Sweet Street Protest

Published in Malay Mail on July 3rd, 2009. Click here for the online version. 

DURING my student days abroad, when recklessness lorded over sound judgment, I did have one healthy penchant: hopping onto the bus and just walking along the streets of Sheffield – even when the unforgiving English wind threatened to freeze my ears off – in South Yorkshire.

That unfortunately ended shortly after I came home. I could not diagnose the cause of the fallout between walking and my-not-so-good- self. Perhaps it was the fear of the scorching sun wrinkling me faster (woman, get over yourself) and evidently, public transportation in this city – let’s just be kind and say – leaves much to be desired.

Last week, I found myself trudging on foreign ground once again, on Murray Street in Perth. While juggling with stroller and heavy baby bag strapped over shoulder, my eye caught something: a street protest at the concourse sandwiched between City Hall and the Forrest Chase departmental store.

Unbridled curiosity drew me closer to the gathering of about 1,000 people to find out more. The eyes of my three-year-old grew saucer-size in exhilaration while I ignored his inane questioning about “whatsa happening… apa tu, apa?” A brief enquiry addressed to one of the protesters at the fringes, and a pamphlet thrust in my hands, revealed the cause of the rally: they were protesting the death of an aboriginal elder while in police custody last summer.

Mr Ward, 46, whose first name is not used in respect for aboriginal custom and as requested by his family, had been a spokesman for his people in Australia and overseas. On a hot Saturday night, just over a year ago, police arrested Mr Ward for driving under the influence of alcohol.

Refused bail “because of his drunken state”, he was the next day transported some 400km across desert from Laverton to Kalgoolie prison in the back of a prison van (operated by a private security fi rm) – that had a malfunctioned air-conditioning system.

The weatherman had predicted temperatures that day to soar above 40 degrees Celsius. Inside the small compartment he was kept in, temperatures reached over 47 degrees Celsius, and the metal surface 56 degrees.

Mr Ward had third-degree burns and hyperthermia after the surface temperature in the van hit 50 degrees Celsius and was described as “roasted” to death in the back of the van. The coroner’s hearing on June 12 affirmed he had died of heatstroke.

“If there were something called bureaucratic manslaughter, the Department of Corrective Services would certainly be prima facie guilty of that,” read the pamphlet. The cacophony of combined voices drowned the speech made by the group leader. Shouts condemning the prison authority and the state Labour government (which held office from 2001 to 2008 and at the time Mr Ward died) filled every inch of the busy high street during this lunch hour.

The protesters liberally jostled for space to raise placards, banners and posters in the air in this show of anger and frustration at Mr Ward’s death. What struck me most was the minimal police supervision that afternoon. In fact, there were only two policemen present, and even then the duo were busy talking to each other, almost in exclusion to what was going on in front them.

I glanced around to look for a police truck or that much-dreaded tear-gas cannon but nada, nothing, zilch. The group demonstrated for as long as their voices lasted. The rather civilised manner of the rally, made sweeter by the authority’s scarce intrusion, had me in awe.

I too long for the same treatment to be accorded to Malaysians who wish to express their concerns without worrying about police permits or being sprayed with tear gas. I do understand the occasional need to have a tighter leash on hostile street protests in the interest of public safety.

But, in every society, the freedom of expression refl ects its maturity and trust between the public and the governing authority. I pray I will live long enough to witness people having an outlet to freely vent their anger over injustices they, as a part of society, cannot condone.

All through the protest I had been squatting beside my son – heaped with a pile of guilt for exposing him to this loud novelty – and with some explanation as to what was going on. Nonetheless fascinated, he just nodded to feign comprehension. Just before heading back to the hotel, I lengthened my unsolicited lecture to cover the issue of him never having to fear voicing out his convictions.

The poor boy just stared at me with unblinking eyes. It does not matter, son – one day you will understand what it’s all about.

● Elviza Michele Kamal knows of very good anti-wrinkle creams but she’d rather go to shelves that stock books. She blogs at http://www.elviza.wordpress.com.

(Pictures courtesy of David Cohen)

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