Why Sydney's #IllRideWithYou Hashtag Is Not Enough

I was born in Sydney, and have lived there for most of my life. Obviously, the events of the past 24 hours — if you haven't turned on the television, a gunman purporting to be an Islamic extremist took hostages in Sydney's Lindt Cafe in Martin Place for 16 hours, ending in tragedy when three people were shot — have left me both upset and shaken. The silver lining has been the runaway Twitter success of the hashtag #IllRideWithYou, which pledged protection to any Islamic person riding on public transport around Australia today. It plucked at our hearts, gave every Australian the potential to be a heroic bodyguard — and highlighted the fear and racism that lie at the heart of many Australian lives.

The facts: during and after the events at Lindt, the hashtag #IllRideWithYou became the most popular trend on Twitter. It was started by a local news editor in Sydney,@sirtessa, who wanted to tell any Muslim person that she'd sit with them on public transport the next day, to help them feel safe. It spread rapidly, with people all over Australia pledging the times and locations of their daily commutes, making stickers, and declaring their willingness to accompany anybody wearing visible symbols of their Islamic faith on their way to work.

News outlets seized on the story as something bright on a very dark day: Australians banding together in tolerance, acceptance, and kindness. The Washington Post called it a "show of solidarity." But there's something extremely upsetting here, underneath the strength, that we need to talk about — why riding together is necessary at all.

I don't want to diminish the goodwill and feeling of community that Aussies all over the country were expressing. It's a wonderful and very specific act, and makes me exceptionally proud, particularly since I watched the siege from so far away, curled in front of my laptop refreshing live news feeds and feeling utterly helpless. What really saddens me, however, is the knowledge behind every tweet, every user of this hashtag: that this protection against hatred, both on public transport and in life, is completely necessary.

#IllRideWithYou is wonderful, but it isn't enough; we also need #IllEatWithYou, #IllWorkWithYou, #IllPlayWithYou, #IllAcceptYou, #IllStandUpForYou, #IllFightWithYou, and #IllSupportYou. And, of course, #YoullRideWithMe — because we're a community that protects each other.

The hashtag wasn't #BandTogether or #AllAustralians or #WeStandWithYou, or any symbolic measure of unity: it was about shielding innocent people from the vitriol and violence of other Australians. The wildfire spread of the tweet wasn't just about trying to feel less powerless. It was also a very practical measure against something that we Australians know isn't just possible, but probable.

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It's easy to confine any xenophobic reactions after a tragedy like this purely to the event itself. The shooter, Man Haron Monis, was a mentally unstable, violent Iranian political refugee who'd written offensive letters to families of deceased Australian soldiers, and was on trial for the attempted murder of his wife and 40 charges of sexual assault. He was, obviously, not a representative of any kind of broader Muslim faith, and clearly first and foremost a despicable human being.

But several countries who've suffered terrorist attacks have seen wider anti-Muslim backlash afterwards. The United Kingdom saw an increase in Islamophobic incidents after a soldier was killed by extremists in Woolwich, and in Behind The Backlash: Muslim Americans After 9/11, Lori Peck catalogued a vast series of discrimination against American Muslims in the wake of the New York terrorist attacks, from vandalism to assault and death threats.

The hateful reaction will also likely be amplified by shock: Australia hasn't seen a public shooting since the Port Arthur massacre in 1996, which prompted some of the toughest gun control laws in the world. (Gun reform, America: it works.) And our participation in the Iraq war was one of the most contentious parts of our modern history, sparking huge protests about becoming an extremist target. We've suffered terrorist attacks before — the 2002 Bali bombings killed 88 Australians — but never on home soil.

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The swiftness with which Australians on Twitter leapt to protect the Islamic community points to a deeper, unpleasant truth: it's not just about Monis. It's about Australia's deeply upsetting history of race relations, which is flecked with massive violent race riots, asylum seekers sewing their mouths up in detention to protest their treatment, a politician calling the entire nation of China "mongrels" on television, and verbal assaults on praying Muslims. It's about the fact that racist tirades on Australian public transport are now so common you can find copious videos of them from 2014 alone.

Many Australians have a story of racism witnessed, overheard, or directly confronted. We know it's there: not only Islamophobia, but broader hatred against immigrants, Aboriginal Australians, Asians, essentially anybody not safely Caucasian. It's on our news, on our buses, in our homes, and in our universities; one of my old professors at the University of Sydney, a prominent intellectual who taught me, was recently suspended for emails so racist they boggle the mind. And we knew, immediately, that after the Lindt cafe siege it would rear its head again.

The #IllRideWithYou campaign is a great one: public transport shouldn't be an anonymous place where anybody feels the right to be unapologetically violent, racist, and intimidating. But how do you solve endemic racism, even if the majority of the population seems willing to stand up and shout the racists down? It's a problem America, in the wake of the Eric Garner decision, is currently confronting head-on. I want Australians to remember the dead and to mourn, but, amidst the lip service to tolerance and arguments about "who to blame" for Monis, I also want us to act, and to continue to act.

#IllRideWithYou is wonderful, but it isn't enough; we also need #IllEatWithYou, #IllWorkWithYou, #IllPlayWithYou, #IllAcceptYou, #IllStandUpForYou, #IllFightWithYou, and #IllSupportYou. And, of course, #YoullRideWithMe — because we're a community that protects each other.

I am very far away and filled with sadness for my city, but I'm also hopeful that this may be the beginning of better things.