Comment: Racism in our streets demands leadership, not pepper spray

It's time to celebrate diversity to stop xenophobia and racism in its tracks.

Police deploy capsicum spray as anti-immigration and anti-racism protesters clash in Coburg in Melbourne, Saturday, May 28, 2016. (AAP Image/Julian Smith) NO ARCHIVING

Police deploy capsicum spray as anti-immigration and anti-racism protesters clash in Coburg in Melbourne, Saturday, May 28, 2016. Source: AAP

On Saturday, what was supposed to be a rally against racism in the Melbourne suburb of Coburg turned into a melee between “patriot” groups and masked anti-fascists. How, here in one of the world’s most peaceful and multicultural cities, did things come to this?

I arrived in Australia when I was 11 years old. As a Sri Lankan Tamil growing up in Melbourne I can’t recall a single time I was the target of racist comments. I can distinctly remember that at that time, in the late 1980s, the whole country seemed to be talking about multiculturalism. Prime Minister Paul Keating’s leadership on the issue made us feel welcome.

I look visibly different from many others, but I don't feel out of place. That is the success of Australia's multiculturalism - you can be different, but you are not made to feel different. But that was not the case on Saturday. Anyone who looked like an immigrant was well advised to stay away from the Coburg Mall, where left and right clashed with police and pepper spray was in the air.

The experience for migrants is now very different from when my family arrived. As a social worker helping newly arrived migrants settle in Australia I have seen many changes over the years. The Department of Immigration has become Border Force. ‘Muslim’ used as a synonym for ‘terrorist’ in the tabloids. Politicians from both of the major parties speak constantly about border security, with the implicit threat that those wishing to come here represent. Immigrants, especially those seeking asylum, are portrayed only as an expensive and dangerous problem. What were once refugees are now to be referred only as “unauthorised maritime arrivals.” The only proposed solution is to keep them locked up, far from here, no matter what the cost.

So, we should not be surprised that racism is on the rise. Is it any wonder that under such conditions some people feel they have a license to openly express xenophobia, and march under the Australian flag as they do so? Since the rally was publicised, I have received, for the first time ever, several racist (and anonymous) emails.

“The experience for migrants is now very different from when my family arrived.”
I feel a particular responsibility for this city. I have been a local councillor since 2012 and Mayor since October 2015. I am currently on leave from Council to contest the seat of Wills in the upcoming federal election for the Greens. This is my community and my home. I was horrified to see the scenes of violence clashes on Bell Street, just outside Coburg Primary School and the council offices. But knowing how best to respond is not easy.

I was to address the rally, but I withdrew two days before. I was concerned about the safety of the public after police advised that the likelihood of violence was very high. Speaking out about racism, promoting multiculturalism is something I have dedicated my life to as a social worker, but when faced with the prospect that people attending the rally being hurt, I could not in good conscience go ahead. As a young person growing up in Sri Lanka, I lived through race riots that tore the country apart. No child should have to see people from their own community attack people like them. It destroys your sense of trust and safety in the society that you call home. I don’t want that for the kids in my city.

Of course, I am also loathe to concede the streets to the likes of the UPF even for an afternoon. But there can be only peaceful solutions to the problem of racism. We won’t win this struggle by routing the thugs from the streets with water cannon and tear gas. The true response is for our leaders to return to the days where they extolled multiculturalism as a strength and a virtue.

Meanwhile, we should stay proud and celebrate our successes. Just the day before the rally I was dancing in a ‘flash mob’ in the Coburg Mall - an event organised for national reconciliation week. People from all ages and cultures danced together. We were from different backgrounds but felt united with each other. United in celebration of our aboriginal history and our spirit of unity. Let's keep doing more of that.

Dr Samantha Ratnam is a social worker who was elected mayor of the city of Moreland in 2015 and is the Greens candidate for the electorate of Wills. 

5 min read
Published 1 June 2016 at 1:47pm
By Samantha Ratnam