Reclaim Australia held a protest yesterday in Melton, an hour north west of Melbourne. Around 500 people rallied against the perceived spread of Islam, while another 500 protested the anti-Islam protesters. There was violence and OC spray and six men were arrested, but Melton's locals mostly stood back and looked skeptical, or maybe just ambivalent. I had the feeling a few of them didn't know what was happening.
"Which ones are the Muslims?" asked one guy. Another woman told me she was angry they'd come to Melton. "It's a good place," she said. "We don't even have a mosque or any trouble." I had to explain to her that the town was considering building mosque, which was the whole point.
Earlier this year the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal approved the construction of a 60-person mosque in South Melton. It was a significant decision but it didn't get much airtime—until Reclaim Australia announced that they'd be protesting it. This was the group that had formed around protesting Bendigo's mosque, so Melton seemed like a logical next step.
Then a few days ago, right before the rally, a Reclaim member was charged with firearm possession and the police warned protesters to stay away. This, on top of a heightened focus on terrorism after Paris, made the protest tense. Suddenly controversy had became the focus, and Melton's mosque slipped quietly into the background.
The only person to really talk about the mosque was city councillor Rosalie Crestani. She addressed supporters from the back of a ute, describing how she'd voted against the mosque but to no avail. Aside from her, speakers focused on forced marriages, beheadings, and the recent attacks on Paris. Basically everything they knew about Islam was anchored to what they knew about IS. The two were the same.
The police stood in a line around the protestors, boxing them in from counter protesters who'd showed up in equal force. At one stage I left the Reclaim camp when they were preaching about Muslims infiltrating the very fabric of Australian society. As I got over the police line I was blown away to hear a counter-protester describing the infiltration of fascism into the fabric of Australian society. I'm not even exaggerating. Left or right, Islam seemed like an arbitrary jump off point for all sorts of quibbles. Basically people were there because life is frustrating.
Nowhere was this more apparent than the street. Young teens prowled around on low BMXs and yelled shit at each other. Slightly older guys went in for short, intense fights, then pulled back and resumed prowling. Every time a fight broke out the media converged and all the freelancers braved OC spray for the perfect shot. The fighters, who all seemed like they'd struggle to get a 'like' on Facebook, loved the attention. It's likely that if the media ignored them they wouldn't have bothered.
This guy even managed to hold an impromptu press conference. "What are you mad about?" asked a reporter. "They're coming here to our turf. It's our turf!" Responded the guy. It was unclear if "they" meant Muslims or the other young men he'd been fighting.
After their rally outside the council office the Reclaim Australia crew marched down the road under heavy police escort. They arrived at a park where they'd planned to host a provocative pork sausage BBQ. Instead, the sausages were late and everyone sat around wondering what to do next.
Even the police relaxed and got some shade under the playground equipment. I wandered back into town to find some locals.
These are two sisters from Melton and they agreed the town had a nasty streak of racism. "There's a lot of Sudanese people here," they explained. "They get it pretty bad but I don't see that many Muslims." In any case they agreed that the protest had generally brought out the worst in everyone.
"It was just for people who wanted a fight."
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