“Come away, O human child!
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
For the world's more full of weeping
than you can understand.”
― W.B. Yeats, The Collected Poems
The sound of muffled gunshots and distant explosions woke me. It was just after 2am on Monday night and I’d fallen asleep on the lounge and left the tv on.
I’d watched the broadcast of the siege in the Lindt chocolate café in Sydney for hours so I was fairly sure what was happening from the angle of the camera. I’d kept watching once I’d heard that family members of hostages had gathered around Martin Place.
I'd made mental lists of what I would have taken down to the site. I could have volunteered for coffee runs or offered some fold up chairs or just sat in silence, or moved back and not got in the way. I could have done something. Hundreds of kilometers away, all I could do was watch. This is what social media does – it gives us all the information but we are powerless to participate.
It was the middle of the night and the amount of noise made me expect the worse and that was soon confirmed. Only days away from Christmas and now families would be devastated in grief and disbelief.
Within hours the faces of those who’d been inside the café were all over the news sites and Twitter. The dreadful vigil was now a shocking reality. Stunned by the outcome, the jokes and the misinformation thrown about in haste on social media were all just litter that blew down an empty street.
We are in mourning for people have died, children have lost their mother. Among us live those who will never have their loved one come home from a day in the city. What was once thought safe and ordinary has gone and Martin Place is now an unearthly site, that was visited by evil and now shrouded in sorrow and the scent of thousands of fresh flowers.
I was in Melbourne last week and with a friend, had reason to be walking down Swanston Street. We were looking for a coffee shop. Looking hard in my case. I don’t know Melbourne very well and was afflicted with a temporary bout of impaired vision which blurred one eye to blindness and the blinking strain on the other transmitted sight intermittently in shooting flashes like an asteroid shower.
A planter box was along the inside edge of the footpath. It looked rather grand to be skirting an empty lot, among the construction scaffolding but it was the nature of the air that had me curious enough to stop and inspect it.
It was a memorial site for the tragic accident in March 2014, when a strong gust of wind on a summer’s day had caused a 15-metre section of brick wall to topple over and two young people, brother and sister, had died. What the smart phones and tv crews hadn’t conveyed was the wall was opposite a tram stop and Swanston Street is a major thoroughfare into the city centre. Adding up location and the time of day, there could have easily been far more casualties. Or there could have been none at all, such is the tragic misfortune of life. I wondered how often people cast their eyes that way as they pass by and how long till the horror of the accident had made it possible to travel that route.
The Swanston Street wall fell down in a cloud of loose bricks and smart phones captured the desperate efforts of the passerbys, now commemorated in a permanent declaration of the strength of the community, primed to respond.
The Sydney siege had been a vigil of several hours before I saw the #Illridewithyou hashtag appear in my timeline. I understood everything about it in an instant and retweeted the first, second and third tweets without hesitation. I saw it had ignited into images and innovative responses.
What I understood was the most vulnerable are always in danger when anger raises the alarm that a threat to some form of freedom has been detected. When myself and others used our social media space to campaign for various positions on s.18c Racial Discrimination Act we knew which people had the most to lose: those who fall under the quaint term 'of Aboriginal in appearance’ or one of the other ethnicities that regularly, depressingly and drearily experiences racist abuse and assaults in public.
The danger could come from the most frightening quarter – a complete stranger, or as part of the sinister menace we've come to expect, with specific targets in mind. Painting a target on yourself probably accounts for the reluctance across the board for having a lot to say about repealing sections of the Racial Discrimination Act.
But for those who did, speaking up was especially arduous for those who chose to do so on TV and radio, in the defence and protection of others -- but people who come running when a wall falls down, don’t stop and think about themselves or who is under it. Some of the very best writing was unexpected, from those who’d have no fear travelling pretty much anywhere on earth, so I also know what it feels like to have faith in humanity topped up when you feel it most.
Thinking about #illridewithyou, I could expect to be safer on public transport if I took up wearing a hardscarf. I can pass as a member of a number of religions that I do not follow. I could pass as middle eastern or Asian or many of the countries that lay on the African continent.
What I can’t pass as is a member of the dominant group who flooded the internet with details of where to find them should I want to feel safer on public transport. Or want someone to talk to. Or feel better when surrounded by strangers if I had someone to sit beside me and tell me where I am when my eyes don’t work.
And I am what I am, and it is what it is so the most energy best spent is in wondering ‘why?’ Are Aboriginal people so intimidating that people do not know how to approach us? I can guess what the answer is, if Aboriginal people are judged from social media alone. It’s obvious why the caution even though we like many other groups that now coexist in Australia have good reason to say ‘we are not all the same’.
People do not want to offend by coming any closer -- or far worse, suffer the choking humiliation of being ridiculed on social media, even if it’s at the hands of those who would have to put a staunch t-shirt on to have anything to fear. I grimly understand why plenty stop in their tracks. It wont make any difference to point out the worst behaviour is a long way from any cultural traditions that I remember, or the essays of derangement are largely ghostwritten so can hardly be taken as widely held views.
To my troubled mind, initiatives such as #Illridewithyou are of the kind that makes me hope a little of the goodwill might rub off on all of us. Stricter bail conditions, more rigid surveillance and tough talking may appease people’s outrage at times like this, but they do nothing for the broken hearts. They will not return the ones who have been lost to their families, they are not the conversations you can have with a child, and they wont make the fearful look forward to a free and full participation in life.