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The good, the bad and the ugly side of lockdown protests

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Cartoon by Mark David / @MDavidCartoons

While it's easy enough to condemn protesters at anti-lockdown rallies, the Government also needs to be held accountable for its part, writes Tom Tanuki.

DURING A PHONE conversation, an organiser from Sydney’s anti-lockdown protest said to me:

“I know we don’t agree on the premise of these protests, but I firmly believe that we do have a right to protest.”

We disagree on a lot, but I don’t disagree there. I’ve been thinking a lot of late about what we might be able to agree on and if that’s useful. It feels more important to see what consensus we can strike up against those in charge now that they’re sending the ADF into western Sydney.

I don’t support the anti-lockdown movement. It offers little in the way of cohesive views to support or condemn. The movement is, to borrow the phraseology of Travis View, a ’big tent’ conspiracist movement that houses discordant ideas and sometimes leaderless factions. It’s given direction by a ruling caste of portrait-video-filming figureheads who often scrap with each other for viral supremacy. The attention-seekers among them get a sugar rush of shares, the grifters get lots of money and the political careerists try to craft a future voting bloc. 

I think it is a ridiculous movement, an interesting one and very varied. I think it’s dangerous to have people milling around livestreaming themselves among thousands of others during a pandemic. I think that because of the novel coronavirus, that is real, which is going around. It seems important to state the obvious because that’s where we disagree.

The organiser in question may disagree on many things with me, but they are left-leaning on other political matters and they seem to want more of their movement, including the ousting of far-right elements around their events. They need to do more, frankly.

Their movement is targeted for recruitment by Nazis and I’ve watched dedicated people attempting to red-pill conspiracists on the “Jewish question” in Telegram groups since early 2020 with some success. I’ve seen far-right people take up anti-lockdown organising. But they’ve also kicked some out and this organiser tries to take a firm stance against the far-Right. So we spoke.

I am furious at their movement for not accepting that we should take part in pandemic measures. They endanger everyone — including their own people. But last weekend in Sydney, their movement swelled to accommodate not just the usual dyed-in-the-wool conspiracists, but an influx of angry people from western Sydney who felt left behind by lockdowns. I felt for them and when I saw them getting attacked by coppers, I didn’t like it. Good politics is not cheering on police violence, even against those you don’t support.

That was when it was just police. Now it’s the army. The ADF is being sent without arrest powers, I’m told, making them purely a weapon of visible intimidation. It’s a continuation of the Australian tradition of sending the army into low-income non-White communities when it is politically expeditious to do so. It’s sickening. I feel more solidarity with western Sydney than I do with our government.

I’m sick of being corrected by armchair experts online when I call the anti-lockdown movement very diverse, a mixed bag. Some would rather organise the coordinated doxxing of attendees like online group Mad Fucking Witches wanted to do, or label them all as “QAnons” or Nazis. There are elements trying to recruit, but this isn’t broadly true.

Commentators seem to have erased entire Indigenous-led anti-lockdown protests. (I heard of a regional Invasion Day event this year that basically finished up, terrifyingly, as an anti-vax rally.) They’ve denied the existence of smoking ceremonies even if I’ve shown them videos. They’ve magically disappeared a series of anti-lockdown figureheads hailing from migrant communities.

If they can do that, they can easily erase thousands of Lebanese people from Sydney’s rally.

Many attendees were driven by being shut out of construction work, unable to demonstrate eligibility for rental moratoriums or government assistance. Locked down and broke. Maybe if that weren’t the case some of these Lebanese “White supremacist” “QAnons” might have stayed at home.

What I’m saying is: this is complex. I have complex feelings about the movement — particularly when it accommodates factions with legitimate concerns, like broke people being locked down without assistance. You should have complex feelings about that, too.

I don’t want to participate in laundering the reputation of these people. I don’t want to find “common ground” either, really. What I want is to locate what’s needed to care for people, while also discouraging them to venture out mid-pandemic if they live in hot spots. I like to think you can leave people with fewer reasons to hit the streets by demanding and securing broad financial support for them. The Government can do that and they should. This political project seems urgent enough now to warrant unconventional conversations.

I also speak to ex-members of the movement. I’ve been talking to one regularly who recalls that two distinct awakening moments steered them away.

One was when a notable anti-lockdown figurehead – an interchangeable attention-seeker who I needn’t name – ran away from them and their group as they were being kettled by cops at Flagstaff Gardens. They had a feeling then — these people aren’t warriors. They began to dwell on the proliferation of wannabe celebs creating content for the movement. In my experience of looking at fringe political movements, the most common reason people get disillusioned is when they start seeing through the motivations of its craven figureheads.

The ex-anti-lockdowner also feels for people in western Sydney. (Although they make a clear distinction: “Not the regular morons.”) They agree that demanding emergency welfare relief for people doing it tough might safeguard people’s basic living conditions and, consequently, dampen rally attendance.

Speaking to the organiser, I confessed that at this stage, I honestly didn’t care if they protested every week in other circumstances. I just wanted them to hold on until there wasn’t significant community spread. No outbreak. That’s when they reminded me of their right to protest and that many people – more than half, perhaps – were out in Sydney for reasons relating to financial desperation.

My only answer to that is emergency welfare relief. That’s all I’ve got right now. I don’t think you can do sustained lockdowns without substantial government relief. So, I asked the organiser, what if we all pushed for that? Reinstate Jobkeeper, raise Jobseeker for good and reintroduce broad rental moratoriums.

Wouldn’t that pressure the Government into taking a people-driven approach to lockdowns, protecting people without income doing it tough, while also leaving people with less need to hit the streets during lockdowns — whether they believed in the pandemic or not?

“Sure,” they agreed, in principle.

As discordant, loose and disorganised as their movement is, it felt useful to be able to agree with one of them on something practical.

They said they want to turn their movement into something that protests for other matters of governmental injustice — environmental, Indigenous rights and so on. I’m dubious it will accommodate those changes, but I wished them luck. If you can convert that chaotic political will into energy, demanding something real and lasting, then that movement would be a force to be reckoned with. Just leave it out during outbreaks. Employ other tactics. Please.

The ex-anti-lockdowner recalled another defining moment in their departure from the movement. It came shortly after they were arrested. They were engaged in a boring conversation with police and they weren’t so much convinced by anything that the police said — it was more that they began to form a more mundane view of people doing their job during COVID-19. Months before, they honestly thought they would wind up in a “domestic terrorist cell” fighting the Government by the year’s end. They thought they would be whisked away with the rest of their movement to military concentration camps for vaccine non-compliance.

There’s many conspiracies like that going around. The Government will use the army to exercise a coup. An authoritarian dictatorship will form under the guise of pandemic protections. Stupid fantasies by conspiracists, who ultimately don’t believe that the virus is real, which gives them license to invent theories about why lockdowns occur.

But what now that the Government is sending the military into western Sydney? They haven’t introduced comprehensive welfare pandemic relief — only means-tested measures that many people in Sydney may find difficult or impossible to apply for. But they’ll all definitely get the army. They’re put there for optics — to intimidate people into submission. Scare tactics, rendering some of these wild theories at least partly true.

What do they think that might do for the movement’s numbers?

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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