I’m the worlds biggest Grindcore fan, but here’s some Nails to celebrate. 

Feb 7

15 Love Songs You Probably Shouldn’t Play On Valentines Day

Seems we’re approaching that time of year again. Valentines Day. The day where young teenaged couples pledge their undying love for one another only three weeks before breaking up and never speaking again. The day where florists and Hallmark card writers can finally take their families out for a night of expensive Chinese food. The day where professional misanthropes clog up social media sites with how much they hate everyone. A day where hundreds of horny loners descend on “Singles Parties” for a night that will live on in drunken, veneral disease ridden-infamy. A day where the vast majority of normal people carry on their lives with little notice nor care for the melodrama going on around them.

But more than any of this, Valentines Day is another pointless holiday that allows bored bloggers to make even more pointless lists. And what’s more pointless than a list of bad love songs posted a week before Valentines Day? Nothing I tells. NOTHING!

After all, most love songs are pretty disturbing. People still romanticise The Police’s ‘Every Breath You Take’ despite the fact it is clearly about a stalker. ‘Summer Nights’ seems to have some rape allusions. Not to mention ‘I Saw Her Standing There’, a rare insight into Paul McCartney’s debaucherous ephebophilic mind.

Surely none of these songs should be played on Valentines Day, and if you did play these songs, why not go all out? Why not celebrate those songs that are deliberately disturbing? And so here you are, my 15 picks for love songs that probably should not be played on Valentines Day.


15. Poison The Well - ‘Nerdy’

I was told at a party several years ago that bands like Poison The Well made my taste in music “pussy repellent”. Shame, because corny lyrics like “Why do you’re eyes paralyse me? What makes me feel this way?” and “Don’t dull away, hold my hand”, means Poison The Well could easily make a decent bubblegum pop band if it weren’t for all the palm muted bar chords and double kicks.

14. Public Enemy - ‘Pollywanacraka’

A love song by Public Enemy? What is this? Look, it’s ok, because ‘Pollywanacraka’ is a 4 minute spoken word jam from a baritone Chuck D that deconstructs interracial relationships, examining insecurity, communal prejudice, class hatred and racial identity. Probably not the best mood music, but a good song nonetheless.

13. Black Flag - ‘I Love You’

Here’s another group with an unexpected love song. Though it’s pretty clear from the opening lyrics that this isn’t a typical love song: “I put my fist through the door, I hate myself for you”. Pretty dedicated right? Indeed, the guy is so dedicated to his partner that he stabs her to death so she can never leave. Probably explains why Rollins never got married after all these years.

12. Elvis Presley - ‘Kissin’ Cousins’

Elvis’ endearing ode to familial relations. The song is actually pretty fun when you look past the whole, you know, incest part. Though as someone who passed a third year Evolutionary Genetics course I can say that his excuse that “We’re all cousins….because we’re children of Adam and Eve” does not make macking on with your relatives “all right”.

11. The Velvet Underground - ‘The Gift’

Written by Lou Reed for a University assignment, ‘The Gift’ tells the story of Waldo Jeffers, who is trying to keep his long distance relationship with Marsha Bronson alive. Walter, broke and lovesick, decides to mail himself to Marsha. All very romantic until Marsha stabs the package with a box cutter, slicing straight into Waldo’s head, killing him instantly. Oh yeah, and she was cheating on him the whole time. All in all somewhat less sweet than ‘Pale Blue Eyes’.

10. Dizzee Rascal - ‘I Luv U’

Another ironically titled song, because ‘I Luv U’ is a tale of a young relationship kept together by nothing more than material circumstances, jealousy, suspicion, competition and sexual exploitation. Combine this with a young Dizzee’s visceral flow and a classic grime beat and it’s unlikely you’ll get a dancing partner for the Singles Ball.

9. Broken Social Scene - ‘Anthem For A Seventeen Year Old Girl’

Ok this is just a sad song. It opens with “You used to be one of the rotten ones and I liked you for that. No you’re all gone, got your makeup and you’re not coming back. Can’t you come back?”, but closes with “Park that car, drop that phone, sleep on the floor, dream about me”. Don’t you see! He won’t dream of you. He doesn’t love, he never will. HE’LL NEVER TREAT YOU RIGHT. I’D TREAT YOU RIGHT THOUGH. OH GOD, NOW I’M CRYING AGAIN. HAPPENS EVERY TIME. GET IT TOGETHER, MAN. GET IT TOGETHER!

8. Gang Of Four - ‘Anthrax’

If you manage to navigate your way through the opening minute-and-a-half of guitar feedback and drone you’ll discover ‘Anthrax’ is a crowning achievement of the English post-punk scene. Half song, half spoken word piece, it is a rational deconstruction of the love song with Andy Gill concluding “don’t think we’re saying there’s anything wrong with love, we just don’t think what goes on between two people should be shrouded in mystery”. And let’s not forget the “Love will get you like a case of Anthrax, and that’s something I don’t want to catch” hook. Ok, so no one would ever actually play this song on Valentines Day. Fuck you, it’s a good song.

7. Bruce Springsteen - ‘Atlantic City’

In someways this is typical Springsteen; boy meets girl, boy and girl live in terrible environment, boy promises girl to get her a better life. The main difference is that in this case, the boy is forced to work for the mob to do so, pushing him into an existential wasteland where death is around every corner. Well, at least her hair is up pretty.

6. The Jesus and Mary Chain - ‘Just Like Honey’

Y’all know that final scene in ‘Lost In Translation’? Where Bill Murray runs through a crowded Tokyo to get to Scarlett Johansson and says something that everyone pretends is a mystery even though it’s clear as fucking day that he tells her he loves her? Yeah well this is the song that starts playing at the end of the scene. Pretty sweet right? That’s until you discover that Jim Reid is actually graphically detailing sex with an ex-girlfriend, with a particular focus on his reluctance to go down on her. So yeah, there you go.

5. Woody Guthrie - ‘Hard, Ain’t It Hard’

There’s a few different versions of this song but they all tell the same tale. The relatively generic hook of “Ain’t it hard to love one that never did love you” covers up a story of a man who has fallen in love with another man who happens to sleep with all the women in town, before murdering him out of jealousy. That’s pretty radical by today’s standard, let alone when Guthrie played it in 1941. 

4. The Smiths - ‘There Is A Light That Never Goes Out’

Fairly standard addition to the list, I would’ve thought. Only Morrissey would complicate a lovely late night drive with thoughts of getting run over by a double decker bus or a ten ton truck. Some trivia, the title lyric was originally “there is a light in your eyes that never goes out”. Pretty cheesy. Luckily, they decided to stick with the abstract one-liners and the death fantasies.

3. Atlas Sound - ‘Shelia’

Fans of either/both Atlas Sound and/or Deerhunter would know that singer-songwriter Bradford Cox’s music is pretty much always depressing. So ‘Shelia’, with its sunny instrumentation and tale of aging love seems like a nice reprieve. That’s until you learn that the couple fear dying alone and that there fear is the only thing keeping together. Good going there, Bradford, you had us there for a second. I’m sure that the songs final lyric “we’ll die alone together” will be belted out at dates across the nation.

2. Iggy Pop - ‘Tonight’

Ironically placed on Pop’s breakthrough solo record Lust For Life, ‘Tonight’ follows Pop as he convinces his partner, dying from a heroin overdose, that “everything will be alright tonight”. On a brighter note, the song was covered by David Bowie and Tina Turner in 1984, where the drug references were removed and the song put to a reggae beat. That cover did not make the list, because it is shit.

1. the Mountain Goats - ‘Going To Georgia’

"The most remarkable thing about coming home to you is the feeling of being in motion again. It’s the most wonderful feeling in the world". Fairly innocuous beginning. That is until you realise the protagonist has got a gun and only moments away from shooting himself. That is until his love walks in: "The most remarkable thing about you standing in the doorway is that it’s you, and that you’re standing in the doorway". She takes away the gun and he no longer feels like dying. I don’t know about y’all, but I like that. ‘Going To Georgia’ is completely fucked up, but in typical Mountain Goats fashion it is lovable and listenable, and in no way playable on Valentines Day, but it’s worth a try.

The Tent Embassy Protest - A Lesson in Overreaction and Social Context

The kind people over at The Overland Literary Journal have cross-posted my piece about the Tent Embassy protest. Click the title to read it if you haven’t already, or if you just want to read it again. I won’t judge.


‘Straya Day mate.


‘Straya Day mate.

The Tent Embassy Protest - A Lesson in Over Reaction and Social Context

The Australia Day Tent Embassy Protest - was it one of the Nation’s gravest political security threats? A bit of an over reaction? A media beat up perhaps? Or was there something deeper going on….

The protests were sparked by comments made by the Opposition Leader Tony Abbott that those at the Tent Embassy “move on” after celebrating its 40th anniversary. Some 200 activists from the Embassy traveled to a nearby ceremony honouring emergency service workers, which was attended by both Abbott and Prime Minister Gillard. After several minutes of chants and window banging, the Prime Minister’s security team decide to bundle both Gillard and Abbott out of the ceremony, where Gillard tripped and lost a shoe in the drama. Both leaders were put into cars, allowing for their departure.

It didn’t take long for the moral panic to begin. The protests were “violent” and a “shame” on the Nation, lead by an “angry mob”. Countless column inches were taken up with estimates of how far the protests had sent back the cause of reconciliation. Was it 5 years? 10 years? 20 years? Some went even further. David Penberthy called for the closure of the Tent Embassy, as did Menzies House, apparently seeing no conflict between that and their defence of the free speech rights of Andrew Bolt last year. Speaking of Bolt, he saw fit to use the protests as an excuse to call an end to reconciliation altogether. As Amber Jamieson noted in Crikey almost every major paper led with the image of a clearly frightened Gillard in the arms of personal security accompanied by headlines like “Prime Threat” or the offensive appropriation “Sorry Day” (I’ll come back to that). Laurie Oakes seized on a handful of vile comments to label all those involved in the Tent Embassy as “morons”. Bob Carr had my favourite piece, seemingly having a brain haemorrhage and going on a bizarre red-baiting rant:

Anyway here we have again the bankruptcy of the old Leftist approach: throw a demo. Every time some respectable body does this – the ACTU or Unions NSW or a pro-refugee group – the same thing happens: on the street the extremists take over. The Trots love a blue, “the worse things are the better they are” and by radicalizing everyone and breaking heads it all hastens the World October, onto revolution, comrades.

Must have been pretty bad right? The black hordes attacking our first female Prime Minister like a scene out of The Birth Of A Nation, right?

Well eyewitness accounts come across quite different to those of the commentariat. Melbourne based writer Wil Wallace was able to interview Embassy activist Sam Castro, who gave a very different account of the days events:

The morning started with speeches being made at the Tent Embassy on a range of subjects until one person stood up and explained to the crowd that Tony Abbott had remarked to the media that he believed the Tent Embassy was no longer relevant and should be packed up and moved on; information had just come through that Tony Abbott was at The Lobby, a restaurant near the Old Parliament House, and the suggestion was made that the group should go there and ask Abbott to talk to the crowd and explain himself.

A contingent of about 100 protesters made their way up the road to The Lobby and surrounded it. Though they were loud and noisy they were non-violent. Security blocked the protesters from getting close to the restaurant for a while but it didn’t take long for a few protesters to break the line and soon the rest had gotten close up against the restaurant’s walls. As the walls of The Lobby are made of glass the protesters could look in and see Mr Abbott and the others pretending not to hear them and, after about ten or fifteen minutes Julia Gillard’s white jacket was recognised and the protesters realised that she was in there along with Mr Abbott.

The conduct of the police and security team is also notably different in Castro’s account:

As more protesters made their way to the restaurant, the riot police charged out the doors, practically dragging Ms Gillard along, while the onlookers began to shout “where are you going?” and “why won’t you talk to us?” As the cars drove off, some people threw plastic water bottles and water at the cars.

At this point things began to get fairly nasty; one protester was knocked into the rose bushes and one gigantic cop started brandishing a can of tear gas or capsicum spray (reports differ on this point) in people’s faces and shoved Sam, another girl and a female photo-journalist in the head. When Sam told him to calm down he reportedly bared his teeth and grinned so widely his eyes nearly popped out of his head; to many on site it was fairly clear that the officer was barely under control.

This account is supported by-and-large by another Embassy attendee, Amy McQuire, who detailed her experience in Crikey, as well as organiser Mark McMurtie. Writing in The New Matilda, Ben Eltham noted that 3AW’s reporter on the scene, Michael Pachi, reported that the “violence” was in fact mostly loud chanting, whilst participants again reiterated that they only wanted Abbott to make a speech to the crowd. While these claims are obviously subjective, the authors at least have the benefit of actually having been there, something not shared by Penberthy, Bolt, Oakes or Carr.

On top of these accounts is the video of the event. Judging by footage provide by NineMSN, it’s pretty obvious that no protestor ever came close to either leader, and that the only civilians that did were those involved in the media. 

Whilst protestors were banging on the restaurant windows, this video shows that it was still far short of anything violent.

Indeed, the only video evidence of physical violence is that committed by the Police, as was claimed by the eyewitnesses mentioned above. Footage shows police inciting and threatening demonstrators and the media, punching protestors and repeatedly ignoring complaints of abuse.

Considering all of this, it’s difficult to see how the protestors formed a credible threat to either Gillard or Abbott. After all, not a single person was arrested at the protest, and as of yet, no one has been charged with any crime. That says a lot about the nature of the demonstration, especially when you consider 20 people were arrested during the crackdown on Occupy Melbourne, which was no where near any National leader.

The reaction to the Tent Embassy protest, by Gillard, Abbott, the Police and the Media provides a uniquely raw glimpse at how the powerful view and treat Aboriginal Australians. Firstly, serious questions have to be asked about why neither Gillard nor Abbott made any attempt to address the crowd. After all, that’s what Anthony Albanese did when a 500-strong crowd (i.e. well over twice the size of the Tent Embassy protest) confronted him outside his Marrackville office in September 2011 over his comments about the Convoy of No Confidence. 

Then there is the question of whether the actions of police and security were even necessary. It is difficult to claim the protestors represented any clear physical threat to either Gillard or Abbott. The threat was at least no greater then the aforementioned Albanese protest, or another recent action against Immigration Minister Chris Bowen by Refugee adovcates. Neither protest attracted any where near the amount of Police attention as did the Tent Embassy action. 

But then again, it’s not like the Police have the best relationship with the Aboriginal people. Earlier this month saw the death of Terrance Daniel Briscoe, a 28 year old Aboriginal man, within Police custody in an Alice Spring gaol. The official reason given by the Police, that Briscoe had sustained a head injury prior to being locked up, amounts to little more than gross negligence on the part of the Police. Sadly, Briscoe is just one of almost 300 Aboriginal persons who have died in custody since the deaths in custody Royal Commission in 1991. As Igna Ting has reported in Crikey, deaths in custody have risen by 50% since 1991 despite some $400 million dollars being allocated to implementing (some) recommendations of the Royal Commission. Between 2000 and 2009, Indigenous incarceration rates increased by 50%, whilst non-Indigenous rates increased by 5%. The proportion of Indigenous people in prison system has nearly doubled since 1991, going from 14% to 26%, whilst remaining just 3% of the population. Indeed, based on the raw statistics, Australia imprisons Aboriginal men at 5 times the rate Apartheid South Africa gaoled Black men.

And this brings me to my main point. In almost all the coverage of the Tent Embassy protest, there has been a deafening silence about the social context it undeniably exists in. The fact is that the Aboriginal people have faced historical and systematic racism that continues to have consequences and is still well and truly alive. Is it really a surprise that this occurred on Australia Day? Despite the best efforts of nationalistic apologists, it still marks the day of the initial invasion of the Aboriginal people, sparking well over a century of attempted genocide and assimilation, all for the cause of starting a massive penal state. That might just be a little offensive.

Similarly, little was said about the present day attacks on the Aboriginal people, the clearest example being the bipartisan Northern Territory Intervention. Started in 2007, the Intervention consists of a serious of policies implemented in 73 remote Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory. There is little evidence to suggest the policies have helped these communities at all, but are more likely to have driven the people further into poverty and stigma.

Efforts to build housing have been notoriously slow, with up to half the funds eaten up by administration. Even with the program beginning to get on track, it is unlikely the Government will meet is occupancy rate (9.3 people per dwelling) without massive waste.

Social funding is being concentrated into “growth hubs”, effectively forcing people off their land despite the known health and social benefits of living on one’s homeland. School attendance has decreased in prescribed areas due to poor facilities, job cuts and the abolition of bilingual education, and despite the use of punitive welfare measures.

On top of these failures comes income quarantine. Those receiving welfare payments automatically have 50% of their income withheld and placed onto a “BasicsCard”, which can be used to purchase necessities at selected stores. The evidence suggests that the BasicsCard has had no effect on consumption patterns of food, soft drink or cigarettes. The cards can only be used in major supermarkets, hence many locally owned small shops have gone bust, whilst forcing people to travel long distances at great costs to shop in the larger towns. There is also evidence to suggest that people are pressured and humiliated into accepting the BasicsCard when they no longer have to. A study of Aboriginal women using the BasicsCard found people were generally confused about why they had been put under income quarantine, that they felt a loss of “respect and dignity”, that they believed Centrelink staff often had paternalist views of Aboriginal People and that many women had stopped reporting abuse out of fear of further quarantining. Income quarantine also uses massive amounts of funds that could be used for social services, with estimates that its administration costs almost 9 times the amount spent on aiding the unemployed find a job.

The NT Intervention has sparked serious and significant declines in the living standards of the prescribed Aboriginal communities. Under the intervention suicide and self harm, incarceration and child removal have all increased. Is it any wonder that the Intervention is opposed by Elders across the Northern Territory as well as the United Nations. Yet despite all of the failures associated with the Intervention and the stigma it breeds, the Government is committed to see it last for at least another decade under the “Stronger Futures" name. Indeed, income quarantining is planned to be rolled out around the country.

I mention these things because they must be acknowledged to understand what happened on Australia Day. The Aboriginal community continues to suffer the consequences from historical dispossession. Dispossession from the land, their culture, their wages and their families. Hence we have “the gap”, the massive disparity that exists between Indigenous and non-Indigenous persons in terms of wealth, education and health. 

But the social context goes further than that. What the Northern Territory Intervention shows is that attempts to assimilate the Aboriginal people continues until this day. As a consequence, the racist and paternalist attitudes that justify policy responses like the Intervention are legitimised, strengthened and reproduced. This is especially the case when elements of the media are so explicitly racist. Take Mark Knight’s cartoon in the Herald Sun the day after the Tent Embassy protest, which uses genocide as a punchline. Or the aforementioned “Sorry Day” headlines; because losing your shoe is apparently on par with remembering the thousands of children stolen from their families. Both things are fine if you think the suffering of people based on their race is so insignificant that it can be laughed at or dismissed entirely.

The harsh truth is that those in power, be they the Police, the Media, or Politicians, have consistently and actively disadvantaged the Aboriginal people ever since “settlement” in 1788. That’s why the Tent Embassy still exists. It’s also why Tony Abbott’s comments were so offensive and able to arouse such fury so easily, because 40 years after the first Tent Embassy, Governments (and their megaphones in the Media) are content with rolling out policies that do so much damage to Aboriginal communities. 

In such a context, is it any wonder that the protestors would be so angry and maybe, sorta, kinda actually didn’t at all harm our Nation’s leading Politicians? The fact that an action where protestors attacked no one and caused no property damage yet can still be labelled as violent displays a distinct authortarian political outlook on the world. While the commentariat cries crocodile tears for the state of the Nation’s political dialogue and the “dignity of the Office”, we should remember that these same centres of power have shown little to no respect for the Aboriginal people. 

Pseudo-populism and antielitism function as fake consensus-builders. For-profit universities claim to be “antielitist” even as they extract profits from federally funded student loans, taken out by the poorest and most marginal students to pay for a credential. Maybe we can finally abandon the pseudo-politics of academic antielitism in the face of contemporary economic upheavals. Maybe we are seeing a turn away from these rhetorical dead ends and back to bread and butter issues about exploitation and expropriation.

- Catherine Liu in Antielitism Left and Right