#LetThemStay and the radical potential of public space

Issue 
The vigil outside the hospital is a rare and remarkable moment for awareness raising.

The #LetThemStay vigil outside Lady Cilento Hospital is a rare and remarkable moment for Brisbane, not only because it makes visible the resurgence of public concern about our government's inhumane treatment of asylum seekers, but because it's already one of the most significant radical uses of urban space this city has seen in decades.

These days, most Brisbanites rarely use our public spaces for intentionally political actions of any kind and when we do it's usually only for police-approved rallies that quickly disperse and are soon forgotten. This highly visible, ongoing, 24-hour occupation of public inner-city land reminds participants that the social norms that dictate how we use and experience our urban environment are flexible and open to challenge. It is perhaps helpful that nobody seems entirely sure whether we are on hospital land or a city council footpath, although from a political perspective the distinction is largely academic.

The vigil is becoming a scene. A place to meet up. A thing to do. A kind of social organism. While noone is keeping accurate count, I expect that the number of people who have spent time outside the hospital waving signs or conversing about politics already exceeds several thousand, and momentum is still building.

New relationships are forming, as participants bond over shared values and experiences. A broader network of supporters supply home-cooked meals and takeaway coffees. In the evenings, musicians drop in to entertain fellow activists. Young couples are sleeping on the concrete under the stars.

Some of us sit up until 2 or 3am talking about political philosophy with strangers who we would never otherwise stop to converse with. A 60-year-old trade unionist with a checked shirt and a working class drawl chats about intersectionality with a pink-haired 26-year-old anarchist. Later a Pakistani Uber driver stops by to seek moral support and informal legal advice on his visa claim.

This little corner of Brisbane is alive and pulsing in a way that no shopping mall food court or rooftop cocktail bar could ever hope to replicate.

For refugee activists, who sometimes worry that we might be a feeble minority in a nation ruled by xenophobes, the experience of spending so much time with so many other like-minded people is profoundly energising. The availability of a central space in which to meet and share ideas is generating vigorous discussion and helping build stronger connections between disparate progressive organisations. Any other week of the year, this would be just another bare patch of concrete. Now it is the heart of a movement.

What is particularly interesting is that no single group is in charge. Perhaps eventually we will need to develop some more stable decision-making structures, decide on clear strategic goals and formulate concrete demands, but so far everyone seems content to go with the flow and see how this evolves organically.

Most people just hold signs and wave at traffic. But there is a lot of potential here to channel all this social power into even larger, more significant actions. If the doctors end up sneaking Asha and her mum into a church, you can bet there will be five hundred blockaders ready to guard the entrances.

I do not know how long the vigil will last, but the level of enthusiasm and the depth and breadth of the support networks speak to a resilience exceeding most Australian sit-ins and protests. Even if the police did violently disperse people, I expect we would all just reconvene later the same day in larger numbers.

If I were the immigration minister, trying to calculate whether he can just wait until this all dies down, I'd be looking pretty nervously at the federal election deadline and crossing my fingers for a week of heavy storms. Although at this point even hailstones would only be a temporary deterrence. People are in it for the long haul.

This is about so much more than one baby and her mother. This is a movement rejuvenated. This is seedlings sprouting through concrete. This is a city remembering that it has a voice, and relearning how to use it.

[Jonathan Sri is a refugee rights activist and the Greens candidate for the Gabba Ward of the Brisbane City Council.]

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