This blog was originally posted as a guest post on the Ruthless Jabirublog ahead of their performance of Maralinga Lament in London.
Only 8 years after the world recoiled in horror at the devastation of the atomic bombs dropped in Nagasaki and Hiroshima, the British government commenced 12 years of atomic testing in the beautiful desert country of outback South Australia.
For over 12 years 1953-1965 – twice as long as World War Two – 12 large atomic bombs and over 600 so called “minor tests” contaminated the South Australian lands of the Pitjantjatjara, Yankunytjatjara and Spinifex people.
The Australian Prime Minister granted permission for the tests without even consulting cabinet. Tapping in to the deep set fear and disregard for the vast interior of Australia and allowing an ‘out of sight out of mind’ mentality to justify the toxic bombing of Australian citizens, most of Australia didn’t even know it was going on and still don’t.
The stories from Emu Field and Maralinga border on the absurd – leaflets written in English dropped from planes to warn nomadic indigenous people the tests were coming, Australian service men topless in shorts playing cricket on the testing fields while the Brits and American wore protective clothing, a pregnant indigenous woman found camped in a crater who lost her baby…..
What is perhaps most confronting of all is that this history is still largely unknown in Australia. Maralinga has been immortalised by our folk hero musician Paul Kelly, there was a royal commission into the tests in 1984/5, servicemen are still campaigning for compensation and huge tracts of the desert will be uninhabitable for ever more – and yet somehow it is still a hidden part of Australia’s history.
In the early 2000s I became aware of an inspiring campaign led by the Kupa Piti Kungka Tjuta – the Senior Women of Coober Pedy – against a proposed nuclear waste dump in South Australia. These women remembered the bombs from the 1950s and they didn’t want that poison on their country – they initiated the inspiring and victorious Irati Wanti – The Poison, Leave It campaign and prevented that waste dump.
Hearing their stories from Emu Field and Maralinga I was inspired to learn more about the story, and together with Scott Rankin and Trevor Jamieson established the Big hARTNgapartji Ngapartji project.
Ngapartji Ngapartji was based on Arrernte country in Mparntwe (Alice Springs) from early 2005 to mid 2010. Ngapartji Ngapartji had many layers involving language learning, teaching and maintenance, community development, crime prevention, cross cultural collaboration, and creating new literacy training models as well as film, art, policy and theatre making.
The stage production explored Trevor’s family’s experience with the atomic tests – many of them were moved west off their country in cattle trucks before the tests took place. This dislocation – becoming refugees in their own country – and its impact across subsequent generations was told beautifully in this award winning play.
As well as the touring theatre productions the project produced a documentary film for ABC TV in 2010, Nothing Rhymes with Ngapartji, which followed Trevor and the team taking the play back to country in Ernabella community, South Australia. For many people this was the first time they had talked publicly about the bombs – as Anangu culture reveres the deceased with silence – and many of the stories had not been passed down to younger generations. Nothing Rhymes with Ngapartji can be watched in full online.
It remains clear that the stories of Maralinga still need to be shared and acknowledged, and plays, music and storytelling play a critical role in drawing attention to Australia’s atomic history and shameful indifference to the desert and its people.
Ruthless Jabiru and Lara St. John perform Maralinga Lament at the Union Chapel, London at 19:30 on Monday 14 October. Tickets are £16 advance from the Union Chapel online store or £18 at the door.
This blog might seem like a slight departure in theme for me, but actually it’s pretty connected to a lot of my thoughts around story, frames and social change.
Last November I participated in Capturing Gratitude- a photographic gratitude project – initiated by Dr. Lauren Tober. Lauren and I went to High School together and have stayed in touch in various and random ways over the years. I’ve been very inspired by her journey through life as a yogi and psychologist and I was curious to join in on the project last year, despite not feeling like I was in a particularly shiny or grateful space.
Essentially the project involved posting a photo a day on the Capturing Gratitude facebook group of something that you felt grateful for. It was an interesting process for me and crossed the boundaries of personal, internal and spiritual thinking with my more professional and outward thinking around communications, workplace cultures and framing.
At times other people’s photos (particularly of lovers and kids) brought up challenging emotions for me. Other times I wondered if I was showing off or over sharing as I was having a pretty flamboyant month last November with the launch of my film. Having a daily practice to reflect on what I have, what others have and to pay attention to what came up was a great process for me. What was initially challenging about other people’s (seemingly comparatively glowing) lives became a source of joy, not threat. A shift from not enough to enough.
Capturing Gratitude came off the back of a pretty huge pile of reading around healing and grief and so it was perfect timing for me to shift in to something practical. Over the month I really did start to notice that the way I was looking at the world, my perspective and my frames shifting; influenced by the requirement of the project to pay attention to things I was grateful for rather than the gaping ache in my chest.
This personal shift fed in to thinking I’ve been doing about how scarcity / siege mentality and abundance / possibility frames play out in teams and in workplace cultures. Having practiced on a micro level I came to see even more how relevant positive framing and paying attention to what is good and real here and now is to achieving justice in the world more broadly. When you see the good in the here and now it becomes easier to envisage what else is possible looking forward. And the ability to create ambitious, inclusive and radical new visions is critical to achieving deep cultural shifts and social change.
Lauren interviewed me after the project for her blog and my collection of 2012 gratitude pics are here on flickr.
Lauren has expanded the project this year to include lot of interviews about gratitude practice and is about to launch a new website. I’m really looking forward to participating again and encourage you to check it out too. Capturing Gratitude will take place in February 2014.
Queen of the Desert has been having a great run at international festivals this year, most recently being awarded the Down Under Berlin Film Festival Audience Award.
Other awards include:
Bloody Hero Film Festival – Best Short Documentary
Transcreen Amsterdam – Joint winner Audience Award
Translations Film Festival Seattle – Winner Audience Award
Rio Gay Film Festival – Special Jury Mention
Down Under Berlin Film Festival – Audience Award
Thanks to Oz Dox, DYHD? and VCA for inviting me to speak so soon after landing back in Australia from my inspiring Churchill Fellowship travels. Here are some links to projects that I mentioned in the presentations.
Distrify – video on demand platform you can embed in own site Beama Films Australian online Don’t You Have Docs – Melbourne based doc exchange group using Distrify Vodo Hulu – VOD commercial Netflix – VOD commercial Gathr – Crowd booking theatrical distro Tugg – Crowd booking theatrical distro Screenburn – facebook video on demand platform; i haven’t researched many of these so not sure which ones are best
• Brit Doc have published some great evaluations on the films An Inconvenient Truth, Gasland and Budrus among others.
• Working Films – who are an all round inspiring outfit – have made a series of films about films making social change to answer How do social issue documentary films do more than just raise awareness?
• Harmony Institute have published this review of Bully’s impact on social media.
• Pray The Devil Back to Hell film has written a report on its impact
• Participant Media – who make feature films (Lincoln, Promised Land) and docos (An Inconvenient Truth, Food Inc) and now have a TV channel – have also written about their impact
I have taken to calling it ‘Activist Camp’ or ‘Activist School’ – and whilst there were S’Mores (marshmallows, chocolate and biscuits, crazy American camping cuisine!) and it was at a christian holiday camp in the Sierras complete with red woods, deer and squirrels, it had a lot more depth and rigor than me flippantly calling it ‘activist camp’ suggests.
Centre for Story Based Strategy are a communications and strategy training organisation. In their own words:
Center for Story-based Strategy (CSS) is a national movement-building organization dedicated to harnessing the power of narrative for social change. CSS uses the power of narrative to advance a holistic vision connecting struggles for democracy, peace, justice, and ecological sanity. We offer social justice networks, alliances and organizations the analysis, training and strategic support to change the story on the issues that matter most. We’ve trained over 4,000 activists since 2002. Through collaboration consulting, and direct partnership we’ve supported over 200 innovative social change organizations to win critical campaigns.
I have followed the growth of Centre for Story Based Strategy (formerly known as Smart Meme) since its inception through a close friendship with one of the founders of CSS, Doyle Canning. Doyle came to Australia shortly after the Seattle protests in 1999 with a bundle of passion and a VHS tape of the ‘Battle of Seattle’ film. I was involved inAccess News at the time and we screened the film at our regular Monday night event. Doyle and I became firm friends. Doyle is one of the most amazing educators and trainers that I have ever met and I was thrilled to finally be able to attend a training with the organisation she and Patrick Reinsborough have grown since 2002.
CSS have developed a methodology they call ‘Story Based Strategy’ which involves understanding the narratives, frames and stories at play around a given issue. Breaking down the dominant narratives, underlying assumptions, roles, conflicts and stories allows activists and movements to develop their messaging, stories and frames to intervene and create breaks in the dominant narratives and win the ‘Battle of the Story’ – which is critical to achieving change.
The training was rigorous and very cleverly designed. There were 40 of us from a great range of movements from unionists, to environmentalists to community organisers; including Iraq Veterans Against the War, National Immigrant Youth Alliance, Grass Roots Global Justice Alliance and many more inspiring folks. Most people had undertaken some training or engaged CSS in their campaigns before and were in communications or leadership roles within their orgs. So basically an unbelievably kick-ass crew to be hanging out with for a week!
Over 5 days we were taken through a range of practical tools from the ‘Story Based Strategy’ by a fantastic group of facilitators. We practiced them in a range of campaign simulation scenarios, facilitating the tools on issues we were working on ourselves and then spent a day and a half applying them to real life campaigns which we presented to a panel of expert judges on the final day of camp. There were a range of case studies and worksheets and lots of lots of butchers paper and textas!
I gained great working knowledge of a bunch of practical tools that I look forward to applying to my own practice and am happy to share with anyone who is interested. Most of all I loved having critical discussion on the the nuts and bolts of media, story and narrative for 5 days.
Pru Gell of Space for Change (Syd) and Holly Hammond from Plan To Win (Melb) have also taken this training, so there are now three of us in Australia as part of the Story Based Strategy Community of Practice, which is very exciting. I would love to see CSS run some training in Australia in the future as I think their approach is invaluable to social change movements and organisers.
The comraderie and solidarity that was developed over the short but intense time we spent together was priceless and filled me up big time. I left with a strong sense of ‘we’ve got this!’; that collectively we have the smarts, reach, passion and commitment to make profound impact on a broad range of issues. I left with a very full heart.
Big thanks to all the awesome trainers and CSS staff, to all the other participants and especially huge respect to Patrick and Doyle for the hard yards you’ve done to establish such a critical organisation and practice. Can’t wait to see what you do over the next 10 years!
My first ever S’more, CSS Training 2013. Pic by the fabulous Bernice Shaw.
I head back to Australia tomorrow after (just shy of) 3 months of bloody amazing travels as part of my Churchill Fellowship. Tired blogging is never a good idea, but I am a bit behind in my writing so I figure I best write this now or it won’t happen!
I started in Alice Springs, visited the Pilbara and from Perth flew to London, on to Edinburgh, Toronto, New York, Boston, San Francisco, then to Los Angeles from where a friend and I road tripped through California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas and from Austin I flew back for a final few days at Frameline Film Festival in San Fran.
I have been to Hot Docs and Frameline film fests, met and interviewed over 60 amazing filmmakers, producers, funders, evaluators and activists, watched countless documentaries, undertaken amazing training with the Centre for Story Based Strategy and zoomed on rickety rollercoasters at Coney Islandfor my birthday!
I was lucky enough to have this time to put together a constellation of ideas around how film can make change – and how to make change in general – by talking with broad range of creative and talented people. Everyone I met was super open and generous with their stories, practice, experience, methods and models.
I’ve gained a good sense of the burgeoning ‘impact space’ in the USA, have gained some great new networks and friends and experienced the joy of being overtired from travel, stimulation, people, inspiration and ideas!
While I have been on the road my film Queen of the Desert has also been gallivanting around screening in; Sarasota, Rochester, Boston, Seattle and San Fransisco in USA and Switzerland, UK, Holland, South Africa, Israel and Brazil. Crazily enough our paths didn’t cross over anywhere, but it has somehow felt really cool to be on the road at the same time.
After this kick ass trip I definitely want to make more films, art and media, to continue to collaborate and make trouble and to be part of creating culture-lead change. I feel really proud ofBig hART with my heightened sense of where our practice sits internationally and I am deeply inspired to build a stronger movement of social justice artists, activists and filmmakers in Australia. I also want to work out how I can do this for 3 months of every year!
I am keen to share the networks, ideas and inspiration I’ve come across and hope to see the ‘impact space’ in Australia take off in the way it is exploding elsewhere. Sydney got organised first and in a couple of weeks (eek!) I’ll be presenting at Lights! Camera! Action! hosted by Oz Dox – The Australian Documentary Forum on Wednesday 10th July. (Facebook event page here). Hoping to speak at similar events in other places, will post on the events page as things get organised.
Coming home after big travels is always a wee bit daunting, but I am very excited about the premiere of Hipbone Sticking Out next week and I really can’t wait to swap stories with my colleagues, friends and peers.
PS I highly recommend going for a Churchill Fellowship; having the time and resources to travel and meet people, talk about ideas, practice, models and theories of change has been a remarkable privilege and I suspect will have ripples for years to come. Rounds generally open in November and close in February. Happy to share my thoughts on the process, just get in touch.
Invisible War (2012) is a harrowing film about sexual assault within the US military. I caught it at a community screening and discussion night at a university campus in London last month. It has had a huge impact; it is an incredibly powerful film with a very clever and well executed outreach and impact campaign making waves on a number of levels.
Two days after he screened the film, outgoing U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta changed the reporting structure so that a service member’s immediate supervisor no longer is the only person to whom a victim can report an abuse.
“Clearly this film has changed the conversation,” former federal prosecutor and U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal told Woodruff, adding that at his request, the military is expected to release more reliable data on sexual assault in the military this spring. – PBS Article - Invisible War; changing the conversation on rape in the Military
Invisible War had great strategy; they brought influential and well connected Executive Producers on board, engaged a Washington D.C based dedicated media team,FitzGibbon Media, who specialise in leveraging policy change with media, worked with Film Spout to build a community screening outreach campaign which targetted students and military and managed an online campaign. FitzGibbon provide a good case study of their work and the impact of the film and Film Sprout publish a discussion guide on their site.
The online campaign Invisible No More (#notinvsible) invites viewers to take action by signing a petition, hosting a screening, donating to the campaign or spreading the word via social media or email. It also encourages audiences to ‘Stand With Survivors’ and it’s three aims are to; raise awareness, effect political and cultural change and serve as a means of healing for survivors of Military Sexual Assault.
Through their partnership with Film Sprout(more on Film Sprout in an upcoming post, they do great work and can someone please start an org like this in Australia?) the film has been seen by over 266,000 service people (this is the conservative estimate) at over 350 screenings on military bases across the country. The film is now being used as a training tool within the military, which is huge. This community distribution was part of a year long community screening campaign that involved over 950 screenings across the US.
Invisible War also had great timing. The film was released at a time when there were senators who needed a way to amplify long standing campaigns to address sexual assault in the military and as the military were facing recruitment issues and need to bring more women in to the force to bolster numbers.
There is not doubt that the team behind Invisible War have done a remarkable job of generating impact with powerful film, but it is also important to place their campaign alongside other ideas and events in this space to really be able to understand how the tipping points came about.
Obviously there is an incredibly long continuum of activism, body of writing and film work responding to sexual assault, not just within the military, that is part of the ground on which Invisible War builds. At the moment I am focusing on how documentary films sit within the culture, so I have asked a number of people about films that came before Invisible War that also contributed to this debate and ability of this film to make such dramatic change.
Between 1957 – 1987 an estimated 750,000 to 1,000,000 people may have drank and bathed in tap water containing extremely high concentrations of toxic chemicals at Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune in Jacksonville, North Carolina. It is believed to be one of the largest water contamination incident s in US history. – Semper Fi Website
The film and subsequent campaign resulted in President Obama signing the Honoring America’s Veterans and Caring for Camp Lejeune Families Act in to law in 2012.
Another important recent film regarding women in the military is Lioness.
Lioness (2008) tells the story of a group of female Army support soldiers who were part of the first program in American history to send women into direct ground combat. – Lioness Website
Official policy barred the armed services from assigning women to direct ground combat units in most situations, regardless of how well they perform under fire. Instead, when commanders want to put talented women soldiers on combat teams, they must do so by temporarily “attaching” them to those units, or sending them in a support role, rather than an official combat role. While Team Lioness was “attached,” but not “assigned” on paper, to combat arms units, they performed effectively in combat even without the combat MOS training that was exclusively available to males. As a result, the women performed in direct combat operations with less accolades, opportunities for advancement, recognition, and deserved VA benefits upon return. -Lioness wikipedia
Being ‘attached’ and not officially assigned to combat resulted in these women not having access the same post conflict support as their male counterparts. Lioness is now being used in Dept of Defense training for military healthcare personnel, was responsible for two new acts of legislation and played a pivotal role in ‘improving women veterans’ access to healthcare in the Veterans Affairs system’.
It’s also important to point to the work of grass roots organisations and social movements organising against war and their impact on the narratives around conflict and the military. Of particular note is the inspiringIraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW). Their four day testimonial event, Winter Soldier, held in Washington D.C in 2008 was an incredibly powerful and important discussion of military process and policy.
EDITED NOTE: I met with someone from IVAW yesterday and he mentioned the role of Service Women’s Action Network (SWAN) in changing policy and running campaigns on military sexual trauma, so I wanted to make sure I linked to them too.
As Judith Helfand of Working Films noted when we met last week, no one film is a silver bullet. Change can be encouraged by a film and the most successful impact seems to involve a good story, well told, with a smart strategy for distribution, well thought out pathways for audience activation, good publicity, marketing and outreach.
My sense is that the best shot at making change with a film is to have all of this super strategic stuff in place and then hope that it lines up with that delicious aspect of luck, zeitgeist and timing that is the ever elusive spark of tipping points.
Invisible War is a great example of a powerful film which lined up all their strategy and hit at just the right time to really send sparks flying.
Social movements of all kinds use films as tools to advance their campaigns and in some instances films can be encourage campaigns to start up; such as Bag It (about plastic bags) and the Bag It Town campaign.
As the movement voicing concern about the climate crisis grows so does the body of films in this space.
An Inconvenient Truth was a breakthrough documentary for the climate change issue, released in 2006 it went on to win 2 Academy Awards, reach an audience of over 4.9M people, launch the Climate Reality Project and train over 1000 activists to deliver the climate science presentation featured in the film. In 2007 Al Gore was jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his work on climate change.
In the USA, An Inconvenient Truth took just over $24 million at the box office and became the 6th best selling documentary of all time. Brit Doc published this great impact evaluation of the film.
An Inconvenient Truth demonstrates the power of celebrity, good backing (funded by Jeff Skoll former ebay president, founder of Skoll Foundation and Participant Media) and good timing on the success of a film. Personally I didn’t really feel deeply engaged by An Inconvenient Truth – I felt like I should watch it, even though I already knew the story and message; but then I probably wasn’t the target audience. There is no argument that this was an extremely high impact film which lead to a range of actions outside cinemas and lounge rooms.
Participant Media who produced An Inconvenient Truth make “entertainment that inspires and compels social change” and have gone on to make features and docs, launch a tv network and an online engagement portal Take Part. They recently produced Promised Land a feature film directed by Gus Van Sant with Matt Damon about fracking, which unfortunately is not a fantastic film (it rates 51% on Rotten Tomatoes, a renowned film review site). This is a good example of the need for a story to well told to make impact on an issue – I don’t think Promised Land is making waves in the climate change debate in part due to the fact it is not winning audiences.
Gasland was made for only $32,000USD and has gone on to have huge success in festivals, theatres and through movement and community based distribution. Whilst Gasland doesn’t boast high end production values it is a good story, well told and had fantastic timing; launching just as the issue of fracking was gaining traction and arguably contributing in part to the issue gaining traction.
The campaign around the film has cost at least $204,000USD to date – over 6 times the cost of making the film – and is ongoing. Gasland 2 is currently being launched in a grass roots tour before premiering on US television in July.
Enable viewers to connect with activist/grassroots organisations via social media
Lobby elected officials and institutions at the highest levels in order to curtail frackin
I’d say it has done a remarkable job of doing that; with over 250 screenings across the United States alone, 100,000+ petition signatures, celebrities enlisted, media appearances, etcetera.
Due in part to the massive movement that grew around the film, hydrofracking bans were enacted in Pittsburgh, PA; Tompkins County, NY; Cooperstown, NY; Licking Township, PA; Baldwin, PA;. France, Quebec and extended hydrofracking moratoriums were placed in NY State and South Africa. – Gasland website
Age of Stupid is a remarkable example of a well executed crowd funding and crowd distribution and a film which launched additional campaigns including 10:10. I am meeting with Lizzie Gillet (producer) this week, so will write more about this remarkable project in another post.
Additional films in this space worth checking out: Chasing Ice is a visually stunning film (wish I had seen it on the big screen). It’s a good character driven doco which follows National Geographic photographer James Bolag on his ambitious and obsessive mission – the Extreme Ice Survey – to capture the melting and ‘calfing’ of glaciers on film. The Island President is a great portrait of the charismatic former President of the Maldives Mohammed Nasheed with a particular focus on his role in the negotiations at the UN climate change meeting in Denmark in 2009. Carbon Nation is a documentary about carbon change solutions with unusual suspects such as former CIA staff and the US military which demonstrates ways we can respond to the issue. I found this film a relief when I watched it as it was framed in a very positive light, but I don’t think it has been very well received and not sure about its impact. Bidder 70 is an inspiring film which follows the non violent action and subsequent legal battle of climate activist Tim DeChristopher. The filmmakers are building an outreach & impact campaign around the film which includes a speaking tour alongside it’s theatrical release. The film is very much geared towards encouraging civil disobedience and community organising as a response to climate change and is very connected to grassroots movements, however I think the way that it tells this story will reach beyond ‘the choir’. End of Suburbia‘Oil depletion and the collapse of the American dream’. End of Surburbia was a significant film in bringing the discussion around peak oil to a wider audience. Launched in 2004, I think this film had a considerable impact and was distributed widely by grass roots activists. Do the Math is a bit different from the other films as it was commissioned by an NGO within the climate change movement, 350.org. Two independent filmmakers made the film which has now become a major campaign tool for 350.
I haven’t seen these, but also worth looking at; How Cuba Beat Peak Oil (a break through movement film, 2006). Hungry Tide (Tom Zubrycki’s film about the impact of climate change on pacific island Kiribati) and Everything’s Cool (which looks at messaging around climate change) .
Cooked is a feature documentary investigation into extreme heat, the politics of disaster and survival by zip code. This story is framed by two heat waves, one that Chicago was ready for and the other that took the City by surprise – when 739 residents, most of them old, poor, and African American died over the course of one very hot week. – Cooked facebook page
And lastly I am really looking forward to the release of Naomi Klein’s book and Avi Lewis’s film The Message in 2014. My understanding is that this film and book will frame the climate crisis as an opportunity to respond to the interconnected issues we face and radically change our systems to create more justice for all.
“Climate change is more than an issue. It’s a message telling us that our ideas about our place in the world are no longer viable. By threatening our very survival, climate change can serve as the catalyst for us to finally rise to the challenge.” – Naomi Klein’s website
All of these films seek to raise awareness, share the science and potentially shock or inspire audiences to action. Many of them have associated campaigns which filmmaker teams have built and coordinate themselves and/or are connected to climate change movements, grassroots organisations and NGOs. Some try and engage audiences in petitions or link in with local campaigns who often host community screenings. Many climate change activist groups will screen these films at campaign fundraising screenings and use them as tools to inspire and engage more people in their campaigns.
There is a long tradition of environmental campaigns and activists using films, books and art – from Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring to An Inconvenient Truth – as tools to get their message out to and activate the broader the community. It’s is a great demonstration of the power of story – especially when coupled with strong grassroots movements, face to face meetings and actions in day to day life.
I think that these films have to have a connection to hope, either in the film itself or through the connection to an inspiring movement or campaign, for them to really gain traction with audiences. There is a saturation and compassion fatigue at play and very few audiences want to be hit with devastating facts without an avenue for responding or a sense of possibility.
Films and media are great tools. The hard work is in harnessing the inspiration that people feel as they leave the cinema and building community to respond to these issues.
Over the past few weeks I’ve been looking at media projects that explore injustice in the criminal ‘justice’ system in the United States of America and its disproportionate impact on people of colour. Exploring the intersection of race, class, law enforcement and the criminal justice system is complex terrain. I’m not setting out to cover this in depth, but to introduce some films and projects in to the mix of the film & social change research I’m doing as part of my travels.
There are many parallels between the United States and Australia. This week news broke in Australia that indigenous incarceration and deaths in custody – already high – have both risen over the last 20 years.
Indigenous people comprise 2.5 per cent of the total Australian population but they now account for more than a quarter (26.1 per cent) of the adult prison population and almost half (46.2 per cent) of youths in juvenile detention (and 97% of youth in detention in the NT). - Bendigo Advertiser
I have been looking at the ‘War on Drugs’ in the USA and the crippling impact that it has, predominantly in communities of colour affected by poverty. The parallels with the alcohol laws and the Intervention in the NT are chilling.
The New Jim Crow book by Michelle Alexander is an incredible read on this subject, I haven’t finished it yet, but already I can see great value in applying her analysis to the Australian context.
One of the fascinating things that Alexander points out is that in the 1970s mainstream thinking in criminology was that prisons were on the way out, they were not seen to be a deterrent to criminal behaviour. To the point were the US government was advised in 1973 by the National Advisory Commission on Criminal Justice that no new prisons be built. What is astonishing is that instead of phasing out prisons the ‘War on Drugs’ has drastically expanded the prison population, and the prison industry, to over 2,000,000 people.
“As America remains embroiled in conflict overseas, a less visible war is taking place at home, costing countless lives, destroying families, and inflicting untold damage on future generations of Americans. Over forty years, the War on Drugs has accounted for more than 45 million arrests, made America the world’s largest jailer, and damaged poor communities at home and abroad. Yet for all that, drugs are cheaper, purer, and more available today than ever before.” – The House I Live In website
The fact that prisons were not seen as the solution to crime is expanded in The House I Live In. One historian notes that President Nixon invested two thirds more money in treatment than policing of drugs and was seeing a greater return on the rehabilitation investment than the “hard on drugs” policy. However, he was seeing a greater political return on a tough on drugs stance and this is when the ‘War on Drugs’ really took off – to be expanded exponentially under President Reagan.
This is paralleled in the NT where law and order politics frame all responses to social issues and the Intervention is justified as a tough necessity to fight crime (in this case child abuse). Elections are won on law and order campaigns and yet the policies make things worse. This is heartbreaking. The policies “tough on crime” and “zero tolerance” etc get politicians elected but they make the actual problems on the ground that are driving crime worse.
A ‘Grog Crisis Rally’ was held in Alice Springs this week by People’s Alcohol Action Coalition (PAAC) in response to the scrapping of the ‘Banned Drinker Registry’ and the creation of new alcohol policies in the NT (more here). PAAC argue that the new laws criminalise addiction and will, again, make things worse especially the new Mandatory Alcohol Treatment Bill passed last week.
To add to the heartbreak once people, especially more marginalised people, enter the criminal justice system they rarely get fair representation and support. At Hot Docs I saw Gideon’s Army a documentary which profiles the hard work of public defenders; who are similar to legal aid workers in Australia.
Gideon’s Army follows the personal stories of Travis Williams, Brandy Alexander and June Hardwick, three young public defenders who are part of a small group of idealistic lawyers in the Deep South challenging the assumptions that drive a criminal justice system strained to the breaking point. – Gideon’s Army website
In the Australian context I highly recommend The Tall Man; an incredibly powerful documentary from ever inspiring Blackfella Films based on the book by Chloe Hooper;
The Tall Man is the story of Palm Island, a tropical paradise in Australia’s Far North. It is the story of Cameron Doomadgee, who in 2004 was arrested for swearing at Senior Sergeant Chris Hurley – the ‘tall man’ of the title. 45 minutes later, Doomadgee was dead. – Blackfella Films website
Making an impact on racism, perceptions and behaviour is often harder than making legislative changes and in fact, sometimes the creation of anti-discriminatory legislation can mask the fact that discrimination is still happening within a system. We need to identify why a disproportionate number of indigenous people and people of colour are coming into contact with the justice system and make the effort required to change this.
Some reasons for increased contact with the criminal justice system include; poverty, over policing of certain communities, different laws for different drugs (ie crack and cocaine attract different penalties, crack is cheaper and therefore more accessible to people with lower incomes), over crowding pushing people on to the streets (and related public drinking laws in the NT for example), racial profiling and the list goes on…. The other huge area for discussion is why crime is being used as a means to control a particular portion of the population? This can also be seen playing out in the application of anti-terror laws and increased police powers.
Change includes legislation and policy, yes, but it also requires attitudinal and behavioural change especially in the institutions within the system; the police force, court and prisons. For this to change we, the community, need to demand greater justice and equality.
In this context the power of story becomes ever more potent. Storytellers must tell powerful stories, in engaging and persuasive ways to make these stories visible. This will help to create the kinds of cultural shifts required so that these kinds of injustices can not continue, because we come to value all people in our communities equally.
I’m finding hope amidst stark tragedy and racism in the activism of filmmakers I’ve mentioned above as well as groups like Deaths in Custody Watch (WA), Flat Out (Melb),Abolition Collective(Melb) and the myriad other abolition, prison support and criminal justice activists out there.
I’m also finding great inspiration in the work of my colleagues in the Pilbara who are working in the Roebourne community, the local prison and with the Pat family on the Yijala Yala project.
The team are working closely with the Pat family and I look forward to returning to Australia in time to see the premiere of this work in Canberra in July. If you are in Canberra (or Sydney/surrounds) you should really make the effort to come and see this new work. I think it will be deeply moving, very unusual and an important way to bring another story into this much needed conversation.
September 28th 2013 marks the 30th anniversary of John Pat’s death. There will be actions held across Australia.
If people have examples of additional films, theatre productions, books etc that respond to the criminal justice system, the prison industrial complex and use story and narrative to respond to racism please let me know.
I’ll come back to the campaigns around the films, for today I just wanted to link to them all as I’ve been pretty stirred up by this viewing, reading and the release of the new figures on indigenous incarceration in Australia.
And I am looking forward to seeing the upcoming film Cocaine Prison by United Notions (in production now) which looks at the War on Drugs through the personal stories of prisoners incarcerated in Bolivia.