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My First Protest

My First Protest

Words by Tim Livingstone

This article is part of PULPCLIMATE week. CLICK HERE to join the facebook group. University of Sydney Students will be marching from Fischer Library at 10:00 AM on the 20th of September.

Before I attended the first USyd climate strike walk-off last semester, the only protest I’d attended was with my parents. It was a good 15 years ago at the Spit Bridge which links the Northern Beaches with Mosman. My memory of it is vague, save for making placards on my back deck at home with Mum and Dad and my infantile confusion at the protest’s main slogan, “No More Band-Aids.” I distinctly remember wondering why my parents were protesting Band-Aids, and what they had to do with a bridge. The explanation that Band-Aids stood as a metaphor for an extra lane proposed for the Spit Bridge simply confused me more.

Yes, the first and only protest I had attended before the climate strike, arguably the largest popular movement in world history, was to deny more traffic flow into our tranquil harbourside suburb so as not to upset the locals.

As you might have guessed, a political spirit has not exactly flared within me since my foray into local infrastructure planning at the age of five. In year seven I had a brief stint as a staunch atheist on the Internet, rigorously debating (using facts and logic, of course) American Christians on the supposed follies of their religion (“You believe in talking snakes!”) Then, throughout high school, I meticulously caught the news every night (SBS, just so worldly!) and for my first election I researched all the candidates before going to the polling booth. I wasn’t politically apathetic, to be sure, but I was still able to distance myself from any real political engagement.

There are many ways in which people achieve this Goldilocks distance of being sufficiently “close” to have a basic knowledge of politics to support some movements, while keeping sufficiently distant so as not to have to burden yourself too much by taking any real sides. Here I will focus on two.

The first is to convince yourself that activism and protests just aren’t for you, and that those who engage in the ever-present protests on campus are already in – they’ve joined some party or politically group already, and so the protest or activist activities are their domain. The second is to convince yourself that the protest’s or movement’s effect will be negligible. This thought carries into legitimate debates on effective political action, but commonly it can be a tactic used to justify your unwillingness to participate.

It was armed with these two tricks that I lead a politically uneventful life, up until March this year. Right up to the day of the climate strike I was hesitant. My friends were planning on going and I was keen to lend my support to an important cause. On the other hand, my Friday lecture was on a topic of great interest to me and, more importantly, would taking part in this protest mean I'd have to involve myself in every protest I supported? It was something I hadn’t done but, being the little lamb I am, I went with the herd of classmates on that Friday morning in a giddy train running from the new Social Sciences building to Fisher Library.

There was already quite a crowd, boosting my confidence that I was part of something everyone could be a part of.

A few minutes in, a tall guy holding one of the massive “renewables by 2030” banner turned to me.

“Hey man can you hold this up for a sec? I’ve just got to go and find someone.”

I gave him a hesitant grin and said I would, gaining a small sense of importance from holding the big banner, like the feeling a little kid gets when their parent asks them to hold the beaters as they bake a cake (I was only ever allowed to use the scraper as a child).

Soon enough the banner-man’s partner had to be relieved from her duties too, off on some important activist errand, I was sure. My friend Julian, with a bigger grin than mine, happily took up the charge. Look at us, two good guys helping out.

Yet, like a child waiting alone in the checkout queue while their parent goes back to find something in the store, the excitement at my newfound responsibility quickly turned to anxiety. The speeches were starting to wind-down, the crowd was wriggling their legs in anticipation for the march, and I was still holding the big two-person banner. Where was the tall banner-man and his friend? I gave Julian a look to express this sentiment, but he just gave me a shrug of the shoulders.

My fears were realised. The march lumbered forth from Fisher onto Eastern Ave. Julian and I hoisted the heavy wooden stakes and away we went. A few people with climate strike shirts noticed us hesitating and urged us to get the banner up near the front, but they disappeared before we could explain our hesitation.

Dutifully we powered forward and pretty quickly I was enjoying myself. I thought about those black-and-white pictures of students protesting the Vietnam war, their jackets, flared pants, and long hair always swaying in the wind as they march or energetically thrust their fists in the air. There were multiple photographs, police officers, onlookers. I was wearing a jacket open to the wind, and I wondered if I was going to wind up in some archival photograph used in museum exhibitions or documentaries on the climate strikes.

This is me, I thought, sticking it to the Man, man.

I quickly got caught up in it all. City Road was opened to us, empty like I’d never seen it before. Varying chants barked from the mass of students behind me. It wasn’t long before Julian and I had to be told to slow down, because we were blocking out the other banners at the front (apparently our banner wasn’t the main one).

As we marched, cars honked at us and their drivers waved. Onlookers stared or cheered. Students from IGS ran to meet us as we passed and I kept looking behind me to try and find an end to that snake of students coursing its way through Broadway, the usual hegemony of cars broken.

At Town Hall, I saw the tapestry of human lives that made up this massive contingent. There were older people standing by the Cathedral’s side, beaming benevolently at the mass of students walking past. Their shirts announced they were from “Christians Uniting for Climate Action.” Groups of high schoolers filtered through the crowd, their dresses, skirts, school shirts and ties of various colours giving the event a feeling of being at a big inter-school music festival or athletics carnival. Some kids were much younger, holding hand-made placards in their right hands while they clung to their parents with their left.

Since that day I’ve graduated from banner-boy to being more involved. The mildly intimidating climate strikes organisers who urged Julian and I to the front have transformed into individuals with their own studies to attend to, their own talents. I met a first-year architecture student running around campus putting up posters with him. I painted t-shirts with an old classmate of my brother's. I saw union members and SRC office bearers offer resources and contacts in meetings. I've met exchange students studying science, philosophy and history majors, postgrad students, veteran student activists, and friendly first-years.

What they have in common is the sum of their individual political engagement. First, having conquered the myth that it is only others that can agitate for social change, we have realised that we can only rely on ourselves – and ourselves alone – to fight for our future. Secondly, we know that it is in this movement of global, mass strikes where we will resolve the political stupor that denies the problem of climate change its gravity.

Renowned educator Paulo Freire identified mythicizing – the act of presenting the world as a “fixed identity” to which someone must adapt, rather than as a problem to be solved – as a main way in which those in power maintain control. By telling ourselves that we, individually, do not have the power to change the world as it burns, we deny ourselves agency in solving this problem and we submit to the powers that would convince us of that powerlessness.

Nobody but yourself will fight for your future. Go on strike this Friday and – who knows – maybe you’ll get to carry a banner.

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