Saturday, July 27, 2013

In the eye of the storm

I've grown up going to protests. As a child in the 1980's I have fond memories of the rainbow banners of the anti-nuclear campaign. In the 1990s it was Indigenous rights culminating in the hope and togetherness we felt during the Bridge Walk  for Reconciliation. After 9/11 and the invasion of Afghanistan I was busily engaged in the anti-war movement and got involved in refugee action groups. Throughout all those years I had never had a problem with the police and generally believed that they were there to protect us... until the other week.

Recent rally in Sydney
I was recently in a picket supporting the National Tertiary Educators Union to call for fairer working conditions. The riot police had been called in, and as soon as any negotiations began to take place between protesters and those wishing to enter the university, the police took it upon themselves to get involved, and quickly set about pushing protesters quite aggressively, and grabbing those who were seated on the ground. I was quite shocked by these displays of what some would call police brutality. I hadn't seen it up close before. There was a look of what I can only describe as hatred in their eyes as they pushed, shoved, and strangled their fellow human beings for nothing more than voicing an opinion and then sitting down at an inconvenient time and place. My impression was that it was also a blankness there in their eyes, as if they had put aside their humanity in order to do their job. I've been told that blank look is in fact part of what they have been trained to do, in the same way that soldiers are taught to kill without emotion.

I have been thinking about this in relation to other protests around the world. I know we are lucky in Australia that, if you're white the police are generally there to protect you. Indigenous Australians have born the brunt of racism, inhumane treatment, incarceration without reason, and death from our so-called justice system for more than 200 years. Palestinian colleagues have told me about the endless Israeli checkpoints they have to go through, even just to get from home to work, and the discrimination that they face daily from Israeli authorities simply for being of a different nationality. I was aware in Turkey that the use of tear gas on protesters seemed an extreme reaction to an essentially peaceful protest about ideals that police would probably themselves support, if they thought long enough about it - access to public parks, and a democratic government.
Flyer in Istanbul

So, with all these situations, I have been asking myself whether some people are naturally evil, or whether these behaviours are just a result of violent structures, inappropriate training and propaganda. The other week, I got into an interesting discussion about the Palestine/Israel situation. A woman was asking me whether the Quaker belief that there is "that of God in everyone" leading to a history of impartiality during wars and conflicts (the Quakers provided an ambulance service to both sides during the first and second world wars) is in direct conflict with our pursuit of equality and justice, particularly in situations of human rights violations. Are we failing to stand up for the oppressed when we attempt to negotiate with the oppressor?

It is a topic I have been considering myself over the past few months, and I don't think the two are mutually exclusive. I think it is possible to call for justice and to stand alongside the oppressed while still believing there is something of God in everyone. There is a Quaker query that asks "Do you respect that of God in everyone though it may be expressed in unfamiliar ways or be difficult to discern?" The belief in this goodness in the 'other' enables us not only to look at conflicts in terms of two or more parties with needs unmet but also to see oppressive regimes as made up of human beings who are capable of good. Speaking to their human-ness, I hope, gives the oppressor the space and opportunity to change their behaviour.

An activist friend who has more experience than me of police interactions through his involvement with the occupy movement was telling me of a time when a protester had spoken so passionately to a line of riot police about the inhumanity of their actions that one of the officers had broken down in tears. While probably a rare occurrence, I think it shows that beneath the tough exterior and emotionless eyes of riot police in Australia, or Israeli soldiers at checkpoints in Palestine or police administering tear gas in Istanbul there is an innate humanity. Perhaps if we can patiently search for that humanity, we can encourage them to see alternatives to violence for achieving their objectives, recognise the humanity in their 'other', and over time, begin to see justice for those who have suffered as a result of violence, injustice and oppression.

1 comment:

Kerensa said...

I think you have to believe in that of god (or good) in the oppressor, or there is no hope. Without such believe, conflict resolution, educational approaches, etc don't make sense.