He stands most afternoons in the middle of one of the busiest intersections in Melbourne, flanked by passing trams, red airport shuttle buses, bright yellow taxis and Toyota-to-Mitsubishi gridlock. His long lean limbs are silhouetted against the struggling winter sun. He wears black skinny jeans and casual canvas lace-ups; a black smart-casual jacket over a neon lime shirt.
He holds a perfectly round sign with both hands high above his closely razored afro: STOP RACISM NOW, in large tomato-red lettering on a crisp white background. Identical bike-wheel-sized placards are draped over each shoulder with string. The rectangular sign hung around his neck reads: WE EXPERIENCE RACISM EVERY DAY. St Paul’s Cathedral towers over him – a wide-eyed mahogany child staring off the large Brotherhood of St Laurence banner that reads: Let’s Fully Welcome Refugees.
Some of the city weekday crowd waiting to cross Flinders Street stare at the black man protesting in heavy oncoming traffic. Most deliberately avert their gaze. Two young Anglo-Australian women offer a quick hug before moving on. A young man shakes his hand briefly but firmly. Some seem hardly to notice him at all.
There’s wide, white masking where his mouth should be – taped over shade-darker-than-mine-robusta-meets-arabica skin. Our eyes meet. Strangely enough, it’s that feeling I get. Once, while walking to work through the inner-city streets of Sydney’s Surry Hills, a man rode up next to me. “Fucking Kaffir!” he yelled. Before he took off on his bike, he spat in my direction. I felt this feeling then. One Melbourne morning I sat in a park, breastfeeding my newborn daughter under a shawl. A jogger finished his laps of the oval, made his way over to me and said: “I don’t know where the fuck you’re from, but in THIS country, we don’t do THAT in public.” I felt this feeling then. That unexpected sudden-blow-to-the-gut can’t-breathe heart-hurt. That brain-numbing, tear-welling, what-just-happened shellshock.
Here, in the middle of the road, a hundredfold such incidents come rushing at me. The knowing-why-he’s-come-to-this is like a scalpel’s incision through layers of keloid grief. I put my hand on the man’s arm. I want to hold him to me, like I hold my children when they wake from horrors in the night. Even though I’ve seen the monster that stalks him – watched it live, and breathe, and snarl, and feed.
As the lights change, I’m only half aware of the traffic zipping around us. I ask if he’ll come, sit down, talk with me. A hand flies up to the corner of the masking tape, flutters down again. He shakes his head to indicate we can’t speak now. He takes out his mobile, types out a number on the screen. I dig my phone out of my bag, ring the number. “That’s me there,” I say when his phone lights up. “Call me, when you’re ready.”
“He’s been coming for a few weeks,” says my taxi driver. “He comes about midday, walks into the road, holds up his signs for a couple of hours. Then he goes home.”
“What do you think – about what he’s doing?”
The driver scratches his sandy beard, eyes fixed on me in the rear-view mirror. “I think it’s dangerous,” he says carefully. “He might get hit by a car.”
Jafri Katagar and I meet several days later, in Flagstaff Gardens. We sit at a metal picnic table, hunched against the winter chill. In softly spoken, almost shy, tones he tells me about the loss of his parents in Uganda. He tells me about the friend of the family who helped him apply for refugee status in Australia; about the hundreds of hours of English classes; the go back to where you came froms; the constant discrimination.
“We have citizenship, but we are second-class citizens. When they talk about us, they still always say: a refugee. People think we’re in gangs. I hate all violence. I have never been violent one day in my life.” He looks down at his hands, sighs softly. “As young people, we are disorientated. It is hard for us to even get jobs. We do not know what our future will even be.”
The most shocking event, in the onslaught of racist incidents, was Jafri’s encounter with a medical professional. “I had so many dental problems, from back in Uganda. So I went on the waiting list to see a dentist. I waited three years. Then I went in to see the doctor, and she was so racist to me. She said so many things … abused me. Said I couldn’t even understand English. I complained to the hospital, then to the health services commissioner. They did nothing, so I stood outside their hospital with my signs. Only then did they send me a letter.” He waves the envelope. “But it wasn’t even a proper apology. She is a doctor. She is supposed to help people.”
Sometimes, while he is protesting in the city, people tell Jafri Katagar he should be grateful he is allowed to live in Australia. Sometimes they scream obscenities at him. Sometimes white people show him pictures of themselves with their mixed children, or black partners and friends – as if to absolve themselves of the weight of his message. Sometimes people hug Jafri Katagar, shake his hand, stand with him for a while, thank him for the work he does. The police kept asking him to move on, but when they realised he would not leave, and was no troublemaker, they showed him where to stand in the road to avoid being mowed down by traffic.
Jafri Katagar will stop standing on the street one day. Over the years, decades, or almost-lifetime, he will become more accustomed to the way things are. Over time, that feeling will lessen a little. Though they will still hurt, the obscenities will eventually lose their edge. This is how they break us. This is how their hate is normalised. This is how the racists win.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 15, 2015 as "Heavy traffic". Subscribe here.