A few rough thoughts on Saturday’s counter demonstration against Reclaim Australia and the United Patriots Front.
1. A defeat for the far-right
Shermon Burgess and the United Patriots Front wagered their grouping’s credibility on a successful #July18 rally in Melbourne.
The UPF called for a total mobilization of right wing forces to converge on Melbourne. Their propaganda claimed that the rally in Melbourne was basically a matter of life and death for the far-right (and by extension in their world view, Australia). ‘The left’ had to be defeated on this day or ‘Australia’ would be destroyed.
There was talk of buses and planes bringing in ‘patriot’ support from all over Australia and even the world; every angle that could get racists out from behind their keyboards and onto the streets was pursued. Burgess went to so far as to announce he would quit ‘the movement’ if this one rally did not succeed in defeating Islam and ‘the left’.
Burgess repeatedly claimed that an awe inspiring coalition of far-right forces had been forged to support this rally. Dissent was not tolerated, when one far-right grouping dared disagree with Burgess the UPF denounced the evil splitters. Monika Evers and Julie Kendell of ‘Reclaim Australia Rally – Melbourne’ were described as “traitors” who Burgess would “kick in the c-nt”. Anyone who attended anything other than the official UPF rally was warned they would likely be bashed by ‘feral lefties’, as only the UPF had the muscle and the preparedness to use violence required for the right to rally in Melbourne.
When measured against their rhetoric and stated aims, the UPF failed on Saturday, and they failed miserably.
Despite an extra month of propaganda and organization, the UPF contingent on Saturday was smaller than their showing on May 31 in Richmond. In May they mustered approximately seventy supporters for an aborted March on Richmond Town Hall, on Saturday they mustered maybe sixty.
Burgess and friends claimed they would bring the muscle required for a fascist rally; “1pm Parliament steps, be there”. In practice, they were forced to skulk in under police escort at midday.
It is doubtful the UPF agitators believed they could smash the left on Saturday. Their real hope would have been to speak to, perform for, and hopefully recruit from the wider layer of racists that attended the April 4 rally in Melbourne. On this count also, the UPF failed miserably.
Due to the opposition of anti-racists, the UPF had to join the Reclaim Australia Rally under police escort and after a significant degree of secrecy. They result was that the few individuals who did turn out from the wider Islamophobic milieu were excluded from the UPF/Reclaim Australia rally.
Saturday’s rally also marked the effective end of the Reclaim Australia grouping’s Melbourne arm. On April 4, Reclaim Australia attracted perhaps a thousand people to its rally (even if only a few hundred made it through anti-racist lines to the rally kettle established by police).
On Saturday less than a hundred people gathered for the 11am rally announced by RAR-M’s Monika Evers. The planned bus of racist supporters from Bendigo simply did not materialize. A significant portion of the rump that did attend the RAR-M gathering were people mobilized by Danny Nalliah’s cult, rather than the Reclaim Australia grouping.
As a mobilizing force, the “Reclaim Australia” brand is utterly spent in Melbourne. Evers could barely muster some Facebook re-posts in the aftermath. The United Patriots Front fair little better in terms of mobilizing ability, but it seems likely their core group of agitators will continue churning out militaristic hate videos for some time yet.
2. Police violence and pepper spray
The Melbourne Street Medics Collection have released a statement about the police pepper spraying generally and the assault on their first aid triage point in particular:
Amongst those affected by the OC Spray was a casualty who began to experience respiratory distress, a not uncommon side-effect of OC spray and other such “less-than-lethal” chemical weapons. In the course of attending to this casualty and decontaminating others who had been affected, members of the Melbourne Street Medic Collective (including one pregnant woman) were attacked by police with OC Spray and kettled in a small space at the top of Little Bourke Street.
Melbourne Activist Legal Support has also released a statement on the police tactics on Saturday:
According to Legal Observers present the OC foam was not directed towards individuals who were threatening police or engaged in violence but instead was directed over and onto the entire crowd of people present. For this reason the MALS Legal Observer Team identifies the use of OC foam in this circumstance as indiscriminate and therefore unlawful.
Many people see the police through the traditional liberal lens- that they exist to protect society from crime. For the many people who copped pepper spray, saw the police pepper spray medics, took random punches to the face and received cursory “fuck offs” from the police yesterday, that notion is not going to gel particularly well with their feelings at the moment. Marxist or Anarchist theory will point out to you that the police exist to protect private property and the state, and little else.
There are a couple of remarks I want to add to the above.
It is clear that the police planned for the liberal use of pepper spray against the counter-demonstration; the Public Order Response Team personnel all used far more pressurized OC foam than they would ordinarily carry.
The police tactics were not a response to an unpredictable situation, they were a planned and prepared course of action. Somebody made the decision to have the Public Order Response Team repeatedly attack the counter demonstration, liberally distributing pepper spray in all directions. As the MALS statement points out, this is of course unlawful.
Whilst I was shocked by the brazen use of pepper spray on Saturday, the presence of police violence is never unexpected.
In the lead up to Saturday’s rally, the police made clear that it was their intention to facilitate the fascist demonstration. The UPF and Reclaim Australia were going to engage religious and racial vilification on the steps of Parliament House (the supposed home of democracy in Victoria), and the ‘job’ that he police were ‘just doing’ was ensuring that this could occur.
By counter-demonstrating we were announcing that our aims conflict with those of the police. If we’re serious about denying racists space on our streets we will have to contend with the force and violence of the police.
Yet I did not expect the level of police violence that occurred.
The state and the police have an interest in maintaining the legitimacy of their monopoly on the lawful use of violence. For this reason, I normally expect the police to use the minimum necessary violence to achieve their ends. I doubt the mass use of pepper spray was required to protect a small coterie of fascists, but the police clearly saw it differently. We could consider that a compliment.
Over the past three months counter-demonstrators at far-right rallies have developed confidence and capacity. At Federation Square on April 4 counter-demonstrators maintained a strong picket. In Richmond on May 31, counter-demonstrators pushed aside a police line in order to block a fascist march.
The police may want their violence to appear legitimate, but if it is a choice between appearing legitimate and maintaining control, the police must maintain the appearance of control. On May 31 the actions of counter-demonstrators briefly defied the police with little in the way of repercussions. I suspect that decisions around police tactics were in part informed by a desire to make a point about who runs the show.
The appearance of pepper spray at one demonstration should not dissuade people from attending these kinds of anti-racist actions.
Whilst police violence is distressing to experience, in these contexts it can be mitigated against by those prepared to contend with it, and largely avoided by those who wish to contribute to rejecting racism and fascism without copping a face full of weaponized pepper.
There are all manner of roles that people can and should play in contested street demonstrations that do not carry a risk of pepper spraying. The biggest restraint on the use of violence by police is the size of the demonstration they are contending with, the more outnumbered they are, the more restrained they will be.
3. Masked demonstrators
Blah blah blah, protestors wearing masks were violent hoodlums, blah blah blah.
I expect this kind of garbage in the mainstream press and from the police, but it is disappointing to see these remarks attributed to Socialist Party Councillor Steve Jolly in The Age:
He said this allowed a small group of people, who were wearing masks and balaclavas, to take attention away from the hundreds who were there to peacefully take a stand against racism.
None of the groupings planning Saturday’s rally intended to be passive, and it’s disingenuous of Steve Jolly (assuming the quotation is accurate) to claim that his organization did not intend to defy police and attempt to block access to the far-right demonstration. I applaud them for their organizing work to that end.
There are a whole bunch of reasons people might wear masks in the context of Saturday’s counter-demonstration. The far-right seek to identify their political opponents, there are various websites and Facebook groups dedicated to “exposing” the opponents of racism in Australia.
For other people attending the rally appearing in media coverage was both likely and an unacceptable risk; medical professionals volunteering in the Street Medics Collective, for example, may mask up to avoid flak at their day jobs.
But the most obvious reason to mask up is that sometimes you need to push back. On Saturday we were seeking to picket and prevent a racist demonstration. A good segment of the people seeking to attend that rally were violent fascists, and some of those people had to be frog-marked, pushed and at times more forcibly ejected from space held by the counter demonstration. Individuals who entered the counter-demonstration space looking for a brawl had to be ejected, and many of the people who took it upon themselves to do the ejecting prefer not to be identified.
I think I should make it absolutely clear, the groupings organizing the counter-demonstration on Saturday had no intention of getting involved in individual brawls with individual fascists. The groups who gathered aimed to picket, disrupt and prevent a far-right rally.
Which is what we did.
Other / Updates
Comic is by Shermi and the Puf gang, with permission.
I’ve changed which Puf Gang comic appears on the post after receiving some critical feedback from comrades, feedback I accept.
To end, here is an elderly Italian priest waiving a red flag and singing Bella Ciao!
Header image credit Wardenclyffe Photography.