Last Friday a 28-year-old man from Grafton, New South Wales, live-streamed a bloody rampage through two Christchurch mosques like he was living out a first-person shooter, cutting down 50 people, including children as young as three.
The entire attack was designed from start to finish to be a media spectacle—a kind of horrible meme to promote the idea of a race war, pre-packaged with a shareable manifesto.
In the aftermath, many seemed astounded that Australia’s seemingly innocuous, armchair variety of Islamophobia had curdled into something so foul. But that’s a kind of willful blindness. Frankly, as someone who’s spent a lot of time researching and observing the Australian far-right, I’m not surprised this happened.
To understand where this guy came from means examining how Australian politics has encouraged racist radicalism since at least 2015. And how the core ingredients—conspiratorial thinking, a belief in violence as a symbol of power, male superiority, and a victim mentality—have recently undergone a rebrand to appeal to a younger, better-dressed generation. One that might uncritically accept that being white somehow grants people a magical boost to their intelligence.
Back in 2016, I was writing a book about the industry of politics and how Australian Senator Pauline Hanson had managed to get re-elected despite the odds. Along the way, I spent some time learning about the ecosystem of the Australian far-right. The reality is Nazis, white nationalists, and people claiming to be representatives of the KKK have long been present in Australia. It is an inconvenient truth for many that The White Australia Policy was among the first Acts passed by the Australian parliament.
I, however, am not the first to point this out. Others have done so elsewhere, and have either been met with indifference of the “she’ll be right” variety, or bullied into shutting up. The latest among them is Osman Faruqi, whose clarity and sense of purpose has regularly been met with death threats. Speech is cheaper if you’re white.
But in 2015, what really made a difference was the rise of the Reclaim Australia protest group. Before this time, there were isolated hate-groups engaged in protests against local mosques, like those in Bendigo, Victoria, or in Camden, New South Wales. These were framed as movements of concerned citizens claiming to oppose Sharia Law in an environment where they felt encouragement from senior government figures like former Prime Ministers Tony Abbott and Peter Dutton.
But in 2015 Reclaim Australia came together, offering white nationalist and neo-Nazi hate groups a vehicle to pitch to a wider audience on the basis of “free speech.” With repeated demonstrations in every major capital city, they acted as a strobe in the basement for every flag-waving patriot, racist grandmother, and muscle-bound goon with a southern cross tattoo.
What the media largely missed at the time was the level of organization within. At one rally I covered in Perth during November 2015, I was harassed and photographed for taking photos despite being in a public place, checked for ID by an organizer who had no authority to do so, and harassed at least three times by volunteers who would grab me to ask: “Have you been cleared?"
A few years before, I suspect, that level of confidence and coordination wasn’t really a thing.
It was there that I also caught my first glimpse of Blair Cottrell, leader of the now-defunct United Patriot’s Front. I watched him march onto the field in formation among 50 other “infidels,” some wearing skull masks, as they let out a martial grunt.
A guy standing next to me whispered: “Those guys are hardcore. The militants.”
Toward the end of the rally, as the speeches raged on in the background, I watched a young woman in a headscarf walk up to the mass of people gathered to listen. The UPF immediately caught sight of her and began lecturing her on how her prophet was a pedophile.
Afterward I went up to the woman and introduced myself. She explained that she’d just been walking past when she saw the gathering and had wanted to find out why they hated her religion.
Away from the rally, I asked what she learned about the people up the hill.
“They go straight on the Quran,” she said. “If the terrorists read the Koran and interpret it the wrong way, they become terrorists. That’s also what these people are doing.”
And she would know. At the time she was a 21-year-old college student, but when she was six-years-old the Taliban had wanted her dead. She was an ethnic Hazara, a persecuted minority in Afghanistan and when the Taliban took over her village, they banned girls from going to school. She had gone anyway. That was enough for a death sentence.
Few would accept the comparison even now, but that woman knew then what the country is learning now: A reactionary can’t get what they want without violence.
While the UPF wouldn’t last and the Reclaim Australia protests faded away, those involved didn’t. Blair Cottrell would return to Melbourne where, in recent times, he’s rebranded and put on a suit for the media. In September 2016 the ABC invited him onto Triple J’s Hack. In January 2018, Channel 7 described him as a “concerned citizen” leading a crew of “vigilantes” against African gangs around Melbourne. In August 2018, SkyNews had him on as a talking head.
At the same time, new groups have formed and reformed. Chief among them is Neil Erikson who, according those who monitor far-right activities online, holds a resume that includes nearly every white nationalist and neo-Nazi group to operate in Australia within recent memory.
Among these developments was another: the alt-right. The first use of the term was came around 2010, but when it started getting traction with the election of Trump, it made the jump to Australia.
Just like ISIS had its own media department, the alt-right’s innovation was to class up and embrace social media. Traditionally, white nationalism and white supremacism wore high vis. Through the 80s and 90s, the people who took it up were burnouts with visible swastika tattoos, criminal records, and few ties to the modern world.
But by trading everyday clothes for the blazer, the alt-right has offered the promise of racial superiority and career advancement. These guys dealt in plausible deniability for a younger audience. They could trade memes and chat about setting up a white ethno-state just for laughs, all the while knowing that their ideas just might stick.
In Australia, few outlets have embodied this model more than the Convict Report, a podcast that invited Mark Latham and George Christensen on as guests. This kind of association with current and former politicians was the gold standard for their ambition. The UPF once tried and failed to start their own political party. Ever since they’ve operated via infiltration. Organizers from the Reclaim Australia marchers found themselves invited to One Nation events. Mark Latham has since embraced his freak side wholeheartedly. In October 2018, the National Party carried out a purge of neo-Nazis who had joined its ranks.
More recently there is Fraser Anning, the man who has used his career to smuggle Nazi ideas into the halls of parliament. It is no coincidence that Neil Erikson, who is currently wanted on a warrant in New South Wales, was one of the men who tackled and choked the 17-year-old kid who egged Anning last Saturday. Hate is networked. One photo shared online shows Erikson giving the white nationalist “okay” gesture alongside the vandal of the Eurydice Dixon Memorial and other figures.
The result has been an increasingly networked group of racists and hatemongers who have so far met no official resistance, egging each other on until one picked up a gun to prove he has the courage of his convictions. And for that, some 50 people suffered for his delusions.
What happens next depends on us. It may have been designed to encourage a race war, but what happened in Christchurch has united good people against hate. What's needed now is for that to be sustained, and for our politicians to stop believing the white nationalist vote will save their tanking careers. Because after Christchurch, it won't.
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This article originally appeared on VICE Australia.