I had a message in Café Locked Out’s inbox. Call this man, now. He was in South Africa. I had a name and the name of the group he was with, and since we were about to do a show full of international guests, I decided, despite the fact it was almost midnight here, to call.
Because everyone was asleep, I went outside and realised, because of the curfew, I hadn’t been outside the front of the house, this late in months.
There was no one here. No late dog walkers. No passing cars. Just the street lights and the silence with the screw of a patrolling helicopter somewhere in the distance.
His phone rang. It was a bit of a buzz to call someone I didn’t know, in a country I’d never been to. The first attempt ended with me being unable to hear anything. The second attempt ended with a weary voice asking, “Hello?”
I introduced myself and since he must have been told I might call, he knew who I was. And as he began to speak, I could hear something recognisable and wrong in his tone.
It was a tone, I’d only started hearing recently, one punctuated by the recurring silence of disbelief.
“It’s happening here,” he said. “They must be using your city as a test city. We watched the footage. Rukshan’s,” he said. “We weren’t even a protest. More a rally. A small one going for a walk. But they hit us hard. The violence was unbelievable. They were just stopping any dissent. Then the media called us anti-vaxxers. We aren’t anti-vaxxers. We are pro-choice. I called the newspaper and asked them, what are you doing? Why are you lying? Your readers will see this and think . . .” and then the phone went silent.
“Hello? Can you hear me? . . Hello?”
“Yes, I’m here,” he said again, with that tone that made me feel connected through a shared experience.
It was the tone of those who had seen, first hand that something good had changed forever. I had heard it from a family on the banks of the yarra who were whispering to me, while trying to stay calm, as all around us, hordes of police streamed by, some on horseback, some wearing that black riot gear. Many working in groups to tackle lone protestors to the ground, or stand around them as the handcuffed protestor sat, their brow low with a weight heavier than these hands holding their shoulders.
I had heard it the other day from a woman who had been in a ‘stand in the park’ protest. All of them had been masked. All of them had been one point five meters apart, all of them surrounded by families picnicking without masks, as they drank and ate and celebrated the beautifully warm October Saturday.
Two police officers had processed them all. Moved through them, one by one, checking their IDs to make sure they were within their zone. They were. This was the point. It was a protest that broke no laws and the protesters were a mix of paramedics and nurses, teachers and other concerned citizens. There were no arrests, but then a few days later they all began receiving $5000 plus fines. Their charge. Protesting.
That same day, a small rally near the Glen, perhaps forty people with signs lined up along an intersection had been quashed within fifteen minutes, as three bus loads of police arrived and began the arrests, as others protesters, who had arrived to join the protest, sat in their cars and called others to warn them, all of them using that now common tone. The one interwoven with fear and disbelief and edged with growing anger of the betrayed.
Was this new, or the ancient, often whispered tone of refugees? The tone of a people who could see how much they were losing and how quickly, and yet they didn’t know what to do about it, for they had no experience of dealing with this level of intimidation and violence, especially from their own people.
It reminded me of the religious story I was taught in a sermon. The one where the devil took Jesus to the top of a high mountain from where they could see several cities “All this I will give You,” the devil told Jesus, “if you will fall down and worship me.”
To quote the bible a few years ago would have been a joke, but now it’s a touch stone. A reservoir of deep lessons, we thought we’d forgotten, or would never need. In our city, all these draconian changes wouldn’t be possible without our police force enforcing them.
“They were brutal,” my new South African friend said. “They didn’t have to be. We were a small, peaceful march.” And I could hear that he was repeating this not so much for me, but for himself as he tried to process what had happened, to rationalise or even accept the fact that his own police force, his own people had, for a wage, over ruled their oath to serve and protect the community, had instead aggressively enforced the will of South Africa’s quickly re-emerging authoritarian rule. The one where the new threat to the State, were the peacefully non-compliant.
One Melbourne police officer was photographed with her boot squashing a protester’s prostate head, as her comrades held the protester down.
“She was on face book, bragging about it,” one of her relatives contacted me and said, again with that tone, the hushed one now uniting so many people, as the louder ones celebrating their new status, called freedom, openly decree, in their segregated city, that these trouble makers deserve everything they get.
“Are you still there?” I asked.
“Yes,” he broke the long distance silence and said, as I studied the few lights that were on in the neighbours windows, and decided to move back inside in case one of them had heard me talking and seeing me outside had called the police.
Michael Gray Griffith