I’m not good with crowds – not since the early days of journalism in Toowoomba when I under-reported numbers at the annual Carnival of Flowers parade. “Next time check with the police,” I was told and mostly continued to do so, on occasions when crowds gathered for newsworthy events.
It is not always a given that members of the constabulary will give you an accurate-enough figure of crowds. Police under-estimated by 50% or so the size of street marches in Australia’s capital cities in 2003, protesting John Howard’s involvement in George Bush Jnr’s unjustifiable war with Iraq.
Oh, we remember that! Mr and Mrs Outraged Parents of One joined 99,998 others on February 16, 2003, marching from Roma Street, along Adelaide Street and down Edward Street to the Botanic Gardens. It was a steamy Brisbane day and there were concerns for the health and hydration of toddlers and the elderly.
On the same day, rallies in Adelaide, Darwin and Sydney attracted 200,000 people while two days earlier, 150,000 marched in Melbourne. This was part of a co-ordinated global protest on the same day, when, according to the BBC, between six and 11 million people were involved in more than 60 countries. Rome broke a world record for the biggest single-city anti-war protest, with three million participants.
It might say something about the relative futility of protest in that the ill-advised invasion of Iraq in March 2003 led to ongoing conflict until the withdrawal of 170,000 US troops in 2011. Although their tenure is uncertain, there are 5,200 US troops in Iraq as part of a security agreement with the Iraq government. Along with US-employed contractors, this brings the ‘friendly fire’ equation into any strike on neighbouring Iran.
It seems you need really big protest numbers to get governments to back off even a little bit. An estimated 2 million people thronged Hong Kong’s streets this month.
When a quarter of the population protests, you can understand city authorities putting an unpopular plan on the back-burner. Protesters feared that Hong Kong’s economy and society would be irretrievably damaged by a proposed extradition law (allowing visitors and residents to be sent for trial in China). Hong Kong chief executive Carrie Lam was forced to suspend the draft legislation. You may recall mass protests and sit-ins in Hong Kong circa 2014 as residents took part in the ‘Umbrella Movement’, to complain about China deciding who will govern the city.
Meanwhile civil disobedience (نافرمانی مدنی) is ramping up in Iran, despite a brutal crackdown by the State’s security police. Prior to 2017, years passed between bouts of people marching in Iran’s capital, Tehran. Nevertheless, people took to the streets of Tehran for three days in a row in 2017, protesting largely about economic hardship and alleged corruption within government. Protests continued in 2018 amid what Amnesty International called “a year of shame”.
Thousands were arrested as authorities sought to crush dissent, as protests continued against poverty, corruption and authoritarianism. Amnesty International said more than 7,000 people were arrested, many arbitrarily. Protestors included students, journalists, environmental activists, workers and human rights defenders.
“Hundreds were sentenced to prison terms or flogging and at least 26 protesters were killed. Nine people arrested in connection with protest died in custody under suspicious circumstances.”
Amnesty director Philip Luther said the scale of arrests, imprisonments and flogging sentences revealed the extreme lengths the authorities have gone to in order to suppress peaceful dissent.
And while Australian journalists wax indignant about the Australian Federal Police raids on the national broadcaster, this is what can happen to scribes reporting the facts in Iran.
In Australia, attempts at repression are mostly left to conservative politicians and like-minded social media commentators. Last week, two Extinction Rebellion protestors glued themselves to a zebra crossing in Queen Street during a Stop Adani rally, prompting Federal MP Ken O’Dowd to post on Facebook. He cited a Courier-Mail article which quoted Police inspector Geoff Acreman as saying: “The stunt was a ridiculous waste of resources.”
“I’m sure we will all agree,” said O’Dowd, to which 98 people responded with comments like ‘‘make them a speed bump’’, ‘‘leave them there overnight’’, or ‘‘take away their dole money’’. Discourse cuts both ways, thankfully, and this post also attracted comments from people who see the folly of ignoring the climate crisis.
While glueing yourself to a public road does seem an extreme form of dissidence, it is important to remember that Australia does not have a national charter of rights.
While Victoria, the ACT and Queensland have each introduced a State-based charter of rights, in other States, the pendulum is swinging the other way.
Human Rights Law Centre executive director Hugh de Kretser writes that there have been attempts by State governments in Tasmania, New South Wales and Western Australia to curb the power of protests. Mooted changes to State laws include severe penalties, excessive police powers and the creation of ‘broad, vague offences’.
Mr de Kretser says protest has defined a number of key social advances and environmental saves in this country. Without protests we might not have the eight-hour day, women’s right to vote, protection of the Franklin and Daintree rivers and advancement of Aboriginal land rights. Protest also stopped our involvement in the Vietnam War and ended the criminalisation of homosexuality.
He says these issues will come into sharper focus in coming years, with increased attention on climate change, workplace disruption and the implementation of the Uluru Statement.
When, we wonder, will Americans start to push back against the hawk-like Trump administration that has taken the world too close for comfort to an armed conflict with Iran?
For now, President Trump appears to favour increased sanctions against Iran, but experts on armed conflicts say these are parlous times.
South China Morning Post opinion writer Rob York asks the question: where are the mass protests in the US about President Donald Trump first threatening North Korea and now coming close to armed conflict with Iran?
York recounts the nervous days in 2017 when Trump and North Korea leader Kim Jong-un played a high stakes game of chicken. This was thankfully hosed down by conciliatory summits in 2018. Now York asks why there are no mass demonstrations about a potential strike against Iran by the US.
“Since June 9, the world has watched Hong Kong’s protest movement closely. The mood of Americans in my social circle turned from dread to relief and then to awe as Hongkongers took to the streets, making it difficult for a government they feel no longer represents them to function.
But Americans are hesitant to do the same. So what if their country sleepwalks into a wholly unnecessary conflagration?”
As commentators have pointed out, Trump has a lot to lose if the US stumbles into a war with Iran, not the least a pre-election promise to the contrary.
As always, Trump’s habit of tweeting in the early hours of the morning comes back to haunt him. Thanks to Mr Shiraz for unearthing this.
“Don’t let Obama play the Iran card in order to start a war to get elected – be careful Republicans” – The Real Donald Trump on Twitter, October 23, 2012.
The last word goes to David Bowie’s chillingly appropriate song, used in the credits to the 2016 TV drama, Berlin Station. It’s an earworm.