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Melbourne anti-lockdown protests are a disorganised mess

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Anti-lockdown protesters were criticised for congregating at Melbourne's Shrine of Remembrance (Screenshot via YouTube)

Without any sort of leadership or strategy, the Melbourne anti-lockdown protests have descended into chaos without real purpose, writes Tom Tanuki.

PEOPLE ARE ALWAYS ASKING who’s behind anti-lockdown rallies. Now that they’re kicking dogs, desecrating the Shrine of Remembrance and trashing construction union headquarters, I notice the questions are growing a little more shrill.

After Monday’s attack on the Construction, Forestry, Maritime, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU) HQ by assorted hi-vis men, the union categorised the protestors as Nazis and far-right extremists. Bill Shorten called them “man-baby Nazis”. Over the past 18 months, I’ve often argued against that summary dismissal of the movement, saying that in dismissing it as solely the work of White racists we ignore the reality of these multi-ethnic rally events. This includes smoking ceremonies by prominent Indigenous families at Brisbane rallies, tens of thousands of Middle Eastern people in Sydney last month and so on.

I’ve merely tried to say it was never simple, that this is a complex movement and we’re better off analysing it for what it truly is.

But I note a recent change in power dynamics that’s hard to ignore. People have written about far-right elements of the movement before but in Melbourne, it’s becoming more roundly co-opted by fringe elements due to its current chaotic, directionless state. Yes, there are certain people who are responsible for its rise. But they aren’t taking responsibility for the rallies and that’s why they’re degenerating.

It’s not simple. But let’s name some of them. First, let the past month of the anti-lockdown movement serve as context.

On Saturday 24 July, another rally was held in Melbourne’s CBD, but this one was different. Protesters threw flares at police, barrelled through a cop line and were beaten and shot with rubber pellets (a first for VicPol). I heard a lot of rumours about who the violent protestors were, but the more interesting thing was that in the absence of anyone organising marshalls, medics or tangible rally demands, the event was open for them to take over. De facto control was being handed over to the hardest, loosest blokes on the ground. With every new event, more of them were showing up, banding together.

“Organiser” Harrison McLean and “citizen journalists” Rukshan Fernando and Avi Yemini are three of many anti-lockdown figureheads. Harrison, with his documented substantial ties to the far-Right, runs the crucial Melbourne Freedom Rallies group on Telegram and “organised” the CBD rally. I use the term “organised” loosely because Harrison schedules events and promotes them but takes no responsibility for what happens on the day. 

Meanwhile, “citizen journalist” Rukshan shows up to film viral livestreams, as does Avi Yemini. But Rukshan goes further, also actively promoting the events. However, he also takes no responsibility on the day. People like him get to switch into a convenient “citizen journalist” mode that belies his importance to the popularity of the rallies.

The benefit for them in assuming no responsibility is avoiding charges of incitement. But the events falter as a result. Nobody guides them. They’re left rudderless.

(Around that time, a month ago, the movement was pretending it was about to incite a mass “truckie strike”. A couple of trucks showed up on the Gold Coast and left after 30 minutes when Pauline Hanson said to. It's hard to be an anti-vaxxer pretending you are a truckie because you need a truck; it’s a bit easier to pretend to be a unionist.)

After that CBD rally, Telegram channel Events Broadcasting Channel shared an event called the Victorian Workers United Rally, scheduled for last Saturday. It called for members of ten major unions to rally against mandatory vaccinations outside CFMEU HQ. Several unions and the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) condemned it and clarified it was not a legitimate union action. 

That’s the first sign that the anti-lockdown movement saw union membership as a loose thread to be pulled; even at the time, I thought it was a potential masterstroke. Sweep anti-vaxx conspiracist members out from under their own unions’ feet, in turn pressuring unions into taking a stance. CFMEU leadership certainly hadn’t taken a firm position. (Read Ben Schneiders’ excellent piece on the ongoing tensions in the CFMEU over vaccines, which state secretary John Setka had tried to avoid for months.)

The fake union rally didn’t materialise last weekend but several key events did which created a perfect storm. The Victorian Government closed indoor work tea rooms for construction and the CFMEU led an outdoor action over it on Friday. The action defended a genuine working condition but many there had the looming threat of mandatory vaccines in mind. It all brought construction workers into the media spotlight.

The following day, last Saturday, Harrison’s next “Freedom Rally” happened — his most chaotic one yet. He changed the location two hours beforehand to Richmond in a snap decision to avoid cops in the city. Nobody organised any marshalls, medics or police liaisons, again. That meant 500 people were milling around the suburban streets of Richmond with no goal.

There have always been peaceful protesters at anti-lockdown rallies but they weren’t calling the shots anymore. Not on Saturday. The loose blokes were directing the day. More flares were thrown by them; more breaking through a cop line. Police violently struck down and pepper-sprayed people. People were being kettled constantly by cops, pelting aimlessly around narrow suburban Richmond streets in tight packs. Through the chaos, someone screamed early on over a megaphone: “Where the fuck is Harrison? You lead us into this every time. Where are you?”

Rukshan’s livestream was his most popular ever.

Harrison kept pulling at the loose thread of the unions. He posted the first event telling everyone to go to CFMEU HQ on Monday. ‘Wear work gear,’ it said. (A 3AW caller reported seeing a group of men changing into fresh hi-vis a block away from the protest.) Protesters encouraged everyone to attend — whether union or not, whether construction or not.

What they got was a mixture of some CFMEU anti-vaxxers, many non-CFMEU construction workers and anti-vaxxers cosplaying in hi-vis. It’s impossible to give a breakdown of the numbers of each but people gathering intel among the crowd reported low CFMEU member attendance. Known faces among the crowd included a random smattering of bikies, far-right people and veteran anti-lockdown activists.

Psychic and famed “Bunnings Karen” of 2020, Lizzy Rose the witch, was there — not, I imagine, a paid-up member. A founding member of the former patriot group United Patriots Front spoke to Rukshan on his (very popular) livestream. One Hell’s Angels member got close to Setka, bellowing at him about a union he isn’t part of.

The crowd wouldn’t listen to Setka because, again, they weren’t organised. They’d demanded to hear him speak to them — when he emerged, they wouldn’t let him. They only paused to cheer as he said: “So what do you want me to do, shut down all construction?” Then they drowned him out. Setka went inside and the protesters trashed the outside of the CFMEU HQ.

What they were really seeking was for Setka to capitulate on mandatory vaccines, but that night, Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews did what Setka wouldn’t – what the protesters cheered for during Setka’s speech – and shut down all construction. Harrison posted another event for the next day — now, of course, anyone in construction was free to attend.

Setka, the union and many others dismissed protestors as non-members, neo-Nazis or anti-vaxxers. The reality is more complex, of course. The anti-lockdown movement only exploited an obvious weak point in the CFMEU after months of Setka vacillating on the question of vaccines in the face of growing member anti-vaxx sentiment, so obviously real unionists were in attendance. 

But as Rukshan walked around on Tuesday, facetiously asking the hi-vis crowd if they were neo-Nazis, to demonstrate how wrong the union and “the media” were, some funny stuff happened. He accidentally asked one member of the Victorian Proud Boys if he was a far-right extremist. (Oops. He said yes and yes, he is.) At another point, he jerked his camera to one side to avoid filming a guy sieg heiling at police.

Rukshan has filmed so many known far-right members this past month that he needn’t have bothered. I have seen leaders or members of the following current and former far-right groups at anti-lockdown rallies in the past month, all in Rukshan’s livestreams: National Socialist Network; European Australian Movement; Proud Boys; United Patriots Front; True Blue Crew; and Soldiers of Odin. The truth is, the rallies are a welcome home for all of them.

Harrison McLean creates these events and deliberately avoids the task of organising them, which hands the leadership role to fringe elements. They don’t want an organised protest action; they want to create a ruckus. It’s their movement to exploit. So on Tuesday, they headed into the city, drank, racked up, attacked cop cars, somehow wound up on the West Gate Bridge to sing ‘Horses’ by Daryl Braithwaite and stole stuff off trucks stalled on the freeway as they left.

The next day, they desecrated the Shrine of Remembrance. They’re not protesting and they’re not trying to win over the public — they’re just doing whatever they want.

Leaderless protests can be a great thing — Occupy Wall Street is just one example of a powerful movement whose actions were regularly governed by collective decision making. It’s not merely the lack of a leader, however, it’s the complete absence of cohesive goals or even strategies.

For example, half the crowd wants to listen to the veteran asking them to leave the Shrine of Remembrance. The other half refuses to budge even a bit. Some start to doubt he’s even a real veteran asking them to leave. Some of them yell at him a bit, angry that they’ve been told what to do (freedom!). They’re so discordant that they can’t make any decisions. That’s the kind of organisation a protest movement needs.

Hey, at least “citizen journalist” Rukshan Fernando is having the best days of his livestreaming career. Good for him. His Facebook page has grown by over 100,000 people in just three days. He and Avi Yemini are hailed like folk heroes at the events. “Avi! Avi! Avi!” “Rukshan, Rukshan, Rukshan!” They’re some of the most regular chants I hear on livestreams.  Protesters adulate them, take selfies with them, offer them physical cash.

During Rukshan’s stream on Tuesday, I was struck by hundreds of people telling him the same thing: “I came today because I watched your livestream yesterday.” Again and again.

They didn’t like the “far-right extremist” and “neo-Nazi” tags. Rukshan has been asking protesters about it for days since, filming the (very real) multicultural elements at the rally.

But it’s not just us loony left types or “the media” who say that. There is a left-leaning anti-lockdown channel called the Transparency Report. They share the movement’s stance on vaccines and government restrictions, but they are a rare beacon in that they also call out far-right elements in the movement.

After the CFMEU protests, here’s some of what they said:

Both the freedom movement and the CFMEU protest HAS been co-opted by a number of right-wing groups.

 

These same groups have been for the last 12 months pushing a violent and extreme message to their followers, while also allowing it to fester within the wider freedom movement.

 

I’ve been observing this anomaly for over a year and I can tell you right now in full confidence: right-wing extremism is rampant within the freedom movement.

 

It permeates throughout groups, in people’s comment and half the time the posters would be oblivious to the fact that they’re even being profiled as a “right-wing extremist”, “fixated person” or worse, a “domestic terrorist threat”.

 

The online influencers with the largest platforms are the most responsible and I only have this to say, enough is enough.

 

The group responsible for the MSM portraying us as a “right-wing” movement, as well as the sabotage of last weekends rally is called Melbourne Freedom Rally and it’s led by an individual named Harrison McLean.

So don’t take it from me. Take it from them.

When people ask who’s responsible for these protests, I know they’re asking for the name of central, lead figures. I tell them it’s not that simple. I tell them the degenerating rallies are the product of a strange dynamic between “organisers” who don’t organise and promoters masquerading as “citizen journalists”, none of whom take any responsibility for the movement they’re growing. 

And in the vacuum that deeply irresponsible, self-serving dynamic creates, a ragtag assembly of scumbags – yes, including the far-Right – are asserting a very physical kind of dominance.

But for all that complexity, I still get to leave them with some names: Harrison McLean. Rukshan Fernando. Avi Yemini.

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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