On Easter Saturday, while most Melbournians were doing very little, an anti-Islamic group called Reclaim Australia (RA) tried to hold 16 rallies around the nation. There were events in Sydney and Brisbane, but Melbourne's Federation Square received one of the bigger turnouts, mainly because that protest attracted a large counter-demonstration.
The objectors were organized by a coalition of community, Indigenous, and left-wing groups under the banner No Room for Racism. NRFR's plan was to assemble an hour before RA and effectively seal off the square. I, along with seemingly every TV journalist in the state, headed down to see what would happen.
What happened was shouting. Lots of it. And with all the shouting, neither side was able to disseminate their views very effectively. In truth, it was probably only the Reclaim Australia people who actually wanted to be heard, as they were recruiting new members. NRFR, however, seemed mostly there to drown the other side out.
I met a NRFR protester named Eri in the crowd. She'd been punched in the face after she'd spat on a RA supporter. The hit had left her rattled but soon she was back in the line, yelling across the divide. This kind of provocation was a key tactic of the NRFR protesters. As the first RA guys tried to break their line on the Swanson Street side of Fed Square there were chants of "Fuck! Off! Nazi! Scum! Fuck off Nazi scum!" A little further down the line a desperate voice cried out, "Don't call them scum! Focus on the message! There's no room for racism!" Unfortunately his voice was buried in the chanting.
As the afternoon wore on, "fascist" became the favored term for both sides. The NRFR were quick to point out that nobody in their ranks had a swastika tattoo, but the RAers countered that they were victims of fascism because the NRFR were preventing them from exercising their right to free speech.
Things got weirder when members of both sides tried aligning themselves with the hallowed ANZAC legend. Apparently if you have an ancestor who "fought in Gallipoli," you're automatically in the right. Later, the anti-immigration RAers started chanted at their left-wing opponents "Together, united, we'll never be defeated!"—a variation of an old socialist rallying cry.
Perhaps the strangest line of the day came from a RAer named Stuart, who was trying to explain why he was protesting against the rise of Islam in Australia. "I'm here so my kids can have an 'Easter bonnet parade' instead of a 'crazy hat day,'" he told me. He went on to explain that he had Muslim friends and even had a place for Muslims in his vision of Australia. Sadly, less than an hour later, I watched him get stomped so bad that the paramedics were called.
They argy-bargy continued into the afternoon with more insults and shoving. A few decent punches were thrown, but nothing that you couldn't have seen on King Street. The shouting remained steady and apparently this is what prevented Reclaim Australia's speaker, Evangelical preacher Daniel Nalliah, from addressing the crowd. Reclaim Australia later claimed that protest lines kept up to 60 percent of their supporters away from the event. By my count, RA managed to rally a modest 200 to 250 obvious supporters. NRFR looked like they had around three times that number.
By mid afternoon the camera crews and bystanders had dissipated and the day's earlier bitterness had softened. The two sides kept up the name-calling, but with Reclaim Australia's rally well and truly railroaded, the urgency was gone. As police cleared the remaining few hundred protesters from the square, the two crowds gravitated to Flinders Street where they each held small lines on opposite sides of the street. Eventually, everyone dissolved into the city.
The snippets of violence on TV that night probably encouraged people on both sides to participate at the next event. But for others, the whole thing would have looked like something to avoid. On some level it was a win for the NRFR guys who stymied the RA rally. And speaking as someone who was there, that was the closest thing to a win either side could have hoped for.
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