The UPF rally in Bendigo yesterday (Saturday August 29) was countered by a rally organised by “no room for racism”. Police have stated that both groups were able to be heard and there we no serious incidents and no injuries. If anyone gets to “claim Victory” from the day it is Victoria Police who managed to both maintained the peace and protected the right to protest.
OHPI observed one incident of capsicum spray being used which was directed against UPF supporters who attempted to storm the anti-racism rally late in the day. Police used the capsicum spray to push them back.
Music from Jimmy Barnes, who recently objected to Reclaim Australia using his music for anti-Muslim rallies, was used to drown out speeches by the United Patriot Front, at least until police asked the owner of the sound system to relocate it a little further away.
We were disappointed to see some Bendigo locals who had been taking in by the far-rights fear mongering joining the UPF protest. These tended to be older members of the community, one told us he was concerned for the future of his grandchildren, another said he wanted to return Australia to how it was 30 years ago. Younger members of the community, in their 20s, who we spoke to on the street of Bendigo felt it wasn’t really their issue, so they took a look at the protests and moved on. Questioned on their views, they said they didn’t see what the issue was, “why shouldn’t the Muslims have a place of prayer just like other communities?” they asked.
On the positive side, a group of local teenagers joining the anti-racism protest towards the end of the day as it made its way up to trades’ hall. We heard one of them say to another, “I would have thought you’d be with that other protest”, his friend looked back in horror, “No way”. It’s great to see young people getting, and living, our values of a multicultural society with respect for all.
Locals were vaguely amused at so many people converging on the town, but few engaged with the protests on either side. Having been in Bendigo on a recent long weekend, the crowds then were 20 times larger than the combined size of these two rallies. To get people turning up to rallies requires greater coordination with locals on the ground.
More engagement also requires some changes to strategy by anti-racism campaigners. A roller-skating Tigger and giraffe at the anti-racism protest added to a good atmosphere. Chants which were not family friend detracted from this. Anti-racism protesters are learning not to take the bait and get into confrontations with protests from the other side who try invading their area. Such confrontations are usually staged for the media and, as they take place on the anti-racism side of the protest, are designed to make the anti-racism protesters look violent. Luckily today was far better in that regard than the Melbourne rally.
The bridge incident
There was almost an incident after the protests were over. The anti-racism rally left town hall and was making its way to trades hall when a handful of UPF supporters started following them. Near a bridge into the part there was the start of an altercation. Given the number of media present was equal to the number of UPF people, this looks remarkably convenient.
OHPI asked the media if they would disperse as their presence was creating a public safety issue. The response of one member of the press was that they had a right to be there. We replied that of course they did, however, the only reason the situation was escalating towards potential violence was because of the media presence, and if they incited violence they at minimum had moral responsibility for the result.
The media remained, the anti-racism protesters rightly decided not to give the media a show, and the UPF were delayed until mounted officers from Victoria Police arrived. One thing to note is the effective use of video recordings from mobile phones to capture both the UPF and media during this potential incident.
The burning of an Australian Flag
While we didn’t see the flag being burnt live, we did see video of it and saw the burnt flag on the anti-racism side of the protest. OHPI have previously spoken out against the burning of Australian flags. We don’t believe this is an appropriate form of protest.
In this case the situation is significantly more complicated as the flag was burnt by Indigenous Australians as political statement. Leading court cases, such as Mabo, have made clear that Indigenous rights existed prior to European settlement of Australia and continue to exist. The exact nature of sovereignty of the Aboriginal people of Australia is still unclear, but Indigenous Australians are not here “by leave” of the Australian Government. If they choose to make a statement against Australian sovereignty we must respect their right to do so, even if we would prefer they chose another way to make this statement.
In all, the Bendigo rally against racism brought many people together and showed that the far-right will not be left unopposed. The message of the anti-racism protests, both in Bendigo and previously in Melbourne, is that racism and bigotry are not things Australians support. That message needs to be sent out loud and clear. The far-right do not speak for ordinary Australians. They never have, and they never will.
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