Yesterday my friend Tom and I went to the State Library to see the FreePlay exhibits in the Experimedia room. It was interesting, but not as exciting as I think either of us were expecting.
After making our way through the small collection of independently and student games, we walked out to find a different kind of game starting on the Library steps. A group of atheist activists (I’ll delineate them here as “activists”, because I’m an atheist myself) were holding up placards saying “Islam is false”, “atheism = peace” and “Don’t just believe. Think!”. It started as maybe three or four people, but I don’t believe anymore than ten of them ever actually showed up.
We shook our heads and walked away. Tom was especially annoyed. “That really pisses me off,” he said, shaking his head, “I mean, people who are just here to antagonise. It’s stupid and I can’t see how it adds anything to any discussion.” [Note: Tom read this and added to his reaction, see end of piece]
I agreed. We bumped into some people he knew who were involved with the more serious side of FreePlay – discussions on game development and online communities – and they seemed similarly perplexed.
“Why are they even here?”
It seemed the activists had planned on rebuffing an Islamic protest that never happened. You know, because sensibly muslim leaders ask their community not to participate in any protests after the Sydney events.
There were a few jokes; “Oh, so the atheists came but the theists didn’t? The agnostics must be still making up their minds” etc.
Then we heard about the skin-heads and nationalists who had also turned up to be a part of the merriment. These guys were apparently the main show, given no islamic protestors seemed likely to appear. We couldn’t see many people there that would really answer to that description. A few guys draped in flags, a few black hoodies with athletics tracksuits. That seemed to be about it.
Strange bedfellows, red-blooded nationalists and supposedly rational atheism activists.
Overall the press, and people who just seemed to be interested in recording the odd event (myself included, however I stayed away from the tiny amount of colour and movement), completely outnumbered the actual protestors. You can see it a little bit in this photo from the Herald Sun, which captures that small amount of colour and movement on the day (when one seemingly moderate muslim guy turned up to tell a few nationalists to pull their heads in):
But the whole scene looks a lot less intense (and gives a better idea of the onlooker/press to participant numbers) when you see it from the angle I captured it:
The police stopped Tom and I as we made our way around the outside of the Library lawns in an odd moment of racial profiling. This is something, as middle-class white guys we would never usually have to experience. But I was wearing a black Crystal Castles t-shirt, which to a middle-aged cop probably seemed a little menacing, and we were both loitering around the library lawn, and Tom was… well, Tom looked like a well-dressed hipster. Actually, we both did, really. But we were white guys who were walking the periphery of the protests and we seemed to be interested.
“Where are you boys headed?”
“Uh [we haven’t been stopped by suspicious cops since we were teenagers] um… we’re headed to get some lunch.”
“Not going up around the Library for the protest?”
“Uh, no, uh… actually we were just joking about how stupid we think this whole thing is.”
The cop stopped for a second and looked at us. He seemed to be working out whether we were actually two awkward guys looking for some lunch who were just horrible at telling the truth in the face of authority, or equally bad liars there to crack some skulls. He cleverly decided on the former pretty quickly.
“Alright, just make sure you don’t hang around the lawns. Would hate to see you guys get injured if anything serious happened.”
But nothing serious ever happened. And here’s why:
The police response was phenomenal. Obviously determined not to let the same thing happen in Melbourne that had happened in Sydney, there were divvy vans, many cars, circling AFP cars and (you can’t see it in this photo, but the’re at the back of the garage there) horses for mounted police.
Overkill? Sure. But it worked.
As we started to leave, we paused to watch a group of five guys with shaved heads and black jackets with SS badges stop at the corner and look up at the steps. They seemed to quickly take in the whole picture – the police flanking each corner of the lawns, the squad cars patrolling, the divvy vans still running on Swanston Street just waiting for cargo – before muttering to each other and dejectedly slinking off.
And I guess that’s it. Some sensible caution from the Islamic community and an extremely visible police presence turned a small group of antagonists into shadow boxers trying to land a punch on an opponent that refused to even enter the ring.
Maybe that’s just Melbourne; measured or just too hipster to care?
No, we’ve got private school boards to get angry about.
Update: From Tom, on the atheist activists:
“You know, I think what pissed me off is that atheists shouldn’t be jerks. I mean, obviously we’re as likely to be jerks as any other person, but I guess I feel something akin to what Christians probably feel when they see westboro baptist: frustration and anger that the most visible face of the subculture are clearly morons. Nobody’s surprised that white supremacists are arseholes; it’s basically in the job description. Atheism, though, is supposedly an enlightened or intelligent worldview. Carrying “atheism is peace” right next to “Islam is false” in a week when embassies are burning in Muslim-majority countries is about as bloody stupid as it gets.”