Favouring observance over protest may be giving up true calls for change. By Clem Bastow.

Clem Bastow
Silent resignation

Following the death of asylum seeker Reza Berati on Manus Island, a series of candlelight vigils were organised by GetUp! around the country. The images of thousands of people in cities and towns, washed by candlelight as they stood together in contemplation, were powerful: a moving gesture of solidarity and mourning. Like everything now, they came with a hashtag to marshal this emotion: #LightTheDark.

Former Manus Island migration agent turned whistleblower Liz Thompson reflected on the vigils as she withdrew from a speaking position at a Close Manus rally planned not long after #LightTheDark. “A vigil is fine, a respectful way to mourn Reza,” she wrote, “but we need to start thinking about effective action that does something other than reproduce our own milieus, as if that reproduction could possibly close the camps.”

Silent protest, candlelit vigils, non-violent resistance: there are many names for it, but there appears to have been a shift in the psyche of Australian protest, away from aggression and towards a sense of resignation. People gather to reflect on the way things are, not push to change them – not right now, at least. “Right now” isn’t the time for “politics”. 

On Tuesday, a vigil was held to honour Fiona Warzywoda, the mother-of-four stabbed to death, allegedly by her former de facto partner, in the Melbourne suburb of Sunshine the previous week. People gathered at the site of her murder to commemorate her life and protest domestic violence. 

“Knit, sew, weave, crochet, fold a heart to bring in memory of this Brave woman,” one event flyer read. Organiser Sophie Dutertre told The Age: “There will be no political speeches or no political aspect to it. It’s people getting together silently to make a stand.” Despite the fact all event images reiterated the event would be a silent protest, some had christened the vigil “Voices Against Violence”. 

There is a bitter irony in this, staying silent about a subject already cloaked in silence. However heartfelt the event was, once more Liz Thompson’s words ring true: a vigil is fine and respectful, but real action must follow. Look at the Sunshine gathering’s theme in particular. With family violence reports in Victoria on the rise, increasing 72.8 per cent between 2004 and 2012, and a woman dying at the hands of a current or former partner almost every week, surely action – as politics – is needed more than ever. Surely it is time to force change.

There is a similar sense of urgency in countless other areas – indigenous rights, environmental emergencies, funding cuts to hospitals and schools – and yet in so many cases, resignation and dignity seem to be par for the course when it comes to protest. “Like to dislike,” as so many Facebook protest pages put it, and you’re done for the day. Change your Twitter avatar, send a tampon to Scott Morrison, stand in silent solidarity: our approach to protest has become about gesture, and however meaningful that gesture is, it seems increasingly easy for its targets to ignore. 

The March in March, with its inability to agree on a universal target beyond a “vote of no confidence” in the Abbott government, was hamstrung by this emphasis on gesture rather than message. The disappointment expressed by march participants about the lack of media coverage reflected this. “Isn’t it enough,” they seemed to say, “that we’ve made this gesture of solidarity? Where is the change we demanded?”

Many would no doubt argue that our apathy-tinged aversion to rowdy protest is a byproduct of not having an awful lot to complain about on the home front. But there is, of course, plenty to be angry about in Australia. Invasive changes to the disability pension program, attacks on the sanctity of the Great Barrier Reef and Tasmanian forests, outrageous incarceration rates for indigenous women, proposed cuts to ABC funding, changes to section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act that favour the “free speech” of bigots and deniers – the list is long and upsetting, but that should be infuriating, not cause us to stop and mourn our future. 

Another take on the resurgence of respectful and silent protest in Australia would be to draw a line from the non-violent resistance of Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr in the 20th century to the power of vigil in the 21st. There is, however, a sense of resignation in so many silent (organised) and passive (social media-enabled) protests that it seems worth returning to Dr King’s words: “If one uses this method because he is afraid or merely because he lacks the instruments of violence, he is not truly nonviolent. This is why Gandhi often said that if cowardice is the only alternative to violence, it is better to fight.” 

Truly violent protest is unlikely – or unnecessary, one hopes – in Australia any time soon. But this is not a binary where our choices are either silent observance or riot-cop-attracting unrest. It is possible to be violently and vocally opposed to injustice without becoming destructive. There is an awful lot of daylight between polite, reverent vigil and lobbing a petrol bomb at parliament – daylight we should be occupying with action as well as reflection.

In a compelling piece for The New York Times this month, Charles M. Blow decried American voter apathy and political disaffection “where rage should be, there is too often a whimper. When will we demand the country we deserve: reflective of its people, protective of its people, simply of its people?” 

While much of Blow’s piece is specific to the US experience, its sentiment – “The drift of the boat seems inconsequential until it encounters the falls” – should resonate with those perplexed by the polite resignation of so many Australians. 

Silent reflection and sincere gesture is good, so long as it precedes or accompanies action, not replaces it. Vigils and non-violent resistance can be radical acts in the face of violent injustice, but in a political climate such as ours, where those in power are already likely to dismiss the concerns of the oppressed as the chattering of a vocal minority, keeping quiet is more dangerous than it is subversive.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on April 26, 2014 as "Silent resignation".

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Clem Bastow is a Melbourne-based writer and critic.

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