Face off at move to unmask protesters

One of a handful of masked anti-fascist protesters. Photo by Joshua Resnick.
Victoria Police have asked for new powers to unmask and remove potentially violent protesters. Their request may soon be granted if a Bill passes its final stage in Victoria’s upper house. Joshua Resnick reports.

“Move! Move! Move!” cry an advancing line of police at stunned pedestrians, some with prams, suddenly awakened from their routine as they dash to avoid being consumed by around two hundred protesters furiously chanting anti-fascist slogans.

Organised chaos rolls through Melbourne’s CBD streets as protesters follow commands spouted from a loudspeaker. They are desperately trying to circumvent police to clash with their rivals; a rally organised by the nationalistic True Blue Crew.

Well over 100 police, some in riot gear or on horseback, move tactfully, blocking off trams, people and traffic, only moments before the horde moves through intersections; all-the-while barring the protesters from any sly attempts to desert their escort.

The counter-protesters are determined to appear every time a group like the True Blue Crew or Reclaim Australia hold a rally in Melbourne. The scenes from the latest clash on Sunday June 25 appear to be the new norm, and police know it.

Police were well rehearsed this time. They have learnt the hard way that counter-protests can turn ugly. They were caught off guard at an extremely violent event in Coburg last year between similar groups, many of whom were wearing facemasks.

Since the Coburg incident and similar events, Victoria Police have asked for new powers to unmask and remove potentially violent protesters.

Their request may soon be granted if a Bill passes its final stage in Victoria’s upper house.

The 2017 Public Order Bill, currently awaiting a final debate, will allow police to arrest people who refuse to take off a face mask or immediately leave a pre-designated area. Police will also be able to order a person to leave – if they believe the person will commit offences of affray or violent disorder.

Victorian police have less powers to act pre-emptively than their counterparts in other states since Labor repealed controversial move-on laws when they came into office in 2014.

Victorian Attorney-General Martin Pakula says, “Violent behaviour won’t be tolerated. We’re cracking down on troublemakers who use facemasks to hide from the law.”

Very few face coverings were worn by the True Blue Crew supporters and only a few counter-protesters wore them at the latest rally in June.

“There have been previous problems in Victoria, we certainly don’t blame the police for that, we blame the law makers,” says co-founder of Reclaim Australia, Catherine Brennan.

Reclaim Australia’s rallies attract significant counter-protests.

Catherine says Reclaim’s rallies are generally peaceful in other states, but not Victoria. “Places like Sydney, they can force people to be at least 100 meters away from the rally, whereas in Victoria they don’t have those sorts of laws yet.”

In the last couple of years, the umbrella organisation, Campaign Against Racism and Fascism, has taken the lead role in organising opposition to – what they see as – far-right ideals and racism in Victoria.

”We have to counter-organise against them to deny them a platform, a platform for their ideas. We have succeeded in the last two years in keeping them very fragmented and splinterish,” says CARF spokesperson, Debbie Brennan.

Ms Brennan describes the organisation as an alliance of smaller groups and movements that can be at odds ideologically, but come together to shut down far-right rallies. “Essentially we’re socialists, feminists, anarchists, aboriginal justice activists and unionists.”

She says the Public Order bill has “nothing to do with fear of face coverings,” but is a sinister attempt to slow down or stop their counter-protesting efforts. “(The Bill) is an attack on our right to organise… it’s there to really pick people off under any pretext”.

She admitted that some CARF protesters wear masks, but says they have legitimate reasons to hide their identities. “They don’t want the fascists to identify them, because many of them have been pursued by the fash (fascists). That is a very dangerous situation to be in.”

Ms Brennan’s claims are not unfounded. In December last year, The Guardian reported a far-right extremist, 32-year-old Phillip Galea, was charged with terrorism offences, for allegedly conspiring to blow-up the Melbourne Anarchists headquarters with homemade explosives.

Face off at move to unmask protesters
CARF Spokesperson Debbie Brennan. Photo by Joshua Resnick.

Investigators say Galea is linked to far-right groups such as the United Patriots Front, the True Blue Crew and Reclaim Australia. Galea’s trial is ongoing.

“Another reason is that many workers who come to these things don’t want their employers to see them, there would be retribution,” says Brennan.

Speaking at the Bill’s second reading in State Parliament, Attorney-General Martin Pakula says, “The laws relating to face coverings apply only to face coverings worn primarily to hide the wearer’s identity or to shield the wearer from capsicum spray.”

According the Ms Brennan, capsicum spray is frequently used at the counter-protests. She admitted masks are used to avoid its effects.

Black Bloc tactics, which involve intimidating far-right groups with violence while wearing all black, including face coverings, have become a common sight at counter-rallies internationally, particularly in the United States, according to Al Jazeera.

Ms Brennan says some individuals at counter-protests have employed Black Bloc strategies against far-right groups, but denies CARF promotes the tactics. “We don’t go for a punch up, that is not our purpose.”

But Ms Brennan says factions within CARF have their own agendas. “If there were a group, whether it be Anarchist or other, that is there to actually have a physical confrontation, and that’s the whole purpose, that is totally their call, and they will deal with it.”

She says the organisation holds discipline and marshalling training prior to rallies, in case it turns violent.

Catherine from Reclaim Australia says the tactics used by organisations like CARF are keeping potential supporters away from Reclaim rallies. “Absolutely, without a doubt, it’s just shutting down free speech.

“Whoever commits violence, if it’s anyone who attends our rally, or the counter protest, deserves to be punished…Who covers their face? Only people who don’t want to be identified because they are planning on doing the wrong thing,” she says.

Catherine says Reclaim banned face coverings at future rallies and supports the Bill. “We think that is a fantastic law. I think face coverings in public in this day and age should be banned anyway, and that goes not just at a rally, anywhere.”

Melbourne lawyer Mathew Kenneally, committee member for civil rights watchdog Liberty Victoria, says there are two arguments in play when discussing the right to cover your face at a protest. “On one hand, there is the argument that if you are going to engage in your civic obligations, then you conceal your identity, you lose that right (to protest).”

He says the other side is people may be hesitant to exercise their democratic right for fear of reprisals. “If some people can’t conceal their identity, there is a risk they won’t protest.”

Liberty Victoria’s main objection to the Bill is increased penalties for committing offences while wearing a mask, says Kenneally.

The new Bill will replace the current common law offences of rout, riot and affray, with statutory offences of affray and violent disorder, according to a media release from the Andrews government.

The release states: “Violent Disorder is when six or more people use unlawful violence together which causes injury to a person or people, or causes damage to property. It carries a maximum penalty of 10-years imprisonment, or 15 years if committed while wearing a face covering.”

Kenneally says criminal lawyers understand unlawful violence “can be a broken hubcap on a car or damaged tram site. Then all of a sudden, if you’re wearing a mask, it’s a 15-year maximum for what may be unlawful conduct we condemn, but not necessarily that severe, not really that threatening to the community.”

Law and order policy will be a main focus of the next state election, says Kenneally, “I think it (the Bill) will pass. At this stage, there is not a lot of will on either side to be questioning law and order policy.

“Every time that happens that leads to bad policy. We’ve been here before. Now we are saying we have to get harsher without even questioning why the first wave of harsh policies didn’t achieve the effect,” he says.

The increase in violent confrontation between the far-left and far-right is reminiscent of Australia in the 1960’s to 70’s, says Damon Alexander, Lecturer of politics and public policy at Swinburne University. “It’s exactly the same, the same thing you see on the news with the face masks.”

Alexander says the two sides are more similar than they think. “The mentality is the same, its zealotry or fundamentalism… there is no brooking of any sort of dissent or disagreement. They’re both incredibly narrowly focused and incredibly driven, and both politically irrelevant pretty much.”