Convicted neo-Nazi criminals Blair Cottrell, Neil Erikson and their followers, gathered on the foreshore of St Kilda Beach on January 5 to vilify Sudanese Australians and once again scapegoat that community as “African gangs”.
The group of 100 to 150 predominantly white males from various neo-Nazi gangs — The Lads, Soldiers of Odin and the Proud Boys — were racist and hostile towards the gathering counterprotesters.
Erikson, a convicted stalker and former head of the neo-Nazi group the United Patriot Front, knows how to do hate speech and play the game on social media.
The rally to “reclaim St Kilda” was largely organised through Erikson’s Facebook page during the preceding week. He described it as a “political meeting”.
Momentum for the racist rally started after irresponsible reporting by A Current Affair last December 30 with a particularly biased report called “Race Wars”, in which Erikson was interviewed about African-Australian crime and the potential conflict between African and Vietnamese Australian communities.
At the rally, amid the vandalism and hate speech, the racists gave Nazi salutes, all of which was recorded. Several racists were arrested.
Independent Senator Fraser Anning, a former member of Pauline Hanson's One Nation and Katter’s Australian Party, flew from Queensland to join the neo-Nazi melee, at taxpayers' expense.
The neo-Nazi gathering was outnumbered by two counter events of some 150 to 200 anti-racist and anti-fascist activists: a picnic organised by community groups, and a counter rally of anti-fascist and anti-racist activists organised by the Coalition against Racism and Fascism. The latter was attended by trade unionists, members of the Socialist Alliance, the Greens, Solidarity and other activists.
An excellent post-rally analysis can be found on the anarchist blog slackbastard. It highlights the need for anti-racist and anti-fascist groups opposing the neo-Nazis to improve their coordination and messaging at future events.
Also out in force were more than 100 Victorian police, including the dog squad, riot and mounted squads and helicopter surveillance.
Police formed lines to separate the racist and anti-racist groups. Fights broke out between the racists and anti-racists, and a ute driven along the parade with a PA broadcasting “Sudanese are welcome, racists are not” was damaged by neo-Nazis.
As one of a handful of people of colour at the counter-rally, I can understand why more minority groups don’t show up to protest against racism.
It is a given that you will be filmed by the neo-Nazis and the police, not to mention the media.
Often, neo-Nazi sympathisers will continue their racist vitriol on the tram ride home, as was reported by several community activists. As in previous neo-Nazi events in Melbourne, migrant community leaders warned communities to stay away from St Kilda to avoid being singled out, jeered at and antagonised.
But communities have the right to exercise their political and civil liberties to stand against neo-Nazi extremists and those media channels scapegoating them for alleged criminal activity. Why should communities — in particular ethnic communities — live in fear of white supremacists?
The reactions from MPs to St Kilda’s racist rally have ranged from the laconic to the disgusted. Prime Minister Scott Morrison issued a mild condemnation of “ugly racial protests”, but did not immediately condemn Anning for attending. Acting Labor leader Tanya Plibersek and Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young condemned Anning for choosing to align himself with Neo-Nazis at the taxpayers’ expense.
Although demanding that politicians denounce racism is critical, neo-Nazi extremism will not simply disappear: it must be taken seriously.
In Victoria, despite a progressive Labor government having just been re-elected, neo-Nazi extremists are openly hanging out in their very own club house in Cheltenham and spruiking a merchandise line. It is clear that neo-Nazi groups have become emboldened in this so-called progressive state.
As seen in places considered freedom-loving capitals, such as Berkeley, California, racist extremists know they will get a huge reaction in communities that pride themselves on diversity and social cohesion.
If politicians do not follow up their words with action, then citizens, unions and community leaders must call on them to take measures to prevent neo-Nazis and irresponsible media channels and social platforms from spreading hate speech.
Some countermeasures could include:
- holding social media platforms to account for amplifying neo-Nazi rhetoric;
- better regulating social media platforms to report on the extent of cyber-racism by neo-Nazi groups;
- holding traditional media platforms to account for inaccurate and biased reporting; and
- de-platforming (or banning) white supremacist leaders like Cottrell and Erikson who promote racist violence from all social media platforms.
Engaged communities must embrace proactive tactics against white supremacy in all its forms. We must also call for community-based countermeasures to stop racist extremism from spreading online, in communities and in traditional media channels.
These are the anti-extremist measures that no militarised police force and additional bollards can stop.
[Annette Herrera is a union and community activist in Melbourne.]