There has been much hullabaloo in the press about the recent anti-Islam rallies, and the corresponding anti-anti-Islam-rallies-rallies. In Melbourne, where the clash was most vigorous, the police went so far as to deploy pepper spray upon the throbbing hordes in an effort to ‘preserve the peace’. The event I spectated in Adelaide was, as all things are in my native city, rather milder and much more pleasant. As far as I could tell, the worst it came to at the height of the hostilities was when one young man was very nearly given a fine.
According to their critics, the ‘Reclaim Australia’ group are violent fascist racists who pose a dangerous threat to democracy. The reality, if the rally I saw last weekend is any indication, is far less exciting, though interesting and complicated nevertheless.
When I arrived – my attendance brought about by curiosity rather than ideological zeal – the battle lines had already been drawn. Although the speeches weren’t scheduled to start for another half hour, it was clear from all the shouting that we were already in media res.
The Reclaim-ists had installed themselves on the steps of our state’s Parliament house. Thanks to their savvy use of space (raised platform, staggered staging) the passing observer on the street could see, without much craning of the neck, each individual member of the rally. They numbered around sixty, which also seemed to be their median age, and had enough Australian flags to put Tony Abbott’s press conferences to shame.
Homemade banners made the case against Islam with varying levels of pith; from the rather conventional ‘Islam Violates Women’, to the brassy ‘I love my clit, my freedom, my life. NO ISLAM and no 8 year olds as wives’. One man held erect a small ‘Vote One Nation’ placard, and that was about as unpleasant as the signage got. I understand that a less savoury element was present at some of the interstate gatherings. One well publicised gentleman with a swastika tattooed into the back of his head seems to have been in attendance in Melbourne. But by and large, the impression I got was that these were the sort of people who’d much rather go to a John Williamson concert than the Nuremberg Rally.
In the other camp, stationed in front of the parliament on the sidewalk and street, separated from their foes by a legion of police officers, were the self identified ‘anti-racists’. They were roughly equal in number to the Reclaim group, decades younger, and outfitted in tight jeans and ugly woollen jumpers. I myself was similarly attired, it being very cold that morning and myself owning a large collection of ugly woollen jumpers.
One spectacularly enchanting young lady from the ‘Socialist Alternative’, mistaking me for one of their number, asked me if I was going to be attending their seminar later that evening – ‘Why Capitalism Is Racist’ – and I confess that I was so taken by her that I almost threw away my love of property rights right then and there. Before I could accidentally out myself as a bourgeois brute, the counter-protestors broke out in a deafening chant of ‘MUSLIMS ARE WELCOME, RACISTS ARE NOT’, and I found myself lost in thought as to how welcome one should then be to Muslims who also happened to be racists. When I looked for her again, much to my chagrin, the girl was gone.
To my left, and indeed, to everybody’s left, now stood a hooded man waving a large red flag. ‘F–K OFF NAZI SCUM!’ he shouted enthusiastically, taking one hand off of the flagpole (and nearly hitting me with it in the process) to point across the barricades in the direction of a man protesting halal certification dressed in a large foam Vegemite costume. I could be wrong, but to my knowledge history has failed to record anybody at the 1923 Beer Hall Putsch who was dressed up to look like a traditional German spread or conserve (attempting a ban on kosher sauerkraut, perhaps?)
The Reclaim rally had installed a makeshift PA system, and the first to speak was an invigorated fifty-something year old woman dressed in a patriotic blazer in the style of Bob Hawke on the day of the America’s Cup Victory. ‘Before we begin,’ her amplified twang more than audible over vocal disapproval of the counter protestors, ‘we would like to acknowledge the Kaurna peoples, the original custodians of this land’. Did mine ears deceive me, or were they performing a ‘welcome to country’? She proceeded to invite an Aboriginal man onto the stage, who went by the name of ‘The Aussie Digga’, to perform some of his patriotic rapping. His raps, which were actually quite catchy, were booed loudly by the counter protestors. ‘I’m indigenous, my best mate is Philippino!’ he boomed in between numbers, still inundated by booing, leading his own chant: ‘say it loud, say it clear, there are no racists here!’, before asking everybody in attendance to give ‘three cheers for the Sikhs!’ When the booing became even louder, the Aussie Digga proceeded to lift up his shirt, and do the Nicky Winmar. ‘What do you say to that?’ he enquired.
The anti-racists were not entirely sure what to say to that. ‘A first people’s person can still be a racist too’, said a woman in an anti-nuclear power t-shirt, though more to herself than anybody else. That sort of sentiment is difficult to convey in chant-form. Later, perhaps in an effort to out-indiginise the Reclaim group, they started up the classic ‘ALWAYS WAS, ALWAYS WILL BE, ABORIGINAL LAND’. Again, the logic of the chant was problematic. How is the cause of Islamic settlement furthered by the denouncement of European settlement? By that time, the Reclaim group had some problematic new chants of their own. ‘You grubs!’ screamed one incensed anti-Islamist into his microphone. ‘You socialist lefty scum! I bet you don’t have jobs! You probably don’t even know how to grow your own vegetables!’ This man, and many of the Reclaim crowd, were seemingly more frustrated with the teachings of John Lennon than the Prophet Mohammed.
The most satisfying moment of the day for me came hours afterwards, later that evening when I attended an art show. I overheard a man who had been in at the rally, saying emotionally that he was shocked at how blue collar the Reclaim Australians had been. ‘I mean, I felt bad to be shouting at them. They were clearly working class. Obviously they are wrong to be racists but,’ he mourned, ‘they can’t help it’.
Subscribe to The Spectator today for a quality of argument not found in any other publication. Get more Spectator for less – just £12 for 12 issues.