For the most part, the Perth leg of the Reclaim Australia rally was shaping up to be fairly average, until the sudden and largely unexpected appearance of Blair Cottrell, leader of the United Patriots Front (UPF).
The UPF began life when the founders of Reclaim Australia, Shermon Burgess and Monika Evers, fell out and Burgess left to start the UPF. Then in October, a fellow UPF member posted a YouTube video claiming to be Burgess. "My name is Shermon Burgess, AKA the Great Australian Patriot," says the guy, who's wearing a baseball cap like Shermon's. "I'm filming live from my mom's basement." Burgess quit after that, claiming he was sick of taking shit from his own side.
Post-Burgess, a man who wants Mein Kampf taught at schools, Melbourne-based Blair Cottrell took over the UPF. Yesterday, he made the big trip west with a contingent of core personalities in matching T-shirts.
Why Cottrell came to Perth is unclear, but presumably it was to back up their man Dennis Huts and help build the UPF's presence in the state at a time when another anti-Islamic group, the Australian Liberty Alliance, was beginning to gain support.
Not that UPC's presence seemed to have a great effect. Among the ranks of Reclaim Australia, people whispered about how the UPF made them an easy target. For the average Reclaimer, the UPF are a bit militant.
Still, when Cottrell and friends turned up in numbers about half an hour before start time chanting "Aussie, Aussie, Aussie," they were met with applause.
Which is the thing with Reclaim Australia: No matter how hard the organizers try to frame it around a central platform, it's less a united movement so much as a loose coalition who happen to have converged on the single idea that Islam is terrible. One guy will talk New World Order and Barack Obama and another guy will quote the Bible. This also explains why there were at least two St. George flags doing the rounds and only one Peace for Paris placard.
Reclaim Australia, even at its best, is a free-for-all where the only other uniting traits, besides an overwhelming hatred of Islam, is the belief that no one involved is racist and the deeply-felt fear that Australia is changing.
"I do this because I want my daughter to grow up in a world that I did," Zayne Van Day says before the rally where he's scheduled to speak. Asked what world that is, he says "the 80s."
It's a similar story for Bev Fussell, 78, except she's never supported a political party and has never been to a rally before. This is her first time. She doesn't hate Muslims, she says, just radical Islam and Halal and Sharia. Most of all she is afraid the Australia she knew is changing.
By the time the rally kicked off at high noon outside parliament house, the temperature had climbed to about 95 degrees in the full sun and as the first speaker started, and the Reclaim Australia faithful moved out from the shade to watch.
It must be said that for the most part, the rally actually seemed half-decently organized, at least compared to the counter rally. The counter rally had started out at the bottom of the hill, but then relocated to higher ground to get a better line of site on their opposition. It failed when the police quickly set up lines at a bottleneck and boxed the protesters in. From that point on, they were basically invisible.
As for the United Patriots Front, the cadre clustered to the back corner of the rally, behind a marquee. Cottrell and a few others were scheduled to speak and they were waiting their turn at the microphone.
What none of them were expecting was the appearance of Muslim woman Rahila Haidary, 20, who walked right up, alone, to talk to them about Islam. It was a weird sight for a Reclaim Australia rally and a twist in the day's program which usually involves talking about Muslims, not to them.
So for a good 15 minutes the UPF took turns asking confronting questions as Haidary politely listened to them tell her how her religion was evil and oppressed her. It wasn't possible to hear everything they were saying over the background noise, just snippets about "Hizb ut-Tahrir" and "Hezbollah" and "Islam as an ideology" and "deviant multiculturalists." Then, at the end of the conversation, the UPF guys asked Haidary for a photo of them all together and she obliged. One guy gave her bunny ears.
That photo was later uploaded to Facebook where the UPF told the world they had "educated" her after she left the counter protest. It was a lie.
"I was just trying to make a point," Haidary told me at the time. "As a Muslim, I've come here to tell these people that not every Muslims is a strict Muslim. I'm not that person you think I am."
It wasn't the only photo the UPF posted to mark their big Perth trip. After the rally was over the guys went out for beers. Together they took a few selfies of themselves looking tough. Blair Cottrell even signed a woman's cleavage.
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