Was It Just Me?

Joanna Psaros

10 April 2021

Protesters marching against Aboriginal deaths in custody

This afternoon, something disconcerting happened to me. 

I was attending a protest against Aboriginal deaths in custody. The march started at Sydney’s Town Hall and, having arrived early, I sat on a bench opposite and watched the makeshift stage being set up to host speakers. Aboriginal leaders stood talking seriously with one another while their kids, wearing red, yellow and black t-shirts played by their feet and protesters started gathering from all directions. 

I looked away and, noticing my head turn, a man caught my eye and slid up the bench to sit next to me. Ordinarily I hate this kind of thing- one of Covid’s silver linings is that strangers are forced to respect each others’ personal space- but in the spirit of rallying together I gave him a smile. 

He had strawberry blonde hair and could have been aged anywhere between twenty and thirty-five. Skinny and fair skinned, he would have been entirely forgettable looking if it weren’t for his noticeably yellowed teeth which I quickly averted my eyes from. 

“So what do you think about the protest going on?” he asked, smiling. 

Casually, I replied “Oh I’m pretty in favour of it,” though I had an idea of what was coming next. 

“Do you care about white people dying?” he asked conversationally. “Do you think that white people don’t die in custody?”

“Not at the rate black people do.”

He faltered for a moment but seemed to bounce back. Still smiling, those yellowed teeth gleaming in the afternoon sun, he asked if I knew what was going on in America?

“See over there, not many people know that black people shoot more people than police do.” 

In hindsight I can see that the logic is somewhat lacking but put on the spot I wasn’t quite sure how to answer. I looked around for anyone who’d overheard him, some kind of ally, but the bystanders had by now moved off to crowd the steps of the hall where a speaker had started. 

“I don’t think that has anything to do with what’s going on today.”

“Oh I think it does,” he said enthusiastically. “See I believe in equality. I believe black people aren’t better than white people. But they’re treated that way.”

“I don’t know about that,” I said

“Well it is! You know-”

Immediately regretting engaging (I could sense he’d interpreted my reluctance to argue as me coming around to his point), I asked, “Is this why you came here? To talk to people from the protest?”

“No,” he said quickly and unconvincingly, “I’m not here to do that.”

“You didn’t come here today because the protest was on?”

Ignoring the question, he leaned toward me conspiratorially.

“I’ve been to this protest before. I was here last year. Protesting the protest.”

Sydney CBD, 10 April 2021

Town Hall, 10 April 2021

“By yourself or in a group?”

“In a group. See I used to be a Socialist. The Socialists protested it last year. They’re here now, see?” The man pointed at a small group of people who were taking it in turns to hold large banner reading ‘Black Lives Matter’ with the small red flag emblem of the Socialist Alliance. 

“They’re here in support of the protest.”

“Oh yeah, they are this time,” he said cryptically. “But you know, I changed my way of thinking and went from far left to far right. Far right makes so much more sense.”

“What do you think of far-right terrorism?” I asked. 

“There’s no such thing as far-right terrorism.”

“What about Christchurch?”

“Oh, the shooter. Well, lots of black people shoot up white churches. It happens in Europe. Black Muslims. I’m saying,” he began stumbling over his words, and became speaking so softly I could barely make out what he was saying. “Bad things happen. Bad things happen everywhere.”

By then I’d had my fill. The conversation, barely comprehensible to begin with, had entered dark and confusing territory and I suddenly felt dirty for having listened to it at the same time black Australians were protesting the racist system that was killing their friends and relatives.      

Experiencing the outpouring of anger and sorrow over the number of deaths of Aboriginal people in custody, I remembered why I was there. Thousands marched through the CBD, led by the relatives of the men and women killed in custody, holding placards bearing the faces and names of those they’d lost.  

But while listing to one of the speakers, something catches my eye. Standing atop a post, well above the eye level of the crowd, I see a skinny, pale form with strawberry blond hair 

My breathing stops. I maneuverer my way through the crown to get closer and lose sight of him. Suddenly he re-appears above my shoulder with a camera- far too old to have been the man I met. There’s a moment of relief. But I don’t stop searching the crowd for him for the rest of the day. 

So, what’s my point here? Racism is a thing? People are weirdos?   

Maybe. But this felt different. And I don’t think I was over the top to fear what might happen if he did make his way into a crowd like that. Certainly, no-one would stop him (he’s just a friendly looking Australian kid), no-one would question his right to be there (he looks like all the other people there), and if he did start speaking maybe people would laugh him off as an internet dwelling weirdo, too skinny to ever be afraid of. 

And maybe that would be the right response. Or maybe not.  

I wonder what he’s doing now. 

Girls Locker Room Talk: art, articles and entertainment by women, for women (and everyone else)

Girls Locker Room Talk: art, articles and entertainment by women, for women (and everyone else)

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