Inside three days of rage in Melbourne
Inside three days of rage in Melbourne
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20 SEPTEMBER—MONDAY  

Show your faces you weak dogs!

The entrance to the headquarters of arguably the most powerful union in Victoria, the CFMEU, was trashed by a ferocious mob this afternoon. Maybe 500 construction workers, many from big sites in the city and others from the suburbs, had congregated outside on Elizabeth Street, just north of Melbourne’s central business district, from late morning. They were from many different sites and companies: the nearby Elizabeth North commercial development, Paragon’s Queen Street, I&D concrete, SG Formwork, the Metro Tunnel, Image Building Group and others—cranes and rigging, finishing trades and electrical, you name it.

Many were union members. Exactly what proportion was not entirely clear. Nor was it clear who did the work to get such a turnout. The far right behind the so-called freedom protests put out calls for a rally. But were they the only ones? It seems unlikely. Of the ten to twelve people I spoke to, all said that they heard about it through social media. There was no evidence that protesters had been mobilised through on-the-ground workplace organising.

Either way, in the end, they smashed the façade of the union office with a hail of bottles and cans before others tried to kick their way into the building. Anger was simmering all afternoon. There was the reported issue of the closure of smoko sheds on building sites to comply with health orders. But by and large this was secondary. It was all about the impending mandatory COVID jabs for those working in construction. Under rules outlined last week, workers are required to provide proof of a first jab starting in a few days. [Note, the government later in the day announced a temporary industrywide shutdown.]

“I think it’s been hijacked by a few of these extreme organisations who have nothing better to do than carry on and protest”, construction division Secretary John Setka said on 3AW radio. “There were construction workers there, but it wasn’t all construction workers.”

There is some truth to this. But the rage was not concocted by outside agitators. And the participants were mostly workers from the industry. The far right certainly was there, trying to make itself relevant, trying to lead. Not without success in some respects, leading some of the chants and stoking the flames. A few of the identifiable agitators were not from the industry and didn’t pretend to be. Some others, generally unconvincingly, wore unbranded hi-vis over their regular clothes.

It also can’t be ruled out that sections of the amorphous far right—fascists, extreme nationalists, anti-vaxxers, conspiracists, anti-lockdown elements—have managed to organise and begin to cohere small numbers of followers in construction. Avi Yemini from Rebel News was a minor celebrity. At one point, perhaps a quarter or a third of the protest enthusiastically chanted his name. He was randomly stopped on occasion by people who wanted to shake his hand and praise his work.

This should be a source of deep embarrassment for the union movement and particularly for the CFMEU leadership. Its style of unionism—trading serious politics for chest-beating swagger in recent years—perhaps doesn’t have much in its intellectual arsenal to counter the dick-swinging bravado of this new breed of right wingers.

Among the crowd, there certainly were anti-vaxxers. Popular chants were “Fuck the jab” and “You can stick your fucking vaccine up your arse”. Yet it wasn’t quite an anti-vax rally. There was plenty of conspiracy-sounding talk. Some of the talking points were: endometriosis is up twenty-fold in women who have been vaccinated; similar with cancer; the Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency has a gag order preventing doctors and nurses from speaking up about the dangers of the jab. Yet it wasn’t a full-blown conspiracist convention.

While the Avi Yemini media brand was clearly the most popular and there seemed a general hostility to the corporate media, being identified as a socialist journalist was a mixed bag—some anti-socialist comments, some scepticism, some brief shadowing, but probably more willingness to talk than you get at CFMEU-led rallies. That was probably evidence of the lack of cohesion of this demo. When the construction union has a mobilisation, it’s disciplined and coherent. That description doesn’t quite fit this gathering—except for the clear determination to stick the demo out for as long as it took.

There is of course no granular data to comb through to get a precise grip on the social or political composition of attendees. And it was far too messy to speak with certainty about much. Yet three things are clear.

First, this was a disaster for the workers’ movement. Regardless of the position one takes on vaccine mandates, the broad sweep of the mobilisation was in line with the boss-led anti-health-measure reaction that has gained strength across the country.

Second, this was an optical victory for the right. They know it, and are crowing about it everywhere, from the Herald Sun to the anti-vax, anti-lockdown telegram channels.

Third, it was a procession of humiliations for the CFMEU. Humiliation for Secretary John Setka, who earlier in the day was forced to retreat and take cover in the union office in the face of the mob outside. The crowd waited and waited for him to come back out. But he didn’t return. If he thought the protesters would run out of steam and disperse of their own accord, he was wrong. Their numbers grew.

A delegation was taken inside to negotiate. About what exactly was not clear. When they emerged at half past two, the stewards said that they needed another hour of talking. Each time an official or union staffer appeared at a window, or on the open area balcony some floors up, the place erupted in jeers and profanity. When was the last time the construction union faced such a backlash from within its own industry?

The hour sailed by. When it became clear that there was not going to be a resolution, all hell broke loose. Now there was humiliation for the rows of shop stewards/organisers/bikies (I couldn't tell, and they wouldn't talk) protecting the front of the building. Perhaps thirty of them in total were forced to retreat and barricade themselves inside under the hail of bottles and cans in the late afternoon. These were not small men unseasoned in settling disputes. But they were reduced to using a fire hose and a fire extinguisher through the gaps in the smashed entrance to push back the attackers.

Police first held their distance as stewards, delegates and officials emerged from behind their barricade, fists swinging for retribution against the assailants. Perhaps, perversely, the cops were giving them a shot to redeem themselves and regain a little dignity. Perhaps they were as taken aback as everyone else and, for the sake of their own officers, didn’t immediately want to get in the middle of it.

Several scrums formed on the road and the footpath. Maybe maul is a more apt description. For a brief period, it was on for young and old. A few people were dropped and bloodied. The stewards this time, not having to contend with the pelting of bottles, had the better of it. But ultimately the cops came to the union’s rescue with pepper balls—no doubt another humiliation for a crew that prides itself above all on its muscle.

How much support did the protesters have in the industry? Prior to the smashing of the building, people’s responses seemed honest enough. Some said that they couldn’t really judge beyond their own small work crews, but felt that a good proportion of their workplaces were opposed to mandatory vaccination. Others were surer of the numbers—this was a widely-felt issue across the industry and a majority are opposed to any mandate, including those who themselves are vaccinated. By contrast, a Melbourne Institute survey published in early September found that just 22 percent of construction workers opposed mandatory vaccines.

One protester, in the industry for twenty years, said that he has never seen a divide like this between the union leaders and a section of the workforce. He won’t be getting vaccinated because he just doesn’t trust it, but he was wearing a mask because he doesn’t deny the seriousness of the pandemic and “because I have respect for people”.

Only people embedded within the industry and in the union will truly be able to gauge the balance of forces—that is, not just how widely felt anti-vax and anti-mandatory-vax opinions are, but how deeply felt. But the size of the mobilisation against what is perhaps the tightest and hardest union machine in the country shows that there is a problem here.

For the CFMEU leadership, the broken windows and bruised egos from the confrontation might be the biggest humiliation. But if the talk at the protest is accurate, the biggest stain on the union is its inability, or perhaps unwillingness, to win an argument about the primacy of public health for the working class as a whole—or in particular for their comrades in the nurses’ union, whose workplaces are being hammered and are becoming unsafe right now, even before the lockdown is lifted.

Indeed, that the construction division of the CFMEU has led the charge throughout to keep the building industry open, even as case numbers multiplied, hardly puts it in a position of authority to talk about workers’ health and safety. That’s shameful for an outfit that prides itself on the slogan “touch one, touch all”.

21 SEPTEMBER—TUESDAY 

Protesters on top of the Westgate Bridge
Protesters on top of the West Gate Bridge on Tuesday 21 September PHOTO: Ben Hillier

Standing at the top of the West Gate Bridge feels like standing on the top of the world. And that’s exactly how the far right is feeling today. They have participated in, and at times led, a mass demonstration of blue-collar workers. This is the dream of the far right the world over—something that European fascism has long established and built a base out of, but which had not been achieved in Australia. Not even Pauline Hanson at the height of her popularity could pull off something like this.

Nevertheless, the amorphous hard right remain a minority of this protest. They are littered throughout, rather than being a coherent single group. The faces from yesterday have of course turned up again. Some do what they can to take the demo in one direction or another. Often, they are successful; sometimes they are totally snubbed. Some are always near the front, itching for confrontation. Others are just going along with the flow.

When we first entered the freeway from South Wharf, someone recognised me, alerting his mates and warning of serious consequences if I didn’t leave immediately. It was a small crew, maybe patriots, probably unaffiliated to any formal organisation. But who really knows? It feels like the are quite a few people like that here today—people ready to bash you if they think you support the premier.

The majority in the demo, which peaked at maybe 3,000 or more in the early afternoon, isn’t far right in general. But they are radicalised or radicalising to varying degrees around a reactionary program. In that sense, today puts yesterday in the shade in terms of its significance. If Monday’s mobilisation was all about the vaccine mandate, it has proved a spark for a much bigger and more diverse anti-health-measure coalition within which the far right are welcomed as brothers in arms.

Admittedly, many people probably don’t know the philosophies of some of the agitators. No-one is going around with propaganda advertising their political programs—and much of the far right here probably doesn’t have a worked-out program anyway. There is just strong unity on a minimum program: end the lockdown (“freedom”), fuck the jab, sack Dan Andrews. There are, no doubt, other areas of unity or partial agreement, but these things dominate the atmospherics.

The demo has received significant support from passing motorists and truck drivers. Climbing the West Gate, almost six hours into this hectic day, a dozen young men sit on the ends of both trailers of a slow-moving B-double. Another man, who appears to have had a few, is standing atop one of the containers the truck is hauling.

“I feel like James Bond! Ay—I’m the fucken king of the world!”, he yells, stretching his arms out and throwing his head back. While he can’t seem to choose between Daniel Craig and Leonardo DiCaprio, I’m left wondering how exactly to describe the scene—is it the menace of Mad Max or the flamboyance of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert? The answer is both. Same goes for the rally as a whole.

Protesters march along the Westgate Freeway
Protesters march along the West Gate Freeway PHOTO: Ben Hillier

On one hand, much of the day has resembled a giant street party. On Collins Street earlier, someone pulled up, opened their boot and started handing out hundreds of dollars’ worth of Maccas to everyone. (Also telling here was a suit at the Paris end walking by, who voiced support: “Great work guys”. It’s sort of indicative. There are no pro-working-class demands at this demo.) But the joys of brotherhood time and again transform into something more menacing. A few bystanders brave enough to voice disapproval are turned on quickly with startling animosity. An impatient driver at the blocked freeway entrance has her car surrounded, kicked and the side mirror smashed, before other protesters intervene to put a stop to it.

When the march finished its first lap of the city and returned to the Victoria Market at the Victoria and Elizabeth intersection, where the event began at 10am, a young nurse at the edge of the footpath meekly, and in vain, calls out: “I’m a nurse, come talk to me about the vaccine. I can talk to you about the vaccine”. She doesn’t last very long and is mostly ignored.

“We’re doing this for you, girl”, a protester smiles, walking past. The nurse’s under-confidence disappears for a moment. “No you’re fucking not!”, she shoots back. How does the rally make her feel? “It’s just absolutely devastating and really dangerous and undoes a whole lot of work that doctors and nurses and scientists have been doing the last seventeen months”, she says. “It’s just devastating to see. I got vaccinated for these people so that these people don’t get sick. It’s heartbreaking. It’s exhausting. And there’s Trump Flags [in the crowd] …”

What’s the situation like in the hospitals right now? “Really hard”, she says, before breaking down in tears. She doesn’t want to hang around any longer and goes on her way.

Cops, at any point they appear, even when just standing on the sidelines watching, are the biggest shifters of the mood. At almost every turn, there is a hardcore of protesters wanting confrontation. Yet there is also a tussle between, to label them according to the calls from people trying to organise, the “hold the line” protagonists and the “let’s go, let’s move” proponents. The latter are the majority and don’t want a brawl with law enforcement.

There is no shortage of participants willing to excoriate the protagonists. “Who the fuck are you? Get the fuck out of here, moron!”, a young woman screams while taking photos of a man who threw a bottle at police lines in the city. As we return down the West Gate in the late afternoon, several hundred cops block the incoming lanes and try to force the protest into Todd Road. They are pelted with projectiles and made to look absolute fools when the march simply diverts into the oncoming traffic of the outbound lanes and walks around the roadblock. Any people hanging for a fight have no choice but to follow the rest away from potential confrontation.

So the peaceniks get their way most of the day. The event began relatively small—an hour in and there were probably around 400 people. But as soon as a critical mass was reached as lunchtime approached, the march began. From then on, it paused only briefly, rarely long enough for any forces to organise a proper fight.

The government shutting down construction no doubt was a factor in the large size. People can’t work, but they can protest. But like yesterday, the exact composition is difficult to determine. There are quite a few people with brand new unbranded hi-vis vests. Many of them are obviously not blue-collar workers and are either trying to bolster the narrative of blue-collar rebellion or are just trying to get in the mood and fit in. While they are a small minority, you could predict that this will become a feature in the coming weeks and months if things continue—a branding that attempts to replicate the visual impact of the French Yellow Vest movement, albeit mostly in orange.

There are lots of young working-class men from building sites, but the union branding is scant, even compared to yesterday. It’s multi-racial, with plenty of people from Pacific Islander, Middle Eastern and, to a lesser extent, African and Asian backgrounds. There’s the obvious question of how many are middle class—owner drivers, contractors who employ others, sole traders who employ only themselves. That’s tough to gauge because they dress no differently to wage workers.

Protesters occupy Bourke St Mall in Melbourne's CBD
The crowd at its peak of around 2-3,000 occupies Bourke St Mall on Tuesday 21 September PHOTO: Ben Hillier

At the beginning of the day, one man sidles up to make sure I know about the issue of the smoko sheds. He’s clearly a worker in the industry. He says that the shutdown announced yesterday won’t just hit the workers here. Turns out he drives concrete slabs to worksites, so there’s no work for him now, either. And what about the factories making the slabs in Dandenong and Altona North? Everyone there will now be laid off as well. But is this guy really a worker? Well he works, yes. But he owns twenty trucks and employs twenty drivers. He is a small capitalist—something you wouldn’t be able to discern without having the discussion. And it’s impossible with a crowd this size to do a broad interrogation of participants, particularly when you don’t know if the next person will punch you in the face. So most of today is spent just listening and observing.

At ten past five, we are back, again, at the Vic Market intersection. After more than seven hours, it’s down to a couple of hundred. Tonight, the more competent of the far right will be thinking about how to keep this going and build a more stable and long-term movement. They will not want to let this opportunity pass. Tomorrow, it will be on again. Will the numbers and energy be sustained? Will this movement grow even larger?

For the last decade, it has been left to the tiny forces of the socialists and anarchists to challenge the occasional growth of a fascist movement in Melbourne. But the socialists and anarchists don’t have the numbers to challenge the array of forces that were on display today, nor are we powerful enough to ideologically win many people away from the swamp of misinformation driving the radicalisation.

Much larger forces are required. Is the rest of the union movement going to sit idly by while this mass of reaction parades itself as the conscience of the working class? The leaders of the workers’ movement have to stand up for the nurses, and for the rest of the working class, by tackling this head on—and not just with strongly-worded press releases and social media posts.

22 SEPTEMBER—WEDNESDAY 

“Get off our streets! Dumb cunts.” Viv Malo was really sticking it to the protesters heading to the Shrine of Remembrance this afternoon. “Selfish wankers”, she yelled, while walking along with the rally. People remonstrated. She gave them the finger. A CFMEU member told her that he’s been dues paying for 25 years. “You’re hanging with Nazis. Idiot.” Viv, a Gooniyandi woman, is a real firecracker—and fearless, as anyone familiar with her activism will attest. It’s a pity she was all alone here. But if the far left had tried a counter-mobilisation, it would have been smashed. The unions, however, could have put on a show of force today to show who really represents the working class. They were missing in action.

The numbers were well down on yesterday. Perhaps 600 at the early afternoon peak. It could be losing steam. Or this could just be a blip. The call is to mobilise “every day”, but if you’re going to make people walk a marathon on day two—twice around the city and up and down the West Gate—you ought to be prepared for many people not being able to get up sprightly for day three.

Earlier, it looked like it might be a total rout for the protesters. Before 10am, the cops had taken every corner at the Vic Market intersection and had roving squads intercepting people and either moving them on or arresting them. But south on Elizabeth and up the side streets, individuals and small groups were scoping the situation.

At ten past ten near the corner of Therry Street, police moved on three people. One maybe was one of those “sovereign citizens”. He told them there is “no contract” and they had no right of arrest. They arrested him anyway. The other two were a father and son. When cops started to detain dad, the boy took a big swing at an officer. He was crash tackled as the father screamed “He’s fucking sixteen years old you cunts! This isn’t China!” Both ended up scratched and bloodied, surrounded by 25 uniformed and three other non-uniformed police before being taken away.

While the media scrum was focused on the fortified intersection, it was abundantly clear there would be no coalescing of protesters there. They would have to form up somewhere else, most likely nearby. I figured go south a couple of blocks. At 10:30, there’s about a dozen caucusing on Franklin Street. A little later, sure enough, a bigger group of 50 or 60 form on A’Beckett and start marching. It’s the far right. Fascists or patriots—call them whatever you want, but no-one else but the extreme right marches behind the red ensign, which led the procession.

They went south on Elizabeth, then West on La Trobe, back towards the market on Queen, down A’Beckett up to Swanston and into Carlton, followed by nine cop cars. They picked up numbers as they went—probably live-streaming so that people could find them online and slowly build the numbers. For almost an hour we went around town. But by 11:20am there was still only about 200 of them, and we hadn’t yet run into any other groups. Individuals and small groups of three or four continued joining, always to big cheers.

Around lunchtime, a massive mobilisation of cops, led by an armoured vehicle, confronted the group at the Post Office. The riot police charged in and fired more than a dozen rounds of rubber bullets and pepper balls. Their ranks split, the fascists scurried through the mall. One lot regrouped on Swanston street. But there were only 50 of them now.

I thought that this might have basically been the end of it. But after more traipsing around, it became clear that there was another, bigger group down the west end of Flinders Street. They linked up and marched along King. The cops came in numbers I can’t recall seeing before. The armoured vehicle was followed by at least 50 cars.

Riot police move in on Wednesday 22 September
Riot police move in on protesters in Melbourne's CBD on Wednesday 22 September PHOTO: Ben Hillier

Attacked again, the protesters reformed in little Bourke. The composition of the rally now more resembled yesterday’s. It’s not just the traditional far right. It’s blue collar and multi-racial. Again, predominantly young men. There were a few CFMEU tops, at least one ETU and some plumbers’ union, but not more than a dozen I’d say. T-shirts and tops included a “Silica dust is not just dust”, Bunnings Trade, Dulux, Reece and a “Bitter Victorians” hoodie from the 2016 CUB strike. And now there were two red ensigns, an Australian flag and a combination of chants: “Touch one, touch all”, “Aussie, Aussie, Aussie, oi, oi, oi”, “Fuck the jab”, “Freedom” etc.   

As this group of around 400 marched around—into North Melbourne, Carlton and back into the city in a game of cat and mouse with authorities—it continued to grow. The mood again turned festive like yesterday. That’s when we headed to the Shrine.

On the stairs, the flags were front and centre, along with a banner: “End Lockdowns NOW. Dan-made Disaster!!” People sang the national anthem and that stupid “I am, you are, we are Australian” song. The big Pacific Islander looking guys near me didn’t join in with this. Near the Cenotaph a bit later, two Muslim protesters performed their afternoon prayers.

The protesters occupy the Shrine of Remembrance
The protesters occupy the steps in front of the Shrine of Remembrance PHOTO: Ben Hillier

The thing about a rally like this—diverse in composition, in politics and with no clear central authority—is that there are always people trying to assert themselves in one way or another. Sometimes it will be people who are already known and respected; someone who can already count on the backing of some numbers of those present. Often, it is just some nobody who happens to have a megaphone, has an ego, thinks they know best, claims to speak for everyone and appoints themselves some sort of spokesperson and/or police liaison.

So it was today with several people pushing their own barrows and taking it upon themselves to tell everyone what they were all really there for. Some of them got a hearing, others came across as minor annoyances.

Over the course of the afternoon, the cops, who surrounded the Shrine, slowly put on a squeeze. They just kept moving their lines forward. It had the desired effect. Divisions started to emerge; more arguments broke out. Should the protesters leave or stay? Today, the “hold the line” people won out. But the cops said that anyone wanting to leave could do so and would not be arrested. So, in dribs and drabs the swamp slowly drained.

By half past four it was down to a couple of hundred. Two men defiantly waved Australian flags at the top of the stairs. At quarter to five, the cops cleared it with a bang, literally. Sound grenades, rubber bullets and pepper balls. The crowd fled. There was a bit of bravado on the rear lawn, but they ran like the wind again when the riot squad formed up and repeatedly unloaded.

The remaining protesters regrouped on Park Street and continued marching. What happened next I can’t say. Who could be fucked following those deadshits around any longer? In the end, it wasn’t the reactionary anti-public-health, let-the-virus-rip attitudes that did me in. It was the “everyone is brainwashed”, “you’re all sheep” attitudes coming from the dunderheaded, flag-waving, anthem-singing nationalists, who clearly were the epitome of that which they denounce.

The great lyricist Zack De La Rocha once rapped:

Ya standin' in line

Believin' the lies

Ya bowin' down to the flag

Ya got a bullet in ya head

With that tune in my head, I took a tram home.

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