Schooling Annabel Crabb On The Power of Protest

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Annabel Crabb is right about a lot of things, but she’s wrong about student protests. And I think her take on the issue comes from a somewhat privileged position.

Firstly, Sophie Mirabella dealt with racism in her youth so she can't be racist? You need to understand how complex and institutionalised racism can be. You also need to speak to every Greek person's grandma. When they're in Chinatown. I'll wait.*

Secondly, I fear you’re tarring a lot of different types of protests and types of protesters with the same brush. It seems your focus, in part, is on violent or abusive ones.

Nobody gets more upset at violent or abusive protesters than the literally thousands of perfectly peaceful protesters who get ignored because the bad eggs make the news, get the attention, and distort the message.

It’s something the media focus on too often, and ministers are keen to focus on to deflect from the reasons people are protesting.

What alternatives to public protests in their current form are you suggesting, Annabel? You're vague on this, but this is the crucial point. You say they should be using modern technology to get their arguments heard. They are. It's telling that you haven't seen it, but you have seen a lot of these protests.

Note, for example, how the Q&A protest was followed up with a Youtube video where the protesters more articulately put forward their objections to the Coalition’s university proposals in a nicely edited and shot piece.

A lot of people saw the Q&A protest, but comparatively far fewer saw the Youtube video.

The Q&A protest sparked mainstream media buzz and public discussion about what they were protesting, and whether they’re right. The Youtube video barely made a whimper, and I imagine most of the views it did get came purely from those intrigued by the original Q&A protest you were dismissive of.

Getting people to sit down and spend time listening to an activist ‘explain’, ‘illustrate’ or ‘paint a picture’ of why they’re outraged is difficult. Who wants to click on, or show up for, that?

Getting people to witness this outrage instantly and viscerally with the chants, obstructions and physical taking up of public spaces that are intrinsic to street protests is easier. And more importantly, getting people to feel that outrage, rather than just have it intellectually transmitted to them, is necessary for someone to really get it.

There’s a reason street protests haven’t ‘evolved’ much. It’s because people physically getting together and in unison crying out for what they want, and literally stopping traffic in the process, is the purest form possible of public expression of a shared sentiment.

Here is the really important point I don’t think you are sufficiently appreciating: Nobody thinks protests — repetitive slogans, screaming faces and all – are a silver bullet. There are no silver bullets.

That is why I would love to know your alternatives in detail. The reason people protest is it’s a kind of last resort. If you had money, power, positioning, privilege, the ear of a minister, a newspaper readership (Crabb, that's you!), confidence a politician will fix the problem for you, you'd rest on that.

Protests, however, have always been done by people who don't have those things. Or at least they don’t have them in anything like the capacity you have. And what they have is not enough.

In this sense, public protests are an act of desperation. So suggesting that change will happen (and this is what this is all about) if the chants were spruced up, or if they were more creative or less pushy in how they express themselves, misses the point entirely.

Traditional street/public protests are not just a theoretical good thing. Their impact has been proved time and again.

But Annabel, if you know of better ways that people with little power can affect change – not just be more witty, less crude, seem smarter, rhyme better, but actually affect change – please share.

I would not be surprised if whatever you came up with has already been tried many times before.

* Costa Avgoustinos is a university constitutional law teacher and academic. He’s also Greek, and apologises to his and all yiayias for the crass generalisation.

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