What’s the point of a protest?

30 minutes

Contributors

Aidan Ricketts

Lecturer,
Southern Cross University

Jonathan Sriranganathan

Council Member,
Brisbane City

Chanel Contos

Director, Centre for Sex & Gender Equality,
The Australia Institute

Episode Notes

Are you an activist or slacktivist? Would you take to the streets for a cause you’re passionate about, or sign a petition? What actions make a real difference? In this episode of Seriously Social, Brisbane City Councillor Jonathan Sriranganathan, academic and activist Aidan Ricketts and sexual consent advocate Chanel Contos answer the question “what is the point of a protest?”, take a look at the ways protesting has changed over the years and highlight how governments and lawmakers are making it harder for protestors to exercise their rights. 

Transcript

Ginger Gorman (00:00):

G’day, it’s Ginger here. Just want to give you a heads-up that we’ll be discussing sexual assault in this episode. If the topic troubles you and you need someone to talk to, we’ve put the numbers for 1-800-RESPECT, Lifeline and Kids helpline in our show notes. How far are you prepared to go to fight for a cause that you believe in?

Jonathan Sriranganathan (00:24):

I’ve been arrested on two occasions at protests.

Ginger Gorman (00:27):

That’s Jonathan.

Jonathan Sriranganathan (00:28):

The first was outside a hotel in Kangaroo Point where refugees were being held in detention by the federal government. On that instance, I was standing on a footpath, part of a larger group of people who were shouting slogans and at times blocking the road, and the police arrested me for failing to comply with a move on direction. In the end, it turned out that they hadn’t given me a lawful move on direction and they had to drop the charge.

Ginger Gorman (00:57):

The second protest happened outside the Land Force’s Weapons Expo in Brisbane, or as Jonathan says…

Jonathan Sriranganathan (01:04):

The Arms Dealer Expo. And again, I was standing on a footpath just outside the convention centre and the police told me to move on and I told them they didn’t have the lawful power to move me on because I was part of a protest. And eventually they arrested me for trespass, arguing that the footpath I was on was actually on private land.

Ginger Gorman (01:23):

He’s waiting for the courts to decide the outcome of that one. So what do you think about Jonathan’s actions? Was he right to take his fights to the streets?

Jonathan Sriranganathan (01:32):

We’re often told by the political establishment that we should just be writing submissions and signing petitions, but the reality is that those forms of action by themselves are often extremely ineffective when you’re up against the corporate sector and its undemocratic influence over our political system.

(01:50):

So the starting premise for this conversation really is recognizing that our political system is not as democratic as it pretends to be. Although we vote every couple of years for whoever’s going to run the system, between elections, we just have to cross our fingers that politicians are going to listen to us.

Ginger Gorman (02:07):

This is the part where I tell you that Jonathan Sriranganathan is actually part of that political system. He’s a pollie, a Brisbane City Councillor for the Gabba Ward and a member of the Australian Greens.

Jonathan Sriranganathan (02:20):

A lot of people are surprised when an elected representative is the one co-organizing or actively participating in a protest. But the fact that I’m there participating, I think, actually adds a lot of legitimacy to the causes I’m connected to, because it highlights that the system is so broken that even an elected representative feels powerless to change things through internal channels.

(02:45):

I’ve gone through the process of running for office and getting elected. That’s the way that the political establishment tells us that we should make change. They say, “Don’t protest; if you don’t like what the politicians are doing, you should run against them in an election”. I’ve done that and I’ve won, and I still can’t stop the government locking up refugees or burning fossil fuels.

Ginger Gorman (03:08):

But it doesn’t sound like he’s been able to stop the government from doing those things through his protests either. He’s just been inconvenienced with arrests and court appearances. So what’s the point?

Jonathan Sriranganathan (03:20):

Protests, the different forms of activism, I guess, I think of them as being one tool in the toolkit. No one’s going to change the world by attending a single protest, but nor are they going to change everything by signing just one petition. We need a really broad range of tactics for applying pressure on the political system and on the corporate sector. And all those different tactics combine to create that critical mass for change.

Ginger Gorman (03:44):

This is Seriously Social. I’m Ginger Gorman and on our last episode for this season – yes, we’ll be back next year – what’s the point of protests? Whether it’s climate activists throwing soup on a painting, or anti-vaccine mandate activists converging on the national capital to cause disruption, are they getting the outcomes they hope for, or are they just wasting their own and everyone else’s time? Let’s start with an explainer. What are the many tools in the toolkit that Jonathan mentioned?

Aidan Ricketts (04:34):

I suppose it begins with very passive advocacy, where you think you’ve got a good idea, you think people will listen to you when you promote that good idea. And there’s nothing wrong with that if that’s the operating conditions you are in.

Ginger Gorman (04:46):

Aidan Ricketts is a lecturer with the School of Law and Justice at the Southern Cross University and is also an activist educator.

Aidan Ricketts (04:53):

Let’s perhaps have a little timeline. Somebody tries that and then they find they’re not being listened to, so then they might try petitioning or writing letters to politicians. Then they find that’s not doing anything. So then in the old days when we had newspapers, we might write letters to the editor and then we’ll find that’s not getting us very far. So then you start bumping up against those frustration levels about what will we do? So then you hold a public meeting. Public meetings are great. From a public meeting, say a small community group might decide they’re going to hold a rally. A rally is sort of like a meeting in a park where people get together and you provide information, sometimes entertainment. So far, it’s relatively indirect in that it’s raising the issue.

(05:39):

One of the ways I describe, or define say indirect protest is say, with a rally or a march until you read the banners that people are holding, you won’t know what it’s about, because it doesn’t speak for itself. But when you capitulate all the way up the spectrum to say the forest blockade and people chain themselves to a bulldozer in front of a piece of old growth forest, you pretty much know. You don’t need to read the banner. The action speaks for itself, and you know what it is.

Ginger Gorman (06:07):

So how do activists decide what type of action to take?

Aidan Ricketts (06:11):

On one level, that can be a tactical decision because for certain issues, I don’t think people choose to blockade for the sake of it, because blockading is extremely exhausting, has risks in terms of legal consequences and so on. So it’s to do with tactics. What is the issue, and through to how frustrated you are, and then how urgent it is. So when the issue is vitally important, you are not being listened to and it’s urgent, then people are far more likely to take up direct action.

(06:42):

In the Northern Rivers here we had giant community up-swelling against the establishment of a fracking industry, and what preceded the community being prepared to take a direct-action approach was the realization that the political process had failed them. That the courts would probably not be any use, because the legislation was not going to support them and that this was coming for them unless they did something very extraordinary to stop it. So, I think the preconditions to disruptive protests are generally to do with that frustration and the urgency combined.

Ginger Gorman (07:24):

Which of these techniques that you’re talking about are the most effective?

Aidan Ricketts (07:29):

There’s more and less complex answers to that in that depending on your issue, what you’re advocating and who you are needing to change the minds of, different approaches might be more or less effective. Not all issues involve an adversary, for example. So, if you’re trying to stop a fracking industry, you’ve got a definite adversary, who’s very powerful, well connected politically, and you really need to stand up to them very forcefully, so the best tactics to do that will tend to be very forceful disruptive protest. However, if you are advocating, for example, for greater disability access in public buildings, there’s no actual adversary in that nobody really opposes what you’re on about, you’re just up against apathy, ignorance, or lack of money. And so it’s a pure advocacy process.

Grace Tame (08:19):

By embracing legislative reform that enabled survivors of sexual abuse to have a voice and be heard, we started it here.

Ginger Gorman (08:30):

In the last few years, the fight to bring sexual violence against women out of the shadows has prompted many types of both passive and disruptive protests. There’s been the unabashed advocacy led by 2021 Australian of the Year Grace Tame to bring about change to the attitudes and laws that make it too easy for perpetrators to get away with sexual assault. People have joined marches across the country and most importantly, survivors have been speaking up about their experiences. That’s how it began for Chanel Contos.

Chanel Contos (09:03):

We just had endless stories of sexual assaults that boys we knew had perpetrated against girls we knew

Ginger Gorman (09:11):

Today Chanel is the director of the Sex and Gender Equality Centre at the Australia Institute. But when she and her friends started this conversation in February of 2021, she was a uni student hanging out with her mates on a weekend away.

Chanel Contos (09:25):

In that conversation, I told my story of sexual assault and the boy who did it to me turns out had also done it to a friend of mine a year later. That for me was just this moment of, I mean in classic girl behaviour, thinking like, oh, it’s fine what happens to me, but I don’t want it to happen to someone else. And then got really emotional about the fact that I feel as though I could have prevented it happening to my friend if I had fully understood what was going on or reported him or held him accountable in some way.

Ginger Gorman (09:54):

Thankfully, Chanel stopped blaming herself and turned her attention to the cause. What was going on that meant so many of the boys among their community of Eastern Sydney suburbs private school graduates were perpetrating non-consensual acts of sexual assault and violence? And how many more survivors were there in her own community and beyond? She decided to collect more stories. It began with an open Google Doc and an Instagram poll calling for people to share their experiences.

Chanel Contos (10:27):

It just snowballed so quickly. I think the fact that it was so easy for people to get around this protest, because all you need is a laptop or a phone. I was getting testimonies like faster than I could physically read or post them.

Ginger Gorman (10:40):

The Google Doc graduated to a website called Teach Us Consent. Individuals post stories of their experiences anonymously or sign an online petition asking for sexual consent education in schools. In the first month, she received more than 5,000 stories and 44,000 signatures.

Chanel Contos (11:00):

My plan was to just print out like 20, 30 testimonies and kind of hand them to the schools that we went to.

Ginger Gorman (11:08):

It worked. From 2023, Consent Education will be mandatory from kindergarten until Year 10 in Australian schools. And she worked with New South Wales police to set up an anonymous tip line for victims of sexual assault. 2021 data from the Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research shows sexual assault reports in Sydney surged 69% above the monthly average in March of that year, driven largely by victims younger than 21 coming forward as a result of Chanel’s campaign.

Chanel Contos (11:42):

We’re currently working on campaigns to get stealthing criminalised, and all of these topics that revolve around ultimately consent or lack thereof, getting so much more attention, I think, it is because those testimonies are all still up there and you can still look at them. And it means that the impact that has will carry on, I think.

Ginger Gorman (12:04):

So why did it work? Was it the shocking details revealed in the stories? We knew about date rape, upskirting, stalking and harassment long before Chanel’s Instagram poll? So why did this particular protest, in this particular moment, cut through?

Chanel Contos (12:22):

You read a testimony and every single one has its own personality and you can just almost imagine this person, but at the same time, completely contradictory to what I just said, it was anonymous. So, what that did was that meant two things. One, victims or survivors felt safe to lend their voice to this when maybe they wouldn’t feel safe to do so if they had to be personally identified in the situation.

(12:48):

And two, I think the fact that no individual perpetrator at any point got any blame, helped carry this campaign. There was no individual finger-pointing. It was very much, this is a structural, this is an everyone, this is an all-encompassing issue, this is a rape culture and maybe you’ve never sexually assaulted someone yourself, but you’ve been a bystander to rape culture. You’ve been a bystander to comments or your friend who’s done something and you’re still mates with them and all those sort of things. And I think it gave people the space to step back and reflect without feeling, I’m putting it in quotation marks, but personally victimized as a perpetrator.

Ginger Gorman (13:27):

What began as a personal protest against being silenced led to an action that created change. As Aidan said earlier, there are different strategies.

Aidan Ricketts (13:37):

Sometimes politeness get you somewhere, sometimes it doesn’t, and you need to make that strategic assessment. And sometimes the person just doesn’t want to make that strategic assessment and that’s fine too.

Ginger Gorman (13:47):

While the boys weren’t identified, the protest wasn’t entirely anonymous.

Chanel Contos (13:52):

Schools and school years were named for both the perpetrator and the victim, which made it very real. Again, especially in context where lots of people know each other and stuff like that, to think like, oh, this story comes from one of the hundred girls who were in my grade, and one of the hundred guys who are in the local boys’ school who I spend all my time with, were the ones who did that.

Ginger Gorman (14:14):

In Chanel’s case, when people simply documented their stories, it caused shock and disruption to some of the schools that educate the children of Australia’s most wealthy and powerful people. Even the most nonviolent of strategies can be threatening. So, do protestors need to consider who and how they disrupt? Let’s go back to Aidan.

Aidan Ricketts (14:36):

In the way I’ve studied social movements, the aim of a social movement is to win the hearts and minds of the public ultimately. And it’s a difficult strategic equation to get involved in when you ask yourself how much are we going to, for example, inconvenience the general public, in order to make this point?

Ginger Gorman (14:54):

Take for example the actions by Extinction Rebellion where protestors blocked major arterial roads during peak hour to draw attention to climate change activism.

Aidan Ricketts (15:05):

When you blockade a forest or you blockade a fracking site, it’s more obvious who your target is and what you are doing. When you start to move, as we’ve seen recently with some climate protests and so on, when you start moving your focus to just disrupting the public, then you’re in a difficult equation between how much is the benefit of sparking this issue and getting it into the headlines weigh up against the anger that you may be generating in ordinary people who don’t understand why they’ve become inconvenienced by your action.

(15:41):

If it’s an issue that’s never been looked at and you really need to put the spark in the population’s mind that this thing that’s never been thought about needs to be thought about. That might be effective. However, if it’s an issue that has been thought about and in which there is some momentum, like climate change for example, even though it’s frustratingly slow, it’s a much more complicated strategic equation to work out whether people might already be sympathetic to your cause, but angry with your action. And I think once you’re in that category, I don’t think you’re helping yourself a lot.

(16:15):

Now having said that, democracy is always an inconvenience to someone. Marching down the street will inconvenience someone, having a rally will inconvenience someone. So as democratic citizens, we should be accepting inconvenience as part of the price of democracy. However, if Australia had a Bill of Rights, the first article would be we have a right to drive down the road unimpeded unless there’s roadworks. Somehow our right to drive our cars down roads trumps everything else, and so stopping Australians’ commuting is a high-risk strategy.

Ginger Gorman (16:48):

Here’s Jonathan Sriranganathan again.

Jonathan Sriranganathan (16:51):

The reality is that non-disruptive protests are far less effective at achieving their goals of generating more media coverage and drawing more political attention to an issue. A couple of years ago there was a lot of criticism of Extinction Rebellion and the fact that they were always blocking roads and why can’t they protest somewhere else where they won’t disrupt traffic?

(17:12):

And just as kind of an experiment, I went into the middle of Queen Street mall, which is a pedestrian area, and me and three friends stood there for 15 minutes during my lunch break holding signs. In that case, it was about the cashless welfare debit card. So we weren’t blocking roads, we weren’t shouting over a megaphone or disrupting anyone literally in any way. Pedestrians were just walking past us and occasionally glancing at the sign. But even that protest, even just that non-disruptive protest in the middle of the mall, I was fined and the council took me to court, tried to get me to pay thousands of dollars for the violating a local law against protesting in the mall. So, I guess the point here is, that even the least disruptive and supposedly least controversial kinds of protests, are also still criminalized by the government. And so we might as well be focusing on forms of protests that are actually going to get more attention and have a bigger impact.

Ginger Gorman (18:10):

Earlier I asked you what you thought about Jonathan’s actions. I know some of you, certainly not all of you, might think, well, if he’s breaking the law, he has to face the consequences, but are his actions against the law? What rights do we have in Australia when it comes to protest?

Aidan Ricketts (18:29):

Australia’s got a very, very good and proud history of direct-action protest, particularly in the environmental sphere. The Terania Creek rainforest protests was some of the first direct-action rainforest protest in the world. And then we led forward onto things like Franklin, Daintree, Chaelundi, the Northeast Forest Alliance in New South Wales, and they’ve been very effective. And interestingly, whilst they were focused mainly on forestry issues, we didn’t see this sort of backlash.

Ginger Gorman (18:57):

Within Tasmania, there was definitely backlash. About 1400 protestors were arrested during the Franklin Dam blockade and it divided communities in the region. But at a national level, Bob Hawke took his opposition to the Franklin Dam to the 1983 election and won. When was the last time you saw a hopeful PM do that?

Aidan Ricketts (19:17):

What I have tracked is that the moment we moved on from forests to coal mines and the mining industry and the fossil fuel industry, we saw the political backlash generate very fast. I suggest, and I do this in my research, I suggest that’s because the political influence of the mining and fossil fuel lobby in Australian politics, is massive to extreme, to the point that there’s hardly a separation of industry and state. And that the forest industry, whilst it is politically connected through the National party and so on, it never had the level of political clout that the mining and fossil fuel industry have. So, the minute we began to upset the mining and fossil fuel industry, we saw these anti-protest laws come through.

Ginger Gorman (20:03):

Australians have a right to freedom of expression as long as it doesn’t cause degradation, affect the reputation of others, cause harm to national security, or incite violence. But anti-protest laws vary from state to state. In April this year, New South Wales passed legislation to stop people from protesting without permission on public roads, rail lines, tunnels, bridges, and industrial estates, and they can face hefty fines or a stint in jail. In 2019, Queensland criminalized the use of lock-on devices to stop protestors from forming blockades. These states are led by different political parties. So why are both the Coalition and Labor governments legislating to prevent protests? Public safety is often the official line, but Aidan doesn’t buy it.

Aidan Ricketts (20:52):

Has there been violence at protests? No. The Australian Environment Movement has an extremely good record of nonviolent, but robust protest. Have people been injured as a result of lock-ons chaining themselves to things? No. Really have workers and police been put at risk by lock-ons? No, not really. That’s a lot of this sort of falsification and I would really advocate for lock-ons because my view is, that lock-ons make protests more peaceful.

Ginger Gorman (21:18):

In fact, Aidan argues that lock-ons bring out the humanity of people on both sides of the fight.

Aidan Ricketts (21:24):

Because what you’re saying is, I’m going to put my body on the line, I’m going to put my body at risk. And not only that, I’m actually going to rely on the compassion and the non-violence of my society that they will avoid just killing or hurting me and they are going to then remove me carefully and it will cause delay and the statement will be made.

Ginger Gorman (21:46):

He says lock-ons are also much safer than picket lines.

Aidan Ricketts (21:49):

Where you’ve got a line of people linking arms and trying to stop the police getting in, and that leads to confrontation straightaway. It leads to what I call rugby scrums. And very quickly any form of resistance gets defined as assaulting police and you end up with a melee.

Ginger Gorman (22:03):

He says lock-ons are simpler and safer for the police as well as the protestors.

Aidan Ricketts (22:09):

The police turn up, somebody’s locked onto the gate, the rest of the protestors can stand there, hold their banners and observe the police and the police just look at it, take a few notes, come back with the rescue squad and remove them humanely.

Ginger Gorman (22:22):

Aidan’s alarmed by what he describes as hysteria, which he reckons is mostly generated by mining interests and fed to politicians, redefining lock-ons as dangerous in order to pass anti-protest laws.

Aidan Ricketts (22:35):

They follow on from a particular mentality that doesn’t see protest as a normal part of democracy, but as a form of baby terrorism. And it’s a completely mistaken view of it. We see this idea coming across that people who are prepared to take extraordinary action because of their beliefs are dangerous, and we should fear them, rather than going, hang on, people who take nonviolent actions where they rely on the principles of state and take themselves to court and plead guilty or whatever, that’s just civil disobedience. That’s the Martin Luther King. That’s the suffragette direction. It’s actually the opposite of terrorism. Terrorism is not where you try to win the hearts and minds the population. It’s where you try to terrify them and hurt them. The difference between holding a gun and putting both your hands inside a steel shoe where you are the one that’s disabled, it couldn’t be more different.

(23:32):

Yet when we look at, for example, the Tasmanian anti-protest laws, they’re actually modeled on the anti-terror laws, because what they do is define protestors as people who are taking action for a political or environmental or social cause, and then they create offenses that only a protestor can commit. In the structure of their drafting, they’re copied from anti-terror laws. As are the anti-bikie laws. They are also copied from the anti-terror laws. So, these things, I’m getting into my law hat here, these things are what’s called status offenses, where you create the offense of being a sort of person, rather than the offense of what it is that you’ve done.

(24:14):

And so the absurdity in Tasmanian anti protest laws is that if you are a protester with a good cause and you blockade a business entrance, you could get sent to jail. But if you were from an organized crime operation and you were just intimidating a rival business, you wouldn’t have committed that offense because you weren’t a protestor.

Jonathan Sriranganathan (24:32):

There’s nothing new about governments trying to suppress peaceful protests. That’s been an ongoing tension between the public and the nation state for as long as nations have existed in their modern form. And we tend to go through cycles where there’s increasingly aggressive repression of the right to protest and then a public backlash and then laws are wound back. But what we’re living through right now, is a general ratcheting up of controls, limiting the right to protest, accompanied with massively expanded surveillance technologies. So, it’s getting easier and easier for governments to control people with the aid of new surveillance technologies.

(25:17):

But at the same time, the stakes are getting higher and higher, particularly in terms of issues like climate change, but even more generally, people have a lot of stuff to be angry about. Things aren’t working particularly well at the moment in the world. And so as more people grow frustrated with the political establishment and they realize that politicians aren’t necessarily listening to them, more and more people are getting involved in different kinds of protests. And so the government is responding by cracking down on that protest to limit the people’s ability to challenge the interests of, most of the time, it’s big business.

Ginger Gorman (25:53):

Jonathan has me thinking about my conversation a couple of months back with Elizabeth Reed. Before she became the first Women’s Advisor to a Prime Minister in the Whitlam government, she was an active protestor, especially when she was at university. If you haven’t already heard it, go back and listen to my interview with her. Elizabeth saw university as her training ground for activism. It’s where she found the Women’s Movement and it’s where she learned how to protest effectively. She worries that’s been lost, but maybe meeting Chanel Contos would restore her faith in activism. Because university is no longer the best training ground for activism, now it’s the internet. And before you roll your eyes, listen to what Chanel says.

Chanel Contos (26:39):

I think social media changes protest massively. We’ve seen really tangible things come out of social media campaigns and things like GoFundMe and stuff like that can go crazy and lives can change overnight. I think what has changed is that 30 years ago or something like that, if you wanted to protest, you would have to take the time out of your day, go to a specific spot, be there in person, show up, and you would have to be then passionate enough about a topic that it’s outweighing whatever. Whereas now, I think it’s a lot easier to be a part of protests, because you can sign a petition in three seconds. You can like a post, share a post on Instagram, if you can’t donate money to something you can share it with your network. All these things can happen instantly, which means that people who care about things can be involved. People who have to work two jobs or have kids to look after, all those sorts of things. It makes it more accessible, I think, now.

Ginger Gorman (27:38):

The internet exposes people to causes they would never have known about. Yes, it gives a voice to grifters, trolls and fascists, but it also gives a voice to the voiceless. Online activism is an important tool in the protester’s toolkit, especially the protester who simply can’t do it all.

Chanel Contos (27:58):

I’m obviously extremely passionate about the environment say, but I spend all my time campaigning and working towards gender equality issues. And if I tried to even invest a 10th of that into environmental stuff, my brain would just explode. And I want to support people who are insanely passionate about the environment and do treat that the way I treat gender. And me taking 10 seconds to sign a petition, read a letter, add my name to the end of an open letter whenever it is, email my MP, I can do that without it depleting from what I need to do in my life.

(28:29):

And I just don’t think that I need to have the most dying, burning passion in the world in order for me to still say that I want something as a citizen. So, I don’t think that we need to require people to put in full hard yards as just normal citizens to ask powerful people to change things. I think that it should just be like masses saying like this is something we want.

Ginger Gorman (28:48):

Thanks for listening today. I’m Ginger Gorman. Seriously Social is produced on Ngunnawal, Turrbal and Yuggera country, and we pay respects to elders past and present. The show is produced by Kim Lester, engineered by Mark Gargoldonk aka Baldy, and this episode was executive produced by Bonnie Johnson and Clare McHugh. Seriously Social is an initiative of the Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia.

(29:13):

That’s a wrap from us for 2022. Thank you so much for joining us and being part of our community. If you are new to the pod, we have 50 other episodes for you to listen to, as you’ll hopefully get to relax over summer. We’ll be back next year to bring you more concepts, research and ideas from Australia’s leading social science experts. See you then.

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