Thousands across the country rallied yesterday for a national candle lit vigil organised by GetUp! and Welcome To Australia in solidarity with asylum seekers in Australia’s ‘care’ (Facebook).
Candlelight vigils can be a powerful tactic of solidarity with those in and killed by mandatory detention, as well as building affective bonds for a social movement with a diversity of tactics.
But the way it was organised by astroturf organisation GetUp!, isn’t about building a grassroots movement with a diversity of tactics; it’s about institutionalising the movement into official politics; that is the major political parties and voting—the very area where people are most powerless to create social change.
The problem isn’t necessarily with the tactic, but that the strategy enforced by GetUp! can’t win; it’s one deeply embedded in legitimising the very institutions that are implementing border imperialism in capitalism.
GetUp! has a long history of opportunistic jumping from campaign to campaign and current Labor Opposition leader Bill Shorten was a former board member. When the ALP introduced its own Pacific ‘solution’ last year, GetUp! failed to call even its own limited action; instead merely pushing people to enrol to vote. What good that did.
But now the coalition is in power and GetUp! has become more militant (/sarcasm). The Greens too with their alliance with the ALP in government failed to stop the progressive worsening of Australia’s border policies.
To the extent to which GetUp! has social traction is to the extent to which we are from undoing Australia’s border imperialism.
Even the imagery of the event was very telling; promoting the light is good, dark is bad night binary.
On Sunday, despite our Government’s best attempt to keep us in the dark, Australians across the country (and around the world!) are going to light up the night.
Indeed, it encapsculates one of the main problems with the ‘refugee movement’. From GetUp! to the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre to its more activist parts in the Refugee Action Collectives, it’s overwhelmingly run by white people with little grassroots direction from refugees, migrants of colour, and Indigenous people.
And I’m included here as a white person who’s been around groups that haven’t had a grassroots relationship of solidarity and direction with for example RISE (Refugees, Survivors and Ex-Detainees). It’s something that has to change.
Undoing Border Imperialism by Harsha Walia is the best approach I’ve read on building an anti-authoritarian movement to abolish oppression, capitalism and state borders, which is what the ‘refugee’ movement needs ultimately to be about. Based on grassroots social movement experience in Canada, Walia argues for a movement led by the most affected by borders, nationalism and racism.
‘Refugee movement’ is a bordered end
One of the main problems with the ‘refugee movement’ is that it fails to recognise the problem is borders themselves.
Any delineation of ‘legitimate refugee’s and ‘illegitimate’ refugees is to support the existence of the State’s maintenance of closed borders; instead of letting in all migrants.
That said, letting them in must be centred on recognising Indigenous sovereignty.
Indigenous sovereignty and solidarity
Abolishing borders doesn’t mean not having social relationships and deep ties to land. Any movement that isn’t deeply embedded in a relationship of Indigenous solidarity will merely reinforce the borders of white Australia; that is the borders of pretending they aren’t on stolen land.
In contrast in Australia earlier this year RISE split from their alliance with the Refugee Advocacy Network# in Victoria because of their ignorance of Indigenous Solidarity.
Some people wanted to organise a ‘pro-refugee’ ‘National Boat Day‘ action on Invasion day, which received inadequate responses after pointed questions from RISE (it was subsequently changed to the day after).
Beyond rallies – towards a diversity of tactics to disrupt mandatory detention directly
There is nothing that is going to kill the potential of an effective social movement faster than channelling dissent solely into predictable and repetitive rally after rally.
While rallies generate some public pressure, the typical march from A to B thing even in massive numbers like against the Iraq war, or the candle lit vigil we saw, by itself, rarely causes social change.
These repeat rally tactics mainly benefit groups that want to channel dissent into official politics or recruit to their own group, which in turn creates their own internal social basis for rally after rally.
One of the main replies to critics of rallies is what are these diverse tactics you speak of?
They have called for the boycott of the high-profile art event, the Biennale of Sydney, in a strategic campaign against one company, Transfield, profiting from mandatory detention.
The excellent Crossborder Operational Manners blog offers one approach centred to disrupting mandatory detention, including things many people at the candle lit vigil could do.
For example: Transfield is implicated in millions of people’s super funds. Why don’t people not only light candles, but also investigate whether they should change or organise to change their super fund? Structurally, GetUp!’s privileges particular one-off dead-end moralistic actions, rather than build for significant change.
There are weaknesses in the Transfield campaign too. The only area to disrupt Transfield that has gained traction so far is the relationship Transfield has with the Biennale, raising questions about future targets beyond that event.
Further, for example with Beyond Borders, internal dynamics around race, gender and purpose are very much currently up in the air and need addressing.
Part of Walia’s book was about the importance of anti-oppression politics and for example incorporating feminist lessons into anti border imperialism campaigns and actively confronting oppressive structures.
Undoing borders shouldn’t just be about refugees, but borders that maintain the heteropatriarchy, ableism, white supremacy and other oppressive hierarchies.
Further, many students are in the movement and Universities are places where borders manifest. For example, restrictions on the rights of International students. In 2009, there were powerful demonstrations organised by Indian students against violence and racism (also see Mutiny for an analysis beyond that time).
Many international students are super-exploited in their workplaces, and there hasn’t been enough organising to confront bosses here.
Even on refugees, thousands are living in poverty with no work rights. Mutual aid is needed and has been organised on a grassroots level through RISE and other networks.
Wholefoods, a food co-op at Monash University last year developed a relationship with RISE and organised food collections for asylum seekers living in poverty.
Because borders are everywhere, there’s so many places to disrupt them, and unfortunately one major fence to undoing border imperialism in Australia is the shadow of gatekeeper institutions like GetUp!.
I’ll end with a quote I found in Undoing Border Imperialism by Gunnai man Robbie Thorpe: “The Australian Government has no legitimate right to grant or refuse entry to anyone in this country, let alone lock up people fleeing war and persecution.” (p. 38, Undoing Border Imperialism, Robbie’s website).
#Edited Mistake: I originally implied RISE were a part of the Refugee Action Collective (Victoria), which they never were.
Grass can never be replicated by artificial astroturf, and ultimately is dead, not alive and doesn’t sustain an ecosystem of life from the soil up to the shoots. I use this image as a metaphor for the sorts of movement that is sustained by GetUp!. G
GetUp! acts as a movement gatekeeper and directs the movement towards the gate of politicians, corporations and parliament; and instead is a revolving doors within these structures that maintains oppressive systems.
There is also the conception of astroturfing I initially was exposed to through academics such as Sharon Beder that explains them as particular front groups funded by corporate interests that attempt to mirror grassroots pressure social movement groups.