Where does the racist threat come from?

On the weekend of July 18 and 19 there was another round of right-wing Reclaim Australia (RA) protests. The stated aim of RA and its offshoot, the United Patriots Front (UPF), was to defend what they call “Australian values” from the threat of “Islamicisation”. According to their placards — to the extent that they could be deciphered from the comically mangled and misspelt English that seems to be the trademark of the speak-English-or-die brigade — Australia is under threat from “creeping Sharia law” manifested in companies being allowed to get food Halal certified and from “terrorism” manifested in Muslims being allowed to live in Australia. “Political correctness”, the left, the ABC and the term “racist” being used to describe people opposed to non-white immigration were also on their list of threats to the Australian way of life. As was the case at previous national protests in April, they were heavily outnumbered by anti-racist counter protests. While in April this was mainly due to a large turnout of anti-racists in Melbourne, this time the anti-racists were in the majority in most big cities.

Police bias in favour of racists

One thing that shocked many counter-protesters was the blatant partisanship of the police in favour of the anti-Muslim protesters. This was despite RA and UPF supporters having made their intention to be violent clear on social media, to the extent of boasting that they would bring weapons to the protests. In Melbourne — where the counter-protests were largest, outnumbering the RA/UPF by about 20 to one — police reserved the steps of parliament house for the racists. Frequent attempts by RA/UPF to charge the anti-racist crowds with the intention of starting brawls were mainly unhindered by police, who were photographed cavorting with the racists. At the same time horse charges, snatch squads and indiscriminate use of pepper spray was used against the anti-racists. They even sprayed the Melbourne Street Medics who were attempting to provide first aid to those already injured. In one incident police sprayed medics and a protester they were attempting to treat who was already unconscious as a result of having been sprayed. In Sydney, police were less violent but the same bias was apparent. After being forcibly moved from the top of Martin Place, with five protesters arrested — most of them Aboriginal activists — the anti-racists were effectively kettled by police and prevented from moving in the general direction of the RA/UPF protest. This was also the direction of the nearest train station. However, racist provocateurs, who tried to charge through the anti-racist crowd, were assisted in doing so by police.

Media racist bias

Equally partisan was the mainstream media coverage. RA/UPF claims to represent the concerns of “ordinary Australians” were taken at face value, despite their blatantly racist placards, some of which were adorned with neo-Nazi symbols, and the documented links between RA and UPF with known neo-Nazi groups and individuals, some of whom sported swastika tattoos at the protests. Media coverage focused heavily on the presence of non-white migrants in the RA crowd. These were members of the Catch the Fire/Rise Up Australia movement. This outfit is in fact not racist — their bigotry is religious. They are an extreme Christian fundamentalist group, who despise feminists and LGBTI people as well as believers in non-Christian religions such as Islam. They are famous for blaming natural disasters such as floods and bushfires on people not sharing their prejudices on sexuality. However, the media had no shame in presenting them as opponents of religious extremism. This bias from the police and the media is not surprising. Police racism in Australia is hardly new. The anti-Aboriginal racism of the Australian police forces and judicial system is reflected in rates of Aboriginal over-representation in jail and deaths in custody that are an international scandal, and these rates are getting worse. Aboriginal people in Australia are significantly more likely to be targetted by police and imprisoned than African-Americans or even black South Africans under Apartheid. But it is not just Aboriginal people. The racial profiling by police of African-Australians in Melbourne's west and north west is well documented. In the media, the Murdoch tabloids pump out a relentless stream of Islamophobic hysteria, along with other racism. All the tropes of RA — such as Islam being synonymous with terrorism and the Australian way of life being threatened by “creeping Sharia”, Halal certification and a non-existent “invasion” by refugees — are staples. The ravings of Murdoch tabloid columnists such as Andrew Bolt are indistinguishable from those of the neo-Nazis in the UPF. Other media are less strident but the message is the same. The prejudices on display from RA come from the top. It is no anomaly that Coalition MP George Christensen was free to speak at an RA rally while government politicians are banned from appearing on the ABC's Q&A. It has been labelled as “soft on terrorism” because an Islamist was once allowed to participate — as an audience member, not a panellist. The Murdoch tabloid's racism does not exist in a vacuum. It goes along with obsessive hostility towards environmentalists and trade unions and blatant partisanship in favour of the governing Liberal and National parties. That police are at best half-hearted in combating domestic violence, which has killed 52 women in Australia so far this year, while devoting unlimited resources to fighting Islamist terrorism, which has killed no-one in Australia, is not the result of police culture or lack of awareness training. It is official policy. That police are used against trade unionists that attempt to enforce workplace safety rather than against employers who have allowed 83 people to be killed this year in workplace accidents is also policy. While RA/UPF are not short of wannabe Fuehrers, it is not these nasty and violent clowns who pose the threat of racist tyranny in Australia. The real threat is from those already in power.

Government racism

Every time his popularity flags in the polls, Prime Minister Tony Abbott speaks to the Australian public with a display of flags that outdoes any speaker at an RA rally. The message is the same. Under the guise of defending “the Australian way of life” from Muslims and foreigners, the government has instituted national security laws that allow for imprisonment without trial, conviction in secret trials without due process and the ability of the government to remove someone's citizenship on a whim. State espionage on citizens is institutionalised. Refugees are killed through boat turn-backs and illegal deportations justified through totally false claims by the media and politicians that “illegal arrivals” are swamping Australia. While the neo-Nazis affiliated with the UPF may dream of putting “inferior races” in concentration camps, the government is already doing so. In the “offshore” refugee detention centres in Manus Island and Nauru, adults and children are subjected to medical neglect, torture, rape and sometimes murder. Whistleblowers exposing such abuse can be imprisoned for two years. Meanwhile, Aboriginal communities are being ethnically cleansed for the benefit of mining companies, with racism again providing the justification. The official opposition — the Australian Labor Party — has failed to oppose any of these policies.

Implications for anti-racists

This has important implications for anti-racists and anti-fascists. The danger that RA poses is that it is an attempt to create a mass movement in support of racist and tyrannical government policies. The success of the counter-protests is that they have exposed the neo-Nazi and Christian extremist core of the movement, mobilised larger numbers of anti-racists and forced the media and the state apparatus to reveal their bias. It is missing the point to see the only aim of the counter-protests as depriving fascists of space. The posturing “patriots” of RA and UPF are not about to seize power and to think that the threat of racist tyranny can be defeated by driving them off the streets is simply mirroring their own fantasies. The counter protests to RA need to be seen as just the start. What is needed is to build sustained mass movements in defence of refugees, against Islamophobia, in solidarity with Aboriginal people defending their communities and against the “anti-terror” laws and other attacks on civil liberties. This is a serious and difficult task. [Tony Iltis is a member of the Socialist Alliance.]