February 2015

The Nation Reviewed

Loving disobedience

By Stella Gray
Loving disobedience
Love Makes a Way are taking a seat against asylum-seeker policy

On the morning of 10 December 2014, an assortment of pastors, ministers and priests entered the electoral office of Foreign Minister Julie Bishop in Perth, rang the bell, and sat down to pray. When office staff appeared, they were told the reason for the group’s presence: it was an act of protest.

An ecumenical movement, Love Makes a Way (LMAW) is steeped in the tradition of principled nonviolence. It is determined to trigger a change of heart over asylum-seeker and refugee policy among Australia’s parliamentarians and the Christian community at large.

Joining the Perth group that Wednesday in identical sit-ins at MPs’ offices across Australia were dozens of clergy, nuns and laypeople.

By 9.30 am, the vigil in Bishop’s office had company: state police, including officers of Western Australia’s Dignitary Protection Unit, and the Australian Federal Police. By noon, representatives of LMAW were invited to meet one of Bishop’s staffers, and a polite conversation ensued.

The staffer assured the group that he would pass along their concerns to the minister. He suggested that, having had the meeting, they’d like to leave. The group declined.

Father Chris Bedding, rector of Darlington–Bellevue Anglican Parish, was present as a media liaison for the group. He saw Bishop’s staff consulting with their superiors – “we imagine in Canberra” – and then telling the group they could stay until closing time.

As a few dozen witnesses gathered in a park across the street, the police sent in a negotiator, Bedding says, to warn the group repeatedly that they would be strip-searched if they did not leave. “They said, ‘Look, you’re not going to make the news now, so you shouldn’t bother.’”

Protesters were warned they’d end up with a police record.

Despite telling police they did not consent to a strip search, nine demonstrators, including pastors from the Churches of Christ and the Pentecostal Church and a minister from the Uniting Church, were taken to the Perth Watch House at day’s end and forced to strip naked and squat before police staff.

They were later charged with trespass. Court proceedings were adjourned until 28 January.

What began as an ad-hoc hashtag for a one-off demonstration has become a growing movement. Since LMAW’s first sit-in last March at then Immigration Minister Scott Morrison’s office in Sydney, 176 people have settled down to pray in the offices of federal MPs and senators across party lines, from Brisbane to Launceston to Perth. So far 138 people have been arrested, half of whom are clergy or nuns.

Some have been released without charge; others have received fines for trespass. The reactions from MPs, their office staff and the police have varied from annoyance to muted or even overt respect.

When five LMAW members who were arrested at Morrison’s office appeared in a local court, the magistrate reportedly told them: “If there was ever a peaceful protest, this was it.” The charges were dismissed.

The contrast between the lenity of the authorities in earlier instances and the response at Bishop’s office in December is stark.

“I think this incident indicates that there is now a level of either senior bureaucratic or political interference in the practices of local police … which might dissuade protests of the same kind,” Bedding says.

Despite the air of spontaneity, LMAW is far from a ramshackle, improvised action. Sit-ins are co-ordinated well in advance, and most participants undergo specific training in nonviolent direct action to prepare themselves mentally and spiritually. The training includes role playing to reduce the participants’ fears about all possible eventualities, both severe and mundane: the consequences of arrest and criminal conviction, the possibility that the situation might get out of hand or be infiltrated by outsiders, and even the chance that the action may be a flop.

In keeping with the ethos of Christian nonviolent direct action, LMAW members pray not only for asylum seekers in detention but also for the MPs whose offices they occupy and the police who arrest them.

Kylie Beach, a 37-year-old Hillsong Church member who participated in the vigils inside Treasurer Joe Hockey’s Sydney office in August, wryly points out the group’s self-awareness of the prayerful Christian protester stereotype.

“There is this feeling that’s kind of awkward … it’s just not cool. Like, it’s really daggy what we’re doing and you’re like, ‘We’re the daggy Christians that are sitting in a circle in your office – how embarrassing.’

“It also feels like an important thing and there should be a personal cost. It should feel a bit awkward. If it’s easy, there’s no cost.”

There is also a sense of exasperation among participants, a realisation that the mainstream avenues of democratic and civil advocacy have failed to stir consciences in the current political regime.

“All of those formal advocacy channels have not just failed to deliver our best-case wish list of what would happen to asylum seekers, but have failed to protect asylum seekers from being murdered by people on the Australian payroll,” says Justin Whelan, an LMAW co-founder.

Surely one can advocate for an oppressed group without breaking the law?

“There have been lots of attempts to have meetings with ministers and [these have] been rebuffed, thousands of letters and thousands of petitions, not just obviously by Christians, by others,” Whelan replies. “Refugee legal experts, the testimony to the Human Rights Commission on children in detention. Everything has been done.”

However, Reverend Alistair Macrae, a former president of the Uniting Church in Australia who participated in a protest at Labor leader Bill Shorten’s office last May, isn’t sure he’d be willing to join another LMAW sit-in.

“I’d need to be persuaded every time that it was going to be an effective action,” he says.

One particular goal of LMAW’s direct-action strategy is to galvanise the broader Christian community, the “pew-sitters”, as co-founder Matt Anslow describes them.

The incident in Perth, rather than frightening people away, appears to have roused more Christians into taking part in sit-ins. Bedding says the group has been overwhelmed with expressions of support. There’s no shortage of people who are willing to participate and are psychologically prepared for heavy-handed police tactics. For now, at least, the sit-ins will continue.

“We’ve joked about going in next time in our underwear,” says Bedding, “so we’re ready for when the strip searches happen.”

Stella Gray

Stella Gray is a Sydney-based freelance journalist. Her work has appeared in Crikey and the Sydney Observer

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