Let racist thugs terrorise Melbourne’s migrant heartlands unopposed. Allow openly fascist and Nazi groups to organise on the streets. Cower. Capitulate. Roll over.

That’s the message of the hysterical campaign waged by the Herald Sun and the Age in the wake of last weekend’s protest where hundreds of leftists, anti-racists and local residents took on and defeated the fascist goons who tried to invade proudly multicultural Coburg.

If you believe the Herald Sun, what took place was not a community mobilisation against violent right wing extremists, but little more than gang warfare in which both sides were equally to blame. The accusation that the anti-racists were as bad as the fascists was repeated everywhere – from the conservative right to supposed liberals and even some who claim to be on the left.

It is an ignorant, dangerous and despicable smear. Even if you don’t agree with the tactics of anti-fascist demonstrators, the accusation that they are “as bad as the fascists” is simply ludicrous, and at best demonstrates a complete lack of understanding of the real nature of Australia’s nascent fascist movement.

The United Patriots Front leader, Blair Cottrell, is an open admirer of Adolf Hitler. The UPF recently posted a video on its Facebook page trying to convince its followers of the virtues of Nazism. Many in Australia’s various fascist groups have been convicted for violent race hate crimes. And they came to Coburg with the explicit aim of using what Cottrell called “force and terror” against an anti-racist demonstration and against the Muslim residents of Coburg.

The accusation that anti-racist activists, however militant their tactics, are no better than these vile thugs is beneath contempt.

And yet it is precisely this claim that is being used by the media, Victoria Police, the Liberal opposition and the state Labor government, to justify a raft of new reactionary measures that threaten the right to protest and other elementary political freedoms.

On Sunday, the Liberal shadow attorney-general, John Pesutto, demanded that the government reintroduce the notorious “move on” laws that were abolished by the Andrews Labor government. “We want strong law and order in this state and we don’t want violent protesters thinking they can get away with this kind of behaviour”, he said.

The call for strong action was vigorously backed by the police, with chief commissioner Graham Ashton claiming that wearing masks gave people “a license to participate in criminal behaviour”. He also announced the establishment of a new taskforce to “hunt down” people “on both sides”.

The campaign by the Herald Sun was predictable. It has never met a protest that didn’t need to be responded to with a histrionic front page headline and an editorial demanding increased police powers. But the Age in many ways was nearly as bad, running numerous articles attacking the protests, demanding mask-wearing be outlawed, and one saying that a ban on masks wouldn’t work – instead, police should expand their infiltration of political groups.

The Age even ran an article attacking Sue Bolton, the Socialist Alliance councillor who called the initial anti-racism rally, saying that she should have cancelled it. This is basically a demand for complete capitulation to fascist thuggery. And it demonstrates that no matter how much you capitulate to pressure to be “peaceful” – the organisers of the official rally agreed to every police demand and distanced themselves from the anti-racists who took on the right – it won’t save you from attack.

On Monday, Labor police minister Lisa Neville announced a range of new police powers were being considered after a meeting with Ashby.

These include, according to a report in the Age, measures that will mean “extreme protesters like United Patriots Front and Antifa intent on committing violence may be banned from entering designated areas”. The government also confirmed it will consider introducing laws that will prohibit the wearing of masks at demonstrations.

Socialists have long opposed wearing masks at political protests in Australia. It gives unnecessary fuel to the false media narrative that left wing protesters are just there for a brawl, not to take a political stand.

The argument advanced in favour of “masking up” is that it provides necessary protection from police or right wing reprisals. It’s an approach that was significantly undermined at the Coburg protest by the fact that most of the local Muslims who turned up to take the fascists on did so without masks. Young Muslims are the most persecuted section of Australian society, subject to media hysteria, police terror, and the constant threat of racist violence. If they are willing to join a militant anti-fascist protest without hiding their faces, the left should be more than capable of doing the same.

But you don’t have to agree with the tactic of wearing face-masks to oppose any attempt to outlaw it. The anarchists are being targeted not because they wear masks, but because they are prepared to fight to stop the fascists mobilising on our streets. And in that they should be supported 100 percent.

The problem with mask-wearing pales in comparison with the failings of those such as the Greens candidate for Wills, who pulled out of speaking at the anti-racist protest in Coburg for fear it would harm her electoral prospects, or with the statements by those who bemoan the “violence” of people who were prepared to stop fascist thugs from storming through the centre of multicultural Coburg.

What we have seen these last few days is a concerted campaign to suppress the right of anti-racists to take on the small but dangerous Australian fascist movement. Aside from the deeply offensive claim that “the left is as bad as the right”, there are two main arguments. One is that if we ignore the fascists they will go away. The other is that we should rely on the police and the government to contain the fascist threat.

The first of these arguments is demonstrably false. When Reclaim Australia emerged at the beginning of 2015, it showed every sign it had the potential to develop into a broad far right populist movement with organised fascists at its core. It was only the determined actions of anti-fascists and left wing activists that exposed the truth about the leaders of Reclaim Australia and – through militant, determined counter-demonstrations – made it impossible for them to mobilise on a broad basis.

The second argument – that we should leave fighting the far right to the government and the police – is even more ludicrous. It is precisely the atmosphere created by governments of both stripes, along with the police and the media, which has enabled the vile anti-Muslim, anti-refugee, anti-immigrant politics of the far right fringe to gain a hearing.

It can seem like the threat posed by extreme fascist organisations is not that serious in countries like Australia. But around the world, and particularly in Europe, previously marginal fascist groups have transformed into movements with a mass following over the last few years. Part of the reason for their success in many countries is that they have been dismissed by the left, and not considered a serious threat. If they had been strangled in their infancy they could have been stopped.

The far right needs to be fought, not ignored or capitulated to. That means having a left that is prepared to take on the right on the streets, and which also wages a broader battle against the racist and reactionary politics of the major parties that gives the far right succour. It also means resisting witch-hunts and attacks on civil rights of the kind that have been unleashed in Victoria these last few days.