Image: Protesters against Australia’s refugee policies rally in Melbourne’s CBD yesterday.
According to reports in The Guardian and The Age, the butterflies won the day. The butterflies stencilled on the streets and painted on the trees were a creative response to the “Battle of Eltham” anti-immigration rally staged by various (very) far-right organisations, including the True Blue Crew, the Party of Freedom and the Soldiers of Odin, on Saturday in Melbourne’s north-east. Anti-racist activists held a “welcome to Eltham” rally a short distance away, and the police were out in force in this usually quiet Melbourne suburb.
Alas, I ended up spending most of the day with the self-described patriots and missing out on the butterflies altogether. As more and more patriots in black combat jackets and T-shirts emblazoned with racist logos gathered in St Andrews Park, I noticed that several of the scariest-looking men who had been lurking near the station were yet to arrive at the rally itself. I imagined them lying in wait for any stray Muslim leftie scum such as myself who might happen to cross their path and decided that it was safer to stay in the park. I might be surrounded on all sides by a crowd that could accurately be described as the wingnuts’ wingnuts, but at least it was an open space with lines of police close to hand.
The patriots claimed to be protesting against plans by St Vincent’s to house newly arrived refugees in a disused section of a local aged care home. However, like the Reclaim Australia rally in Melton last year, which was supposedly protesting against an application to build an Islamic school on a site the patriots claimed ought to be used to expand a local special needs school (regardless of the fact that the school said that it had no interest in relocating), this rally to “defend our aged” was simply a vehicle for hate and exclusion.
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Very few of the anti-refugee protesters were concerned citizens of Eltham, and any who were stood out for their highly visible normality. Instead, the male-dominated crowd favoured black combat jackets and T-shirts with logos like “Rapeugees Not Welcome”. A trickle of locals stopped past to take a look at the rally and to say that they didn’t want refugees disrupting the tranquility of their old people, but most quickly moved on. An elderly woman with an unusual companion animal (“but don’t report that or I’ll come back and shoot you! Everyone knows that I’m the lady with the [unusual companion animal]!”) told me that while it was in general it was lovely for old people to have children around, that was “normal” children. These would be refugee children, out of control and running around all over the place.
It was the friendliest rhetorical death threat that I’ve ever received, and the companion animal was nuzzling up to me at the time. And despite her suspicion of refugees, its owner was visibly repulsed by the sight of a young woman in a Donald Trump T-shirt.
“Take that thing off! That’s not what we’re about. American politics scares me — it’s much more extreme than ours.” She leaned towards me and whispered confidingly “I voted Liberal!”
The Aboriginal flags that had been flown so ostentatiously at the Reclaim Australia rallies were missing at the Eltham rally, although I did notice one man wearing an Aboriginal flag T-shirt “because I’m Aboriginal”.
“Right. I notice that it says ‘Socialist Alternative’ down the bottom there — see?”
“Yeah, I’m going to get rid of that,” he said, sounding almost touchingly baffled as he stretched out his T-shirt for a closer look.
John Bolton stood out from the rest of the patriots as well for the suit that he wore in keeping with his rank as a barrister. And given that my carefully cultivated veneer of nondescript did nothing to disguise the fact that I was several shades darker than anyone else in the park and walk with a crutch, it wasn’t hard for Bolton to recognise me from our previous encounter at a Reclaim rally in Melton last year.
“I remember you. You call yourself a journalist.”
“And an academic.”
“Yeah? What are your qualifications for calling yourself an academic?”
“I have a PhD from the Australian National University.”
“And what is your PhD in?”
“So not a real science, then.”
Bolton opened the rally with a speech calling for a ban on the Koran because “if you come to Australia, you must leave your barbarian ways behind!” He was followed by Sergio Redegalli, who described how his “say no to burqas” mural in Newtown had been vandalised more than 90 times because “the left” only believes in freedom of speech when it’s saying something that they agree with. No one seemed to notice any contradiction between the two speakers.
On and on it went, one speaker after another claiming that refugees had committed “rape and pillage” in Europe, that “we” needed to protect “our” aged and (of course) “our women” and “our jobs” and “our housing” and even “our car insurance premiums” (wtf?) from the threat posed by “Muslim rapeugees”.
At one point, the organisers thought that they might be about to get the battle they’d been calling for when they announced that some of the Marxists had managed to break through police lines and were about to enter the park. However, the “Marxists” turned out to be the intimidating men who I’d noticed near the station. The Soldiers of Odin marched into the park in paramilitary-style formation, Australian flags held high and chanting “Aussie Aussie Aussie, oi oi oi!”
“It’s like a cult, isn’t it?” a woman who told me that she worked in a local aged care home and was opposed to the refugee housing project because she knew how hard it was for elderly people to get a place. “They’re trying really hard to be racist.”
And in a world in which Pauline Hanson is serving on the NBN Senate Committee and Donald Trump may yet and up triumphing in the US presidential election later this week, racists do have to go the extra mile to differentiate their brand. The real danger that posed by the misfits who assembled in Eltham on Saturday is that they make One Nation seem like moderates, while One Nation in turn makes the government’s internment of asylum seekers on Manus Island and Nauru seem humanitarian by comparison.
But the Eltham locals who are currently opposed to the refugee housing plan may end up softening their stance in order to differentiate themselves from the patriots who marched through their streets on Saturday. The woman who said that she was opposed to housing refugees in their local aged care home told me that she thought she had seen a few of the refugees themselves being shown around town a few days earlier. A support worker had been showing woman in a headscarf around the grocery store. She had a young child in a pram and they were being introduced to the locals.
“That’s lovely,” I said. She didn’t disagree. And I’m hopeful that as such scenes become more commonplace in Eltham, some of the others who are currently opposed to the refugee housing plan will come to regard these encounters as lovely, too.