[tw: sexual assault, violence]
Everybody I know has spent the last three days somber, having been profoundly disturbed and upset by the discovery of Jill Meagher’s body in a shallow grave north of the city. The weather has been just as gloomy.
On Sunday morning I woke up hungover as fuck on the floor at Paddy’s house as I do almost every weekend because I practically live at the guy’s house these days and we made plans to see Looper. Decent film, by the way; Joseph Gordon-Levitt does a great impression of Bruce Willis. On the way to the cinema Paddy mentioned that he’d heard on the radio that there was going to be a march down Sydney Road at midday in memory of Meagher. It was 11:30. We decided to postpone the movie.
We got to the march a few minutes late so we parked down the road and cut onto Sydney to meet up with the crowd. What we saw was shocking in its immensity. Paddy got up onto a bench. “It goes literally as far as the eye can see.” Later estimates put the number around twenty thousand. At a solemn pace the crowd streamed past. There were more than a few Swans scarves what with the Grand Final having divided the country the afternoon before but more numerous were the signs carrying sentiments of anti-violence and feminism. The most memorable one, though, was a yellow sheet of fabric stretched between two dowel rods that read: “Missing: Patricia Ann Gay.” Patricia Ann Gay is a 55 year old who weighs about 70kg and has short, brown hair and who was last seen by her daughter at her home in Malmsbury in March and hasn’t been heard from since.
There was a lot of cynicism from the social media peanut gallery about the attention Meagher got following her abduction. Where was the march for one of the nearly 500 people that had gone missing in Australia since news broke, they argued. One could speculate on the reasons, and many did. Maybe it was that she was a member of the media or maybe it was Missing White Woman Syndrome or maybe it was because, and this is why it was so gut-wrenching for us, she was a Brunswick local who became the victim of a random act of violence and consequently evoked the empathy of it-could’ve-been-you. Regardless of which, what that cynicism fails to recognise is that this march was as much for those people as it was for one 29 year old. As much as the folks present carried their personal grief for Jill Meagher it was a memorial for all those missing people and a moment for reflection on the very present and pervasive threat faced by everyone who merely exists regardless of whether they’re doing good or otherwise in the world and the ills at the root of that danger.
The night before, we went to a party in Brunswick that a friend had thrown for an assignment or something but the venue he’d booked fell through so he set up the bands at his house. We were going because we liked the dude, Will, who was throwing the party, but also because our friend Vito was playing in his very good band 8 Bit Love. Sort of dance-rock-y stuff. Some of their vitality is lost in the recording but live, they’re a fucking animal. The bands were all set up in a cramped back room so there wasn’t a lot of space and it may not surprise you but it sure was depressing to me that some guys present took that as an opportunity to get their hands up the shirts of some of my friends. I’ve been to a lot of shows with people bouncing off the walls of cramped rooms and I don’t know if it was the enhanced fear of recent events but this was the first time a girl has ever said to me the words “Help me!” and where I’ve had to physically defend someone from being sexually assaulted. Not that 8 Bit Love attract that crowd, in fact I know they don’t because I know the people who were doing that shit and thankfully I’ve never seen them at any of their shows before, but they were there on Saturday fucking up everyone’s good time by lacking any semblance of basic humanity and respect.
Plenty of folks are jumping to assuage paranoia, like Jon Faine, who said “This is an exceptionally rare event,” and “That is not life in the Melbourne that all of us know,” except suddenly my friends and I were standing around in Brunswick on Saturday night and wondering just how well we know Melbourne anyway. After the bands wrapped up, the girls all started telling stories of times they’d been walking the streets of their neighbourhood and were either followed or approached and harassed, and it increasingly seemed like the Melbourne we know, and not to exaggerate its significance over the incredible, life-affirming things about Melbourne, of which there are many, but there’s also an undeniable element which is certainly not unique to Melbourne but incontrovertibly present where, for women, life as usual involves frequent sexual harassment just for participating in society. It’s enough to put a guy off making any kind of advance just to stop yourself contributing to the relentless tide of shit women have to endure in the form of unsolicited ‘affection’.
Someone reblogged Erin’s incredible post and said “You’re lucky if it hasn’t always felt like this,” and the reason this saga has been so jarring is that, yeah, we have been lucky. Men especially, who remain comparatively lucky, of course, but I’m speaking to the luck of the wider community who evidently never thought of their streets as unsafe. The vibe of the place is like sanctuary regardless of its seedy history and the neighbourhood is so homely and welcoming that having that sense of sanctuary shattered is cause, I think, for consideration. Brunswick is not a scary place, but scary things happen. The sentiment of what Jon Faine was saying is on-point: you can’t let fear rule you or mitigate the joys of existence because what’s the point of life if you’re not even really living, for want of a less trite way to put it, and the city is no more dangerous than it was two weeks ago. But now everybody’s more aware than ever and if there’s some good to be gained from a horrible tragedy like this then it comes from personal vigilance and the willingness to consider how to stop it from continuing to happen. The answer isn’t in employing the service of male friends as bodyguards - I have heard some guys being extra insistently protective lately which I think shows a remarkable degree of condescension - but it might be in being a little less oblivious to the fact that no matter how many colourful bike rack covers you knit, the suburbs are not your lounge room.
I’ve never seen the city so diligent about legal procedure either. Almost immediately after the cops charged the alleged, tweets spread reminding people that social media commentary was just as liable to provide the defence with an excuse for a mistrial as anything reported in the broadsheets and to be particularly careful not to refer to the suspect as guilty until a conviction was made. Memos were sent through our office reminding broadcasters that under no circumstances should they claim the accused was guilty and to understand that presenters were just as liable for the comments of any guests brought on air to talk about the issue. “The media cannot under ANY circumstances report information which may influence the outcome of a court case.” Innocent until proven guilty, remember?
We watched people stream past for at least thirty minutes and then walked with them for another twenty. Brunswick often feels like a suburb run by twentysomethings but the crowd looked anywhere from mid-thirties to mid-sixties and the only kids I could see were in their single digits and more fascinated by the Labradors walking with their owners. It also often feels like there’s very little sense of community these days because everyone has their own little circles and sometimes they intersect but rarely in any meaningful way, but the march brought those circles together like an extended family to reaffirm their belief in their home. Melbourne is simultaneously very large and hideously small, the media circles even smaller, so I wouldn’t be surprised if thousands of the people marching were also within one degree of separation from Jill Meagher. That extended family also never felt closer and that, at least, was something to be optimistic about. As we walked back to the car, the sun came out. The march ended with a minute of silence, the day ended without resolution.
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