Putting the whimsy back into activism

I attended my first micro protest (an innovation of Spookmeister Stephen Taberner) a few days ago. Here’s a little bit about it.


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I’m in the Bourke Street Mall on a Saturday morning, one of an appreciative circle of shoppers and tourists listening to a hip-hop artist. Beside me is a placard that I’ve propped up on the bench alongside my bag. IT’S ALREADY HAPPENING, it reads. The message plays on a theme repeated on similar signs carried by small groups of two or three, and other singletons like me, sauntering through the mall and wandering into shops: YOU CAN TALK TO YOUR SPECIALIST ABOUT IT; SOME BEARS DON’T LIKE IT; IT’S GOING TO GIVE US ALL OCEAN VIEWS. Beneath each capitalised, declarative statement is a helpful footnote: It’s climate change.

My fellow sign carriers and I are not en masse; rather we are sprinkled through a small area of the CBD. No one in our loose little group is chanting slogans or blocking streets. There are no dodgy sound systems broadcasting rousing calls to action, no banners proclaiming affiliation with political parties, activist organisations or other causes; we are simply strolling through the laneways and arcades, carrying our signs like enigmatic thought bubbles. Some of us take coffee at a café or do a little shopping. The purpose of this gentle infiltration of city streets is to encourage people to consider climate change when they cast their vote in the federal election in less than a fortnight’s time.

This ‘massive micro protest’ is the invention of Stephen Taberner, a musician and choir master of the Spooky Men’s Chorale. A performer with a penchant for sly humour and undercutting expectations, he first employed this method of voicing dissent in 2016 as a deliberately non-confrontational and thoughtful alternative to mass demonstrations.

‘Protest is sometimes the worst kind of theatre, both predictable and jarring,’ he says. ‘When the pro/anti-racist marches were taking place on the same day in the Melbourne CBD, it was only when they passed me that I knew which side they were on. Everything else – the signs, the police presence, the strident chanting – was the same.’

People in loud, public arenas, like Melbourne’s Bourke Street Mall have already girded themselves against approaches by chuggers, people trying to shove flyers into their hands and the general surge of human traffic, he argues. Shrill, noisy protests – whether on the side of the angels or tapping into darker forces of bigotry – simply alienate most people, weary of clamorous oppositionalism.

In the lead-up to the federal election, and in the atmosphere of what many commentators are already calling an unprecedentedly toxic and negative campaign, it possible to cut through the racket and calumny with humour and whimsy? Might non-strident action such as we are undertaking be more effective than a noisy demonstration?

Today is the third time that Jane Schinas has participated in a climate micro protest. ‘It’s creative, it’s subtle. It surprises people, I think,’ she says as she writes IT’S THE ELEPHANT IN EVERY ROOM on her placard with a black sharpie. She’s found carrying the sign is often an invitation for people to positively engage. ‘It’s just a nice interaction.’

‘What we’re doing is hard to define,’ says Anthony Dillon, a second-time micro-protester. ‘It’s not a protest, it’s not a performance. It’s quite pedestrian. Because they can’t register what it is, people ask themselves, “What is this this?” and in that moment they really open up to engage in a way they don’t with a traditional protest.’

This is my first foray into micro protesting, and I opt for a passive approach to an already low-key display of disgruntlement. As I sit with my placard listening to the hip-hop musicians, a young woman sits down beside me. Is there a demonstration? she asks. She also has a sign, although hers is a call to oppose fascism. Perhaps this micro protesting thing is catching on.