Flat White

The siege of the shrine

12 January 2022

4:00 AM

12 January 2022

4:00 AM

‘Stop making me do this,’ he said, as he pounded my head into the ground with his plastic shield. ‘Stop making me do this.’

‘I’m not making you do it!’ I said, though I don’t know if he heard me above all the yelling and screaming.

Next to me, Giuseppe Grasso, a short and stocky Italian man, was being pounded too. On the steps of the Shrine of Remembrance we had interlinked arms as the police, dressed like storm troopers, finally came in. But Giuseppe was strong and he refused to let my arm go, forcing the officers to wrench us apart.

Finally, our link broken, I was thrown to the ground and cuffed – which felt like I’d always thought it would feel. As they did this I had a knee pinned against my upper back, making it very difficult to breathe and allowing me to briefly experience what George Floyd must have. I actually wondered if this was where I would die, for there was nothing I could do as I heard them ask, ‘Are you happy now? Aye, are you happy?’

I was dragged up and led to a grassy area where they sat me on the ground and took my details before eventually setting me free with the warning that if I came back I would be jailed.

‘This isn’t personal,’ one officer kept telling me. ‘This isn’t personal.’

‘Well it feels personal,’ I told him, despite knowing I was not meant to speak.

‘Yeah, well think about your kids huh,’ he said. ‘Think about your kids.’

‘I am, that’s why I’m here. That’s why we are all here. Even those of us too young to have children had been saying all day, that if we don’t try to beat this tyranny now how will we hold our heads up in the future when our children are living under it.’

After that the officer chilled out and asked me what I did, like he was actually interested. When he found out I was a playwright, he looked shocked. When he asked if I’d written anything he might know, I told him about Marooned; a suicide prevention play that the army had once toured to its barracks for they believed it had the ability to stop men killing themselves. ‘Men like you,’ I said.

That was the last thing he asked me. After that, he uncuffed me and left me in the care of other officers. And there were lots to choose from…

This may sound dramatic and even scripted, but it’s all true.

The moment that saved the soul of the police for me was as we were walking away. I was now with another man, Joel, a young well-built father who in the struggle had taken a punch to the face. Joel wanted to ask if it was okay to wait for his brother. As we waited I asked the officer, also a father, why the police had to be so violent?

He claimed that it wasn’t him. He hadn’t been there. He had been here, guarding this road block. Then he lowered his mask and said, and was clearly frightened as he said it, ‘To be honest guys, I admire what you’re doing. I’m on your side.’

But why did we head to the Shrine of Remembrance?

In the morning the place we’d been told to meet was surrounded by police, and with no other protestors to be seen it looked like it was going to be a fizzler. So, despondent, we prepared to go home. But then we came across a few construction workers and joined them in a search for the larger group.

It was now, as we crossed a park, that a black armoured vehicle known as a ‘bear cat’ stopped suddenly and officers dressed like a swat team leaped off its side and started firing rubber bullets and these other things – I’m not sure what they are.

Terrified, we ran.

Once clear, and still astonished, instead of heading home we decided to head back to the city in search of the main group. Our rattled party was led by three young women who were determined to be heard. I’m not sure why we followed, for it was clear we didn’t stand much of a chance, but then all that was waiting at home was compliance.

A short time later, on a city street with a slightly bigger group, the bear cat returned and again started firing indiscriminately. I was shot in the hand – a ricochet I think – but it hurt (and still does). The man closing in leaped onto the back of the man next to me, and so I kept walking, waiting for the same thing to happen to me, but it didn’t.

Once again we ran off, but this time our dispersed group met a few others and then these numbers grew until we reached Flinders Street where we found a major group of protesters.

And that was it. Because we’d reached the centre of the city in numbers this big, and I’m not sure how many there were, they stopped firing. Instead, they blocked all the side streets as we began walking around the city picking up numbers as we went. We displayed our injuries to each other as we walked – many people had them. One young man was bleeding from the back of his head.

Finally, even though it was on the other side of the city to where we were, someone who had a loudspeaker suggested the Shrine of Remembrance.

As they said this, it felt like a perfect idea.

Remarkably, we reached it without further incident. I was expecting the police, who had the numbers and the weapons and that armoured car, to block us. But they didn’t.

Did they want us to go there? Was the person who suggested it working for the police?

Whatever the case was, we knew as we sat on the hallowed steps of the shrine that we finally had – as powerless people – a little bit of power. For as the police encircled us it was clear to both sides that despite all their weapons and armour they had a problem, their souls.

The mass media were on their side, effortlessly portraying us as the bad guys – rioters. We knew they couldn’t find a way to shoot us here, like they’d been shooting us in the city streets all morning, all while remaining the ‘good guys’ in black storm trooper uniforms.

Despite us being heavily outnumbered, the stand-off began, with the shrine as our only protection.

It was a moment none of us saw coming, where we, looking like a group of Aussies at the cricket, belted out our chants for freedom and then sung the national anthem with the gusto of prisoners who were momentarily free. And the police – pondering what to do.

Every now and again the line of police came a few steps closer. In all their black and behind all their shields and black face masks, it was difficult to remember that they were Australian and not an invading force. But this intimidating tactic didn’t work, for we’d already been assaulted and terrorised in the streets. Instead of going home, we’d constantly regrouped until what was left had made it here.

And we were not here because we thought we were Anzacs. We were here because this place was unmistakably good. A symbol of freedom, where we hoped that the ghosts of our country’s ancestors – the ones this shrine was dedicated to, the ones who sacrificed their lives fighting tyranny in other lands – would protect us.

As time passed, the police sent in undercover cops pretending to be protestors. They sat with us and suggested things like, ‘Look, we’ve made our point, let’s go home and come back tomorrow.’

Then they had other people, who we didn’t know from the battle in the streets, talking to us on loudspeakers. They offered us this deal that they had apparently negotiated with the police. If we left via St Kilda Road, we would be free to go. But Sky News Australia was already posting the fact that those that were leaving were being arrested and even shot at with those strange weapons. So we replied with the chant, ‘Stand our Ground!’

The trouble the police had was our lack of a leader. We were just a group of people who were making a stand before tyranny – a group of people attracted to the one flame, the flame of freedom.

This was why we stayed. We knew we would get arrested at some point. We knew we were finished. But if we got arrested alone on the streets, or later at home, the world’s media wouldn’t hear about it or care. If they had to arrest us here – as we sat together peacefully demanding freedom on a monument built to celebrate freedom – then maybe, just maybe the footage might leak out through all these black storm topper uniforms like a bright ray of truth.

‘Stop making me do this!’ the officer growled, as he and others repeatedly banged the shield against my head.

‘I’m not making you do it,’ I replied, knowing all we could hope for is that someone would hear.

Michael Gray Griffith is a producer, playwright, political activist, and host of CafeLockedOut.

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