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.