On January 5th around 150 far-right, white supremacists – Nazis among them – marched through St Kilda, hoping to create a race riot similar to that of Cronulla in 2005. In a horrific, deliberate act of symbolism, this day also marked the 100th anniversary of the founding of the German Workers Party, the forerunner of the Nazi Party.
The images of the demonstration are now well known: Australian flags co-mingling with swastika patches and SS helmets, a swarm of white, mostly male protestors all shouting angrily for the African community of Melbourne to be sent back to where they came from.
The rally was called on Boxing Day by Neil Erikson and Blair Cottrell – a “self-confessed Hitler fan” – to “take back the beach” from “African crime gangs”. This clearly pointed racial directive had the implicit danger of violence from the very beginning. It was a direct call for an ethnic minority to be cleansed from a public space. It is alarming, although perhaps not surprising, that Queensland senator Fraser Anning, who called for a “final solution” to Australia’s immigration “problem” in his maiden speech in parliament, attended the rally and mingled with some of the instigators of the events in St Kilda.
The seeds for an event like this have been sown in the nature of Australian political life in the last few years. Blame can of course, in part, be attributed to the media, who have targeted African youth in grotesque, racist scapegoating campaigns consistently for years.
More alarming than this, though, is the way in which the political establishment has taken to open racism to advance their political agenda, often in advance of the media’s sensationalism. The international far right looks on admiringly at our barbaric, bi-partisan border policy of locking up refugees in detention camps. The Victorian Liberals campaigned in the last state election to “jail the gangs” (which is code for anyone who is non-white), and the federal party has voted in support of motions in the parliament that say “it’s OK to be white”. White nationalists like Pauline Hanson and Fraser Anning have settled in as legitimate figures of Australian politics, and quasi-fascists like Milo Yiannopoulos grace the halls of Parliament House on open invitations from elected senators.
In a climate where both major parties are unwilling to even change a national day away from one that represents colonial genocide, it is no wonder that far-right protesters, Nazis among them, felt confident enough to call the type of demonstration that they did.
To some extent this is a symptom of a world-wide dynamic of growing authoritarianism of government and state institutions, and a flourishing of far-right, racist street movements.
In Germany and the UK, tens of thousands have people have marched to support far-right figures. In France, quasi-fascist Marine Le Pen, a candidate who vowed to end all immigration if elected, amassed ten million votes in the 2o17 presidential election.
Yet even outside Europe and the United States the danger is growing. In India, president Narendra Modi has enforced extreme racialised, authoritarian rule. Brazil has seen the election of Jair Bolsonaro, someone who has historically advocated strongly for military dictatorship, the oppression of women and non-white people.
Despite this, relatively little attention has been given to the rise of openly fascistic and white-supremacist currents in Australian political life. In fact, the media has often been on the front foot in promoting them. There is a great difference between allowing freedom of speech in the media and paying people such as Pauline Hanson and United Patriots Front leader Blair Cottrell, both of whom are known for inciting racist and bigoted ideas, to appear on TV as legitimate contributors to debates on immigration and race. All this achieves is giving legitimacy to extremely toxic ideas that we should restrict immigration, deport non-white people, and have pride in a country that locks up refugees from foreign countries in prisons. In deliberate acts of appeasing the far right, anti-racist protestors have been labelled as “just as bad” as those who hold marches in support of white pride.
What happened in St Kilda shattered some of the myths behind this nonsense. These people were not just “concerned citizens,” but open fascists, racists with an intention to rid Melbourne of minorities who they could scapegoat to advance their agenda. The anti-racist demonstrators opposing – and outnumbering – the Nazis in St Kilda could obviously not be lumped in together with those saluting Hitler, calling for Africans to be deported.
The media wasn’t entirely blind to this: a small opening in the press appeared to portray the fascists in a negative light. Several articles from mainstream news outlets thought it awful that there were Hitlerites running amok on the streets of Melbourne.
On the one hand, open condemnation of these protestors as fascists is a welcome development. For years activists, like the ones opposing the racists in St Kilda, have been urgently trying to stress the danger of these types of politics, for them not to be conveyed as unserious or something to ignore.
Yet we have to see the limitations in the mainstream media’s slight turn around. Immediately after, Alan Sunderland, an editorial director at ABC came out online to say
“I wouldn’t call them Nazis… I’d call them people making nazi salutes”. Further, the far-right have not backed down as a result of a few discouraging news headlines. In fact, Fraser Anning stridently defended his involvement in the rally on national television, insisting that it was fine for the trip to be taxpayer funded.
This points towards the need for a more widespread movement to discredit and defeat the far-right: rather than a political atmosphere, advanced by both major parties and the mainstream press, where right-wing racists feel comfortable to do whatever they like.
Seeing the images of swastikas, SS helmets and Hitler-salutes in the media, for many people, has undeniably triggered horrendous images from the past. Yet, as German Jewish philosopher Walter Benjamin wrote in his last months, fleeing Nazi persecution, “to articulate the past historically… means to seize hold of a memory as it flashes up at a moment of danger”. In other words, we need to understand the horrific history of these kind of politics, and use that vivacity of feeling, emotion, and outrage to make sure history does not repeat itself.
As one Melbourne activist recently wrote in Overland, we need to challenge the far right “both intellectually and physically on the streets.” Indeed, we need to expose and highlight the far right’s historical allegiance to violent, fascist movements; to make it clear that the intention of the people who marched is to recreate the same systems of exclusion and domination based on race. In doing so, we need to destroy the myth that fascism goes away if we ignore it. In this respect, we must not be afraid to call out fascists for what they are and expose the general public to their dangerous beliefs.
But further than this, we need to build a movement on the streets that can collectively outnumber and belittle Nazism wherever it appears. We need to exercise a ritual of public shame for those who want to reinforce extreme racism, by outnumbering and demoralising their movement, showing that the vast majority of the population opposes them. This was a necessary task in St Kilda, and the hundreds who gathered in the city to oppose fascism a week later on short notice is a good start. It shows the potential for progressive forces to out-organise the far right. In response to the demonstration, Junkee published an article fittingly titled “Hundreds Have Rallied Against Nazism In Melbourne, Which Is A Thing We Have To Do Now”.
Indeed: for the dangers posed by the far-right are real and multifaceted.
On an immediate level, there are minorities under direct threat from attacks from right-wing racists. The African community in Melbourne – particularly South Sudanese – are constantly harassed by police, face undue attention in the media, and now face the very real problem of physical violence from the organised far-right. Also to be noted, are the various similar instances of abuse and violence towards Muslims in our city.
More broadly, we face the imminent prospect of quasi-fascist beliefs gaining normalcy in the major institutions of Australian society. Anning has now gained a large amount of media attention and solidified his place as an authority in federal politics. Literal fascists now have someone in the Australian parliament who will go into bat for them, even despite the condemnation of thousands.
It is worthwhile considering what the streets and beaches of St Kilda would have looked like without a counter-demonstration that outrightly opposed the Nazis racist scapegoating and grotesque ideas. Without hundreds of progressives outnumbering, out-chanting, and blocking the way, those racists would have had free reign to incite whatever violence they liked on the public. This is the image we need to seize in our minds, as a call to action, as the threat of the far-right grows.