Jemma Barker

We Will Be Heard

Words by Jemma Barker

Illustrations by Ashlee Taylor

Under Brisbane’s conservative surface in the 1960s, raged a visceral movement for justice, equality and change. The importance of activism in Brisbane remains strong to this day, as a new generation fights for their future.

Laidback, hot and conventional, this is Brisbane. Being the third-largest capital city in Australia, it often lags behind its big sisters Melbourne and Sydney in societal progress. As the capital of Queensland, it is linked to coal mining, the endangered Great Barrier Reef and some of the most conservative politicians of modern times. It may not be known broadly for its progressive activism but underestimating it would be a mistake. 

Since the 1960s, this supposedly ‘sleepy’ capital city has held some of the largest and most passionate protests in Australia. Fuelled by hope, rage and a want for a better society, people stood up for what they believed in and demanded change. Through this, important issues have been brought to the attention of citizens, changing mindsets, laws and regulations. 

Brian Laver is an anarchist that has been instrumental in shaping activism and Brisbane. Laver has fought against authoritarianism since the 1960s, be it the Vietnam War, the Joh Bjelke-Peterson era or the 1968 Russian Invasion of Czechoslovakia.  “I was waiting for somebody to get up and oppose the Vietnam War,” he states. “No one did. I got up and [started talking] and everyone [started] listening… By the end of it, there were 5000 students and staff and we marched them off the University [of Queensland] in the biggest ever [protest].” 

The government responded, and violent clashes ensued. However, it was clear that the people had condemned the Vietnam war, forcing the institutions to follow suit. Brian’s continuing legacy of fighting the status quo has been taken up by a new generation of activists.  

In 2019, before the coronavirus pandemic, protests, rallies and campaigns occurred almost weekly in Brisbane. Camryn Clare and Michael Mandalios are avid activists who participated in these events. Camryn runs the Brisbane A-Team, who fight against human trafficking and slavery, while Michael takes a more general approach to activism. He participates in protests and rallies on topics that he feels are important. This includes Indigenous Australians’ rights, asylum seekers’ rights, LGBTQIA+ rights and anti-climate change campaigns. 

When asked about the effect her activism is having on Brisbane, Camryn says, as a small group, she feels the influence of the A-Team is limited for now. However, she’s found support in activist networks and communities that surround the A-Team. She perseveres despite setbacks, saying, when you have something important enough to say, you need to find a way to make people listen”. 

For Michael, the size of the impact is irrelevant as long as it exists. “It’s not about showing up to one march and changing the world,” he says. It’s about having constant small, everyday discussions that challenge and expose people to new thinking…That’s where I think that everyone has the capacity to have a profound impact…on a household, a neighbourhood, a city, a country.” No matter how small they feel their impact is, both Michael and Camryn are actively engaged in changing their city for the better.

The importance of activism in Brisbane has been growing with the rise of dissenting views and unrest. Brian, Camryn and Michael all express concern for the growing social divide between left and right-wing groups. Brian says, “we’re lucky in Australia because, at this stage, the fascist movement’s very small – but you’ve got it. I hope it comes through in a non-violent way”. 

As Brian says, this political divide is less extreme in Australia than in other countries. It is also insignificant in Brisbane compared to Melbourne and Sydney, due to population size and smaller activist participation. While this may superficially lead to a more peaceful society in the short term, Brian and Michael warn against becoming complacent and comfortable with the status quo. Michael expressed this by saying, “being moderate or meeting in the middle [is] often the death of results”.