Liz Thompson explains why she is not speaking at the Close Manus rally on Saturday

I am not speaking at the Close Manus rally on Saturday, organised by RAC [Refugee Action Collective]. Without thinking, I agreed to do it, thinking there could be no harm. But in fact the reaction to me speaking on Dateline has made me reconsider. 

I need to clarify my own position. Firstly, while I am grateful for the support I have received and acknowledge that people are expressing solidarity for a variety of admirable reasons, there is something deeply discomforting about the adulation and the focus on me as a ‘whistleblower’ that speaks to whose voice is amplified in this particular moment.

This moment is the culmination of months of protests on Manus Island. It is a moment when we are reminded where the movement in this movement is. That nothing moves without directions from within the camps, or from asylum seekers and border crossers in the community. Now is not a time to be recuperating action from within the camps into this moment of national unity or salving the national conscience by saying “not in my name”. I suppose what I would like to put forward is – for pity’s sake, not in their name!! These guys have their lives on the line, we can do better. A vigil is fine, a respectful way to mourn Reza, but we need to start thinking about effective action that does something other than reproduce our own milieus as if that reproduction could possibly close the camps.

I don’t honestly believe that a rally such as the RAC rally does anything other than further entrench a self-appointed “refugee movement” which is no such thing. I have become increasingly concerned about the self-promoting, NGO-proliferating arm of the “refugee movement”, the lack of self-reflection on the amount of space taken up by white people saying “not in my name”. These rallies serve to reinforce and reorganise a white refugee movement that speaks on behalf of others.

This is a movement that has managed to erase the leadership of those within detention from the history of resistance to mandatory detention and deterrence experiments. When we celebrate the “victories” of woomera, Baxter, we don’t even think to invite those who survived behind the wire – the hunger strikers, protestors, deportation resisters, those who did jail time in solidarity with those inside. That our position is to invite those people to our gatherings speaks volumes. Our excuse? We don’t even remember their names, though their accounts of detention have been published. Instead we photograph ourselves, we celebrate our role in saving and helping. We erase the idea of solidarity and refuse to take direction from within the camps.  When communications are shut down within the camps, it doesn’t mean we should fill the space with ourselves. The demand has been put: help us get out of here, support our active resistance, our refusal to suffer quietly despite the extreme violence, the total lack of legal protections. Yes, those in detention are extremely vulnerable – yet they protest, hunger strike, resist and they know better than anyone what the cost will be.

“Not in our name” is a self-referential slogan, it speaks about us, not about those behind the wire. Wendy Bacon’s piece naming the refugee movement as ASRC and RAC is misleading, inaccurate, erasing those who resist in the camps. The movement is inside the camps, the leadership has always come from there, despite our active attempts to erase this history. The movement is in Mike, Oscar, Foxtrot, Delta and the other compounds in Manus Island. It is on Nauru, where the camp was destroyed. It is on CI, where the hunger strike is. It is in the community in Australia and the camps here. Where is the invitation to the delegates, the resisters and those who brought down Woomera and Baxter from within last time, some of whom are pretty easy to find with a phone call to @RISErefugee. They are always an afterthought in this branch of the “movement”, one that uses rallies to build itself, to fight for national representation for its ideas, rather than a rejection of nationalist logic integral to an anti-camps position with any integrity.

This is said with only admiration for Aran M and the Kurdish community speakers due to speak on Saturday. It is not a criticism of the particular speakers but rather the default to celebrity white speakers from whom we hear all the time and whose positions we know – suggestive of that logic of self-replication.

If you want to close the camps, think about what you can do where you are that will be effective. That does not mean another rally. We all know that won’t close the camps, or stop wars.I believe it means boycott, divestment and withdrawal, like the Biennale boycott, like targeting all aspects of the supply chain of the camps. Think about where your super is invested, the well-meaning people you know who work in detention, the things you can do that are about solidarity with resistance in the camps, not about building organisations that speak on their behalf without their permission and only using them as photo ops.

I owe my political understanding of all of this to the delegates and resisters from Woomera, Baxter, Curtin, to the deportees back in Afghanistan, the international students, the survivors of the camps, @angrytamilwoman, @jayani77, @sanmativerma, @riserefugee, the enormous body of work of @Mitropoulos_A, the intellectual and physical labour of men and women of colour in this movement. Yet despite over ten years of working with people like this, I still make mistakes like not thinking about the amount of space I am taking up, like saying yes to another rally I know serves no useful purpose.

Step back, think about the space you are taking up or helping others to fill. Thanks again for all of the support, which I know speaks to a desire to do something effective about the camps. There is much to be learned by all of us about how this is to be done in a way that is real and effective.

— Liz Thompson has worked as a migration agent. She recently left work at the Manus Island detention centre. You can watch the Dateline report on this here.

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Liz Thompson explains why she is not speaking at the Close Manus rally on Saturday

32 thoughts on “Liz Thompson explains why she is not speaking at the Close Manus rally on Saturday

  1. Marilyn says:

    You are quite correct, the trouble is that the refugees are mostly too terrified to talk in Australia for fear for their families.

  2. Lorena Millicent says:

    Hi Liz,

    totally get your point about who speaks – but how are you not also ‘recuperating action from within the camps’? the people inside do not speak with one voice, nor do they speak directly through you. it sounds a bit disingenous to claim that you are ‘just taking direction’ from people who have no public rights or voice? lots of different kinds of people are in touch with people in the camps. when I used to visit detention it felt like a creepy competition between socialists, anarchists, and churchies to have a direct line to the oppressed.

    and don’t you have another interest in dissing RAC etc, as a communist who is critical of the trotskyites in their ranks?

    I agree that the heroism of the whistleblower is inappropriate here but is this not also because you have an ideological committment to communism and open borders which speaking out this week against the Manus horror made particularly logical and comfortable for you?

    However which way it happens that we put pressure on these camps and get them to close, there is no pure strategy. I think that your simple recourse to the multiple, complex voices of people who have been so massively fucked over needs more work!

    still, amazing job this week. thankyou. maybe taking the kudos is about acknowledging a really appropriate use of your power as a white woman with unquestioned citizenship who can access the professions surrounding detention.

    LM

    ps. I’m sorry I can’t use my real name here. I understand if that means you want to ignore me or if it makes my points less strong. anyway i hope the points make sense.

    1. Liz Thompson says:

      Actually, I think you might be totally missing the point about who speaks. I don’t think people in the camps have no voice – that strikes me as a ridiculous assertion unsupported by the events of last week in particular, but also the long history of resistance to mandatory detention from within the camps. If you are unaware of that long history, I think I’ve suggested why that might be. But you know what has happened over the last few weeks. My concern with RAC is as I have stated it: I have worked in and with them before and yep am a commie, critical of the trots in their ranks. If you are suggesting I have ulterior motives, that is okay, we all have complicated investments. But I do wonder how or why that would undermine anything said here about the dominance of white voices. I don’t think I suggested people in the camps speak with one voice or through me – I have tweeted direct communications from individuals within the camps, such as the comment from a community rep about his attitude towards PNG, given the demonisation of PNG locals generally in some sections of the media/commentariat. It seems appropriate to remind people that the idea of some deeply embedded racist hostility between Manus Island camp inmates and island residents is not an argument advanced from within the camp itself, but is part of some of the more problematic racist arguments advanced against mandatory detention, apparently in solidarity with those inside. Yet another illustration of things discussed here.

  3. Anonymous says:

    Thank you for this Liz, I think this is an important message and reminder to those of us (myself included) who want to do something to be aware of our position, white privilege and so on. our willingless to step aside (and actually do so, not just claim “We should make space” and keep still) is to be applauded.

    I would like to ask whether it isn’t possible to do “both” (for want of a better word) these things – have a refugee movement (that is self-reflexive, inclusive and based on solidarity) and take action that acknowledges who the real protagonists in “the struggle” are and how we might support their resistance through divestment, boycott etc.

    My first thought is that interruption of the supply chain and the ability of the detention system to continue can’t exclusively be about walking away from the Biennale, changing super providers etc (I acknowledge these are just but a few of the kinds of things you are referring to) but would also include actions such as rallies, sit-ins, occupations (very much wanting of a better word!), blockades of the business and government departments that keep the machine rolling? These actions would likely need to be driven by RAC etc, who can mobilise bodies-on-ground.

    1. Liz Thompson says:

      Thanks Anon. But I do think the idea of “doing both” fails to engage seriously the idea that other people doing all the speaking actively drives the other voices out. I think the evidence for that is exactly the collective amnesia about actually how Woomera and Baxter were closed and the constant assertion that those in the camps have no voice. Also – why would blockades, occupations etc need to be driven by RAC? No one is saying they couldn’t come along or shouldn’t come along, but why do they need to “drive” it, exactly?

  4. collins says:

    Couldn’t agree more re: death by rallies, ‘Not in my name” etc and particularly the ‘sorry’ trend (fuck I have ‘sorry’ fatigue)… completely pointless.
    I would say however, that the audience on Saturday could benefit from hearing this.

  5. Vicki McKay says:

    Without a ground swell of people taking the little action they know how (the sorry photos and rallies) the govt will sit back and think they have appeased everyone and NOTHING will change. I do not agree that rallies and photos make no difference .. but some constructive advise on involving those who have been there before is useful. I also agree you could reach so many more people with this advise if you WERE speaking on Saturday. As far as my history books say Vietnam was stopped by the rallies of people who couldn’t take any more ‘in their name’

    1. Michael Longmore says:

      History books tend to reproduce the dominant perspective though. Looking a bit deeper there’s a lot to suggest that the Western countries pulled out of Vietnam not because a certain number of well-meaning people marched in the street, but due to actual, self-organised resistance from those on the ground – in this case, the refusal to fight, insubordination and outright mutiny of hundreds of thousands of GIs sent to Vietnam. See for example:
      http://msuweb.montclair.edu/~furrg/Vietnam/heinl.html
      http://prole.info/texts/olivedrabrebels.html
      http://www.infoshop.org/myep/love3.html
      It’s not really surprising that the dominant histories don’t question nationalist logics at work inside the official movement, and make little mention of self-organised resistance by those on the receiving end of government policies. I think the parallels are obvious between the ignored history of self-organised struggle by GIs in Vietnam, and the lack of visibility given by the refugee advocacy movement to struggles against the border by people designated on the wrong side of it. Mandatory detention has been around for 22 years now, and only seems to be intensifying. Given this, I don’t think any aspect of the ‘movement’ against mandatory detention should be free from criticism.

  6. Helen Razer says:

    This is extraordinary.
    It is incredibly difficult to critique compassion and good feelings and not have people decry you; even a relative no-mark like myself is harassed into silence for suggesting that consequences are more important than a big old public sook. The fact that the author, who is now an enemy of the Australian government, is also prepared to make an enemy of the Australian left shows a double bravery of which I doubt I’d be capable.
    I agree that old forms of protest are ineffective and I concur most absolutely that the individualising of a terrible policy into an expression of personal grief is potentially destructive.
    I think this is a powerful statement which gives us some urgent ethical questions to address. Mostly: do you really think your public display of personal grief is going to achieve anything beyond your own relief?
    Feelings are fine in private and sometimes inevitable in public but it seems to me they have become the raison d’etre of protest.
    This policy needs changing. Not for our own comfort. Just because it’s wrong.
    I’m really impressed by the courage of these words; not that it is ever about personal courage. It is about a collective solution to a government problem. In any case, well done.

  7. I attend rallies and intend to continue to do so. The fatigue I am feeling is from signing petitions and sending emails that those to whom they are addressed simply ignore. Today I went to a memorial service for Reza Berati. and shared a time of mourning with Kelisa people – his people. I definitely say, “Not in their name”, but I cannot help feeling that numbers are what the Liberals and Labor are about. They need to see the people who oppose them, not as names on a petition, but people who have cared enough to get off their backsides and peacefully rally in public places. Jim Cairns knew that and was able to get tens of thousands mobilised against our involvement in the Vietnam war. So yes, I believe in boycotts and any other action – but I also believe in rallies. Maybe it takes all of that and anything else we can think of.

  8. Kate says:

    Tell you what I’m tired of… People critisising other people that have sincere passion for wanting to see change. How dare you criticise the Asrc

    1. Lorena Millicent says:

      It should be safe and ok to be critical and debate/try to collectively find the best ways forward. internets don’t leave much space for that.

      (everyone in this conversation has sincerity and passion and is horrified by the way boat arrivals are treated by Australia. most people feel led by those inside the camps, to respond human to human. I think it’s a more complex matter than Thompson presents. don’t RAC, ASRC & others also ‘take direction’ from the people in the camps? don’t Australians who say ‘not in my name’ do so as a way to address people in the camps directly, bypassing the government and msm? when the power imbalance between us and those in detention is so epic and the risks to those inside are so great, how can most responsibly/effectively use our power? is it a matter of ‘just taking direction’? what if there are multiple, conflicting directions?)

  9. Reblogged this on The Kettle Press and commented:
    Thoughtful advice, with the wisdom of inside experience. It is true. It does become about the same ‘white’ or ‘mainstream’ people but every movement requires a face, a voice, a unification. That is where rallies do come in, or groups such as RAC and ASRC, and people as courageous as Liz Thompson who can bring insight, knowledge, truth and motivation. There is far more that can and needs to be done than a rally, but we also need consciousness raising; the charging of hearts; the cohesion of community; the guidance and direction, the information, of where and how to take action which will bring change. There is, always, strength in numbers. Those numbers are being used politically against the people seeking refuge, and it is incarcerating them in conditions we wouldn’t accept for animals. Without rallies, without dedicated groups such as RAC and ASRC, people flounder, knowing they want and need to do something, but without direction. It becomes too hard and they withdraw, turn away. That’s what the purveyors of this inhumanity, the politicians of both major parties but none so cruelly as the Abbott led government, rely on; it’s what they work towards; it’s where they push us. That’s why we need a groundswell of resistance and that only comes from numbers, from groups. Yes, this must be about the people incarcerated by our government for nothing more than seeking asylum; but it is also about us, because what the government does to them, we do to them. Not in my name is not wrong, not misguided. It is hollow only if we do not follow through to ensure it is not done in anyone’s name and, unfortunately, when it comes to politics, if it’s not done, or in this not undone in our name, it is not done.
    Liz Thompson is an intelligent and articulate woman. The light she shed on exactly what is happening inside the Manus Island Detention Centre, is vital and needs to be widely disseminated. Personally, I would like her to speak at the rally. The fact is this, those already aware, interested, concerned were most likely, almost exclusively, to have watched Dateline. What she has to say needs also to be revealed to everyone else as well. Perhaps, we cannot speak or act in their name, only our own but on their behalf. Liz, however, is more able to speak in their name because she has heard and seen their plight. I hope she changes her mind.

  10. Good for you, Liz. Really good points that I hadn’t thought about in quite the way that you expressed them here. I think you’re right that a vigil can halt action that is more direct because it feels as though it mitigates the other worries that we have. Sadly I think we gravitate towards it because so many other measures have been so ineffective… but totally agree that that can’t mean that we just avoid them.

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