Racism

Guest review of John Safran, ‘Depends What You Mean by Extremist’, 304 pages released by Hamish Hamilton, May 2017.

I got very irritated reading John Safran’s latest book Depends What You Mean by Extremist. As someone who had been to most of the anti-fascist rallies in and around Melbourne in the last few years; watched in horror as Pauline Hanson clawed her way back to power; and scrolled through my Twitter account with interest as Phil Gallea as well as Blair Cottrell, Neil Erikson & Co faced criminal charges for trying to blow up the Melbourne Anarchist Club (the former) and staging some cringe worthy and offensive public theatre (the latter) – I picked up Safran’s book with interest.

And my interest quickly turned to frustration.

Safran’s book fails on two counts. It fails firstly to identify, critique or explain the deeply held political ideas of people on all sides; instead relying on amusing caricatures and Safran’s interest in religion as both the organizing principle and fuel to progress the story.

Secondly, whilst attempting to be a cross between Louis Theroux and Hunter S Thompson, Safran fails to become truly immersed, or really understand, any of the people he surrounds himself with.

I also found I had concerns about some of the ways Safran conducted himself, or at the very least the way he has expressed himself.

Safran offers up curiosity and caricature, without understanding, interrogating or attempting to explore the deeply held political views by the people on all sides of this story. After reading all 304 pages, the reader is left with no clear idea on anyone’s ideology. There is no attempt to unravel the far-right’s seeming preoccupation with Muslims from their wider ideologies, any more than there is any evidence of understanding that for “the left” anti-fascist activism is just one part of broader political work.

This is not only a failing of Safran’s book, but a disappointment. While there is one Chapter The Hustings that talks about the broader political situation of the time (Trump, Brexit, One Nation etc), there is no real discussion of how the characters are, or could have been, influenced by the current political climate. The cast of characters appear with no context, or even any musing about how they have come to their beliefs. It is as if they have appeared with no history, no story, no ideology – just kooky characters for Safran to examine as curiosities. Almost as if he is collecting them like Pokémon– the Neo-Nazi, the garden variety racist, the socialist, the anarchist, the ISIS supporter.

Without interrogating people’s core beliefs and finding what drives them to action, every character comes across as either a weirdo or entirely irrational. Safran milks this for all it’s worth. He presents himself as the only rational actor; the only one looking at both sides of arguments; the only one not blinded by ideology, dogma or religion. It is sensible, moderate Safran against a world of not only flawed, but contradictory characters.

Safran spends much of the book examining these contradictions. “I like looking at tangles,” he says to the unkindly nicknamed Mr Snort and Mrs Sneer (seemingly if you won’t go on the record, but you are a good plot point you get an unkind nickname). Whether it is a Sri Lankan Christian associating with Nazis; Muslim converts who also happen to be Monty Python fans or racists having Asian girlfriends – Safran is there to savour the juxtaposition. He seems incapable of comprehending these very human contradictions. As he divorces his subjects from their broader politics he also robs them of their lived experiences. It is these experiences that not only influence someone’s politics, but also form their individual quirks and foibles. The resulting contradictions seem to leave Safran’s mind spinning. It is as if he expected only two-dimensional stereotypes. And as he comes face to face with living, breathing, and contradictory humans – he is shocked.

The result of not examining individuals’ politics is, obviously, a very unpolitical book. It makes no attempt to understand or explain the politics involved. Safran instead roundly focuses on religion. While religion does have a part to play in this story, I don’t believe it is at the centre of what is happening amongst “Australian Deplorables.” Everyone has bigger agendas to push than religion – whether that be a return to White Australia, or fighting back against capitalism. Those who profess to have strong religious beliefs, are not content with simply practicing their religion- there is an element of a crusade about it, and at least some political dimension. Not a single sentence in his book is dedicated to the discussion that filled column inches, placards, and the shouts across police lines: is the current wave of Islamophobia in Australian society racist? There is no discussion about the intersection of Islamaphobia and racism. Those who are involved in anti-Muslim politics are described as racists, but there is no discussion around how this particular strain of racism is a product of current global politics.

Safran’s failure to examine both the broader political landscape and people’s individual politics makes the characters on all sides of this story less relatable than they most likely are in real life. It is easy to laugh at a character study of Jim Saleam or the anarchist “ninjas”. As Safran depoliticizes them, they are as two dimensional and stereotypical as the Channel 9 news would like us to believe. This is a disservice to everyone involved. How can we combat racism and Islamaphobia without understanding where it comes from? And similarly, how can the ideas of anti-fascism, socialism or anarchism be shared and understood when the only representation of these people are hokey stereotypes, devoid of motivations and ideology.

To be kind, one may excuse Safran for failing to interact with the political side of this story by arguing that he wasn’t trying to write a political book; that this was an exercise in gonzo journalism. That Safran was merely “going along for the ride” and reporting on what he saw and experienced. But on this count, Safran fails as well.

While Safran attempts to immerse himself in both the far-right and “the left” – it feels obvious throughout the book that neither side trusts him; and he never “lets go”. The book feels less like a wild ride on the fringes, and more like covertly observing from the corner. By trying to play all sides of the issue, Safran is neither trusted or respected by anyone. It feels like both sides are keen to capitalize on his platform to promote their causes, but constantly weighing up the risks of having him along. Safran “participates” – whether that is smoking a cigarette with Ralph Ceminara, or showing up to a community day at the Melbourne Anarchist Club, but it is obvious through his writing that he views himself as separate to proceedings. Unfortunately for Safran it takes more than a joint with the fascists or a beer with the anarchists to really get amongst these people and understand them. Safran’s reluctance to “pick a side” results in almost everyone treating him with extreme caution; and this prevents him from doing what the book’s subtitle would have us believe happened: “Going Rogue with Australian Deplorables.”

Throughout the book, the reader is conscious that Safran is trying to write a book. It is not just out of interest or curiosity that Safran is hauling himself around the country attending rallies, interviewing people and following leads. It feels that he is single mindedly chasing moments, experiences and people that would translate well into his narrative. Safran is at his most delighted one the sole occasion he has the opportunity to change the narrative. When the UPF decide to shift a rally from the Melbourne CBD to Melton, but to do so at the last minute to stop counter protesters from effectively organizing; Safran vacillates on whether to tell No Room For Racism this information. When his personal trainer tells him to tell the anti-racists what is going on, Safran reflects:

“I first think he’s being moral, but it’s not that. My trainer also does graphic design so he has a creative bent. He thinks my duplicity will be better for the book, because it will change events. “You’ve become the puppetmaster,” he tells me.

..I’m like, My God, the conspiracy theorists were right! It’s exactly what they say: beware of the Jews, they play both sides – the communists and the capitalists. I am the devious Jew.”

I think this attitude, while understandable, is deeply concerning. No one would argue that it is the worst thing in the world to want to write a successful book. However Safran presents himself as someone with an interest in what is going on and possibly led people involved to expect him to eventually choose a side and use his platform for good. Anti-racist activists care so much about the work they do that it seems inconceivable that someone who is viewed as “progressive” would ever do anything to assist Neo-Nazis. Yet it was only through self interest that Safran tipped off No Room for Racism about this crucial piece of information. At the end of the day, it all comes down to the book for Safran. “Mr Snort” at the Melbourne Anarchist Club challenges Safran about his role – “Are you part of building an anti-racist movement or are you just about books and selling and career and profile?” Safran never answers the question. At one point Safran says “I would love, for the sake of this book, to be mildly beaten up.” He is lucky enough that this never comes to pass; unlike many who put their bodies on the line to resist against racist organizing and sustained injuries from both racists and the police.

It is notable that Safran hardly mentions the police. As he sketches out rallies he mentions the numbers of police. Anyone who has been to any demonstrations in Melbourne over the last 5 years will have noticed an increase in police presence and the intensifying nature of what a police response looks like. He does not at any point mention the violence perpetrated by police – both with physical violence and pepper spray. So out of touch with police attitudes at these rallies John Safran obviously felt safe enough to bring a knife with him to the Melton rally.

I have a number of concerns about Safran’s behavior and conduct, and the biggest of them is his carrying of a weapon. In a moment fuelled by whiskey and reading about the Warsaw Ghetto, Safran in what can most kindly be described as a severe case of Hemingway stumbles into a camping supply shop and buys a pocket knife. He mentions this in a somewhat offhand way, and the reader (well at least this reader) forgets about it until Safran upon seeing an act of violence unfold in Melton writes: “I feel the knife in my pocket.”

To be clear, Safran doesn’t do anything with the knife, but I don’t think that is the point. To carry a knife, or any weapon, into a high stress, high emotions situation like the rally in Melton is a plain and stupid dumb idea. It’s not jut dumb. It’s highly disrespectful. It puts in danger every single person in your vicinity. It made me absolutely furious that at this rally people were put at risk for the sake of Safran’s ego. To bring a knife to the rally, but not have the foresight to pack a bottle of water and some sunscreen – that, as far as I’m concerns, bumps up your charge from stupid to moronic.

Police were checking bags at the Melton Rally. The bag checks were very targeted. Wearing a balaclava – bag check; carrying a flag – bag check; punk – bag check. As an unassuming white girl in sensible shoes and no balaclava, my bag wasn’t checked. It would seem D Grade celebrities are similarly exempt from police suspicions.

Mr Snort and Mrs Sneer at the Anarchist Club are entirely suspicious of Safran, which after reading the book – I think they were right to be so. The way Safran characterizes some of the “radicals” he meets is, as “the left” are want to say, highly problematic. Halfway through the chapter entitled “Left-wing pinkoes and right wing death beasts” starts the section dedicated to Comrade Snort and Comrade Sneer (seriously, how did Safran not think to call them that!) with “There are more hot anarchists than I expected here. Don’t get me wrong, there are also flabby radicals who wouldn’t be able to throw a Molotov cocktail without breaking into a wheeze, but still.” How this is relevant to anything that is happening in the book is not clear to me. Having recently had the UPF turn up on its doorstep, the Melbourne Anarchist Club had opened its doors on a Sunday afternoon to bring the community together. Not to perform traditional, socially acceptable levels of beauty for John Safran. This sentence started to make me feel uneasy about the way Safran was viewing, and then writing, about women.

The reader doesn’t see the backstory between Mrs Sneer and Safran, but it seems tense from the start. He describes her first sentence as a snap. Other words used to describe her speaking are – snaps; sneers, complains; demands; hisses. She also “pushes” a pamphlet towards Safran, and when she tires of the conversation she “huffs off”. Meanwhile, Mr Snort just “asks”, “says” and “tells.” Is it too much of a stretch to imagine Safran hurt that the “hot anarchist” women don’t implicitly trust him, talk to him and fawn over his celebrity. And that in return for this, he paints them as mean, irrational, stupid and annoying?

That said, Mel from No Room For Racism gave Safran her undivided attention on several occasions, let him into the inner machinations of No Room For Racism, and invited him to the bizarre truce talks with Reclaim Australia. Safran repays this assumedly invaluable access by referring to her continually as Mel the matriarch. The UPF guys are leaders, the anarchists have a CEO, but when Safran sees a woman in charge she is a matriarch. I can’t help but feel that word minimizes Mel’s position. It plays into the idea of women being soft, social and family oriented. It’s soft power; not hard power. It’s not that those things are necessarily bad. But you’re not calling Blair “Daddy”, are you? Similarly, a woman who explains herself as being “half-Jewish” and is introduced as Rebecca is referred to by Safran only as the “Half-Jewess”. While some Jewish women have embraced or reclaimed the word – it’s hardly a universal reclamation. As with Mel, Safran is quick to make her title particularly feminine, though this is not crucial to the narrative.

The weird sexism, paired with the lack of political insight have made me really question what John Safran is about. I don’t know the answer to that question, but I would caution activists to remember these things the next time he’s hanging around. It seems clear to me that Safran is neither interested in immersive experiences, nor politics. That, coupled with his careless behavior and problematic depictions of women make me irritated. The political work of others has provided Safran with a successful product to hawk. He has never picked a side, but is not impartial. This book lacks the academic rigor to explain what has been happening in Australia recently, and the energy and personal commitment of true gonzo journalism. Its one success is as a best seller for John Safran.

See also:

Andy Fleming, May 19, Depends What You Mean By Extremist : A Review (of sorts).

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The Andrews Labor government has announced a $2 billion bid for the support of Victoria’s Police Association.

In a recent article on the so-called ‘Apex gang’, I noted that:

Victoria goes to the polls in two years, and both major political parties will once again engage in the traditional ‘law and order’ bidding war for the support of the Police Association and the Herald Sun.

The bidding war has now well and truly begun, and it comes complete with thousands of new police, extended police powers, and billions of dollars in spending.

The entire ‘Law and Order’ package is rotten. There is no crime wave, the new powers are not necessary, and the entire thing is rooted in racism.

The premise, pushed by the Herald Sun, the Liberal Party and the Police Association of Victoria, is that Melbourne is in the grips of an unprecedented crime wave.

Liberal opposition leader Matthew Guy has claimed that recent crime statistics are evidence of a “crime tsunami” and that he has “never felt more unsafe in my life”.

For over a year, Victoria’s tabloid newspaper and talkback radio stations have told us to fear a largely mythical ‘Apex gang’.

In reality the ‘Apex gang’ is part of a racist code used by the media to stigmatise young black men from migrant backgrounds. As Anthony Kelly (from the Flemington-Kensington Community Legal Centre) put it in recent comments to the ABC:

“The Apex gang is a convenient code word; essentially it means ethnic or African crime — it’s a code word that can be used by a greater number of commentators, like a dog whistle”

The other common dog whistle used by the media, police and commentators in Victoria is the ever threatening “youth crime”.

When the Police Association’s Rod Iddles bemoans “youth crime and the Apex gang and all that” he’s not talking about drunk middle class white kids punching each other after getting pissed at some city nightclub.

No, he’s latching onto a racist media beat-up that demonizes migrant kids from an African background, who we’re told will jack your car, invade your home and beat your white kiddies for want of something better to do on a Saturday night!

Media, police and political commentators on “youth crime” pin the blame for Victoria’s “crime wave” on kids from migrant backgrounds, in particular the Sudanese community and the Pacific Islander community.

Matthew Guy exemplified this with his call for legislation that would allow the government to immediately deport young offenders.

Unfortunately for Matthew Guy’s racist ambitions, the overwhelming majority of people committing the offenses the media has labeled a “crime wave” were born in Australia, and the crime statistics that purportedly prove the existence of this terrifying crime wave actually show nothing of the sort.

There has been an increase in the rate of reported criminal offenses in Victoria over the past year, largely as a result of the increased reporting of family violence offenses.

“Youth crime” over the same period has actually declined as:

crimes committed by people aged between 15 and 19 fell by 5 per cent, and there was a decrease of 4 per cent in crimes committed by people aged under 25.

Related, the ABS records a steady decline in youth crime across Australia since 2009-10.

But of course, it pays not to place too much trust in official crime statistics. Victorian crime statistics are obtained from the Victoria Police LEAP database. The more people the police arrest, the more “crime” Victoria records.

In reality, the number of people Victoria Police arrest for various offenses has as much to do with levels of police resources (more police means more offenses are “detected”), changing police priorities (expect a “spike in crime” among any population Victoria Police decide to target) as well as changes in which behaviors our society criminalizes.

The increased rate of family violence offers is an illustrative example. No one seriously expects that Victorian men became 10% more violent towards women in the past year. Male violence against women is appalling and commonplace, but the change in “levels” of family violence recorded by the police has as much to do with new processes that have been adopted in order to force police to take family violence seriously.

Media reportage on the so-called crime wave has highlighted increases in the number of ‘carjackings’ and ‘home invasions’ (recorded by police as thefts where the owners were present), and often links these to increases in the number of assaults recorded.

But again, this is hardly a crime wave. The Herald Sun might breathlessly report that there has been an 80% increase in carjackings, but they are still talking about an increase of 76 offenses in a city of four million people.

The media’s tendency to link this to increased reports of assaults is also deceptive. In the past two years societies’ attitude to assault has changed as the media has pushed narratives around “coward punches” and “one hit kills”.

A great many assaults that would once have been passed off as part of the standard risk involved in a night’s drinking are now reported and prosecuted. Many others are connected with increased police measures targeting domestic violence. That is not necessarily a bad thing, but it is hardly proof of a crime wave.

Melbourne is not in the grips of an “Apex crime wave” (as The Australian termed it in a recent racist beat up), but this hasn’t stopped the Andrews Labor government capitulating to the racist narrative pushed by the Police Association and the Murdoch press.

The government has announced “sweeping new measures” that promise to lock up more Victorian children and young people, longer. Due process will go out the window as new powers allow the police to forcefully obtain DNA samples from suspects without a warrant or court oversight. A two billion dollar spending spree will massively expand the police force, with thousands of new cops, a new helicopter and a bunch of new police stations.

The “Apex crime wave” may have been a myth, but the attacks on due process, the adoption of new authoritarian measures, and the growth of police power are very real. And they must be resisted.

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This Saturday’s Age contained a two page spread on “Melbourne’s Trump-land”, which is apparently located in Narre Warren North.

Instead of reviewing the economic and social situation in Narre Warren North, The Age’s Chris Johnston instead interviewed a handful of fringe right-wing figures, including Rise Up Australia’s Rosalie Crestani. The Age declared that Crestani and her fellow travelers were “disenchanted but not deplorable”. I beg to differ.

In 2012, Crestani contested Casey City Council elections on an anti-mosque platform. She won the second of two seats available in the Four Oaks Ward, despite coming fourth (with 8.09% of the primary vote) in a field of 22 candidates. She then joined Danny Nalliah’s Rise Up Australia Party (RUAP) and used her status as a Councillor to promote Rise Up’s peculiar brand of Islamophobic conspiracy theory mixed with a good dose of homophobia.

In 2014, Crestani moved to have Casey City Council ban diversity training, ban the display of materials that promote LBGTI equality, and ban the City of Casey from issuing media releases on LBGTI issues. Crestani and Rise Up Australia oppose same-sex marriage, the “normalisation of homosexuality” and “pro-homosexual propaganda”.

In Johnston’s article, a former Family First candidate claims that issues like “gay marriage … [are] a distraction from the things that really need to be done”. The mainstream political process is apparently obsessed with these ‘fringe issues’ that do not connect with the difficulties facing a community like Narre Warren North.

If anyone is obsessed with a ‘fringe issue’, then surely it is Rosalie Crestani and Rise Up Australia, with their outrageous and obsessive hate campaign directed at rolling back the rights won by LGBTI activists over the past fifty years.

Crestani is appalling when it comes to LBGTI issues, but it is in rank and borderline conspiracist Islamophobia that Crestani has made a name for herself.

In the past year Crestani has announced her support for a ban on Muslim immigration, stating she would oppose Muslim immigration “until there is a fail proof filter we have to stop all Muslims from coming in because we don’t know which ones are going to blow us up”.

Contrary to the racist conspiracy theories pedaled by the likes of Crestani, Muslim immigrants are highly unlikely to “blow us up”. Australian “terrorists” are overwhelming Australian born, tend to be comically incompetent, and despite widespread racism and anti-Muslim bigotry promoted by the likes of Crestani, there are precious few of them.

According to Crestani, on top of banning Muslim immigration, the most important issue facing “disenchanted” Narre Warren North is the threat posed by mosques! Over the past year, Crestani latched onto a racist Facebook led campaign to oppose the construction of a mosque on a vacant site in Narre Warren North.

The mosque’s development application was rejected by Casey City Council on planning grounds, but that didn’t stop Crestani announcing she would always oppose a Muslim place of worship in Narre Warren for “security reasons”. There are approximately 15,000 Muslims in the region covered by the Casey City Council, and a single nearby mosque that seats less than two hundred people.

Crestani routinely denounces mosques, halal certification and Muslim immigration. She claims that allowing a simple place of worship “risks radicalisation and terrorism”. I’ve always thought there was something darkly ironic about these claims, considering Crestani’s own links to the far-right.

Over the past eighteen months Rosalie Crestani has spoken at, endorsed, and even chaired a number of rallies called by violent far-right groups.

Crestani has chaired or spoken at the 18 July Reclaim/UPF rally at Parliament House, the June 26 True Blue Crew rally at Parliament, last year’s Cronulla riots celebration and the Reclaim Australia Rally in Melton.

Shortly before the Reclaim Australia Rally chaired by Crestani in Melton, police arrested a Reclaim Australia admin, Phillip Galea, on weapons charges. Galea has subsequently been arrested again on terrorism charges, and we’re awaiting Galea’s court date next month to learn which left wing target’s he allegedly intended to bomb.

Rosalie Crestani endorsed and promoted a violent far-right rally in Coburg earlier this year. The rally, called by the "True Blue Crew", intended to bust up a previously planned anti-racism event. At the time Blair Cottrell expressed his disappointment that Victoria Police stopped the rally "using force and violence" against their political opponents.

Rosalie Crestani endorsed and promoted a violent far-right rally in Coburg earlier this year. The rally, called by the “True Blue Crew”, intended to bust up a previously planned anti-racism rally. At the time Blair Cottrell expressed his disappointment that Victoria Police stopped the rally “using force and violence” against their political opponents.

If there was any gathering that could be said to pose a “risk of radicalisation and terrorism” in Melbourne, it is surely those far-right rallies addressed and chaired by Rosalie Crestani.

There are interesting and complex issues facing Narre Warren North, not least among them the Islamophobia and racism whipped up by the likes of Rosalie Crestani. But it is important not to overstate the depth of Crestani’s political reach in the Narre Warren community. Despite a massively increased profile in Narre Warren since 2012, Crestani only polled 17.17% of the vote in the 2016 Casey City Council elections. Her increased support is concerning, but claims she represents “Melbourne’s Trump-land” are grossly overstated.

There are plenty of people in the outer suburbs rightly disillusioned with main-stream politics. Unemployment is high (8.1% in the City of Casey), infrastructure is poorly planned and executed, services are taxed by underfunding and a growing population, and public transport is a joke.

But Rosalie Crestani and her fascist fellow travelers are not simply “disenchanted”. Crestani is an Islam obsessed homophobe whose Rise Up Australia Party seeking to build a reactionary political movement on explicitly racist lines. Crestani really is deplorable.
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The government, police and media are pursuing a racist campaign of vilification and persecution against kids from Sudanese migrant backgrounds.

The Herald Sun is today boasting that a Sudanese born “suspected member of the Apex gang” will be “forced to return to Africa next year”. The racists are crowing.

Who exactly are we deporting?

Issac Gatkuoth came to Australia as a nine-year old child refugee. He “endured a hellish, parentless upbringing in Sudan”1. He hasn’t seen his mother since he was five years old, his two brothers were killed when his village was “wiped out”, and he spent time as an unaccompanied child in a Kenyan refugee camp.

“Until recently he believed his father was living somewhere in Australia, but was devastated when he learned his dad died when he was just two”.2

Unsurprisingly, Issac suffers from PTSD, has recurring nightmares, and developed an ‘ice’ addiction. Issac “was on ice and had not slept for two weeks” when he committed a violent carjacking.

Issac was sentenced, imprisoned, and next year will complete the prison term that is meant to ‘repay his debt to society’. And then he will be deported to a country which he fled when he was five, where the people he knew are long dead, and which is stricken by ongoing civil war.

Issac denies being a member of the amorphous and ill-defined ‘Apex gang’, but because of the colour of his skin, and the racist beat-up surrounding anyone tarred with these two words, the right-wing media, the shock-jocks and Liberal MP Jason Wood are jubilant because this Australian youth faces deportation.

Issac is as Australian as I am3. He went to an Australian school, grew up in an Australian community, was marginalized by good old Australian racism and neglect, and took popular Australian drugs to blot out the pain.

Issac is as much one of ‘our’ kids as anyone. He needs support, not racism, vilification and deportation.

Aside: Compare and contrast the coverage, ABC 7.30, “Soldiers returning from war turn to drugs and crime – but are we letting them down?“.

What is this ‘Apex gang’ bullshit anyway?

When is a gang not a gang? The police, media and politicians report on Apex gang as if it were a structured criminal organisation engaged in systematic car-jackings, burglaries, and armed robberies. The truth is a little less impressive.

When the ‘Apex gang’ first burst across media front pages in March it was little more than an extended friendship group.

The Age reported earlier this year, the supposed gang “has no clubhouse, no colours and no real structure”. An ABC interview with a ‘gang member’ offered further details:

“I wouldn’t say it’s a really big thing, you know. The media always speculates and tries to make things sound big, bigger than they are. … (It’s) just a group of youths. … Everyone’s got to have friends, you know.”

A bunch of kids growing up in a Melbourne suburb with a “lack of school, no jobs, lack of employment” hang out with their friends and get into fights with other groups of kids. Sounds familiar:

Sharpies, or sharps, are the darlings of Australian gang fashion. They started out in the 1960s when groups of working-class teenagers in Melbourne, and to a lesser extent, Sydney, came together over cars, tattoos, fights, and “dressing sharp.”

In March, some kids were involved in a punch-on at Federation Square during the Moomba festival. Melbourne’s largest street gang, Victoria Police, responded with copious amounts of pepper spray.

If the kids involved hadn’t been black, and if their little spat hadn’t pissed all over a City of Melbourne tourism draw card, the fight might have gone unremarked.

Brawls involving a couple of dozen people are common enough in any suburb with the right combination of unemployment, alcohol and machismo:

VICTORIA Police say they are not investigating an all-in-brawl at a suburban Aussie rules football match despite reports a pregnant woman was assaulted.

When the police and media reported that a “gang war” had taken place in the city, the Apex gang exploded. As the ABC’s ‘Apex gang member’ pointed out back in March, “Some people just want a reputation”.

Notoriety is a hell of a currency, and when the media, police and political establishment started condemning the ‘Apex gang’, every disaffected kid in the outer suburbs had something infamous to scrawl on the wall.

It is little wonder that the apparent composition of the ‘gang’ has changed and the crimes associated with it are expanding. Hundreds of people from all manner of backgrounds are now using the words ‘Apex gang’ in Melbourne’s south eastern suburbs.

There is no ‘Apex gang’, but there is a hell of a brand, and who wants to let the truth get in the way of a good story? Both the police and media outlets profit by stoking racist hysteria around the ‘Apex gang’. The gang narrative sells papers, drives website clicks, and justifies police budgets.

Anyone interested in how the police and media can invent a ‘gang’ out of whole cloth should read up on Adelaide “Gang of 49“.

In 2007 SA Police announced they were “monitoring a group of 49 primarily Aboriginal offenders held responsible for hundreds of crimes”. The media dubbed it the “Gang of 49” and dozens of articles followed.

The Advertiser and local talk back radio reported on the crimes, members and supposed rituals of this terrifying gang menace. One expert compared it’s lack of structure to the ‘cells’ of a terrorist movement! Before long there were indigenous kids running around calling themselves the “Gang of 49”, where no such gang had existed before.

Victoria goes to the polls in two years, and both major political parties will once again engage in the traditional ‘law and order’ bidding war for the support of the Police Association and the Herald Sun.

You can bet that the Police Associaton will demand more officers and greater powers, and both major parties will announce ‘new measures’ to ‘combat gang crime’.

Aside: Whenever you see the words “police sources” in a Victorian publication, the journalist actually means “Police Association gossip”.

Police racism

Victoria Police cannot be taken seriously when they talk about the ‘Apex gang’, ‘gang crime’, or anything supposedly connected to the Sudanese community.

In 2014 three police were sacked and thirteen disciplined over the production of racist material at a Police station in Sunshine.

Racial profiling is common place:

Victorian Police LEAP data analysed by eminent statistician, Professor Ian Gordon from the Univeristy of Melbourne in Haile-Michael & Ors v Konstantinidis & Ors revealed that between 2006-2009, Africans in the Flemington and North Melbourne area were 2.5 times more likely to be stopped by police than other groups despite having a lower crime rate.

The practice of racial profiling extends beyond police “rank and file”. “Overt operational orders by Victoria Police have been known to target African youth” despite 2006 legislation that “makes it unlawful for a person to be treated differently from others on the basis of their race”.

Victoria has introduced a pilot “stop and search receipt” program, but it’s designed to avoid capturing any information about ‘race’ lest racism be detected. The Victoria Police Association resists even this most basic accountability measure.

Victoria Police, and in particular the Victoria Police Association, maintain very close relationships with the newspapers who might otherwise report on police misdeeds. The law-and-order campaigns of the Herald Sun (in particular) mirror the stated position of the Victoria Police Association, and crime reporting rarely deviates from the narrative pushed by Victoria Police’s media unit.

The confluence of interest between Melbourne’s largest tabloid newspaper and the Victoria Police Association deserves closer examination than I am able to provide in this post.

Concluding

Issac Gatkuoth is being sacrificed to the myth of the ‘Apex gang’, and racist narratives around “Sudanese crime”.

The vilification of the Sudanese community continues unchecked in the pages of tabloid newspapers, on talk back radio, at MPs’ press conferences, and in the actions of the Victoria Police.

The reality is that Melbourne’s outer suburbs register unemployment rates approaching 30%, alienated teenagers hang out in ‘gangs’, and kids who’ve experienced war and deprivation need love and support.

We must push back against the vilification of the Sudanese community, public rhetoric about the ‘Apex gang’, and the victimization of troubled kids like Issac Gatkuoth.

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Refugee supporters, Eltham residents and anti-racist activists rallied to oppose a far-right demonstration in Eltham today.

The Sydney based Party for Freedom called for a “Battle of Eltham” today, ostensibly in response to plans by the Victorian state government and St Vincent’s Care Services to house Syrian and Iraqi refugees in disused section of an Eltham aged care village.

Under plans pitched by St Vincent’s Care Services a year ago and later announced by the state government, up to 120 women, children, and couples with a single child, will be housed in sixty vacant units at the facility.

According to St Vincent’s Care Services:

These units are stand-alone and separate from the residential aged care and independent living facilities on site.

The 60 units have been vacant for a number of years and have been refurbished by St Vincent’s Care Services to make them liveable.

The refugee housing project will run for two years and then the accommodation will be transitioned to be used as affordable housing for seniors.

There will be no impact on the residential aged care or independent living residents who live at the Eltham site.

The Party for Freedom have been using this announcement to stoke fears about the “safety” of residents in the facility, who are presumably so old and frail they would have a heart attack and die if they saw little brown kids playing in the park across the street.

In reality, what the Party for Freedom want is a chance to stoke racism and expand the reach of their paltry organization into Victoria. Their previous attempts at holding an event in Victoria (a picket at a Halal food expo) flopped when some people jumped off a tram.

The Counter Rally

A counter-rally called by Diamond Yarra Valley Resistance Solidarity (DYVRS) drew the participation of 100-200 people (ABC reports 200, I thought maybe closer to 150).

The counter-rally gathered at the Eltham Cenotaph where there were speeches from DYVRS organizers, local Eltham residents, as well as anti-racist activists, union members, and a member of the Campaign Against Racism and Fascism.

DYVRS then led the rally on a march through Eltham, past the far-right rally and St Vincents Aged Care, before returning to the centre of town.

Marching through Eltham:

We gathered silently across from the far right rally, outside St Vincents Aged Care:

And my favorite banner of the rally…

It is worth noting that whilst this rally in support of refugees was taking place in Eltham, a further two thousand people gathered as part of the Refugee Action Collective rally at the State Library in central Melbourne:

The Fascist Rally

Party for Freedom “chairman” Nick Folkes announced that his Eltham rally would be a “battle” in a crude attempt to drum up media attention.

Folkes specializes in buffoonish media stunts; in the past year he has invaded church services, held a BBQ to celebrate the Cronulla riots, attempted to enter Parliament dressed as a member of the KKK, and held some seriously strange protests targeting the queer community. He is a very strange man.

Unfortunately for Nick, no “battle” eventuated. There were no fights, arrests or scuffles that I am aware of.

The bulk of the far-right rally were associated with the True Blue Crew, with a smaller contingent from the Soldiers of Odin.

Media reports of the turn-out at the fascist rally vary between 70 and 100, our spotters estimated “maybe 100”. The True Blue Crew and others have published photos showing a small rally amply endowed with flags and branded merchandise.

Blair Cottrell and Thomas Sewell of the United Patriots Front (UPF) were spotted without their usual UPF merch, as was valour-thief Ralph Ceminara.

The True Blue Crew organised a bus from Bendigo, through Melton, to Eltham. Tickets were reportedly $40 a head, and our spotters counted 20-25 assorted fascists disembarking at midday.

Apparently, the TBC were struggling to cover the hire costs, but Danny Nahliah and Rise Up Australia Party came through with a $200 contribution at the last minute. The charter bus was provided by the Bendigo Bus Company.

We should call the racist rally what it was, a flop.

A Melbourne neo-Nazi Facebook page (that I won’t promote by naming) complained that they found themselves “standing in the corner of an unused playing field; in an out of the way suburb; listening to speakers drone on…”.

After a dismal time standing in an “unused playing field” the TBC went to the Eltham Hotel for drinks, and they were reportedly still there getting sloshed at approximately 4pm.

Some people are slow learners…

In the lead up to the Eltham rally, super-brain Chris Shortis decided the best thing he could do was… stage a mock beheading.

Chris Shortis is the former UPF “lead Senate candidate” (they never obtained the signatures required to register) who has since split from the UPF and teamed up with the Australia First Party and a certain local neo-Nazi outfit.

Shortis was recently charged with religious vilification for his role in producing a mock beheading video. So… producing another beheading video probably wasn’t the smartest thing he could go out and do…

Concluding…

The far-right were outnumbered in Eltham today but they were not substantially disrupted.

The counter-rally organized by DYVRS was a solid demonstration of opposition to the far-right and support for refugees, however more has to be done to build the kind of movement that will be able to stop far-right groups projecting a presence in public.

The True Blue Crew, Soldiers of Odin, and Nick Folkes came to Eltham looking for a fight. They were unable to get one primarily because counter-rally organizers decided not to accommodate them.

The far-right may have had a boring day, but they are continuing to organize. The Soldiers of Odin have announced an “Eastern Suburbs Meet and Greet” in Ringwood tomorrow, no doubt intending to build on any contacts or interest they may have garnered from their outing in Eltham today.

Today the far-right had to bus in the numbers, but anti-racists and anti-fascists in the eastern suburbs must be prepared to disrupt them in future, lest these fascist groups build a permanent presence in their suburbs.

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Phillip Galea, a fascist arrested in ‘anti-terror’ raids back in August, planned to bomb two “left wing premises” and cause “loss of life to persons possessing leftwing ideologies” according to statements made by Victoria Police in the Melbourne Magistrates Court yesterday.

The Guardian is reporting that Phillip Galea conducted surveillance on two targets, obtained bomb making material, conducted research on improvised explosive devises, and sought to “recruit at least five other capable persons to assist with his plan”.

Galea has history. Galea is linked to a variety of far-right groups, and has been active in far-right and neo-Nazi politics since at least 2010. In the past eighteen months, Galea has been stopped with a knife at a rally in Richmond, stopped with tasers and mercury the day before a rally in Melton, and arrested with a flare at a rally in Bendigo. Andy Fleming has published an article detailing Galea’s links with Reclaim Australia, the True Blue Crew, the United Patriots Front, and possibly local Combat 18 boneheads.

Galea is due back in court on 19 December 2016.

See also: The Saturday Paper, 13 Aug 2016, How Reclaim Australia hid a ‘terrorist’

As Andrew Zammit explains, Galea is hardly the first far-right figure to engage in political violence in Australia.

The alleged plot, if proven, would not be the first case of far-right violent extremism in Australia. To choose some recent examples, in 2010 self-described Combat 18 members fired shots at a mosque in Perth. In 2012 two Melbourne neo-Nazi skinheads were sentenced to jail for brutally assaulting a Vietnamese student. In 2013 a former soldier and self-described neo-Nazi was jailed for weapons and explosives offences.

Police have not disclosed which “left wing premises” were targeted by Galea in this alleged plot, but I suspect this might be relevant.

In November last year a group of United Patriots Front goons led by Blair Cottrell shot a bizarre video of themselves harassing staff and volunteers at 3CR community radio, and then again at the Melbourne Anarchist Club. As Jeff Sparrow pointed out, the footage was “clearly intended to be intimidating”.

But it did more than intimidate. These little video excursions by Blair Cottrell and others were a way of signalling to the UPF’s supporters who their enemies were. They were identifying targets. It seems likely that Phillip Galea took the hint.

Another matter that remains unclear is how the case against Phillip Galea might yet impact Blair Cottrell’s own legal troubles. In September three former members of the UPF were charged with religious vilification offenses for their involvement in a “mock beheading video”. Yesterday Blair Cottrell confirmed he has also received charges related to “racial vilification I think”.

As the dregs of the UPF pass through the courts, other far-right groups are calling rallies, and the anti-racist response continues.

Photo Credit: The featured image was stolen from James Ross.

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A small fascist group are trying to make their presence felt on the streets of Melbourne’s CBD, today they got a free-kick in The Age.

Today’s Age reports that “a vigilante-style group is running ‘safety patrols’ in Melbourne’s CBD”. The article reads like it could have been scraped from a Soldiers of Odin (SOO) press release, the video that accompanies the article is worse.

The Age happily compares Soldiers of Odin to New York’s ‘Guardian Angels’; a multi-racial group of who ‘patrolled’ the New York subway system in the 1980s. A more apt comparison for the Soldiers of Odin would be Greece’s Golden Dawn.

The Soldiers of Odin are not simply some confused vigilante group concerned with amorphous ‘crime’ in the CBD. Rather, they are implementing a strategy of intimidation with the aim of building a far-right street gang in the heart of the Melbourne.

Their politics are racist, nationalist, and fascist.

For the Soldiers of Odin, ‘crime’ is a euphemism. Their agenda is to target Muslims, and non-white immigrants from the Middle East and Africa. They talk about crime in terms of the minority groups they seek to target. ‘Crime’ provides the Soldiers of Odin with the cover they are seeking to demonize religious and cultural minorities.

If you have any doubt about the racist agenda of the Soldiers of Odin, check out their repulsive public Facebook presence. The racist material directed at Muslims and other groups of perceived non-white immigrants is there for anyone with eyes to see.

The Soldiers of Odin are implementing a tried and tested racist strategy; and if Chris Vedelago and Cameron Houston of The Age wanted to compare it to anything they should have compared it to the strategy adopted by Golden Dawn in Greece.

The Soldiers of Odin are conducting “street patrols” in the city, and purport to run a soup kitchen. They do both of these things with deliberate political objectives in mind.

Fascist rhetoric centres around the idea that the state has failed the ‘nation’ in some way. The Soldiers of Odin are asserting that the state has failed to provide for “our homeless”, or that the state has failed to provide “safety” from “crime”, and they are purporting to react to this failure. But at a deeper level they are reacting to what they see as the state’s failure to maintain white supremacy. The state has failed to stop “Islamisation”, “left-wing treason”, immigration and so on.

The soup kitchen is about legitimacy and political cover. Our society gives all sorts of leeway to cranks if they purport to undertake charity work. It is politically difficult for anti-racist activists or any other force to go out and bust up a supposed soup kitchen.

The street patrols fit into this rhetoric as well, but their purpose is far more sinister. The Soldiers of Odin are actively hostile towards non-white immigrants, refugees, Muslims and “the left”. Their presence in the CBD is about projecting intimidation.

I have written before about the fact that fascists have a public space agenda. They are making a claim about who can feel safe in public space and who is not allowed to feel safe in public space. They are making the claim that racism is acceptable in public space, and that all people who disagree with them should feel unsafe in public space.

The uniformed march of bone-heads is deliberately calculated to make non-white immigrants, and people who are identifiably Muslim, feel unsafe in our city.

Should they be stopped?

The Soldiers of Odin are presently a tiny far-right grouplet, however, unopposed, the knowledge that even a small group of thugs is roaming the streets can have a disproportionate impact. There is also no guarantee that this group will stay small.

Australia has not yet experienced the scale of economic shocks that facilitated the rise of these kinds of groups in different European contexts, however there are other factors that could support the growth of this model of far-right group.

In Victoria we are in the middle of a racist “law-and-order” scare. The Herald Sun and various tabloid current affairs outfits have been pushing garbage about “Sudanese crime” and the supposed threat of “Islamic” terrorism, and the state opposition is talking up a law-and-order election.

Whilst unemployment is officially down, there is still meaningful economic discontent in the disadvantaged outer suburban communities that far-right groups have been targeting over the past two years (Melton, Bendigo, Narre Warren). There is also simmering resentment, encouraged by racism from the media and various political leaders, at the apparent decline of white supremacy in Australia.

The Soldiers of Odin are unlikely to experience rapid organizational growth; they are not likely to become a major extra-parliamentary political force in the near future. That said, in the current context there is the political opportunity for a group of street thugs to build and organise. A couple of dozen roaming fascists can make a city centre feel decidedly unsafe; a couple of hundred could pose a significant threat.

Fascist street thugs, like the Soldiers of Odin, need to be opposed. Their presence in the CBD has to be rejected, and their activities ejected. Fortunately they are still a small group of political opportunists.

Anti-racists need to get together and debate tactics in their organisations and campaign groups, but I’d suggest one possible tactic that might be worth exploring is a counter presence.

Any anti-racist counter-presence would need to be bigger, have better food, and be prepared to go and dish out the grub and friendship whenever and wherever the Scum of Odin seek to set up shop. It would have to be an ongoing project, and to work it would need to draw in the participation of the people that these fascists seek to target.

Who’s Who

The Soldiers of Odin seek to convey a sense of semi-anonymous menace. The images and video included in The Age article merely contribute to this, in particular by using their “from behind” style photos (a style also popular with the fascist groups they descend from).

Well, here are their less than impressive faces (thanks to DYVRS for digging up most of these).

Soldiers of Odin, Melbourne.

Soldiers of Odin, Melbourne.

1. Jay B Moore, ‘President’, ex-PDLA.
2. Cam “Moody” McCann, (Facebook handle), Werribee based.
3. Ashley McIvor, Heidelberg based, here next to Kane Miller (TBC)
4. Shaun Butinar, hanger-on
5. Mick Bevans
6 (1st). (Typo, I used 6 twice) Swiv McKay (Facebook handle, likely false)
6 (2nd). Garry Mattsson
7. Dez Aster (Facebook handle, likely false)
8. Corey Baines
9. Group shot.

If you recognise any of the above, contact your local anti-fascists! Slackbastard has more.

Neo-Nazi Iconography

It’s utterly laughable that Age reporters Chris Vedelago and Cameron Houston did not challenge SOO on their neo-Nazi origins. They’ve adopted the name and branding (apparently with endorsement) of a Finnish fascist group. That name and logo draws from the post-WWII neo-Nazi embrace of “Odinist” and other forms of “Norse” symbolism.

And it’s not like fascists in Australia are unaware of the neo-Nazi connotations of the use of norse iconography by far-right groups!

For more on this topic, check out Black Sun: Aryan Cults, Esoteric Nazism, and the Politics of Identity by Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke. Or just browse any gallery of common neo-nazi symbols or tattoos!

Update: From Slackbastard:

SOO was founded by a neo-Nazi, Mika Ranta, with a criminal conviction for racially-motivated assault;
SOO branches around the world have attracted the participation of neo-Nazis and White supremacists;
the President of SOO in Melbourne was previously a member/supporter of the Patriots Defence League of Australia;
SOO member Cam Moody McCann particpated in the April 2015 Reclaim Australia rally in the company of neo-Nazis;
the great majority if not all of the SOO Melbourne boys are drawn from the (White) nationalist milieu.

Anti-Racist Canada has a ton of info documenting links between the Soldiers of Odin and neo-Nazism.

Further Reading / Links

Slackbastard, antifa notes (october 10, 2016) : Soldiers of Odin Redux
Slackbastard, Soldiers of Odin Versus True Blue Crew
Junkee, Anti-Muslim Vigilante Group Roaming the CBD
DYVRS, Who’s who in the Zoo?

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I’ve finally gotten around to listening to Dave Eden’s excellent podcast, Living the Dream, and in particular an October episode on conspiracy theory entitled ‘Everything You Know is Wrong’.

Dave advances a few ideas about the nature of conspiracy theory and reasons for its current prominence. In particular the podcast is commenting on the growth of conspiracy theory in broadly ‘left’ movements (Occupy, opposition to the TPP, etc) where before such ideas would be rejected.

These are all issues worth considering, but after listening to the podcast, something else struck me.

I’ve spent the better part of the year involved in the campaign against the Reclaim Australia phenomena and its various offshoots. An understanding of the growth of conspiracy theory is directly relevant to understanding the Reclaim Australia phenomenon.

A Definition of Conspiracy Theory

Dave Eden proposes that conspiracy theories:

attempt to explain the world, the broad situation of the society we exist in, as a product of the action of a coherent determined group. So it’s not simply that there are conspiracies, but that the social order can be explained as a conspiracy.

And that there are a variety of common characteristics to conspiracy theory:

This conspiracy is usually described as being alien and outside of the norm, an external force that has impregnated and infiltrated the social order. However it is simultaneously dominating and everywhere. … Linked to this, normally, the vast majority of people are described as being asleep and brainwashed … and the conspiracy theorists themselves often understand themselves as being “the only sane man in the world”, simultaneously not being believed and in danger.

In terms of both of these elements, the idea of ‘conspiracy theory’ is directly relevant to Reclaim Australia and it’s offshoots.

For the anti-Muslim racists of Reclaim Australia, Islam is an “external force” that is presently infiltrating the social order. Refugees, mosques, and halal food are all seen as elements in a progressive campaign to Islam-ify Australia, impose Sharia law, and subvert the existing white Judaeo-Christian social order.

The power that Reclaim Australia supporters attribute to an Islamic conspiracy varies. Reclaim Australia and it’s offshoots are attempting to establish street movements, micro-political parties and alike to ‘resist’ ‘Islamization’. They clearly do not think that the power of the conspiracy is total.

However, every setback their movement faces is explained in terms of an Islamic conspiracy in league with the forces of the state. In Victoria, the decision of the Bendigo City Council to grant a planning permit for the construction of a small mosque was explained as the result of a corrupt nexus between the business interests of Bendigo’s Mayor, the Islamic community, and the federal government.

When an appeal against planning permission for the Bendigo mosque failed at the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal, the conspiracy theory expanded to include court collusion. The looming failure of ‘Rights for Bendigo Residents’ in the Supreme court will doubtless be explained in the same way.

Dave Eden argues that:

Conspiracy theory, linked to this model of understanding the world, is reactionary in both content and form. … They are often tied to some formal of formally fascist or libertarian politics, explicitly anti-marxist, explicitly anti-feminist, explicitly seeing ideas of white middle class subjectivity under attack. They are normally deeply racist… and you often find a deep anti-environmental element too.

The more obviously fascist wing of the Reclaim Australia milieu publicly advances all of these ideas, but they are present throughout the entire Reclaim Australia movement.

As the year has progressed, explicitly anti-communist and anti-left ideas have come to the fore of the Reclaim Australia movement. The Melbourne based neo-Nazi offshoot, the United Patriots Front, is spending far more time talking about the evils of “contaminated” “cultural Marxists”, whilst including plenty of white supremacist, anti-feminist, and anti-queer rhetoric to boot.

They have recently decided that the current Victorian Premier is a communist who has been orchestrating the street based responses to their organizing efforts.

Dave Eden talks about the impact that conspiracy ideas have on the capacity of the left when he says:

The vision of the world they present, forecloses the possibility of collective agency. How’s it possible to transform the world when the world is so dominated by this conspiracy? And in practice the dissemination of these ideas further produce disorder, disorganization, lack of confidence amongst us as a class. These kind of ideas increase our feelings of powerlessness and paranoia.

In terms of the far-right, the conspiracy theory plays a somewhat different role. The idea that the conspiracy exists, but that it can be resisted by courageous ‘patriots’, has been the basis upon which the Reclaim Australia movement and its offshoots have build.

That said, in terms of their affect on the working class, the problem is the same. Islamophobic conspiracy theories have provoked wider class division and disorder.

Prevalence of Conspiracy Theory

Dave Eden argues that conspiracy theory has become the “default framework for a critique of the world”.

It’s difficult to assess the extent to which the prevalence of conspiracy theory is increasing. My personal experience backs up what Dave Eden argues. Conspiracy theory is increasingly predominant in spaces where I would previously have expected left anti-capitalist ideas to be totally dominant.

There isn’t a great swath of polling on conspiracy theory over time, and what polling exists obviously has some problems in terms of the contested definition of conspiracy. That said, what polling that does exist suggests that if conspiracy is a “fringe”, it’s a damned big one:

28% of [United States] voters believe that a secretive power elite with a globalist agenda is conspiring to eventually rule the world through an authoritarian world government

In terms of anti-Muslim conspiracy theories, I can’t readily find accurate polling. Last year approximately one in four polled reported “negative feelings” towards Islam or Muslims. I’d be interested to see how that has changed after this years events.

Anti-Muslim conspiracy theories are the dominant idea in the Reclaim Australia milieu (assuming their online communications are representative of the movement as a whole), but they are not necessarily the entire movement.

There is an overtly fascist core at work in the likes of the United Patriots Front. For many of these actors anti-Muslim racism appears to be the tool of the day rather than a sincerely held position. The likes of Blair Cottrell and Neil Erikson (and a few others I can think of) have made the transition from anti-Semitic neo-Nazis to anti-Muslim defenders of the State of Israel a little too quickly for any reasonable person to believe that their surface politics are sincere.

That said, the rise and rise of anti-Muslim conspiracy theory has created the environment in which these fringe players have been able to reach a much wider audience.

Explaining the growth of Conspiracy Theory

Dave Eden presents two concurrent explanations for the rise of conspiracy theory on the Australian left today.

The first is a bit tangential to any discussion of Reclaim Australia. Eden proposes that past defeats (in particular the failure of the movement against the Iraq war in 2003) taught a whole generation that they were powerless.

The growth of conspiracy on the left is evidence of it’s powerlessness, the failure of the Iraq War movement taught a whole generation that collective action (in particular a rally strategy) didn’t (or no longer) worked, and the left currently does not offer credible alternatives to either apathy or conspiracy.

The second explanation draws directly on Marx. We’re witnessing the massive growth and output of capitalism, whilst experiencing less and less control over our own lives. In terms of the far-right, I’d propose this is the more interesting area of investigation.

The growth of anti-Islam conspiracy theories and alike has a lot to do with the current situation in capitalism.

The weakness and disorganization of the workers movement is relevant to the rise of the far-right. The conditions of the whole working class in Australia are under attack, and are progressively being eroded. However the white working class faces something of a double attack on their position.

The white (male) working class in Australia has long enjoyed a position of relative privilege within the wider working class. This relative position is being eroded, in particular by the casualization of labour, the erosion of the social wage, and the erosion of real wages. In 2015 the Australian working class is experiencing an income recession.

The elements that make up the Reclaim Australia audience feel their their ‘rightful’ relative position of privilege is being undermined. At the same time that the position of all workers is being eroded, the racist sees their status being reduced to that of non-white workers.

Dave argues that conspiracy (and perhaps by extension racism) leads to passivity and paranoia. The thing that has characterized Reclaim Australia is they have successfully gone beyond this; Reclaim Australia has been an active outburst.

The particular form its taking is an outburst in response to the erosion of a position of relative privilege.

What’s the Solution?

I have spent the bulk of the past year involved in the campaign to oppose Reclaim Australia and it’s various offshoots. The campaign has focused on disrupting specific attempts by the far-right to project power on the streets.

What we don’t have is a wider plan, idea or practice for addressing the growth in racist conspiracy theory.

If you boil this down … conspiracy theory is the logical outgrowth of a life without power. So the alternative to conspiracy theory is the collective development of power.

As much as I hate to admit it, Dave is right in his assessment of the current strength of ‘the left’:

The left as it exists, very marginal, very small … does not currently have a practice that can manifest power.

But I am skeptical of any position that argues there is a “starting point” in the realm of analysis.

Sure, we need all of these things:

We would need to start with an analysis of capitalism today, how does it actually work, develop a series of strategies about what concrete groups of people can do in this concrete conjucture to shift the balance … and then manifest tactics to allow that.

But, how is any analysis of capitalism today ever formed? How are strategies about concrete groups of people developed? How are tactics that actually convey power projected?

And even if by some magic wand an individual or small group suddenly discovered the answers to these questions, how would such ideas actually transmit from this small group to theorized groups of people?

Meaningful strategy has to be a responsive process developed in practice. Effective tactics will only ever be discovered by experimentation in practice. A commitment to practice is the only way to begin to develop groups that would genuinely have the capacity to transmit this practice (through their engagement and action with) to larger concrete groups of people that could develop the capacity to change society.

The starting point is not an analysis of capitalism today, it’s a commitment to practice that reflects, experiments, and recognizes and learns from mistakes. More than anything else this requires that people committed to libertarian emacipatory politics come together in groups and organise for a concurrent process of action and analysis.

Conspiracy theory as a broad scale social phenomena is not something one can argue away. … What gives it life is the palpable absence of the class movement itself.

On that I agree.

Living the Dream, ‘Everything You Know is Wrong’:

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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.

A comrade from Anarchist Affinity has also written about the issue of police violence on Saturday:

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 :

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

Yay! The Puf Gang!

Yay! The Puf Gang!

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.

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Two months after the most significant far-right mobilization in recent Australian history, the Victorian Trades Hall Council executive has adopted the following motion (emphasis added):

“That the VTHC celebrates the contribution to our community from Victorians of many cultures and faiths. There is no place in Victoria for discrimination or racism and we deplore those who would demonise any group by reason of their faith, race or culture. Affiliates pledge to work alongside groups and organisations representing our many faiths and communities to counter those that oppose multiculturalism and in particular those individuals and groups that are currently fostering anti-Muslim sentiment“.

– Victorian Trades Hall Council Executive minutes for 12 June 2015

Far-right agitator Shermon Burgess has responded to this development by calling upon his supporters to protest to their unions, and by threatening a mass walk out of racists from the trade union movement:

So I urge everyone from Reclaim and UPF, all the tradies and stuff who support us, all the hard workers who are union members – contact your union and let them know not to rally against us. Because we are for our unions, we are not against our unions.

But if we are going to have the unions start attacking us, then, you are going to have a whole lot of Aussies who support Reclaim Australia and UPF tearing up their union membership, and it’s going to cost the unions money.

Burgess and the far-right Reclaim Australia milieu have struggled to work out the best position to take in relation to the union movement.

The United Patriots Front are committed anti-leftists; their Facebook page proclaims that they are “a nation wide movement, opposing the spread of Left Wing treason and … Islamism”. This stance would appear to place them at odds with the values of the modern trade union movement.

Yet at the same time as they rail against “left wing traitors”, Burgess and other elements on the far-right harbor dreams of building a political base amongst ‘blue collar’ segments of the white working class.

The far-right do not know whether they want to attack, or enter, the existing trade union movement, and so they often end up attempting to do both at once.

At the same time as Shermon Burgess published his call for ‘patriots’ to contact their unions and agitate for racism, his fellow UPF agitator Neil Erikson was announcing he would never again have anything to do with the union movement:

When I was younger I used to have a lot of respect for the union. I liked to be protected at work, from the evil bosses that are gonna sack ya for f-cking nothing.

I joined the union many years ago, but guess what – NUW? [crumples his membership card] Not anymore.

It’s a sad day in Australia when I gotta worry about my own union workmates. Youse are there to protect me at work from bosses and fucked up shit, not outside when I want to protest something I believe in.

So that’s it, no more union for me. Ok, the Marxists, Communists have taken over your unions. They’ve got you in so much fucking trouble and you keep doing it.

Me personally, I’m not paying another dollar to any union. Ok. I’ve had it.

I’m not going to be fucking be manhandled and bullied to keep my mouth shut whilst my brothers and sisters die all across Australia all across the world. Christians being murdered for fucking nothing. You gu- [Video ends suddenly]

Erikson’s rant was clearly off message and was quickly removed from the UPF Facebook page, although not quickly enough.

The far-right dream of building a base amongst segments of the labour movement. They share the same offensive assumptions about blue-collar workers held by so many middle class social-democratic snobs; that white male blue-collar workers are naturally racist and are thus susceptible to the appeals of fascism.

The politics of the far right are anti-union, in that they attempt to mobilize one segment of the Australian working class against those workers who happen to be Muslim. The racism, bigotry and Islamophobia of the far-right are an attack on the basis of the union movement, they are an attack on the very idea of working class solidarity.

For these reasons, the far-right must be publicly, forcefully and unequivocally rejected by the entire labour movement.

(more…)

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