Where to draw the line on liberty? Refugee Protests in the time of Coronavirus

Margarite Clarey in conversation with Jonathan Sri

With his colourful beanie, laptop and relaxed stride, you could be forgiven for mistaking 32-year-old Jonathan Sri for a student activist.

Elected Councillor for central Brisbane’s Gabba Ward in 2016, the former musician and beat poet has stood firm in the face of slander, arrest and court orders tied to his participation in protests over Australia’s indefinite detention of refugees and asylum seekers.

Since June, Sri has been a regular at a blockade at Kangaroo Point Hotel in his electorate where 120 refugee and asylum seeker men have been detained for up to 18 months.

Most of the men have been in detention on Nauru and Manus since 2013, having arrived by boat in the wake of Kevin Rudd’s infamous PNG solution. Brought to Australia for medical treatment, they caught public attention in April after hanging banners over their balconies demanding they be released for their safety after a guard tested positive for COVID-19.

Refugee advocates responded by setting up the 24-hour blockade around the hotel to stop the men being transferred to higher security facilities out of public sight.

Sri has been there most days since, before and after work.

I spoke to him as the protesters were gearing up for a morning sit-in on Brisbane’s Story Bridge and the planners were weighing up the risks should the action, now postponed for Saturday 15 August, go ahead. 

Q. The authorities in Queensland have cited COVID-19 risks and arrests should the Story Bridge refugee solidarity sit-in go ahead. What’s your take on the situation?

In general, we have seen a consistent pattern where police and government officials use COVID as an excuse to suppress peaceful protest even as they allow other forms of large gatherings.

In Queensland, schools are open, restaurants and pubs are open and shopping malls are crowded. They are allowing up to 10,000 people at the Gabba stadium. In that context, the suggestion that peaceful protests that are widely spaced and in an open area are too high health risk seems really hypocritical and inconsistent to me.

I think really what is going on here is that protests are politically inconvenient, particularly when they block a major arterial road and the government knows that it can’t lawfully stop the protest on that basis, so is looking for another excuse.

“It’s not enough to tell people to simply write a letter to their Federal MP. Our state politicians need to be taking direct responsibility for the fact that human rights abuses are occurring in their city and in their state.”

Q. Do you think people are afraid to join the sit-in?

At the moment the Queensland police definitely seem like they are looking for excuses to crack heads, so to speak. I think some people are nervous about the police response and others are questioning what forms of action are most likely to shift public opinion at the moment.

There have definitely been debates about whether protests in COVID actually turn people against the movement, personally I don’t think they do. They serve a broader purpose of bringing more attention to the issue. I think it’s possible to conduct protests safely even in these sorts of circumstances. The goal is ultimately to remind people what is going on in these detention centres and so I think protests are going to continue over the coming weeks.

Q. I notice that there is a younger crowd here at the blockade tonight, is there a certain demographic coming out in support of the refugees?

I think that young people are doing more of the overnight shifts and some of the hard-nosed activism, but there are people as old as 85 on the blockade; there are people with kids coming through; it’s a really diverse movement and I think that is one of the successes and the reason it’s still flourishing.

Q. You, yourself, are here every time I come to the blockade. How often are you here?

I’m not here anywhere near as often as a lot of the other volunteers and organizers. I often stop by on my way in in the morning, or on my way home in the evening. I try and get along to some of the meetings and events and try to do a shift when I can, but I’m still working a very busy full-time job and so I don’t actually spend as much time here as the media probably thinks I do.

Q.  Can you comment on the push back by the Queensland Premier, State Opposition and Mayor in their public messaging around the refugee blockade and protests?

It’s important that we don’t let the government off the hook and particularly that we don’t allow the Queensland government to absolve itself of responsibility.

We’ve seen really strong rhetoric from Queensland Labor saying this is a Federal Government issue and not their problem, but actually the detention regime can only continue to function with the ongoing support of a wide range of State Government services and facilities. Although the detention facilities themselves might be controlled by the Federal Government, the moment that the State Government withdraws its tacit support for this, it becomes completely unviable for this whole regime to continue.

For Queensland Labor to say this isn’t our problem, that residents should go target the Federal Government, kind of misses the point that this is everyone’s problem. All political leaders and all levels of society need to be taking responsibility for standing up for human rights.

It’s not enough to tell people to simply write a letter to their Federal MP. Our state politicians need to be taking direct responsibility for the fact that human rights abuses are occurring in their city and in their state.

We know that the Queensland Human Rights Act specifically forbids the kind of detention that we are seeing here, and so the QLD government has legal mechanisms available to it to prevent this.

“The scale of the police crackdown and the excessive government response trying to suppress the protests suggest that the protests are a political problem for the government and that in itself is proof that we should probably keep agitating.”

Q.  Has there been any dialogue behind closed doors or indications that the protestors are being heard?

It certainly feels like political decision-makers at all levels are paying a lot more attention to the movement. I’m sometimes surprised at how much traction this campaign has already achieved. Even though there are a lot of so-called ordinary residents who aren’t entirely aware of what is going on here, the political class is watching this very closely. It has drawn the attention of people it needs to, and in that respect, it is definitely succeeding in shifting the conversation.

We know that there was a plan to transfer dozens of these men to BITA, a month or two ago and that still hasn’t happened. And we know that the government is concerned about ongoing protests and is feeling that pressure.

“So maybe this isn’t perfect, but it has certainly got more media attention and succeeded in shifting the conversation much more than any other tactic we’ve experimented with.”

The scale of the police crackdown and the excessive government response trying to suppress the protests suggest that the protests are a political problem for the government and that in itself is proof that we should probably keep agitating.

I do feel like we are making headway, although it’s hard to see how long it will take and what the outcomes will be.

Q. There have been mixed reactions to the protests. As the Councillor for the Gabba, what would you say to residents in your ward and beyond?

All of us in society have a responsibility to stand up against human rights abuses and I don’t think its sufficient anymore to say: ‘well the governments doing that, and I don’t support it.’ We actually have a responsibility to take proactive action to support our fellow human beings when their rights are being violated in this way.

From what I’ve heard there is more support among local residents for the protests than opposition. I’d say the vast majority of people agree that the men should be released into the community.

What is perhaps more interesting is the debates around methods, and how we go about achieving this goal.

A lot of people may be questioning whether protests are the best way to apply pressure. The answer is that we haven’t yet found a better way.

So maybe this isn’t perfect, but it has certainly got more media attention and succeeded in shifting the conversation much more than any other tactic we’ve experimented with.

Latest

Review – Renewal: Five Paths to a Fairer Australia

By Georgia Cerni

Sophie Cousins’ book Renewal: Five Paths to a Fairer Australia is, in many respects, a proposal. For Cousins, the COVID-19 pandemic has provided Australians with an opportunity to reconsider the ways our society currently functions. Cousins aptly makes her case – while in some ways the pandemic reinforced burgeoning inequalities, it also presented us the chance to apply collectivist values to solve systemic problems.