The strikes that punctuated last semester at USYD were violent power struggles: angry workers against an inflexible management; resolute protesters against riot police.
The industrial dispute led to five full days of pickets; accusations of scabbery; complaints about a cracked rib, trampling, a broken leg, and one and a half minutes of strangulation; several diagnoses of PTSD; an Ombudsman complaint; 13 arrests; $1000 in fines; over ten charges; a threatened expulsion, and (as yet) no new Enterprise Bargaining Agreement.
Into this melee has ridden a mythical beast: the unicorn. Majestic, graceful, and pure as its white coat, it became the icon of the June 5 strike, emblazoned across banners, posters, T-shirts and Facebook display pictures.
Although it’s not immediately obvious what the unicorn has to do with the industrial dispute, or education, or anything at all, the aesthetic provides a window into the morale of the protesters.
Most agree that the turning point of the industrial action, the point which made the unicorn the hero the protesters both needed and deserved, was the May 14 strike. That strike was the first to play host to dozens of riot police, which in turn led to injuries and psychological trauma. While previous strikes had ended at the pub, May 14 saw no celebration.
Matthew Kiem, a member of the NTEU’s UTS branch, and the chief designer of the posters, attributes the rise of the unicorn aesthetic to this dark mood. He identifies an “angry vibe” which arose in the aftermath. “People were quite upset at what had happened,” he explains.
USYD SRC Welfare Officer and activist Eleanor Morley agrees with this assessment. May 14, she says, was “really intense, really demoralising, and really depressing”.
Organisers perceived the legitimacy of this anger and a simultaneous need to move away from it. Kiem describes it as “appropriate and good” but not a sustainable emotion. “It wasn’t going to get people to the strike as much as a more festive feel,” he says.
And so the unicorn took off, galloping its way through campus into the hearts and minds of the anti-management movement. Large unicorn posters inviting passers-by “TO THE PICKETS!!!” were erected on the glass walls of the Eastern Avenue Auditorium complex. The aesthetic spread beyond the posters Kiem designed to became an icon of the strikes. Profile pictures changed. Banners at the June 5 strike were markedly more colourful and bejewelled with glitter. “I think it had an impact,” says Kiem.
But the unicorn isn’t simply an incitation to happiness, a cure for anger and violence. The motif extends beyond USYD and is something of an anarchist meme. Several people involved in the strike recalled having heard of unicorns appearing at other rallies, but never in Sydney.The Facebook page Anarcho-Unicornism (description: “TASTE THE RAINBOW, COPPERS!”) seems to confirm the links between anarchism and the horned horse. But why would a unicorn want to smash the state?
When asked about the unicorn’s significance, the page’s administrator was initially coy. “Really, there isn’t any intentional political significance behind it,” he/she confessed. “Just a bit of post-modern humour.” But perhaps there is more to it, the adminconcluded.
But why would a unicorn want to smash the state?
“It is, perhaps, a sort of psychological archetype. I think it all stems from the whole ‘anything is possible’ statement. Unicorns, after all, aren’t really that ridiculous when you think about it. It’s just a horse with a horn. Maybe we’ll actually have them one day.” And, so the admin hypothesised, the same goes for a world without masters.
A USYD anarchist expressed a similar view in relation to the strike. According to him, the unicorn is about expressing “an absolute determination not to be captured by politics as usual…we’re putting forward something that’s very different from the existing order.” He acknowledges not just the uniqueness of the unicorn, but its undeniable charm. Radicalism, he explains shouldn’t always be about stark colour schemes. “The cute can be radical as well.”
Anarchist and frequent picket line attendee Tom Raue thinks the unicorn is ironic, pointing out that My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic, which includes a unicorn called Rarity, has a large and ironic following on website 4chan. 4chan in turn has a crossover without Anonymous and anarchism. Relating it back to USYD, his interpretation was that the “deliberately camp unicorn theme is intended to bring a bit of humour to the strikes which might otherwise be intimidating to students.”
That humour might be undermined by the dark underbelly of the unicorn. After all, it does have a pointy horn sticking out of its forehead. Somewhat irrelevantly, but also curiously, the unicorn’s violence can be traced back to biblical times: “And the unicorns shall come down with them, and the bullocks with their bulls; and their land shall be soaked with blood, and their dust made fat with fatness,” reads Isaiah 34:7.
As supporters waited for arrestees to be released from Newtown Police Station on June 5, some held up a banner picturing a unicorn spearing a swastika-toting, beetroot-faced policeman in the throat. This was unhappily not the only confronting unicorn imagery seen that day.
Although the aggressive form of the unicorn undermines its star quality as a PR tool attracting people to the picket lines, it too illuminates the psychology of the strike. In co-opting an (allegedly immortal) animal into their movement, USYD’s strikers have enlisted the only form of violence they can claim in their fight against the University and the state, in the form of the police.
Whatever purpose the unicorn ultimately serves, it is undeniably fantastic.