Australia in the 21st century — where everyone’s a feminist, no one’s a racist, fascists are everywhere, and Aborigines are universally beloved.

Or so it seemed from the surreal scenes in Melbourne’s Federation Square on Saturday as one of the 16 Reclaim Australia rallies held nationwide was confronted by the Rally Against Racism in what The Age’s John Elder described as “trench warfare”. And the trenches were a confusing place to be at times, given that in between shouting slogans about stopping sharia law, the Reclaim Australia supporters were loudly proclaiming themselves to be more-anti-racist-than-thou — and certainly more anti-racist than the Rally Against Racism protesters. The Aboriginal flag, for example, was prominently displayed on both sides of the battlelines.

I asked a young woman who was holding the Aboriginal flag on behalf of Reclaim why she felt it was important to attend and to show the flag.

She said that she opposed Islamisation and was “part-Aboriginal” before shuffling away to the side and allowing a man with a shaved head to complete the explanation. “She’s part-Aboriginal — they don’t have any religion! Just the land! And they don’t want Islamisation!”

Writer and activist Celeste Liddle, who blogs at Rantings of an Aboriginal Feminist, got into an argument with a Reclaim woman at the rally who identified herself as Aboriginal. “She accused me of confusing the issue because I was asking a bunch of white folks what right they have to reclaim anything when the real issue is how we are going to be overrun by sharia law.” She then asked Liddle if she was on the dole and told other Reclaim supporters that Liddle wasn’t even Aboriginal. “She had no comeback when I said, ‘Actually, I’m a Perkins’.”

The term “part-Aboriginal” was used by a striking number of Reclaim supporters as evidence that they were not racists. A 70-year-old part-Aboriginal woman was said to have been jostled by anti-racist protesters — so who are the “real” racists, then? When a group of the Rally Against Racism protestors started chanting “Always was, always will be, Aboriginal land,” a male skinhead joined in the chant, facing them and mockingly fist-pumping in harmony. “I’m OK with that! How stupid are youse? We’ve got part-Aboriginal people supporting us!”

“Part-Aboriginal” — I don’t think I’ve heard that term before, but at the Reclaim Australia rally I heard it over and over again. People used it to describe themselves, or the (silent) person next to them, or their comrades-in-arms. NITV journalist Michelle Lovegrove told me: “A person who is truly First Nations identifies as such, no ‘part’. ‘Part’ or ‘half caste’ (quarter etc) and the historical ramifications of those ancestry labels still have a sting that those who live their lives as indigenous people still feel intensely. You can’t cut blood.”

Of course, being Aboriginal doesn’t, in itself, preclude agreeing with Reclaim Australia about Islam and Muslims. Writer Eugenia Flynn, who is both Aboriginal and Muslim, observes that: “There are racist elements in any community and Aboriginal communities are also not immune to Islamophobia. However, the majority of Aboriginal people are anti-racist and see the current wave of Islamophobia for what it is, combining this with calls for Aboriginal sovereignty to be recognised.”

Back in the trenches, however, it wasn’t always easy to tell which side the combatants belonged to. A middle-aged woman told one of the young anti-racist protesters that her “Mongrel Nation: Fascists Fuck Off” banner was letting the side down.

“See, I don’t like those last two words. That’s lowering ourselves to their level” — gesturing towards the main “Rally Against Racism” cohort.

“Um. Do we have a case of mistaken identity here?”

Yes, we did. She had come into town to protest against halal certification, not racism.

At least this woman could speak for herself. For a rally that so prominently displayed its commitment to gender equality, there was a striking pattern of men — often muscle-bound, skinhead men — moving in to answer on behalf of women. The woman holding one of the “You keep your burqa, I’ll keep my clitoris” placards (which The Age’s John Elder described as “droll” — such a funster, John) told me that someone had “handed it to her” when I asked whether she had made it, before one of the men moved in to explain how “we” and “the students” (i.e. the Rally Against Racism protesters) should be on the same side. “We’ve just been set up to fight with each other by, you know, the banks and the Rothschilds.”

Huh? Did I just hear the codeword for “international conspiracy of Jews”? But, of course, the international conspiracy of Muslims is the far more pressing concern. Even on this issue, Reclaim said that it had “Muslims who are supporting us” — even as its supporters talked about Muslim deceptiveness.

“They practice taqiyya — deception! Their religion tells them to lie to non-Muslims!”

“But I didn’t lie to you. I told you straight-up that I was Muslim,” I told him.

“Well, that’s because you’re a very good woman,” said the skinhead.

“Or maybe I’m just not very good at deception. Maybe I just need more practice at it.”

Apparently skinheads don’t get my sense of humour.

My last conversation of the day was with a young American woman who had only been in Australia for two days and who had gotten into a heated conversation amid the closing skirmishes at Flinders Street Station with a woman who believed the halal certification was funding terrorism.

“This is, like, extreme,” she told me, nodding at the foaming-at-the-mouth Reclaim Australia supporters. “And that’s coming from an American who’s used to this shit.”

Peter Fray

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