You don’t know what it’s like….

Each time I visit the detention centre, I feel like everything is in high relief. I’m hyper aware of things before hand and a bit manic afterwards. I suppose this is the habitus of the acute anxiety that I process on a somatic level, and feel as an adrenalin rush.

During my first commutes out to Broadmeadows I became preoccupied with the intensity of colours; particularly the increasing splotches of flourescent tangerine; on workers vests, hijabs and mullet skirts. there’s always music playing at Broadmeadows station, and on the bus; something like hits and memories for people my age, and it spins around me, as does the intensity of the wind, waiting for the bus…..

And it’s been almost a year, and this response hasn’t lessened. I wonder what kind of Polyanna freak I am, that I sublimate the acutely stressful situation of visiting innocent people and children who are incarcerated into a happy haze of poetic intensity. I guess it makes sense that I use this to spread colour around, making art, making an intense distraction from a benign situation of horror.

So last week, I was waiting for the bus, crochetting the final letter of my protest rug. A woman waiting asked me if it was a muffler, and I said, no – but couldn’t find the words to explain to her what it was. I got on the bus and kept crochetting, and a middle aged man sat across the aisle. A new song started playing, and he started singing along loudly, audibly, like he knew every word. I smiled at him and joined in at the chorus, because I didn’t know the other words…..

So, singing in a bus travelling along camp road had a silly kind of poetry to it, and I almost missed my stop.

I call where I go a detention centre, because people are detained there, but it is low security, with generally friendly staff who run activities for the people they prefer to call ‘clients’. I was shocked a few months ago when children referred to me as “Officer”; thinking “Christ! is this what they think white people are?”, but then on meeting friendly officers who would also sit and draw with the kids, chat with the adults and generally show kindness, this didn’t seem like such an insult.

However, lately the department of immigration and border protection is placing staff under increasing pressure to act as agents of the official cruelty prescribed by the new government. Staff are mandated to  refer to everyone as ‘detainees’, and to have no physical contact. This is brutalising for everyone concerned. Witnessing the micropolitics of resistance; a chance officer, looking around and then pointedly shaking the hands of the people they know and care about, is intensely moving…. I didn’t have to blink away tears, but I made more of a point of smiling, and shaking hands and  offering hugs to the people I know…. and acknowledging and thanking the officers who are kind and helpful, because without them, everything gets harder for everyone.

Anyway, the day after my last visit, I slept in and was late into the city for the launch of the Welcome Mat action. I arrived at the State Library with my completed rug, to find it empty of all protesters, but still heavily chalked. I texted my friend, and lumbered onto a tram down to Fed Square, where the protesters had moved. On the tram, a young hairy man wearing a t-shirt identical to mine, interpellated me, and started blithering about his hangover, and asking if I wanted to buy his newspaper. I declined. We arrived at Fed Square as the last of the protesters were dispersing. He told me about the next action, the vigil outside the detention centre where I visit. I told him that Monday night was a bad night to hold a vigil, as there are usually concerts inside. “Yeah” he replied “whenever we have a vigil they either remove everyone, or blare music so they can’t hear us”.

I groaned inwardly, grunted at him and moved away, irritated as hell. I was irritated with my own exhaustion, and irritated with the smallness and shortness of the protest action, and irritated with the stupid paranoia  and patronising attitude of this particular rabid ‘activist’. Sometimes I forget that young white men must see me as a middle aged woman, therefore clueless, not radical, and the bearer of ears for their wisdom. I tried not to let my irritation override the basic respect and gratitude I do have for everyone; whether a loony socialist or a loony Christian who is trying to raise awareness, raise hope and maintain objection to the appalling treatment of refugees by our government.

When I had showed my rug to my friends inside, and told them about the Welcome Mat action, they all asked “what can we do to help”? I was speechless, and I wondered and still do wonder, why can’t we organise things that the subjects of our protests and actions, the refugees incarcerated, bored out of their brains and slowly going mad, can participate in? It is tricky of course…. there are language barriers, and restrictions and cautions on what refugees who are preparing claims with the department of immigration can feasibly do, but the question of voice is an important one….

While part of me dreams of a massive crochet collaboration, I’m teaching art at the moment, rather than crochet. and I’m not sure if crochet hooks are allowed inside anyway. We let people in the art classes do what they want. Mostly people want to copy other pictures making more pretty pictures, rather than do cartoons or political commentary. We are there to facilitate what participants want to do, rather than direct them, and politics requires confidence and trust, which takes time…. so, much time…


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