TEN years ago, in Macquarie Fields, Sydney, four days of riots by unemployed, underemployed, poor and invisible people were covered by the media, without the causes of the riots nor their lasting impact ever really being understood.
Forty-four years ago, Australian writer and journalist Frank Hardy published The Outcasts of Foolgarah – a novel about two garbos who were sacked and started a strike. That story did manage to understand the protagonistic role of so-called social outcasts.
Newcastle has had its own moments of notoriety – the Rothbury shootings, the Star riot and many hard-fought strikes – and is fortunate to have had many of its stories of protest and dissent captured brilliantly in the book Radical Newcastle.
Stories are one of many important tools for going beyond the names and dates of historic and current events to understanding them in all their complexity.
Underestimated in formal education, creativity and imagination are important in taking politics and history out of abstract land and drawing the links between people’s personal lives and struggles and politics.
Imagination and art, John Berger argued, are feared by the powerful elites, because they ‘‘make sense of what life’s brutalities cannot, a sense that unites us, for [they are] inseparable from justice at last’’.
Where creativity is understood as going beyond the easy and obvious, it is inevitably disruptive and rebellious because it is the ability to imagine beyond what is accepted and taken for granted.
The stuff of invention, ideas, curiosity, and active, critical thought, imagination also aids us in challenging prejudice and stereotypes, and in seeing politics and society as a complex process made up of a diversity of human beings.
The media reduced the angry people of Macquarie Fields to ‘‘housos’’, thereby robbing them of their agency and of a cause: a desire to change something as they resisted the police after an unnecessary police chase led to the death of two of their young neighbours.
If the media told a story – just as the history of a war is told by the victors – those riots were narrated, through glib quotes, by the police and the then Premier.
Similar glib quotes found their way into simplified and sensationalist coverage of the recent Parramatta shooting. The head of the Australian Federal Police Andrew Colvin was quoted as saying terrorism in Australia was getting worse, and the Prime Minister called a summit of state and Federal Police, ASIO and intelligence chiefs as well as education department heads to tackle the so-called rise in young ‘‘extremists’’.
It seems the comments help stir up fear and conjure an evil enemy. Fear replaces rationality and critical thought, promoting reckless reaction over any sort of understanding, causal analysis, context, or imagination.
Violence in Australia is reduced to ‘‘terrorism’’ and its cause limited to being an issue of age and so-called ‘‘radical’’ beliefs, stealing the spotlight from the real violence of insecurity and unaffordable housing, of student debt, of racial, sexual and gendered discrimination, of locking up refugees, and Aboriginal deaths in custody.
Some argue that we are in the midst of a slow-motion apocalypse – illustrated by ideas such as that climate change does not exist, that ‘‘financial derivatives’’ create wealth, that war brings peace, and that locking up 14-year-olds will deal with terrorism.
Imagination is important to social change because it helps the other side of the story be told and understood.
Tamara Pearson is an Australian journalist based in Ecuador who will speak at the Newcastle Resistance Centre on Sunday, October 18, 2pm, on the role of imagination as a tool for social change, and launch her novel The Butterfly Prison.