Anger that shuts down an intersection

These men are angry. It’s a body-gyrating, fist-pounding anger, sounding distorted and tinny through run-down megaphones. A band of young men, some in turbans, others not, stand invincible at the centre of a sea of more young men, who sit like immoveable rocks or else stand and cheer at the command of their leaders. On the periphery is a husk made up of the curious and the less committed, poised with digital cameras and mobile phones. Police complete the configuration, circling it with their fluoro vests like speciality dancers in a Rock Eisteddfod.

I first saw them just after 3, when I walked past the intersection between Flinders and Swanston Streets. With vague curiosity I meandered through the edges of the crowd. What’s this about, I wanted to know? Racially-inspired hate crimes, I was told. Apparently international students have been victim to a spate racist attacks in recent weeks. Aussies have been stabbing Indian students with screwdrivers at railways stations and gatecrashing Indian parties. These people want it to stop.

I went back at 5. The cold air had a new bite to it and the city lights were shining bright against the descending darkness. The bells of St Pauls wouldn’t stop ringing – loud, disjointed notes that went on and on. They mingled with the now seemingly crazed voices coming out of the faltering loudspeakers – words I couldn’t understand. The mob had bunkered down to a large, impenetrable core.

It’s nearly midnight and I can still hear the crowd. Sirens scream and float up to my bedroom. Last year, taxi drivers protested in the same spot for 22 hours. This mob ain’t going nowhere.

When I went to Credo for dinner, I sat next to Djarro and told him what I’d seen. Djarro said they had no right to take to the streets like that – they weren’t from this country and they should either go through diplomatic channels or else deal with it like everybody else. They had no right to be so angry.
“Are you angry?” I asked.
“No.”
“You’re not angry about what colonialism has done to your people?”
“It’s not in my people’s psyche to be angry,” was his answer. “We are calm. We don’t yell and shout. We’re just not like that.”
He went on to talk about his people, and how they had been decimated by ‘Anglos’. His eyes grew fierce with hurt and what looked like anger.
“You sound angry.”
“Ok, well I am angry. But our anger is controlled. We listen and we talk.”
I thought back to times when I’d heard Aboriginal people talk about what has happened to their people since colonialism. They don’t normally yell or embellish their words with lots of emotional adjectives. They just speak the truth, with a clarity that almost sparkles.

After dinner Djarro and I wandered down to the blockade. We stood on the steps of St Pauls, surveying the formation below. I stood next to a man with a bushy black beard. What is it they want, I wanted to know? His voice was impassioned, his dark eyes avoiding mine. We want freedom from these hate crimes, we want police protection. He related stories I’d heard earlier about stabbings. We come to this country to peacefully study, he said, and we do not deserve to be attacked by Aussies. We want more police protection.

When will they stop protesting, was my next question? When somebody comes from the government to assure them of more police protection, was his answer.

His demand was vague and his rant sounded like repeated rhetoric. More police protection…what did that even mean? It sounded to me like a simplistic solution dreamed up by one of those informal leaders with megaphones, mid-speech.

The protest, it seemed to me, was just their way of channelling anger. There may not be any political strategy behind it. I wonder if what this is really about is a group of proud, educated men who are sick of doing the demeaning jobs that no-one else wants to do. They drive our taxis, staff our convenience stores – and have been reduced to a strange stereotype that includes both impotence and violence. They are looked down upon, yet also feared.

This stereotype is not so dissimilar from what Djarro faces. He has a lot more to complain about, and perhaps that is why it gets under his skin when educated Indians take to the streets. For the most part, Djarro has dealt with dispossession by expressing his hurt through art and making the best of his tattered roots. His anger rages, but comes out as a sort of sadness – grief, for example, that he can’t think and talk in his own language.

I think that Djarro is resentful of others who are already powerful using that strength to shut down major intersections and make the front pages of newspapers. In this country, genocide never stopped traffic. Djarro’s people are scattered and disenfranchised. Dispossession makes it very hard to make change out of anger.