The harassment of Senator Sam Dastyari yesterday, videoed by the perpetrators, was horrible but not surprising. The reason, however, is not what you may think.
In the abusive incident the Senator, who was trying to order a beer in a pub, was called a Monkey and a Terrorist. These comments were made because of his ethic origin (he was born in Iran) and based on assumptions about his religion (he describes himself as a non-practicing Muslim). When he called the attackers racist, their pre-programmed response was to ask “what race is Islam” – a response based on the their comments are about religious belief (and legitimate) and not about identity (and therefore racist). The fail of basic logic in this exchange, as the Senator tries to casually sip his beer, borders on the absurd.
The incident itself is not a surprise to the us at the Online Hate Prevention Institute. The reason for this is not because racism and the far-right are a growing force in Australia… they aren’t. What we have is not a rising level of racism within the community with multiple separate and unrelated flash points, but rather the same small group of people who appear over and over again carrying out students to try and capture the media headlines.
Yesterday’s “group” got quite upset when Senator Dastyari referred to them as the United Patriots Front. They corrected him repeatedly saying they were “Patriots Blue” not the UPF. When the Senator said he was repeatedly harassed by UPF, they challenged him asking when had they “Patriots Blue” harassed him before? The Facebook page for Patriots Blue was created on August 12th 2017 by Neil Erikson. This is the same Neil Erikson who, along with fellow UPF leaders Blair Cottrell and Christopher Shortis, was recently convicted and fined on a charge of serious religious vilification for staging a mock beheading outside the council offices of the Bendigo City Council. Patriots Blue was created before the conviction, but after charged had been laid and a magistrate in an initial hearing had dismissed efforts to have the case thrown out.
So what was yesterday’s incident? This was a media stunt to relaunch Neil Erikson under yet another brand name. And the media fell for it. On the 3rd of November 2017, almost 3 month old Patriots Blue Facebook page had just 778 likes. Today, after this stunt, it has 1570 likes. Neil Erikson has used the media to try and reconnect with his former audience and rebuild his online communication infrastructure. The penalty given by the court was clearly not a deterrent. On the radio today he told Neil Mitchell he woudl be engaging in similar activity even as he said police hadn’t spoken to him yet but he expected they would.
The problem we have is not wide spread racism and bigotry, it is contempt by a small group of far right extremists for the law and for the values we share as Australians and in this case as Victorians. The law is clearly not acting as a deterrent for Neil Erikson who has justified politicians as “fair game”. In the UK such extremism led to the murder of Jo Cox MP and threats of violence referencing the murder which were made to Luciana Berger MP. The law needs to be used to send a stronger signal to repeat offenders likes Erikson. Real life is not like Facebook. You can’t just make a new brand and start with a clean slate. What Erikson’s message says is that politicians and people from minorities are legitimate targets. The real danger is not the publicity loving Erikson himself, but rather unstable individuals who might see his incitement and in a break with reality act out their own fantasies of violence. To keep the community safe, governments must act to stop the spread of extremist narrative of incitement and vilification. The message that some groups, whether minorities or politicians, are fair game as targets for unlawful behaviour needs a response which is strong enough to be a real deterrent.
Further commentary from OHPI appears in an interview with the ABC news: Danny Tran, “Patriot Blue and other far right groups are ambushing politicians in search of the spotlight“, ABC News, 9 November 2017.
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