The significant numbers at the July 24 anti-lockdown protests in Sydney, Brisbane, Melbourne and Newcastle are a symptom of the failure of big business-dominated federal and state governments to put the health and safety of communities before corporate profits.
The vaccine rollout has been slow and mismanaged, as have the quarantine measures. Meanwhile, a surge of the more infectious Delta strain of COVID-19 is growing, with Sydney at its epicentre.
Increasingly severe lockdowns have been imposed on the predominantly working-class and migrant suburbs of South West and West Sydney, with grossly inadequate economic support for affected workers and people on low incomes.
While thousands of people try to make ends meet during the COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns, the federal government is resisting calls to bring back the job protection scheme, JobKeeper. Last year’s coronavirus supplement to JobSeeker has not been reinstated.
As a result, the far-right has been able to exploit the pain and anger from poorer communities.
People attending the protests included a mix of Australia flag waving racist neo-Nazis, anti-Semites, anti-vaxxers, anti-testers, members of the religious right, people flying the Eureka flag, people who don’t think COVID-19 is real (and other conspiracy theories) and self-proclaimed “libertarians”.
The far-right Proud Boys were present in the rally, reported Green Left journalist Jim McIIroy, who watched as it swept past his home in the inner city suburb of Chippendale. But the protesters included “some plain angry, stressed out folk worrying more about their dire economic situation than concern about infecting their family or community”.
In addition to the extreme right, he said the crowd included religious types carrying placards including “There is no death in salvation” and even a couple of young women appropriating the feminist slogan “My Body, My Choice”.
“It seemed as if the residents of Sydney's south-western and western suburbs – those most affected by the anti-COVID lockdown, and the harsh police crackdown which has targeted these areas – had come to the inner city in a confused and random act of rebellion,” he said.
The crowd was overwhelmingly young, and included many migrants, a number of Pacific Islanders (possibly from the fundamentalist Christian wing), and a reasonable proportion of women. There were also some young women wearing Middle Eastern headscarves.
Many were from Sydney’s hardest-hit working-class and predominantly migrant suburbs.
Sydney’s protest was the largest in the country, drawing several thousands.
Former Liberal MP Craig Kelly and Rupert Murdoch’s Sky After Dark TV commentators encouraged people to attend. Current MP George Christiansen joined the protest in Mackay, saying civil disobedience was “moral” and “the only response to laws that restrict freedom”.
The far right also played an active role in the mobilisations.
The Guardian and the anti-fascist research group the White Rose Society tracked down a key organiser Harrison McLean, a 24-year-old IT programmer. Through a number of Telegram groups they have revealed he has pro-Hitler views, anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, links to the Western chauvinist group the Proud Boys and a strategy to use anti-lockdown sentiment to build a far right movement.
Peter Cronau, a Gold Walkley Award winner and producer for the ABC TV’s Four Corners, also tweeted: “Links between the organisers & groups behind anti-#lockdown protests are VERY interesting. Project Veritas is a far-right political dirty tricks operation & disinformation group linked to ultraconservative Republicans, mercenary head Erik Prince, a former MI-6 spy, & is well funded.”
While the numbers at the anti-lockdown protests were concerning, these protest were not as big or well coordinated as the nationwide COVID-19-safe Black Lives Matter mass protests a year ago. Despite repeated accusations from state and federal governments, those rallies did not spread the virus.
However, the anti-lockdown protests were largely un-masked and people did not space themselves out. With the highly infectious nature of the Delta strain now spreading, they may turn out to be super spreading events.
To defeat the virus and remove the lockdown, federal and state governments urgently need to speed up the vaccine rollout, prioritise the worst affected areas and allocate more funding to hospitals.
Lockdowns will be unavoidable until more people are vaccinated. But they will be less effective without adequate economic support and job protection for all workers and small businesses.
We need a job protection scheme that cannot be rorted by big business and all affected workers – citizens or not, with working visas or not – must be supported. Effective, purpose-built quarantine facilities have to be set up. If these measures are not taken, more desperate people are going to be suckered in by right-wing.
These anti-lockdown protests are troubling and should be taken seriously, understood and criticised. But we should be clear that they are symptomatic of a problem that is not going to be solved by heavy-handed police action and more rights for the police.
Progressives should not join in the calls for persecution and heavy fines for the thousands who were conned into joining those protests.
[Rachel Evans is a Sydney organiser for the Socialist Alliance.]