Fitzy wears a camouflage Kevlar vest with a little Australian flag tied to the back. The cops won't let him into the demonstration because of what he is wearing—but he refuses to remove the vest on principle. "It's a crime to be a proud Australian," he says. "But those leftie muzza rats can get away with wearing face masks and whatever they want."Fitzy is a Bendigo resident who's showed up to protest the construction of a large mosque on the east side of town. The structure was recently greenlit by Victoria's planning tribunal. While the city's councilors supported the mosque, it drew criticism from residents and local opposition prompted a review by the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal. "The mosque will be really close to the army base, where they have all their weapons and a shooting range and stuff," Fitzy observes. "Nobody wants it here."
The anti-mosque crowd is several hundred strong, made up of an eclectic mix of white people. They sport clothing from the Royal Australian Infidels imprint; biker gang leathers; elaborate tattoos; and shirts that decry Islam as a political ideology, not a religion. They wave Australian, Aboriginal, and boxing kangaroo flags, and hold white placards that claim: ISLAM OPPRESSES WOMEN and 80% OF BENDIGO RESIDENTS OPPOSE THE MOSQUE.The placards were prepared by Rights For Bendigo Residents, a local group that has fought the mosque plans from day one. "Our objections to the mosque are all legal ones," says Judy, a Rights For Bendigo Residents member, citing fraud and conflicts of interest in the development application. But she also expresses misgivings about Muslims' capacity to integrate. "They've got their prayer hall up at the uni," Judy says. "During their Friday afternoon prayer session, or whatever you call it, only about 30 of them turn up. So why do they need a mosque with a capacity of 2000 people?"
A series of speakers address the crowd through a modest PA, shouting partly through fervor, partly as a practical necessity. Counter-demonstrators turn up and attempt to drown out the anti-mosque speakers with chants of "You are a wanker!"Blair Cottrell, head of United Patriots Front Victoria, laughs at the counter-demonstrators. He says the crowd of patriots is gathered today not just for Bendigo's sake, but because the future of Australia is at stake. He builds momentum, and his face turns red with rage as he gestures wildly, pleading with open hands and shaking clenched fists. He pauses to let the crowd cheer, looking up at the overcast sky as if seeking further inspiration.
"I know from the feeling in this place that you're ready to fight," Cottrell says. "We are nation of people where I can turn to each other and say, 'This is my brother, this is my countryman, he will not let me down, I will not let him down. We are Australian!'"The crowd cheers then goes weirdly quiet. There are murmurs of discontent before someone shouts, "They're burning the flag!" Cottrell runs off stage, joining the tide of outraged patriots that races to confront the counter-demonstrators doing the burning, their fury amplified by the counter-demonstrators' taunts. A cloud of dust puffs into the air as the police deploy capsicum spray to beat back the surge. A man races away from the frontline with a painful streak of orange goo on his face. The mild breeze carries the spray beyond the protesters, leaving passive onlookers coughing and spluttering and wiping their eyes.
A young man climbs a tall sculpture and waves an Australian flag. The anti-mosque crowd claps and cheers delightedly. Peter watches the impromptu flag-raising ceremony, arms folded, still clearing his throat from the lingering spray. He's made the trip up from Melbourne and isn't affiliated with any particular group. He describes himself as "just a shit-kicker" who became interested in Islam's ills when the Syrian Civil War commenced. He reels off a list of right-wing websites—Gates of Vienna, The Counter Jihad Report—that have informed his private research.
"I'm sick of it," Peter says. "They want to take us back to the dark ages. All the videos I've watched—the burnings, the beheadings—you become numb to it after a while. And that's really sad."He points at the town hall clock tower. "If you or I were homosexual—which I'm not, but just say for argument's sake—then they'd push you off that tower, and if you survived, a crowd of people would stand around throwing stones at you to finish the job."Suddenly, as though someone has flicked off the vitriol switch, the crowd quietly disperses, some loitering to catch a handshake. Word goes around that they will be celebrating the day at the nearby Hotel Shamrock. Later they stand outside, smoking and preaching the Islamic threat to a middle-aged diner from the neighboring restaurant."They lie and manipulate us, it's taqiyyah," an older lady tells him, but he's not convinced and goes back inside."Fuck off then, ya leftie dog!" Morgan shouts, lifting his shirt to reveal the words tattooed on his pale stomach. They read: "Aussie Pride, motherfucker!"His compatriot Evan is more reserved, a private military contractor who's worked in the Middle East and will soon be returning."I've seen what they do, what kind of people they are," Evan says. "If Australia doesn't wake up soon, it'll be too late. Just look at England."Evan concedes that the vast majority of Muslims are fine—he's even fought alongside them, "and they would've taken a bullet for me, no question." But it's the "minority of fuckwits" that are the problem with Islam."They want to move in—it's not just a new mosque, they're building shops and houses too—and take over Central Victoria. From there, who knows what could happen?"A pair of riot police cars has been doing restless laps of the main street. Morgan spots them and sneers, giving them the finger. An older lady suggests they'd better get moving if they want to get to the bottle-o before it closes. They head off into the night, Morgan shouting insults as the police turn back for another high-vis pass.