The anti-racist rally in Coburg the media ignored

June 2, 2016
Councillor Sue Bolton at the May 28 anti-racism rally.

The “Say NO to Racism in Moreland” rally on May 28 was originally conceived early this year and organising for it started back in February.

We wanted to offer residents and communities an opportunity to take a public stand on the racist policies of the major parties: their Islamophobia, xenophobia and fear mongering. We also wanted to stand in solidarity with First Nations peoples, who are on the receiving end of institutionalised racism.

Six weeks ago, the far right declared it was organising a counter-rally. By then we had about 45 organisations endorsing our rally, which got up their noses.

We decided we were not going to be deterred from organising our rally. We had three meetings with the police, at their behest. At all three, they pressured us to call it off; we refused.

The pressure then came from my own council in Moreland. The CEO had come under a lot of pressure from the police, and several councillors had become worried. I put a motion to council asking for support, from which the Greens Mayor Samantha Ratnam absented herself. It won, with the casting vote of acting Mayor Lita Gillies.

The police then launched a media blitz, in cahoots with, targeting traders — many of whom closed for the day — and local residents, many of whom were persuaded not to attend the rally on the basis that they would be harmed. The police even letterboxed 3000 residents urging them to stay away from the Coburg shopping centre on the day. No wonder the traders lost money!

We did not engage with the far right. We concentrated on promoting the message that we wanted a peaceful but spirited rally in support of the rally's aims. We organised to ensure that rally participants would be safe, especially as we had a speaker who had been attacked twice on the Upfield train line. Several unions offered marshalls, including from the Construction Forestry Mining Energy Union, the National Tertiary Education Union, the Australian Metal Workers Union and the Communication Workers Union.

The rally went smoothly, with about 400 to 500 people from diverse groups making a powerful statement against the major parties' racism the creation of a climate for racism to be“normalised”, and allowing the far right to get organised.

Despite the rain and the over-the-top police presence — those leaving the train station were searched with a metal detector — many could see through the scare campaigns.

But a part of the left not only did not support the rally, but worked to undermine it including marching through the rally at its beginning as the speaker from the Wurundjeri Tribal Council was being introduced.

A few anti-racist groups had approached us beforehand about organising a physical barrier to the far right. We thought this would not be the correct tactic for the day and asked them to try to stay away from the march, which we knew would include people of all ages and people who had suffered trauma by police and far-right violence before coming to Australia.

Before the rally started, I approached the groups that were gathered at the other end of the mall. I asked them to join the rally and was rebuked by one person from Socialist Alternative. Shortly afterwards, the Socialist Alternative contingent marched through the middle of the rally — possibly in a bid to take people to their encounter with the police and far-right.

That did not work, but it did show the lengths to which their condescension went; to Indigenous representatives as well as those who disagree with their tactics.

Our rally and march was strong politically and sent a clear message that the community will not be cowed by the right of various stripes. But unless you were there, you would not have believed it had actually happened, because the corporate media ignored it.

Witnesses told me afterwards that the police allowed the fascists to come through Bridges Reserve and allowed a street brawl to start with sections of the anti-fascist left. They were very heavy handed — using capsicum spray and batons — as if they had used this as a training exercise rather than a serious effort to stop the neo-Nazis from attacking.

The police attack was indiscriminate — against anti-fascists, journalists and even the street medics who had been organised for this eventuality.

There were seven arrests, but police have not revealed who was arrested and for what. It appears that five were charged with possessing a weapon and were most likely from the far right. Another person was arrested because he had a spray can. We have no information on the seventh person.

After all the negative publicity in the lead-up the corporate media censored the actual rally. This is not surprising to those of us who have been organising on the left for decades. But for those who are new to the country, or new to activism, this was a shock.

I was, however, shocked when a section of the Greens, including Moreland Mayor (and candidate for Wills) Samantha Ratnam, also put pressure on us to cancel the rally. Ratnam had been invited to speak, accepted, and then pulled out two days before it. That same day a Greens council candidate contacted me to call off the rally.

While I understand Ratnam may have been worried, her decision added to the media-police spin that we were the ones instigating the violence — not the far right or the police provocations. Clearly, her view is shared by the Greens.

A comment piece by Ratnam misleadingly states “What was supposed to be a rally against racism in the Melbourne suburb of Coburg turned into a melee between 'patriot' groups and masked anti-fascists”.

This echoes the corporate media line that falsely accused us of instigating violence when that was not the case.

To date, two councillors have spoken out in support of our protest. Acting Mayor, Labor councillor Lita Gillies said: “The no to Racism Rally was not a violent rally. It was organised as a peaceful rally, and there was no violence at that rally … Had those right wing extremists not decided to physically oppose the rally, no violence would have occurred at all.”

Labor councillor Meghan Hopper said: “It is very important to emphasise that residents who rally peacefully in support of an anti-racist message have done absolutely nothing wrong. There is a very famous quote, 'all that it requires for evil to flourish is for good men and women to do nothing'.

“If an anti-racism rally were cancelled because racists made plans to host a counter-rally, the racists would have won. Moreland is One City, Proudly Diverse and we have banners declaring our strong stance against racism at our town halls.

“I commend those people who don't just write this on a banner but who go the extra distance to stand up for this sentiment in the face of hostile resistance, and I'm proud that we are exactly the kind of city that will stand against racists together.”

I and the other organisers were determined not to allow the far right their end goal — to shut down our rally. They would have had a victory march through Moreland, you can be sure, and the police would have done nothing to stop them.

The police have been campaigning for more powers since the rally, such as the outlawing of face masks. Civil liberties lawyer Rob Stary has pointed to section 49C of the Summary Offences Act, saying there are laws in place to stop people who wear an “article of disguise with criminal intent”.

“There's absolutely no reason for a law when someone is acting peacefully and wishes to wear a mask. This is madness”, Stary said

I grew up in country Queensland, under the racist arch-conservative Joe Bjelke Petersen. I learned about racism towards First Nations people at an early age. Coming to an understanding about where racism comes from and in whose interests it serves helped radicalise me.

Some Moreland councillors have started a campaign against me in the lead up to the council elections in October. I am proud to stand on my record of service to the communities and to the issues that matter, including racism. The Say NO to Racism rally was the first step in establishing a stronger network of community groups against institutional racism. Despite the trying circumstances, it has been a huge political leap forward.

[Sue Bolton's opinion piece in the Age is here. She is a Socialist Alliance councillor in Moreland and she is seeking re-election in October. Get in touch if you'd like to help out on 0424 508 535.]

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