Right-wing mayhem in Melbourne

21 August 2021
Ben Hillier

The “freedom rally” today in Melbourne’s CBD was the largest right-wing demonstration in the city in years, with thousands of people marching through the streets for two hours.

They supposedly were concerned about the suffering caused to ordinary people by the public health measures to contain the coronavirus. But among all the home-made placards and spontaneous chanting, there were no demands for social support for the working class or the unemployed. No demands for more resources for the health system. No chants or placards against big business or the rich.

Instead, it was “Hell Storm”, “Tyranny vs Freedom”, references to dictatorship and communism, red ensign flags, COVID conspiracies and so on. The chants primarily were “Free Victoria!”, “Sack Dan Andrews!” and “Aussie, Aussie, Aussie—oi, oi, oi!” with a bit of AC/DC blaring from a portable speaker in the background.

If one episode summed up the mood, it was the treatment doled out to a queue of people snaking out of Royal Lane and along Bourke Street. They were waiting to get tested for the coronavirus. As the rally marched past, an almost constant stream of booing, jeering and heckling ensued.

One young woman in the line was hit in the head by a projectile and stood sobbing, comforted by a friend as torrents of abuse continued. “Sheep!” was probably the most popular epithet, but there was among some rally goers a strongly held conviction, made quite public, that those getting tested and vaccinated were at best idiots, but possibly enemies of the people.

The animus towards the cops was greater than at any comparably sized Melbourne rally of the right or the left in recent years. The hostility wasn’t because rally goers viewed the police as the capitalists’ enforcers. Quite the opposite. The rage was due to the cops apparently siding with the Labor government against business owners.

This anti-cop mood wasn’t the sort of lame posturing that you often see at left-wing demonstrations. There were significant numbers of people up for a real fight. With ease they broke through a hopelessly outnumbered police line in front of parliament house.

On Flinders Street half an hour later, demonstrators approached the police like water buffalo preparing to cross a river of crocodiles—hesitant at first, then making a break for it. Bottles and flares flew into the cops. So did a couple of people, throwing themselves against police shields, undaunted, or perhaps further enraged, by streams of orange capsicum foam.

Police also used firearms, shooting what appeared to be pepper balls into the crowd at close range on several occasions. The rally was by and large no threat to life, limb or property. The marchers could have been left to walk themselves out, but the police made a point of having a show of strength with the weapons and chemical spray—an ominous and wholly unwelcome development in a state that in recent years has too often used increasingly paramilitary law enforcement to clamp down on democratic rights.

The fascist presence in the demonstration was clear, although they made up only an inchoate minority of varying group allegiances. The throng was predominantly the fringe right—a big trifle of anti-vaxxers, Trump supporters, nationalists and patriots, lumpens and business hippies, religious nuts and conspiracists.

Mixed in were many regular-seeming Joes—in parts not dissimilar to any shopping-centre crowd. They marched around the city for two hours before the police finally were able to split them near the Queen Victoria Market. Not long after, it was everyone for themselves as people scurried in every direction and the march came to an end.

Regardless of the exact composition of the event, which admittedly was difficult to ascertain, this was an outright reactionary mobilisation. There was not one supportable chant to be heard, not one left-wing placard to be found. It was a big and bold “let the virus rip” mobilisation that in spirit was anti-ALP and at its heart was anti-anyone-and-everyone trying to prevent mass death as the Delta variant spreads out of control in New South Wales and threatens to in Victoria.

With the ruling class on the offensive to ease public health measures prematurely, it is terrible that these demonstrations are gaining support. While in some ways they appear as a fringe minority, they are expressing the “common-sense” view that the corporate media day after day is shoving down our throats—namely, that scores of people are going to have to die because business owners have grown too tired of the inconveniences involved in saving lives during a pandemic.

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