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The Reclaim Australia protests and counter-protests reveal the unedifying anger on the outer fringes of politics. By Martin McKenzie-Murray.

Inside the strange dynamic of Reclaim Australia’s rallies

Anti-racism protesters clash with Reclaim Australia activists in Melbourne last Saturday.
Credit: AAP Image

For the few men who comprise the anti-immigration Australia First Party and the neo-Nazi Squadron 88, the numerals referring to “HH” or “Heil Hitler”, it was an opportunity to augment the United Patriots Front’s rally in Melbourne, itself a supplement to the Reclaim Australia rally organised for the foot of the Victorian parliament. A road trip was planned, a bus rented. The journey would be a merry drive from Sydney to Melbourne, a city they deemed a leftist “stronghold”. They packed a gun but Sydney police – aware of the groups – searched them before they departed and it was confiscated.

The national Reclaim rallies of Easter were putatively led by Shermon Burgess, also known as “The Great Aussie Patriot”, who then split from the group in May after organisational disorder. His obnoxiousness and extremism, I am told, led to his alienation, and soon he was forming the United Patriots Front and taking the most militant with him. The two groups now have an uneasy alliance, the public enmity between Reclaim Australia and the UPF was expunged from Facebook. Burgess has begun describing his new group’s involvement diplomatically – his new group is no longer a challenge to the poseurs of Reclaim, it is part of a proud alliance.

Burgess, based in Sydney, has been promoting himself for months through YouTube monologues and self-glorifying Facebook pages. He seems to have a love of singlets and in the videos earnestly presents himself as the general Australia needs. But a vein of hate runs through his statements: “I’ve met some nice Aboriginal people, I really have, but they’re few and far between, really. So many of them are just dickheads, man. You see ’em on metho, passed out, bludging cigarettes, and still blaming the modern generation for what happened 200 years ago.”

Andy Fleming – not his real name – has been observing and disrupting far-right groups for years, and shares his intelligence on his blog Slack Bastard. He is also an anarchist organiser, and helped prepare the anti-racism counter-protests last Saturday. Burgess has promised to unveil the identity of Fleming, whom he has described as a “lowlife communist”, and has posted a trailer for a documentary entitled The Hunt for Andy Fleming on YouTube.

“Burgess is, politically, only semi-literate,” Fleming tells me, “which is both a plus and a minus. It functions as a plus in the sense that he’s able to present himself as an everyman, which has deep appeal to some – and his message is pitched at the heart and the gut, not the brains. It’s a minus in the sense that it tends to produce political incoherence.”

Burgess, the general, had consulted his map, and determined the strategic importance of Melbourne. “Why do we need to win in Melbourne?” Burgess wrote online. “For starters it is a stronghold, it is a left-wing stronghold. Because the movement has been built up and no-one has tried to stop it. Together we can break them.

“Look at the Reclaim Australia rally back on April the 4th. We outnumbered the left wing in Sydney. We outnumbered the left wing in Brisbane. We outnumbered the left wing in Perth. Completely. Totally. They didn’t have a chance in hell. We owned them. But they still have one small pocket of the country in Melbourne. And we are going to take that pocket of the country.”

So the Sydney group were happy to help storm the fortress of Melbourne. They’d take a coach bus into battle. Nine hours of ribald camaraderie before they smashed some commies. It’d be fun. A real weekend.

Except news got out that one of the boys on the bus was Ross “The Skull” May, one of Australia’s more notorious neo-Nazis, and his presence was suddenly considered detrimental.

It is hard to satirise May. As accords his nickname, he looks like a desiccated corpse re-animated by the dark voodoo of Nazism. In reality he’s a semi-coherent octogenarian with few teeth and a sunken face, who in earlier years wore Nazi uniforms and intimidated political opponents.

According to sources, May was told a short way into the road trip to abandon the crusade and he disembarked just outside Canberra. The departure of one man wasn’t insignificant, given there were only about 30 aboard – about 10 to 20 per cent of the eventual anti-Islam congregation in Melbourne.

UPF's Blair Cottrell

These 88 and AFP members met with the UPF’s leadership in Melbourne. That leadership includes Blair Cottrell, an “aspiring street politician” who, like Burgess, records impassioned but little-noticed lectures on YouTube. He has also registered his politics on Facebook, such as his desire for all schoolchildren to read Mein Kampf once a year. And like Burgess, Cottrell is trying to expunge his more unpalatable expressions from the web. Plenty exists in caches, however. It was on Facebook that Cottrell mentioned a 19-month prison sentence for torching the house of a man who had slept with his girlfriend. “I suppose I am not much of an intellectual,” he wrote.

In another post, Cottrell said: “Women have manipulated me using sex and emotion; demoralization, and I have manipulated them using violence and terror. We use what we have to get what we want.” It is impossible to reconcile this with UPF’s professed desire to help women against their inevitable subjugation under Islamisation. But so it goes. Hate invites contradiction.

In a video lecture, the blond and muscled warrior records revelations upon a whiteboard. Cottrell’s guiding concern is that there is a nasty cabal of Marxist Jews forming a world government. The cabal’s useful idiots are the left, who gullibly ingest principles of immigration, gay rights and gender equality, but who will be slaughtered once their usefulness expires. Cottrell is especially concerned about how this “elite” uses our schools as a tool for disempowerment. Apparently, education is creating “effeminised little bitches, subordinate to women who later in life end up bowing to women to such an extent they drive themselves crazy, end up shooting everybody and go to prison”.

There is something of the men’s rights activist to Cottrell. He’s turned pain into systemised hate, created a durable mechanism that empties him always of responsibility and sheets it to phantoms of feminism and Jews. And Muslims.

And so it was that the 88ers, Reclaimers, AFP and UPF met last Saturday, confronted by screaming counter-protesters, corralled by police and complemented by a strange ally in Christian pastor Danny Nalliah and his Catch the Fire church. Many of the evangelical congregation are Asian, but their presence was fixed upon denying the false faith of Islam. Burgess has now claimed Nalliah as a UPF member, but as writer John Safran – who attended the rally – reported: “I think Danny is leveraging secular white Australia’s xenophobia to serve his Christian agenda.”

Neo-Nazis and Antifas

Arriving at the rally, I skirted the police cordons and took a laneway through to Bourke Street, the major artery running through the Melbourne CBD from the stairs of parliament. At the top was a thick picket line of counter-protesters – largely a mix of anarchists and Socialist Alliance members, but not restricted to them. Their organisation was apparent before I arrived – UPF movements were scouted and broadcast on social media. The Melbourne Street Medic Collective had earlier released safety tips and on the day patrolled the scenes. Marshalls wore armbands and enforced positional discipline. “Hold your line!” they would scream when approached by hostile opponents.

The neo-Nazis were already there, but in such small numbers I didn’t detect them. In fact, some were sitting beside me resting after scuffles and pepper spray. “There’s a first time for everything,” said one Reclaimer about being sprayed by police. There was a red welt on his neck. “But I’m not afraid of going back in,” he told his two mates.

One group sullenly gathered on the footpath, about 10 metres from the picket line, drinking Red Bulls and smoking cigarettes. Then they boldly strode up to their opponents, offering “Heil Hitler” salutes and screaming obscenities. But you could barely hear them for the counter-screams: “Fuck off, Nazi scum!” I saw one young man, an Australian flag on his T-shirt, proudly remove his pants and show his arse.

All of this went on for hours, and it was spiritually taxing. I was watching men for whom hate had replaced wonder, civility and enlightened ambition. Hate was their motivating force, their North Star.

Occasionally, some anti-racism protesters would break ranks to confront someone. You could spot the most serious, because they had water bottles stuffed in jacket pockets – the basic treatment for pepper spray.

“I think the main goal of the several coalitions which organised the counter-rally was to mobilise as many people as possible to establish and maintain a picket around the event, and by doing so disrupt, as much as possible, its smooth running,” Fleming later wrote to me. “How this goal was attempted to be realised – a fairly standard approach was taken. In other words, prior to the day intel was gathered and distributed, principally with a view to establish and monitor the presence of known fascists/those considered most dangerous.”

Fleming considered the counter-rally a success. I wasn’t so sure.

Does counter-protest fuel the bigotry?

For hours I studied faces. Nearly everyone’s – on both sides – were twisted in contempt. And when I considered how tiny the Reclaim Australia numbers were, I wondered if the counter-protesters weren’t indulging their opponents. They were dealing with atrophied imaginations and personality disorders. This spectacle was merely serving as a defibrillator for dull lives.

There is, however unlikely, something impressive about so anti-social a figure. The neo-Nazis were happily absorbing the contempt, and their self grew. So swollen are their disorders that I’m not sure they can be broken. These guys literally danced to the jeers, grinning like children as they swung their arms to the screams of their opponents: “Whose streets? Our streets!” It’s impressive in the same way as watching boxer Floyd Mayweather inspire contempt for himself, then transform his villainy into a fuel for his ego.

So why not ignore them and let their tiny numbers speak for themselves? Let them keep shrinking until they no longer justify coverage – after all, it wasn’t so much the Reclaim rallies themselves that were newsworthy, but the drama of conflict. The thinking is, as one placard implored on the day, “Don’t let racism become rooted and grow.” It is a recurring metaphor for the activist left – that unopposed, bigotry will become a virulent weed. Extremists must be combated at each step or they will flourish. There are tribes and there are battlefields. As one anti-racism protester sang, from the back of a ute, “Which side are you on, boys? Which side are you on?”

But where the left say that silence emboldens the racists, as I watched I wondered if the opposite wasn’t true – if this theatre of barely suppressed violence was animating them. An ego such as Burgess’s cannot sustain in a vacuum. Its grandeur is nourished by the thought of battle – the state and his enemies arrayed against him. It is the stuff of heroic purpose.

“I agree that a number of the younger ‘patriots’ enjoyed attempting to bait the crowd and there were a number of such incidents,” Fleming tells me. “One occurred quite early on when three or four Greek fascists – big boys – tried to muscle their way thru the picket but were chased off by a larger group of antifa [anti-fascists]. From the perspective of the counter-rally, I think the main intent was to establish a cordon around the rallies and to maintain it as best as possible. So I think many if not most were relatively happy to allow the boys to dance and sing providing they were prevented from joining their comrades at the rally.

“I think that the agitprop produced by Burgess and the UPF in the weeks and months leading up to the rally cultivated an expectation that the July 18 rallies were an opportunity to ‘smash the left’ – ‘the left’ from this perspective understood as consisting either mostly or entirely of drug-affected students and social misfits. In other words, yes, a number of patriots attended looking for a fight and did their best to provoke one. The task for ‘anti-fascists’, on the other hand, was to establish and maintain a strong presence early on and not to be provoked into unseemly encounters.”

But if we accept the counter-protest is useful, it didn’t promote itself well. Both sides were obliging in confirming their opposition’s expectations. For the anti-racists, there were the black flags of anarchism, balaclavas and bandanas wrapped around faces, and the inevitable Guy Fawkes masks. These can look ridiculous; on the evening bulletin, they appear sinister. Wouldn’t a modest retreat from their affectations help enlarge their base? 

A cartoon posted on Twitter depicted a decorous mother lovingly inspecting the clothing of her anarchist punk son. “Now,” she says, “go and fuck some shit up.” It’s a self-valorising image, designed to steel the ego, but it reflects only the self – dotingly reaffirms the righteousness of the protester. And watching the protests I wondered if – outside of the gridiron of the streets – if there was much strategy beyond expressing their rectitude.

George Christensen at Reclaim

I have spoken to Reclaim protesters who deny the presence of neo-Nazis, suggesting they are a mischievous fiction of the left. But the entire movement – if you can call it that, its numbers so infinitesimal – involves an unholy alliance of extremists, neo-Nazis and crooks.

And it was to this movement that Liberal MP George Christensen spoke last Sunday in Mackay, northern Queensland. “My friends,” Christensen opened, “I am proud to be a voice for North Queensland today. We all have a voice, notwithstanding our choice to use it or not. Notwithstanding the best efforts of those who would render us silent. We have a voice – not a voice of hatred, violence and extremism – but a voice of warning, defiance and of hope.”

Christensen’s announced intention to speak was fiercely opposed, and a petition circled demanding the prime minister prevent it. Christensen reminded people of the principle of free expression. “Hell will freeze over” before he decided not to speak, he said.

Anti-racism protesters sought to oppose Christensen’s speech, as they had sought to prevent the Reclaim rally going ahead. It is one thing as protesters to provide symbolic ballast; another to entirely disrupt approved rallies. Either the ideas stand, or they don’t. You either sharpen your own arguments, or you rest lazily upon the suppression of others. As Christensen spoke, they heckled him.

Still, while Christensen’s speech may have sensibly distinguished between “Islamism” and “Islam”, and he may have dismissed accusations of racism as lefty hyperbole, the evidence of rottenness at Reclaim’s core is enormous. Christensen may have made his speech independently from a group founded by a man who associates with neo-Nazis. The foundation and expressions of Reclaim Australia are public now, and so Christensen is either lying to himself or to us when he denies that his appearance doesn’t legitimise some of society’s most vulgar and dangerous groups.

Reclaim vs Real

There was another coach in Melbourne that day. It serviced the Real Madrid football team, parked before their hotel only a couple of hundred metres from the rallies. Images of the club’s superstars were plastered on the bus – the Spanish team, comprised as it is of Germans, Brazilians, Portuguese and a Welshman. The side is a powerful expression of fluid, multicultural commerce.

There were throngs of fans in the city. I realised I had seen as many people wearing Madrid jerseys as “patriot” T-shirts. The Reclaimers, the UPF and all their cohorts weren’t just outnumbered by counter-protesters and police – they were outnumbered by fans of a foreign football team. Which was hopeful. While the two protesting sides skirmished in laneways and the fringes of the city, the rest of the CBD comprised sports fans, tourists and locals enjoying the weekend. Immigrant retailers stepped outside their shops briefly to inspect the source of the noise, then returned to work. Melbourne was going about its business.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 25, 2015 as "Inside Reclaim’s strange dynamic". Subscribe here.

Martin McKenzie-Murray
is The Saturday Paper’s chief correspondent.

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