So we’ve had Australia Day for 2016. Run it, done it. January 26th has come and gone, but the conversation about the spirit and meaning of the day linger on – as well they should. They’re vitally important conversations about selective historical memories and a shocking track-record of white oppression and systemic genocide that need to be had year-round, not just on the one day. Kind of like how Clean Up Australia Day isn’t the only day you should be picking up trash off the ground.
Now you, yourself, may choose to celebrate the day differently – either by celebrating what you think makes Australia a good nation, or by some other form of public holiday observance. And that’s fine. We’re not about to suggest you shouldn’t do that. However it’s also important to understand and recognise the significant burden of weight the day carries, and appreciate its thematic meaning. Much in the same way that you’d appreciate family on Christmas and recognise those less fortunate.
Unfortunately, and this is something with which I feel there is no disagreeing, the modern evolution of Australia Day has fostered an embarrassing culture of shitty behaviour from the innocently (or indeed wilfully) ignorant that completely and utterly fails to take into account what an unfathomably enormous privilege it is to forge a life walking on sacred ground – and how colonial history is merely the last page in the Cultural Encyclopedia of Australia.
So with that said, here’s this. A cafe owner in Bermagui, on the southern coast of New South Wales, posted a sign outside his business on Monday informing patrons that they would indeed be open on the Tuesday public holiday; as he put it, “National Dickhead Day.”
The sign was snapped by a passer-by, and subsequently uploaded to the ever-so-slightly jingoistic Facebook group, Meanwhile in Australia. From there, the sign attracted waves of hatred, profane rants, racist vitriol, along with threats of violence, vandalism, death, and rape directed towards both the business, and its owner, Matt Chun.
Chun himself received voluminous threats to his personal email address, and when he arrived on Tuesday morning, he found the cafe’s door had had its locks drilled out, and the windows glued shut.
Chun, and the cafe – Mister Jones – persevered. And the public backed him with open arms.
Taking to Facebook overnight to explain the situation, Chun provided what is inarguably a poignant, defiant, and glorious response to both his individual situation, and the Australia Day issues writ large.
While cleaning up my little espresso bar on January 25, I placed a blackboard in my window, on a whim. It has since…
“While cleaning up my little espresso bar on January 25, I placed a blackboard in my window, on a whim. It has since received a lot of attention. The blackboard read ‘Yes, we’re open on National Dickhead Day’.
A member of my community photographed the sign and posted it online. It’s hard to quantify the reach of the blackboard on Facebook, but a newspaper report early yesterday quoted an instance of 700,000 ‘likes’ for the photo, 2000 comments and a further 4,000 shares. Facebook activity was primarily fuelled by the pages of several hard-right political organisations, advocating various forms of retaliation. Several hate pages were also set up specifically to target my business. From here, the photo was picked up by local and then national news agencies. Needless to say, this was all quite surprising. I’ve learned much about social media, and much about Australia.
Over the last days, messages have been cascading through my email account, containing unprintable abuse and describing group plans for physical attacks. My voicemail account has mercifully reached capacity and I’ve stopped listening to the graphic and explicit death threats. These messages have been much more chilling than the thousands posted online.
The provocative blackboard seems innocuous now, entirely disproportionate to the scale of the hatred. Indeed, taken on face value, the blackboard was possibly the most Australian thing that one could say about ‘Australia Day,’ in a country that claims to be proud of its ‘larrikin’ irreverence and self-effacing humour. However, in the few moments that it was displayed, the sign lifted a rock from under which so many interesting things have crawled.
The scope of the hatred has surpassed any meaning that could reasonably be inferred in my simple chalked jibe. Over the past days, my espresso bar has been used as proxy for Indigenous Australians, Islam, refugees, homosexuality, class, Asia, immigration, and much more. The bloodthirsty outrage, white anxiety and bitter intolerance was not a necessary response to the blackboard. For two days the blackboard has simply been a convenient repository.
The individual who took the original photo of my blackboard, sparking the internet furore, has displayed his own political views on his ute for many years. These views have been both racially and sexually offensive. By comparison with my blackboard, they are presented in stronger and more explicit language. No national internet firestorm has ensued.
By contrast, my blackboard’s message was addressed to no one in particular. Arguably, it offended those who experienced a moment of self-recognition. As these individuals continue to over-react, the sign only becomes truer. The shoe clearly fit, and they wore it.
Many of the online comments gloated over what they saw as my inevitable loss of business and the demise of my espresso bar. These groups and individuals threatened vandalism, arson, murder, mass violence and also threatened those who chose not to boycott. Mainstream media have also been curious about the effect that such overwhelming social media hatred might have on a small business.
On ‘Australia Day’ morning, the door locks to my business had been drilled out and the windows glued shut. Yet, we opened for trade.
It was our biggest ‘Australia Day’ crowd on record. Many people travelled from as far as Bateman’s Bay in the North and Merimbula in the South to drink a coffee and have a laugh. Among these supporters, we were particularly happy to welcome esteemed members from some strong, local, and largely marginalised communities.
For those who haven’t visited my shopfront, it is primarily an open creative studio. I work as a professional artist, which keeps me pretty busy. The espresso bar is a side project, attached to my studio, because I love coffee. I have never gauged its success by the size of my customer base. The diverse and tolerant nature of the crowd is much more important to me. And if the space can be used to irritate the humourless or jingoistic members of my community, I find that very hard to resist.
I was not intending to create a social media frenzy, publicity stunt or national debate. The blackboard was written light-heartedly, and only displayed for 15 minutes.
That said, I am not trying to dilute the statement. ‘Australia Day’ is a singular atrocity. Celebrating January 26 at best trivialises – and at worst glorifies – the invasion of this continent, declaration of terra nullius, massacre and attempted genocide of its 30,000 year old Indigenous population. It is a day spent revelling in the mindless perpetuation of old myths and the clumsy fabrication of new ones. It is no accident that ‘Australia Day’ has been so effectively co-opted by an extremist minority as a thinly veiled anniversary of white privilege.”
Standing. Fucking. Ovation.