Any of you who know me, probably understand what a bittersweet relationship with activism I have.
Primarily, of course, because fear the conflict of the mob – I’m afraid of ‘feeling afraid’, and intimidated by the challenge of integrating groups steeped in unresolved anger. Afraid of my own fight-or-flight tendencies, and what idiocy or betrayal I might enact in a state of panic. I’m so conditioned to ‘fear’ the man.
It’s a slow undoing to attempt to conquer in one lifetime.
Having said this, the number of rallies, actions and vigils I’ve been involved in over the last 15 years is something I’ve lost count of, but still mark in terms of sleepless nights, panic-attacks and futile attempts at buying police officers warm coffee to ease their own frightened glances. There are, I’ve learned, few things which confuse the Police Force more than being called to control a rally, only to be met by bare-foot hippies singing mantras and offering organic cookies to their oppressors.
The language I’m most compelled by, as an ‘artist’ is, ultimately, the language of silence, of kenosis – the kind of notions which obviously don’t easily for effective ‘protest’, in it’s traditional ‘western’ sense. The didactic prose of protest-speech reminds me too much of its corollary – the call to war, violence, division, witch-hunts and burning effigies.
It’s just not a language I’m barely fluent in. Not unless I’m particularly drunk, at least.
It’s a language where too often, the power of the ritual, of the mythology, the creative-potential of being together is bulldozed by superlative-tropes which are ultimately too fatiguing to provoke change after the event.
If an even is framed in the language of separation and exhaustion, then what is the ultimate value of the event?
During my time working, almost a decade ago, for the Uniting Church, I rediscovered that so often, it is in fact the power of the mythology which speaks more practical/literal healing that what might be construed mere ‘facts’. I’m happy to hold and cherish this reality. We all need stories – we demand them; even whilst governments reduce our mythologies to pithy slogans. This is one of my life’s great personal lessons. The Jewish story of the clay Golem, Jesus miracle of turning water to more wine for a feast already deeply enmeshed in bacchanalian chaos – what else are these but eternal truths, enriched by the democracy which only stories and their retelling (in a thousand incarnations) provides?
This is why the ritual of the ‘breaking of bread’ is a universal one – its a ritual which is an embodiment of a gratitude which transcends reductionism.
Ultimately, I’m not sure if protest-culture drew me deeper into electronic-music, or vice versa. I’m happy for this mystery to remain unresolved. I do know, that during my honeymoon years in the mid 90s, techno WAS the music of a radical new form of story-telling for me. Our gatherings in Australia were often in warehouses, or in the forest, smeared in pot-haze, an organized chaos lauded over by NO-one and everyone at the same time. Dirty, flawed, completely impractical.
Whilst often branded as anarchic, my ‘bush-doof’ and warehouse rave-days were usually, of course, anything but. There was simply too much mutual care, too much to offer, too little money to be made for a shared dream to be squandered. I think we all knew that. What I ultimately experienced was an experiment in controlled chaos which subsided into love, tinnitus and unplanned pregnancies. An experiment in tenuously decentralized leadership, hybrid-mythology, acid, noise, the gift-economy, and largely ‘faceless’ sonic heroics – a far cry from much of the Ibiza mega-club triumphantalism frequently we see today.
All this, just to say (revisionist romanticism notwithstanding) rave and techno culture gave me a community, and many inspiring leaders and friends who’ve since graduated to become astounding community leaders, policy-makers, aid-workers and storytellers. I don’t think that this is mere coincidence. It’s why I still believe in the power of mythology, of storytelling, and – very much – in the power of failure, also. My life’s politics and music are inseparable – and the challenge of integrating them is the great challenge of my life.
Two nights ago, we staged a vigil outside the Australian Embassy here in Berlin – an action prompted by the ongoing persecution of asylum-seekers in Australia under successive government policies. I was asked to give an ‘address’, the transcript of which is copied below. I realize that it’s not what might be deemed a ‘conventional’ call to arm – and it is far from perfect (Germany’s own asylum-seeker policies are often the subject of of harsh critique), but I wanted to offer it as a voice in the conversation for asylum-seeker policy-change. For those of us also aching for new mythologies, and what I’d call a re-hewing of the fabric of our hearts. The ground is fallow and ready for new stories.
I hope, that, taken within the context of more discreetly pragmatic voices (and there are many great ones) it might help provide offer some salve and pause amid this madness.
Deep thanks and gratitude to all who turned up and made our vigil feel worthwhile – for the offerings of the many candle-holders, message-writers, silent reflectives, musicians and organizers. And thanks to the German Polizei for respecting our right to gather, so kindly. Berlin continues to surprise me.
Speech for Light The Dark: Vigil for Asylum Seekers at Australian Embassy Berlin | 23 Feb 2014
“It’s an honor to share this night with you.
Thank you to everyone who has turned up tonight for our small, somewhat ramshackle, chapter of “Light The Dark” – prompted, not only by organiser Michelle O’Brien, but also by individuals like her sister Natalie O’Brien, one of thousands of younger, deeply compassionate advocates working in Sydney to help mobilise a number of concurrent events across Australia. Their voices give us hope and courage.
There are so many striving for good in Australia – and this gathering is for all of them. May it resonate as a voice of support from afar. This gathering is for our local communities, media outlets, for those who are demanding robust, transparent and compassionate discourse. This night is also for those in Berlin who have invested and engaged in an issue which is currently germane to Australia, but which is also a fundamentally global concern. This night is also for those of us who just don’t know what the hell to do right now.
So this is what we’re doing – a brief, conscious remembering, together in the hope that good things might grow from solidarity, and our shared hope might become bigger than the sum of its parts.
I offer the following thanks and reflections not as an activist or politician, but merely as an individual, as a concerned voice, swimming like so many of us in a familiar yet deeply turbulent sea. As an artist abroad in Berlin, who has previously worked for and with refugees in Australia for groups like TEAR, The Australian Refugee Association and the Uniting Church Department of Social Justice. In education, advocacy, arts-work and simple friendship with asylum seekers.
Like many of us, I’ve visited some of our horrible detention centres. Enough has been written about these gulags in our own press, much of which I don’t need to re-articulate here but which I encourage you to keep abreast of. The Asylum Seeker Resource Centre has a fantastic presence online and offers a great springboard for further engagement.
So then. It seems curious, for many of us who’ve left our ‘homeland’ to know what an appropriate response might be to the events we’re seeing unfold in Australia. This ‘Pacific Solution’ being, in fact, instituted by none other than Labor Prime Minister Kevin Rudd during his previous tenure and now fortified in its current incarnation by the Abbott regime.
This is clearly a bipartisan affair and has remained so since the Howard era’s reactionary ‘Children Overboard’ scandal over 10 years ago, and the horrors of indefinite detention and temporary protection visas – which I know many of us protested against en mass at that time. These policies are a cemented by a hysteria with a deep historical through-line, a reflection of a certain ongoing crisis of our unreconciled national identity – from the alarmism of the Yellow Peril, to the Stolen Generation, Cronulla Riots and beyond. Stories and patterns ricocheting and reverberating in the echo chamber of our short, “White-Australian history” – the politically dominant history, yet only one of so many diverse stories – stories rich in grace and tenacity, kindness and re-invention.
We have yet to see a single ‘people smuggler’ prosecuted or named. Yet we now have thousands of personal refugee details ‘inadvertently’ publicly leaked on official websites – names, ages, nationalities, family status etc. of thousands of vulnerable asylum seekers seeking protection.
There is little logic and even less humanity here.
Meanwhile, the tendrils which seeking to ‘outsource’ Australia’s moral responsibility are extending not only to poorer nations like Papua New Guinea, but now also to Cambodia, according to recent statements from the Cambodian Foreign Minister Hor Namhong.
I contend that this is an endemically patronising foreign policy – the notion that poorer countries and individuals can be purchased, silenced, bought, tacitly settled and annexed via private dealings in human trade, masquerading as some sort of social responsibility, where even naming the dead is seen as subversive.
Reza Berati is dead. Reza Berati is dead.
How do we actively engage with this without becoming fatigued and bound by feelings of helplessness or betrayal? How do we radically ‘open up’ the official histories of Australia, to celebrate and honor the riches afforded us from those who’ve come across the seas? How do we frame our own stories in the light of this debt of thanks we owe to ‘outsiders’? How do we move forward – through and beyond necessary policy change, to a changing of the fabric of our hearts?
I want to suggest that perhaps, in fact, that certain answers are far closer than we may imagine.
Many of us have found our own little homes here, because Berlin has testified to the gift of slow, luminous change and healing, and in so doing has valued our voices as outsiders here. It’s a healing springing from collective confession and admission of the horrors of the past. I take great heart that by way of the model this city has embodied, we are inspired to find solutions and healing for Australia’s current challenges – by way of honesty, creativity, simplicity and a process of deep, healthy grieving.
I’m convinced a fundamental paradigm shift in how we define our official ‘Australian Story’ needs to occur, and that indeed it shall.
This small gathering then, I feel, is, not only very much for Reza Berati who was killed on Manus Island under Australia’s care, or for the countless recently injured or continuing to suffer, but is in fact also for ourselves and those who strive to live with dignity and compassion in difficult times.
The fact is, the suffering of all refugees under our government’s care is a suffering we share, and must share, and which we are all inextricably bound to. Those who suffer in detention are none other than our people, though most we have never met.
Perhaps our hope can be theirs too.
I’m reminded, curiously, of the words of Nobel Peace Prize nominee Thich Naht Hanh, which seem to eloquently summise Australia’s ongoing crisis of identity, framed through his gentle Buddhist eyes.
“When another person makes you suffer, it is because he suffers deeply within himself, and his suffering is spilling over. He does not need punishment; he needs help. That’s the message he is sending.”
For our voices to be unified, we need not only the tenacity to demand justice, but also the salve of forgiveness, silence, and the simple ritual of being together – not only with political ‘solutions’ but with recognition of our willingness to see and become part of the process of being change, and becoming changed.
We bring open, honest, wounded hearts, and perhaps even tears tonight as an offering toward hope and mobilisation.
I know that many of us have felt frightened by our own rage, our own despair, are own unexpected panic here. I’ve found my own vitriol often so personally crippling, paralysing. How do we manifest change in a way which keeps our hearts free from the poison we fear?
I’m not sure. But a small gathering like this just may be part of what we can offer. It’s not an isolated gesture. There’s a voice, there’s a value here. One we can and must take heart in – echoed abroad.
Again, the oft-cited Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, writing about his experience in the Soviet forced labour-camps put things thus:
“If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”
There is no doubt that the deeds being committed in detention camps around Australia are, for want of a better word, ‘evil’ – they are undoubtedly abhorrent, inhumane, illegal, unjust and cruel.
But, perhaps more accurately, they are acts and policies of ignorance which are grounded in deep, deep delusion, a temporary national amnesia, a sort of political sleeping-sickness, a spiritual malaise. Cycles we see echoed across decades of Australian history. A story must re-build together now.
There IS no ‘Great Satan’ over the waters, hiding and steering boats. The Great Satan is us … yet our story shows that there are enduring enough moments of rare light showing that political norms can be overturned, transformed, reborn.
Australia is a nation of refugees, living as guests on indigenous land.
The fact that we are here – as grateful outsiders in Berlin – I hope can remind us of our own power and voice, as well as our responsibility to show reciprocity to our community here. We must build the Australia we want to see wherever we live, in our collective dreamings, and in the dismantling of the Walls and Borders in our own hearts. It has been done before, and change does come.
Thank you once again for coming this evening. Thank you for your offerings, hopes, prayers, tobacco, candles, beer and collective wisdom. Please continue to share them.
Shortly we’ll hear from three fantastic musicians, Ray Mann, Remarkable Shipwrecks, and Wasp Summer– but now we wish to offer five minutes of silence.
For Reza Berati.
For all asylum seekers currently detained.
For the many more who will in future make Australia their home.”
- Rick Bull, 24 February 2014, Outside the Australian Embassy of Berlin