Originally published in Mutiny zine.
What follows is a dialogue between two people commenting on the Sydney ‘riot’ – eds
Sourdough: My first response on seeing the Sydney ‘riot’ reported on the news was “wow!” – I hadn’t known anything was happening in town that day and suddenly there’s this rowdy demo fighting with cops. And it’s a crowd with a large proportion of young brown men , so it’s also pretty clear from the outset that they are necessarily resisting aggressive, racialised policing. And of course the liberal left line-up with an entire array of conservatives to denounce ‘violent protesters’. But it didn’t take long for a sinking feeling to hit, a feeling I’ve been trying to contemplate in the weeks since.
Princess Mob: I’m not being flippant when I say that ‘fuck the police’ is a pretty key political starting point.
What does it even mean to ‘take sides’ in this situation? We’re clearly not going to join with those who call for the police to make sure things don’t get out of control again, nor those who call on ‘moderate Muslims’ to distance themselves from ‘extremists’ (precisely because we don’t see the ‘extremists’ as representing anyone but themselves). Nor will we join with the explicit racists blathering on about deporting people, or the liberal racists saying ‘this is the kind of thing that makes people think that racists are right.’
But also, we wouldn’t join in further demonstrations against the film (even if it wasn’t clear that such protests would be policed to non-existence). Nor are we really in a position to offer support to those arrested, who are surely going to get fucked by the courts, or offer any other form of material solidarity.
So if we’re not going to abstractly ‘take sides’ as if we’re spectators to a sporting event, I guess what we do is look at the event and at the political currents that mobilised around it: at least those that are mobilised in arenas we can see – the mainstream press and the far-left.
On that, I think it’s notable that Socialist Alternative released a statement in support of the protesters, against the police violence, and against the widespread public condemnation of ‘violent extremists.’ As much as I hate SAlt, I actually think this was a good thing they did, and the statement’s not even that bad. But it’s also interesting to contrast it with the statement the same organisation released six years ago, after a group of people smashed a police van and fought with police at an anti-G20 demo in Melbourne. On that occasion, the position of SAlt was to condemn those protesters, blame them for inciting police repression, and call on the rest of the left to ‘isolate’ them.
What’s the difference for SAlt between the G20 protesters – who had a lot more in common with them politically – and the recent demonstrators in Sydney? It’s primarily that SAlt seems to consider these Muslim protesters as authentically representative of the oppressed – and therefore, not to be held to the same standards of behaviour as those who attend a left demo. ‘We’ must be rational, tactical, and not personally affected by what we’re on the streets to express: otherwise ‘we’ make people like SAlt look bad. It’s the same racist double-standard that comes up all the time in debates about non-violence: we can support oppressed brown people in far-off lands who engage in violence, but ‘we’ should be better than that.
Sourdough: I’m pretty sure there’s a common tendency in how the Left responds to moments of social upheaval that it can’t claim as its own, and that is to project its own analysis of politics onto not just the situation, but often onto the intentions of those involved. The problem is a tendency to remove agency from anyone in a more ‘oppressed’ position. This means it can overlook any politics within a particular situation that are problematic, and also then make arguments using a simplistic ‘black or white’ dichotomy that you’re either with the oppressed or you’re part of oppressing them.
So basically, in cases when minority/ oppressed/ disadvantaged folk take action, it is assumed that they don’t really know how to articulate politics in the right way, leaving the specialists of ‘The Left’ to decide if there are actually any sort of radical politics at play in a given moment. What’s strange is that during the UK riots many of the left felt it was necessary to make a critique that there wasn’t a radical politics of change being articulated and therefore the rawness of that moment was problematic. I disagreed then with that analysis, mainly because I don’t think what happened across England had anything to do with putting forward a coherent political analysis, certainly not in the form the traditional Left is used to, yet in some of the actions and words of participants there was clearly something very radical being articulated. And in this situation [what happened in Sydney], where there is a certain political/ religious ideology being expressly articulated, it is being overlooked in favour of some other meta-narrative about racism and imperialism, and I’m not meant to take on board what the protesters themselves are saying?
Princess Mob: I would argue that any public political gathering is always about more than its stated political message. It’s about a number of people claiming space together: either through permits and negotiations, or directly by taking it. And in Sydney, for the past however many years, it often involves being denied space by the police and/or fighting them for it and/or overspilling in some minor way the tiny space ‘allowed’ to you. There’s also the specific history of demonstrations in Sydney over the last ten years that have involved crowds of people ‘of Middle Eastern appearance’ – the Books not Bombs protests in 2003, and the protests against the bombing of Lebanon. These demos in particular were policed brutally, and what happened the other week takes place in that context.
But paying attention to the politics of the *form* of a demonstration doesn’t mean that we can just ignore the specific *content*. I think the key question we’re grappling with is: how do we talk about the fact that a demonstration can have meaning that spills over from its stated politics, without just overwriting it with what we *want* it to say. Whether that’s ‘anti-war’ or ‘anti-imperialist’ or ‘anti-racist’ politics or an (anti-political) rebellion against police. Or, maybe, how is it possible to find or express common ground with people without expecting them to be pure but also without pretending that what they explicitly say ‘really’ means something else?
Sourdough: Obviously the Sydney riots presents a number of difficult questions beyond this. Racism towards Muslims is both institutionalised and a part of the everyday in Australia and this protest was all about those things at the same time as it was about any affirmation of religious identity. But if we do actually respect people’s autonomy (incidentally, the ‘we’ here isn’t referring to the ‘Left’ at all, as the authoritarian socialists and dogmatic liberals that comprise it clearly have no respect for autonomy) then we must respect people’s capacity to articulate resistance to the conditions they face in the way they choose. It is a narrow view to assume this protest could have only been about responding to rising Islamophobia and to American imperialism in the middle-east and that there couldn’t have been an actual constitutive element to its organisation. That is, there was something being fought for and not just against, and what that for is, is something I want to be able to consider in terms of offering solidarity.
Choosing to not expressly be in solidarity with these protesters could be seen as choosing to be on the side of the state, not to mention the boring, reactionary, atheist liberals.
Princess Mob: Really, fuck capital-A Atheists. I mean, after all the outcry, look who turned up to the tiny protest at Melbourne Town Hall the next week [after a range of calls for more protests and counter-protests]: the far-right and atheists.
Sourdough: And hell, if I had to choose sides I’d choose the side of those causing a ruckus in the city because of the conditions they face. But I don’t buy the ‘you’re either with us or against us’ line. And I don’t want to support authoritarian religious movements because, I know the reactionary, conservative role they play against progressive, let alone revolutionary, social change. And to be a bit blasé, and even more risk being a bit too close to those liberal atheists, I really have little interest in folk getting all agitated because someone insults their religious icons. I don’t say this to follow some ‘freedom of speech’ argument, but simply to say I reckon people who are going to take such offence at things like this really need to drink a cup of concrete…
Princess Mob: Yeah, but you know it’s not as simple as ‘one guy in the USA made a film that said something mean, then people went crazy!!!.’ The anti-Americanism of the demo surely has a lot to do with the ongoing wars/occupations the USA is engaged in; the sensitivity to attacks on Islam surely has a lot to do with Islamophobia that goes along with the war on terror, and anti-Arab racism in Australia. And that’s besides the fact that the film maker *set out* to offend Muslims.
But, like you say above, it’s pretty condescending to act as if the politics expressed at the demo, and the specific construction of a politicised religious identity, is simply a reaction to oppression made without choice or any positive force. To make what might be a poor analogy, it’s like saying that a woman’s feminism is simply due to whatever she’s personally suffered from men rather than being a complex political philosophy.
Sourdough: Take Palestine – a great degree of resistance to imperialism there is organised through Hamas (an authoritarian Islamist organisation), and it does make sense to me that many folk there would be drawn to the organisation that, not only forcefully resists the occupation, but organises ‘social programs’ much in the style of the Black Panthers. However, there is also a great current of secular left revolutionary groups fighting occupation in Palestine, and that they are not at the forefront of struggle now does involve Hamas playing a role in their suppression. All this might seem off-topic but I do think the Left’s history is filled with terrible choices of supporting the wrong thing. This is particularly pertinent in regards to anti-colonial struggles around the world where people were corralled into supporting ‘the oppressed’ which in reality often meant supporting brutal, corrupt, authoritarian regimes. Mostly I just think we can afford to be a bit nuanced about these things and reject a simple ‘with us or against us’ position.