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The protests against Victoria’s pandemic legislation are larger – and stranger – than people realise. By John Safran.

Pun times: A dispatch from the protests

A so-called “freedom rally” in Melbourne last month.
Credit: AAP / James Ross

You’ll have to pry their puns from their cold dead hands. Tens of thousands, at least, turned up to the “Kill the Bill” rally last Saturday and they brought their zingers with them.

Opposite Victoria’s Parliament House, where Harry Potter and the Cursed Child is running at the Princess Theatre, a woman is waving a placard that says she’s a “Prisoner of AzkaDAN”. Another placard quips “Once Andrews is jailed for treason he’ll have his own man-date every day”. It’s a riff on vaccine mandates and prison sex, if that wasn’t clear.

Even “Kill the Bill” is a word play. A truck tows a professional looking billboard, seemingly advertising Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill  but with Daniel Andrews substituted in for Uma Thurman. The crowd fears this bill will put too much power in the premier’s hands to crack down on their freedoms.

With girls on stilts, a bloke dressed as Moses, another with a paper bag on his head and people thrusting signs with Bible quotes, it’s hard to know where to begin. Who are these people?

A counter-rally organised by Campaign Against Racism and Fascism is characterising the event as far-right, labelling some of the organisers “actual Nazis”.

I decide one place to begin is by moseying up to those waving flags of different nations. From Croatia to Turkey to Greece to Albania, the steps of parliament look like an audience cutaway at the Eurovision Song Contest.

Alongside a trio of women in hijabs, dressed in black from head to toe, a man is holding up the flag of Lebanon. “Our scriptures tell us not to take anything that will harm our body,” he explains, when I ask why they are here. “Even so much, we’re not supposed to put on a tattoo. So, imagine taking a vaccine knowing there’s carcinogens in them.”

A white guy approaches and points to the metal pole on which the flag flaps. “Fibreglass would be better.” This guy is concerned the Muslim dude will hit an overhanging tramline and electrocute himself. “That’s the Australian culture,” one of the Muslim women remarks. “Everybody looks after each other.”

Mainstream folk would say they’re not looking after each other, they’re spreading medical misinformation about Covid-19, and possibly spreading Covid-19 itself. But hold up; not so fast. Maybe the people here are the mainstream. Later, as the march reaches Flagstaff Gardens, I’m disoriented, the crowd as vast and overwhelming as a CGI army in The Lord of the Rings.

Back here on the steps of parliament, I’m overcome with the spirit of the rally: puns.

“What do you think of my protest chant that you can do?” I ask the Muslim women. “Yes to hijab, no to the jab.”

“Hehehe, that’s a good one,” one says. “I’m going to steal that.”

I bump past a man brandishing the placard “I LOVE DAN… Murphy’s” and reach a man brandishing a Romanian flag.

“When you come from a communist country, you know how things operate,” he says, pointing to his sister wrapped in the Romanian flag. “And when you see the loss of freedom, it’s actually starting to affect you because it brings back memories. In Romania, there was this thing, you couldn’t freely move. You had to get approval to go to visit another city.” He compares this to the digital certificates we need to hold in our phones to enter shops or the pub across the street. “It’s the same thing!”

Another man left Egypt at the age of 10. He remembers the division between Christians and Muslims. “You got a Christian name, you don’t get a job, they don’t play with you as a kid at school.” He sees the same cleavage opening between the vaccinated and unvaccinated in Melbourne. “It’s divide and conquer. Why would we ever do this? This doesn’t make sense.”

“It’s interesting to talk to the older generation,” a young Croatian flag-bearer tells me. “They say, ‘This is worse than communism.’ Even in communism – back then, they were able to go and see and speak with people and leave their homes. I mean, here, we’re locked up for almost two years.”

“I didn’t really think about that,” I admit. “Older people, who’ve gone through some traumatic experience overseas and then they here in Melbourne and then it’s like, locked down again.”

The hours pass, sun reddening my ears as I weave through the masses. An Aboriginal man is daubing paint on a shirtless bloke on the grass near Parliament House. He says he’ll put a curse on The Saturday Paper if I misrepresent things here.

I look up to a Māori flag blowing in the wind. I ask the flag-bearer why she has turned up.

“Us Māori, like the Indigenous people here, their lands were stolen and their freedoms were stolen. I’m trying to fight for our freedoms that our ancestors lost many years ago, and we are about to lose again.”

Like with the Romanian, there’s a backstory, a reason for the anxiety. The past is never the past.

“But just say they’re right?” I suggest. “That taking the vaccination does protect us? And that will help Indigenous health?”

An Aboriginal woman gripping her flag, next to a Torres Strait Islander gripping hers, has been listening. “People in the past said the exact same thing. They were going to protect the Aboriginal people. And that’s where I see the similarity. It’s very scary. We’re brought up to, you know, the land provides. We are just the caretakers of this land. We know when to go out to the bush to get our medicine.”

This ventures into impossible territory for some on the left. The rule book says to defer to Indigenous knowledge of the land. I later catch a tweet that, through careful wording, complains “anti-vaxxers” at this rally are exploiting Indigenous matters, giving the impression these offending anti-vaxxers are white.

In fact, the Aboriginal man threatening the curse, D. T. Zellanach, is a key organiser. A couple of years back he was here protesting against the government’s plan to chop down sacred trees to make way for a freeway. Next week he’ll be the opening speaker, spending more than an hour explaining to thousands on the grass how society will operate under his version of decolonisation. I’m not suggesting Zellanach is representing everyone. Nonetheless, the crowd is sprinkled with Aboriginal flags.

“I USED TO LOVE HER BUT IT’S OVER NOW – Mick Jagger”. The flip side of this placard explains that the ABC has become another sellout organisation misrepresenting this rally as a Nazi one.

“How is pro-choice ‘alt-right’?” asks a young woman’s placard, applying the left-wing term for reproductive rights to her desire to refuse the jab. The font and art direction on her sign are nicked from the Campaign Against Racism and Fascism’s material, which paints this as a far-right rally.

“I had family members that were hung by the Nazis, in their village,” a 20-year-old with a Greek flag tells me. “My grandma hid in chicken pens so she didn’t get killed. How would they like it if they’re called a Nazi? They wouldn’t like it. I wouldn’t call Daniel Andrews a Nazi. I’d just call him a wanker.”

So, there aren’t Nazis here? Not so fast. Up the top of Bourke Street, a bunch of placards are lying on the ground: “QUI?” That’s French for “who?” and a neo-Nazi meme. I’m desperate to find who placed them, or abandoned them, here.

I dart my eyes across the crowd. Over the Jehovah’s Witnesses, who are certain the vaccine mandate is a sign of the apocalypse, so it’s bad, but bad in a good way, because Jesus will return. Over the young man dressed as Wally of Where’s Wally fame. “We’ve found Wally,” his sign proclaims, “now where’s the truth?”

I squint, spotting a “QUI?” held up in the distance. Distracted momentarily by the opening drumbeat of Twisted Sister’s “We’re Not Gonna Take It” blasting from the fat speakers on the steps of Parliament House, I lose sight of it again. I head in the general direction, past the old man with a laminated chart explaining how Bert Newton and Graham Kennedy were tied up in Satanism, and Bert being granted a state funeral last week proves it goes all the way to the top.

I catch up to a woman. “What does that sign mean?”

“I just found it. I felt like I needed to pick it up.” She thought it said oui – yes.

“It’s qui – who,” I tell her. “Far-right people must be here at the rally. Because that’s theirs. Their answer to ‘who?’ is it’s the Jews. Forced vaccinations, it’s the Jews.”

“Yuck!” She drops the sign on the ground. “Shit, thank you.”

I spot another sign, this time “9/11 QUI?”, positing that the Jews are behind the September 11 attacks. This woman picked it up from the side of the street, too, not wanting the general public to think the “Kill the Bill” protesters were litterbugs. No sign of the actual folk responsible for these placards.

The marchers end up at Flagstaff Gardens. No point complaining Sky News are exaggerating the numbers. Even if they are, I’ve never seen anything like this. The Big Day Out crowd running into a Collingwood v Carlton crowd in the park. Is this the mainstream? A giant “Info Wars flag and T-shirts featuring yellow Minions with “Fuck Dan Andrews and his Minions” written in puffy pen beneath?

A Labor adviser later tells me I have to keep in mind the latest Roy Morgan Poll. It puts Dan Andrews’ approval at 60 per cent, 10 points down from last year but still pretty great. And this high approval is largely based on his handling of the pandemic. So plenty don’t agree with the enormous placard of a naked Dan Andrews spooning an inflatable doll with “What happened to consent before being fucked?” written across it.

I bump into an old friend – so she’s one of these folks? – but have to abandon her when I spot them under the trees. Who?

These men and women hold up “QUI?” signs – and they haven’t accidentally picked them up. Their giant banner, that stretches between trees, directs you to a website that lays out how the Jews are responsible for your misery.

Some of their “QUI?” placards feature a headshot, an illustration of a stereotypical looking Jew. To be fair to the neo-Nazis, I’ve got to say it does kinda look like me.

One T-shirt reads: “Naming is half the battle”. This meme argues you’re not easily allowed to say the word “Jew” when discussing the problems of the world. Another sign says “They Know. Shut It Down”. This meme, often accompanied by an Orthodox Jew on a phone, argues the Jews will shut down those who see through the matrix and realise it’s the Jews.

Last month, an acupuncturist I visited theorised that my tight back is caused by walking towards dangerous people when my body is telling me to walk away. I approach.

“No comment,” says one of the blokes. “But we know,” he adds.

“You know what?” I ask.

“We just know!” he squeaks, sounding like a frustrated character on Seinfeld.

I approach another guy with a “QUI?” sign featuring a different stereotypical looking Jew. It looks like my friend George Weinberg.

“What does that mean? Qui?

“Fuck off.”

Everyone has brought their backstory to the rally. I ask two North African dudes why they’re chanting “Hang Dan Andrews!” Everyone else in the vicinity is happy leaving it at “Sack Dan Andrews!”

“He needs to be hanged because if someone commits treason, to put this many people in danger, what does he deserve?” one guy says.

“Do you mean it literally or just as a joke?” I ask.

“You see what they did to Gaddafi? Was that a joke?”

I’ve brought my backstory, too. Amazingly, the venom some on the left feel towards Jewish people has led them to tell Jews to stay away from the anti-racism movement. And for Jews – let’s not beat around the bush, literally me – to stop writing about days like these. Their gambit is to cast Jews as “white” and thus not the people to talk about, or fight, racism. I’m meant to buy that they don’t know about anti-Semitism? They know. Rather, this gambit is one more baton in their backpack, to club the Jews, to present us as a problematic race.

My irritation over this drives me to hunt out the neo-Nazis again. I let them off too easily. I am the one to confront them. At least I can try to annoy them. The crowd is slowly marching back to Parliament House.

I see one neo-Nazi hidden behind a black cloth balaclava, more restrictive than the masks he’s protesting against. I point to his placard.

“Hey buddy, that’s the meme saying ‘It’s the Jews!’ I know.

“Nah. Don’t be anti-Semitic, mate,” he sarcastically throws back. I point to the website printed on his sign: “GoyimTV”.

“I’ve been to the website!”

He picks up the pace, trying to get away from me. I catch up with him.

“But I’m giving you a chance to name the Jew!”

He makes off again. Now I’m trotting after him, along the tramline.

“You can’t complain that no one’s letting you name the Jew,” I squeak. “And then I give you an opportunity the name the Jew, and you won’t name the Jew!”

He pulls away.

“Fine, but don’t complain that you’re not allowed to name the Jew.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Dec 4, 2021 as "Pun times: A dispatch from the protests".

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John Safran is a writer and broadcaster. His latest book is Puff Piece.