How To Protest Without Trashing Cory Bernardi’s Office And Having It Blow Up In Your Face

You know you done goofed when Cory Bernardi comes off looking like the good guy.

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On March 18, students from Adelaide University’s Socialist Alternative organised a protest at the office of Liberal Senator Cory Bernardi. The group, which also included students from Flinders University and the University of South Australia, were opposing the recently announced rollback of the Safe Schools program, and Bernardi’s strong opposition to the program in Australian schools. The protest escalated to the point where part of Senator Bernardi’s office was damaged, furniture was upturned, and police were called to the scene. The group then moved to the school of Bernardi’s children to continue the protest.

The backlash was swift and immediate; most headlines splashed around mainstream media ran with some variation of “Protesters trash Cory Bernardi’s Adelaide office,” while social media was scathing, even among otherwise-fervent supporters of Safe Schools.

It was an example of protest gone wrong; one that drowned out the very issue it was trying to draw attention to. With an election coming up and a whole host of protest-worthy issues coming into the spotlight, it’s worth asking what went so badly for the Adelaide protesters, and how others can avoid repeating their mistakes.

So, What Really Happened?

If you were to ask Senator Bernardi, a group of “lefty totalitarians” came into his office, intimidated his staff, damaged his office, and like the “cowards” they are, scattered once police arrived on the scene. The incident left the Bernardi camp, including his wife Sinead, in a state of shock. In his versino of events, he’s the victim here.

If you were to ask the participants of the protest, a group of socially-conscious students went in and chanted in Bernardi’s office, whilst his employees “laughed and filmed” the group. Adelaide University SRC President Tom Gilchrist, who is also the president of left-wing student organisation the Socialist Alternative, maintains that he and the other protesters had altruistic motives. “I think the response of students was appropriate,” Gilchrist told Junkee. “I never want to silence the voice of the oppressed standing up to their oppressor.” Gilchrist also maintains that there was minimal property damage, telling Junkee that “for the media to call this ‘violence’ is ridiculous”.

Looking at both sides, it’s obvious that neither is wholly right. Yes, Senator Bernardi is a noted bigot that constantly spews an ultra-right-wing agenda and a homophobic, racist viewpoint. But when a person has extreme, skewed views, they tend to be pretty set in their ways, and not a lot can sway them from their personal crusades. Bernardi’s position on the Safe Schools program has been well-documented, and he’s made sure to shout it from the rooftops — the actions of the protesters did little to help the reinstatement of Safe Schools, or the LGBTQIA cause more broadly. It’s a bit of a mystery as to what the protesters were hoping to achieve when they decided to go to Bernardi’s office.

Did The Protest Help The Cause?

In short, not really. It gave Bernardi an opportunity to justify his position, vindicating his viewpoint in the eyes of his supporters and boosting his energy to keep fighting for Safe Schools to be abolished entirely. Adelaide’s student and activist bodies, meanwhile, are on the back foot; they’ve have been forced to distance themselves from the actions of the protesters, rather than Bernardi being forced to justify his prejudices.

AUU President Renjie Du stated that if a protest was not “peaceful and calm”, it was not conducive to any sort of discussion. Popular Radio Adelaide presenter Anthony Nocera’s reaction was well publicised among the student community; a gay man, Nocera spoke of his personal experiences and noted the damage that the protest has done to any chance of a rational, reasoned discussion. “Yelling doesn’t achieve anything when you’ve got a government that doesn’t want to listen”, Nocera told Junkee. “So you might as well listen to queer people instead of speaking for them and turning media attention away from their plight and onto that of the people oppressing them”.

To top it all off, Bernardi is now warming to his role as the victim in this saga, framing the ‘lefty totalitarians’ and, by association, Safe Schools, as the villains. “Gutless actions like this will never stop me speaking the truth,” he boldly declared on Twitter. I’m pretty sure that’s not what the Socialist Alternative were trying to achieve.

Gilchrist has stated that he and the other protesters were defending human and social rights, and it would be fair to say that the group had the best intentions. However, by arguing that they’re speaking for the LGBTQIA community, they’ve unintentionally linked that community, and the Safe Schools program, with violence.

The Pros And Cons Of Disruptive Protests

This debate around the best way to protest is not a new one; some suggest that caution should be exercised when attempting a disruptive protest, while others encourage activists to create as much noise as possible.

But recent, highly successful protests that manage to walk a line between assertive and combative show there might be a productive middle ground. Large-scale marches like the Let Them Stay rallies that occurred around the country last month are a good example. As an attendee of one of the Adelaide protests, I saw groups of people talking, swapping ideas and stories, and showing courtesy to not only the police officers who were tasked with monitoring the event, but the passers-by who happened to be there at the time. It trended on Twitter, was featured in news items that focussed on the issue at hand and, on the whole, got the general public thinking about the issue instead of the protest itself.

The Knitting Nannas, a group of older women who describe themselves as a group that “peacefully and productively protest against the destruction of our land and water by exploration and mining of CSG and other non-renewable energy”, sit in front of mining projects and knit and make tea. It’s pretty much the cutest protest ever to exist; it’s well-thought-out, respectful, and incredibly clever. These women protest by being nice, and by doing so make people more receptive to hearing about the issue itself.

In the end, isn’t that the point of protests? To not only make political officials aware of public reaction to an issue, but to get people talking about the issue itself? Dialogue that is open, respectful, positive, and rational goes further than violence and shouting.

I believe Gilchrist when he says that he and the other protesters were just trying to stand up for their beliefs, and the rights of the LGBTQIA community. I sympathise with their position — that the scale-back of Safe Schools is an insult to the LGBTQIA community, and that Cory Bernardi’s homophobic, racist, and intolerant actions are deplorable — but I just can’t get on board with what they did. They’ve taken attention away from an important, pertinent issue in our social community, and inadvertently put it on themselves. Perhaps the mass-media outlets are blowing it out of proportion, perhaps the reported damage was exaggerated, but for the wider public, the pictures of broken fences and hateful messages scrawled on buildings speak for themselves.

Not only did this incident give Bernardi and other conservative, right-wing politicians the ammunition to portray all progressive causes as the obsessions of extreme socialists, it played into the stereotype that all protests, especially disruptive ones, are bad. Done right, protests and rallies can drag an issue from the fringes to the front page; in this instance, it merely made the protesters, and by association those on the right side of the Safe Schools debate, look foolish and thuggish. That’s not good for anyone but Bernardi.

Amy Nancarrow is an Adelaide-based TV production assistant and freelance writer. She tweets her film reviews, feminist musings, and hilarious memes at @amyenancarrow