The sight of masked protesters on the streets of Melbourne this year has been the subject of some controversy. Following the Reclaim Australia (RA) rally in Melton on 22 November, Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews asked:
If you’re there to peacefully protest, if you’re there to legitimately voice your views, if your views are not something that you’re actually ashamed of, then why would you be covering your face? . . . Only people who were acting in a riotous and violent way, covering their face, preaching hate and bigotry, only they can answer that.
While directed at RA, the same question can also be – and indeed has been – asked of those who have attended the various counter-rallies that have been organised in opposition to RA and its splinter, the United Patriots Front (UPF). The question ‘why masks?’ forms part of a wider debate about how to respond to the far right, especially when they mobilise on the streets, and what risks are attendant in engaging in counter-protest activity.
Masking oneself can perform a wide variety of cultural and political functions, from the carnivalesque to the sinister. Indeed, at the rally in Melton, this writer overheard a duo of UPF supporters, older women in jeans and T-shirts, remark at the sight of some of the counter-protestors, ‘Why do they wear black masks like that? I find it just so intimidating.’
While still considered unusual in the Australian context, most of the arguments about masking up at public protests are well-rehearsed. Perhaps the most important point to consider is that, prior to the emergence of the internet, the documentation of protest activity, including the identification of those involved, was largely a matter for the state and media. This is no longer the case.
With the advent of social media, what happens at such events is now the subject of intense scrutiny by participants and observers, and there is an ongoing battle to shape the narrative surrounding them. Part of this battle involves identifying not only the political forces and organisations involved but the role of leading individuals.
For some who have assumed a prominent position in opposing RA and the UPF, this identification has produced some deeply troubling reactions. In May, the UPF mounted a campaign to drive Socialist Party councillor Stephen Jolly out of office. This involved the production of a stream of propaganda denouncing Jolly as a ‘Communist traitor’, a letter-writing campaign (bizarrely, directed at the Governor-General Peter Cosgrove) and on 31 May, a small rally outside Richmond Town Hall.
A few months later, a man was charged with ‘making death and rape threats to Yarra Councillor Stephen Jolly and his family’, which came ‘days after [UPF] administrator Neil Erikson’s name was attached to threats on social media to kill’ Jolly. Erikson himself was convicted in February 2014 of harassing a local Melbourne rabbi and has a history of involvement with neo-Nazi politics going back many years.
On 1 November, the UPF further prosecuted their campaign against ‘the left’ by attending the Melbourne Anarchist Club in Northcote and community radio station 3CR in Collingwood. Both events were filmed and proudly uploaded to the UPF’s Facebook page. Just prior to the RA rallies on 22 November, Melbourne man Phil Gallea was sentenced to a month in jail ‘after pleading guilty to possessing five Tasers and a quantity of mercury’; it appears that Gallea was intending to use the Tasers at the rally in Melton. ‘The court was told he had previously been found in possession of a knife at a rally, and allegedly had a flare at a separate event in Bendigo.’
In addition to the above accounts, I’m aware of a number of troubling incidents during the course of the year in which activists who have been identified as publicly opposing RA and the UPF have been harassed, threatened and attacked. Gallea himself posted online the alleged work address of one activist, along with a call for retaliatory measures.
In summary, there are reasonable grounds to believe that actively and publicly opposing RA, UPF and allied groups carries with it certain risks which extend well beyond the events of the day. Further, while how individuals manage such risks is for them to determine, employing some form of facial disguise can help mitigate some of these risks, especially those associated with being identified by some within the RA and UPF milieu.
More broadly, some argue that the public rallies organised by RA and the UPF are best ignored, and that counter-mobilisations simply fuel media reportage, an already entrenched feeling of victimhood (usually examined in reference to the English Defence League by Alexander Oaten), and thus facilitate the growth of the movement. Others suggest that while some public response is necessary, it should not involve any form of confrontation, and if it does, this should be conducted as openly and publicly as possible.
This debate around responses to the far right is nothing new, and advocates of one or another approach generally proceed from a broader political framework for understanding what the far right is, what sustains it over time, and its relationship to other political and social forces and institutions. While the number of Australian flags present at a RA rally is probably only rivalled by that at former Prime Minister Abbott’s media conferences, as Jason Wilson has observed: ‘Drawing attention to racist movements and the interchange between them and powerful actors in the mainstream is one of the reasons counter-protests are worth engaging in [emphasis mine]. As online proselytising bears more fruit for the right, and as economic downturn beckons for Australia, the real danger is complacency.’
For some, the main measure of success for an anti-fascist action is the extent to which it disrupts far right mobilisation and thereby serves to demoralise its supporters. By contrast, disruptive behaviour which is viewed as hateful and abusive is rejected by others in favour of other efforts which do not involve any form of confrontation with fascist mobilisations. One wonders about the efficacy of opposing publically lauded far right viewpoints (so frequently laden with venom, violence and outright lies) by relying solely on the kind of polite conversational reasoning usually restricted to meetings of the Fabian Society; there is a moral and political case to be made for impassioned and unrelenting exposure of such toxic rhetoric. One example:
We’re sick of your sharia
Burn your fucking mosques
It’s time to show you Muslims
We’re the fucking boss
You thought you had it easy
But you surely lost
Cronulla was Australia’s Muslim Holocaust
Eureka Brigade, ‘Border Patrol’
While it’s not possible to fully canvass the constitution of or to examine in detail the political expressions of the loose movement known as RA and the various fascist grouplets that have formed around it or been attracted to it, I think a few points are relevant. First, while some of the claims put forward by its leading ideologues merely reflect much more commonplace anxieties, there is a strong element of the irrational in the politics advanced by it and addressing irrational prejudice within protest environments is usually understood as being the least conducive to ‘education’.
Secondly, anti-fascist actions such as counter-protesting should be understood as having limited effects upon the foundations of white supremacy in Australia and are not intended to be a substitute for longer-term efforts to address structural inequality. Rather, they give voice to opposition to popular expressions of fascist sentiment while seeking to create and to sustain a motivated counter-public. Of critical importance in the development of fascist movement is control of public space. Liz Fekete writes:
Fascism starts by capturing public spaces, be it a street, a village, or a town and turning them into natives only, foreigner no-go zones. In the modern world, ‘the spaces’ that fascists also seek to capture include television and social media, using free speech as the Trojan horse through which democratic societies can be infiltrated and undermined . . . We desperately need strong local movements against fascism. This doesn’t just involve mobilising to protect our streets from neo-Nazis, but building a resilient focused and grassroots anti-fascist culture. For, as Greek anti-fascists on the frontline of resistance today have argued, ‘anti-fascism is a political struggle about the kind of life we want to live . . . it is a battle for democracy, solidarity and social justice.’
While right-wing radicals are given license by the state to advocate racial and religious attacks – the UPF’s ‘Famer John’ announced that ‘We’re going to burn every mosque down if they build them . . . Let’s stick it up them,’ in Melton on 22 November – it’s incumbent upon those who do not wish to see such activity give birth to a lasting fascist movement to take action.
I’ll leave the last word to Ken Knabb:
Irrational popular tendencies do sometimes call for discretion. But powerful though they may be, they are not irresistible forces. They contain their own contradictions. Clinging to some absolute authority is not necessarily a sign of faith in authority; it may be a desperate attempt to overcome one’s increasing doubts (the convulsive tightening of a slipping grip). People who join gangs or reactionary groups, or who get caught up in religious cults or patriotic hysteria, are also seeking a sense of liberation, connection, purpose, participation, empowerment. As Reich himself showed, fascism gives a particularly vigorous and dramatic expression to these basic aspirations, which is why it often has a deeper appeal than the vacillations, compromises and hypocrisies of liberalism and leftism.
In the long run the only way to defeat reaction is to present more forthright expressions of these aspirations, and more authentic opportunities to fulfill them. When basic issues are forced into the open, irrationalities that flourished under the cover of psychological repression tend to be weakened, like disease germs exposed to sunlight and fresh air. In any case, even if we don’t prevail, there is at least some satisfaction in fighting for what we really believe, rather than being defeated in a posture of hesitancy and hypocrisy.
Image: Paul de Gregorio / Flickr