Politics Opinion

Anti-lockdown movement citing 'common law' for exemption

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Various anti-lockdown protesters are attempting to hide behind laws they don't understand for exemption (Screenshot via YouTube)

Anti-lockdown supporters are trying to use the idea of common law as an excuse to disobey COVID-19 safety measures, writes Tom Tanuki.

WHEN RICKY and his wife Sam were asked to sign in at a vegan restaurant on the Sunshine Coast, they refused. Instead, they produced documents which they began reading out to the manager on duty. Their papers talked about “common law” and the purported illegality of COVID-safe restrictions. They told the manager what she was doing was illegal and that she could be sued.

A month later, they returned to the same restaurant. They did the same thing: refused to sign in, argued and threatened. This time, they were recording. It was a busy night and the general manager was on site.

Sarah had had enough — she’d now had two distraught managers threatened by this couple and she’d already been forced to write up a document for staff specifically for “common law” time-wasters issuing threats. So Sarah went out to confront them.

“Why is my manager crying out the back?” she asked. The couple was recording her; they said it was “illegal” and “discrimination” to refuse them service, despite their refusal to sign in. Sarah told them she would not risk thousands of dollars in fines to let them enter without a sign-in.

They said they would sue; Sarah told them they were welcome to try. She offered them take-away. They refused. She told them to leave and asked them to never come back.

This is a template interaction by now. Every small business owner in Australia has had to deal with at least a handful of these people. They come in, refuse to do a minor bit of coronavirus-related admin and insist that not wearing a mask or using a mandatory check-in app is an inalienable liberty of theirs. They often record or livestream themselves. They go a bit over the top about freedom.

This brand of performance is lionised as “activism” in the pandemic, thanks to the propagandising of the anti-lockdown movement. As an attitude, it’s crept into wellness and alternative communities via the strain of “medical libertarianism”. This is the idea of the “my body, my choice” argument applied to collective emergencies like the pandemic instead of individual rights like abortion. So small businesses in areas like the Sunshine Coast experience these performances a lot.

But this was different. Because Ricky and Sam’s next move was to invoke their influence in the anti-lockdown movement as a threat against the restaurant.

What I’m interested in is a continuing overstepping of the bounds by anti-lockdown figureheads and protestors. They rarely seem interested in making a good impression with anyone — strange to me, because every real activist I’ve ever known concerns themselves to an extent with movement-building. It seems less of a concern all the time among the anti-lockdown lot.

Stranger still, their own “medical libertarian” body-autonomy idea doesn’t seem to extend to allowing others who take the pandemic seriously the right to safety or peace of mind.  Collectivism is out among this lot. It’s a declared evil.

I recorded a video recently about another vegan restaurant in the Sunshine Coast. New Earth Café’s management was fined for breaching coronavirus restrictions; footage of repeat police visits to their café shows the owners producing papers which they read from.

 Just like Ricky and Sam did with Sarah, the owners cited “common law” as a sort of immunity token shielding them from participating in COVID-safe measures.

What this “common law” talk alludes to is sovereign citizen rhetoric. It’s a series of sham arguments which invoke the conspiracist idea that the Government is really a corporation and that its laws are effectively null and void.

Known as “pseudo-legal commercial arguments”, they’re usually sold to the legally uninformed as a get-out-of-gaol magic trick. You can escape from speeding tickets, council rates payments, or pandemic restrictions — if only you read out the right combination of clever words to police offers. (It never works. In fact, it lands its more aggressive proponents in years of avoidable legal turmoil.)

In the video New Earth Café uploaded, a third man can be seen standing by, the one who appears to give them their “common law” papers. Turns out that man is Ricky — the same Ricky as the one harassing Sarah’s staff.

Ricky Sundara gets around. He set up a GoFundMe for New Earth Café, which looked like it might have been for the owners’ legal troubles, except it was set up before they were even fined. It also technically stated it was for ‘educating people about common law’. Basically, to help propagate more conspiracist garbage. 

The GoFundMe references both Ricky and Zev Freeman, an established anti-lockdown figurehead and sovereign citizen who’s worked with Pete Evans before. So we’re looking at two seasoned anti-lockdown conspiracy theorists — one of whom approaches businesses on the Sunshine Coast, variously to either bully them into breaching COVID-safe restrictions or to support amenable businesses to crusade against the state.

Are any of those willing businesses aided by the “support” of these figureheads? No. They’re fed conspiracies and then emboldened to receive real fines which they can’t fight with their “common law” garbage. They’re dupes — just a means to another spectacle and associated GoFundMe.

How about the collective mass of the movement? They’re growing bolder and more aggressive, too. When Melbourne’s sixth lockdown commenced, a snap anti-lockdown rally was held in the CBD. People came in, wore corny Anon masks and Aussie flag capes, livestreamed themselves and got into fights with coppers.

At a bar on Bourke Street, people were enjoying their last pint before what they all knew could be days, weeks, or months until anti-lockdown dregs began banging on the glass. When they weren’t let in, they began screaming at the drinkers: “Paedophiles!”

I’m a lefty activist with years of organising or attending rallies under my belt. I can’t ever recall deploying the movement-building tactic of screaming at passersby that they were “paedophiles” for not joining in. But are these people thinking about how awful they’re making themselves look? No — they’re not thinking about anyone else at all. 

This is orchestrated, performative selfishness, modelled by a caste of figureheads who are mostly just interested in whether they can either harvest money, shares or votes out of their position. Who cares if the followers call everyone a paedophile? As long as they share your GoFundMe, right?

Sarah’s business later received a message. It was from Sam, Ricky’s wife. 

It said:

‘We would […] like to dine in your restaurant one day and know many else who would. I have a network of thousands on the Sunny Coast who are very supportive of businesses who are not trying to enforce the mandates, so can you reassure us that your staff will not attempt to enforce either mandate if we were to book in again?’

The business rejected Sam’s “offer”. 

She later said to them:

‘I know many, many, many people who feel the same way, many have and will boycott your business/s, some may take it further.’

It’s distressing to think about what people “taking it further” might mean for a small business. It’s a shame that adherents to the “freedom” movement would wave about their very large network of anti-lockdown protestors like a threat, a form of pressure to force a struggling small hospitality business to breach government pandemic restrictions.

Sarah doesn’t object to anti-lockdown movement protestors’ right to disagree with COVID-19 restrictions, she just doesn’t know why her staff have to bear the brunt of their aggression:

“They’re not venting their frustration with the relevant government bodies. They’re taking them out on us — small hospitality businesses. I never thought we’d get to this point, where we have to deal with fully grown men and women throwing temper tantrums about having to sign in.”

How many others are being bullied around by these intimidation tactics by these self-aggrandising defenders of “freedom”? The figureheads and careerists shaping the anti-lockdown movement are squandering their opportunity to shape the political will of their movement and grow it accordingly — or, at least, to reign in their followers’ more obnoxious instincts. 

But if all you care about is siphoning reach, cash and votes out of your existing network, why would you bother trying to change a thing? Might as well just keep engaging in conduct bordering on blackmail and letting them keep throwing temper tantrums calling everyone a paedophile.

Just make sure they all remember to donate when they’re finished.

Tom Tanuki is an online satirist, social justice commentator, writer and comedian. He has worked in anti-racist political comedy, most notably through his satirical group the Million Flag Patriots and anti-racist group Yelling At Racist Dogs (Y.A.R.D.). You can follow Tom on Twitter @tom_tanuki.

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