On Monday night, the streets of Flemington were filled with anti-fascist demonstrators and hundreds of residents from the multicultural commission flats protesting the speaking tour of darling of the alt-right, Milo Yiannopoulos.
Milo had chosen a boxing ring come wedding reception centre for his meeting on Racecourse Road, just opposite the flats. For residents, it was a direct provocation. ‘They could have had anywhere in the CBD,’ said one local, ‘but they chose to have their white supremacy meeting in our backyard. That’s why we came to join you.’ Migrant kids wheeled around on O-Bikes chanting ‘Nazis Out!’ Older women in hijabs climbed on fences and tram stops and hurled insults at Milo’s supporters. A high school student took a snapchat of a Milo fan in a Make America Great Again cap and sent it around to hundreds of their classmates, urging them to come to the protest to ‘fight Trump supporters’. For more than five hours, the left and residents of the flats stood together against reactionary politics in Australia.
Milo presents himself as a good-natured provocateur who speaks truth to liberal power. In reality, he is a vicious Islamophobe who jokes about refugees being ‘shark food’, declares Aboriginal culture ‘shit’ and openly consorts with American neo-Nazis. But Milo is not a pariah. The media have fawned all over him. His first Australian press conference consisted of journalists ‘interrogating’ him about the cut of his jacket and the brand of his shoes. He was invited to Canberra for a Q and A with parliamentarians (while a couple of valiant Greens heckled him, this self-proclaimed troll was treated like a minor rock star).
Milo is a new kind of far-right figure for Australia. We have grown accustomed to the open bigotry of Pauline Hanson and One Nation, the oversized raging hulk of the meatheads from the United Patriots Front and the more refined Islamophobia of the Q Society. Milo offers something different. He cloaks his ideas in urbane witticisms and declares himself immune from charges of bigotry because of his identity (he is gay, has a black boyfriend and claims Jewish heritage). He offers a new narrative for people who have been desperately seeking a different kind of radical right-wing politics.
And there is an audience for him here: Milo claims that more than 10,000 tickets have been sold across the country.
Milo has also disarmed some sections of the left. A spate of articles have claimed that protesting Milo is just giving him what he wants. This misses the point entirely. First, Milo’s underlying message fits very well with the politics of the status quo. This is why he gets coverage and media. His Islamophobia, racism and hostility to the left dovetails with a growing section of the political establishment.
Furthermore, Milo’s ‘brand’ has the capacity to build something bigger than himself. At the Melbourne event, for instance, the entire pantheon of the far right showed. Everyone from convicted antisemite Neil Errikson to far-right Zionist gym owner Avi Yemeni were there. The internecine battles of the far-right grouplets were put aside for the night in a show of unity and force. These neo-Nazis were interacting with Milo supporters, many of whom may have had no exposure to these groups before.
We shouldn’t underplay the danger of the far right. It is clear that they were there to harass and intimidate. They invoked an explicit neo-Nazi heritage, chanting ‘Auschwitz-Birkenau, Bergen-Belsen, Buchenwald, Dachau’, while seig heiling. They hurled insults and taunts at Muslim women and children. One resident said that a neo-Nazi told him he was a terrorist and that he should ‘go home’. ‘Home?’ he said in a broad Australian accent. ‘I’ve lived here all my life.’
If anti-fascist activists had heeded the call to stay at home while Milo was in town, what would the situation have looked like? Not only would a large gathering of potential far-right activists have taken place in a relaxed and high-spirited fashion, explicit neo-Nazis would have gathered on the doorstep of the homes of hundreds of migrants and Muslims. They would have been free to intimidate, harass and bully an already oppressed community. What an abhorrent thought.
As it was, not only were we met with open fascists and new initiates into the far right, but the full force of Victoria Police joined the welcoming committee. The Andrews government seems intent on putting itself at the vanguard of militarised policing. It has introduced some of the most draconian anti-protest laws in the country, banning face coverings and enacting legislation that allows police to proscribe zones and search anyone, even if they do not suspect them of committing a crime.
The use of capsicum spray has become a regular feature of protests in Victoria, and the riot squad now dresses to impress. On Monday night they were in full body armour, wielding shields and batons. For the residents of the Flemington flats, the fact that the police were protecting fascists added insult to injury: there is a long history of racist policing of the commission housing. Many community members hadn’t heard about the Milo meeting and when they saw the police presence, they assumed they were there for the young men.
One resident told me: ‘We thought they were raiding our area. They come for us and our boys – they just target us. A couple of months ago our boys were down here and they just came for them. They weren’t doing anything, but they just started raiding them.’
The young locals who faced down the police were justified in their rage and bitterness. Subsequent articles have claimed that outside Antifa agitators whipped up the young people. The reality was that the kids needed no-one to agitate them. They were righteously angry. As they should be. Racist policing is a crime.
In the aftermath of the protest, the assistant police commissioner and the shadow attorney-general have gone into overdrive. Stephen Leane described protest politics a ‘battleground’ and John Pesutto has called for new police powers to ban particular ‘professional agitators’ from demonstrations.
In order to combat the continuing rise of the far right, and an increasingly powerful and violent state apparatus, we need to build a bigger, stronger, louder and more diverse anti-fascist movement.
Image: Charandev Singh / Facebook