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Opinion: Senator Lidia Thorpe – politicians as activists?

During the 2023 Mardi Gras parade on February 26th, Independent Senator Lidia Thorpe protested police inclusion in a march that originated as a day of grassroots queer resistance against police brutality in 1978.

Much media interest regarding Senator Thorpe’s actions has centred around whether it was “right” for Senator Thorpe to disrupt the festivities, with different news outlets predictably reacting to her protest rather than critically engaging with her aims. The vitriol Senator Thorpe has since faced has extended to questions of whether she is fit to serve in the Senate, as our media reverts to the classic clickbait characterisation of non-violent resistance as ‘crazy extremism’. While Senator Thorpe’s actions are no doubt shocking, they are intentionally so. They are much reminiscent of the direct action of the Just Stop Oil campaign from last year, during which two climate activists threw cans of soup at Van Gogh’s ‘Sunflower ‘ painting. Like the stop oil protest, to some, Thorpe’s action seemed unfocussed and attention-seeking. Many have criticised her decision to display political discontent at a (now celebratory) Mardi Gras parade. It is unsurprising that many parade-goers were unhappy with the disruption to the proceedings- from a strategic perspective, it was unlikely for Thorpe to be supported by a crowd of people expecting a big street party which she effectively crashed.

Senator Thorpe protesting the police float at Sydney Mardi Gras 2023

However, for protest to be effective, it needs to generate media attention and have a platform.It makes sense that Thorpe chose an event with a legacy of grassroots black activism to stage this act. Thorpe’s refusal to play the robot politician at Mardi Gras highlights the need for intersectional struggle within events and processes that intend to uplift marginalised people into mainstream spaces. It is ok if you don’t agree with Senator Thorpe’s choice of timing, but the boos and calls from the parade-goers to “get rid of her” before they knew what she was protesting reflected a lack of political curiosity and engagement from the public.

Senator Thorpe’s protest showed that while our glitter is important, pride is about more than that. This is a sentiment shared by the Pride in Protest group, whose float Senator Thorpe joined for the parade. Pride in Protest aims to uplift First Nations’ queer people, to increase funding to safe schools projects to protect trans youth, and importantly, it calls for no cops in pride. After the event, Senator Thorpe tweeted an homage to Mardi Gras’ original 78er’s who called to, “stop police attacks on gays, women and blacks.”

She tweeted, “black and brown trans women started the first pride march as a protest against police violence. Proud to have joined the #prideinprotest float in Sydney to say #noprideingenocide, #noprideinprisons, and #nocopsinpride”.

There is a lot to be said about the changed ethos of Mardi Gras, and the debates continue about its purpose today. But it’s important that the focus is not on a moral judgment of Senator Thorpe’s action, but instead on her actual demand: “no cops in pride”

The Australian Human Rights Commission showed that First Nations’ people are 17.3 times more likely to be arrested than non-Indigenous Australians. The queer community is also famously over-policed, such as the excessive use of force on a queer teen at the 2013 Mardi Gras. As such, it is deeply concerning that this largely unreformed institution was given a float to celebrate the pride when groups such as the Teacher’s Union were excluded.

Senator Thorpe’s action is politically fascinating, and while there is bound to be controversy, as there is every Mardi Gras, this protest perhaps marks a shift towards passionate grassroots politics, or at least an attempt thereof.