Victoria Police have promised a “highly visible” presence in Melbourne this weekend as right-wing protesters face a counter-demonstration from anti-fascist groups, with one expert warning any potential confrontation could turn violent.
Following days of loud protests against the Labor government’s pandemic powers bill, including ugly scenes of nooses and a gallows, a prominent Melbourne left-wing activist group will hold its own demonstration not far from state parliament on Saturday.
Despite promising a “peaceful” event to oppose the far-right elements which have latched onto the ‘Kill The Bill’ protests, some fear scenes will turn ugly, with extremists already threatening to provoke conflict.
“It’s hard to see how violence will be avoided. For the first time in the pandemic, there will be a counter protest to these anti-lockdown groups,” warned Dr Kaz Ross, a researcher in far-right and conspiracy theory movements.
“Anything could happen.”
Days of protest against the state government’s pandemic powers legislation continued on Wednesday.
Protesters on Monday night gathered around a wooden gallows chanting “traitor” and “kill Dan Andrews”, while a doll in the likeness of the Victorian Premier was thrown onto the structure. A woman was applauded by the crowd on Tuesday after she gave a speech on a megaphone calling for politicians to “dance on the end of a rope”.
However, other protesters maintain those more extreme elements are only a minority of participants.
The protests were promoted by an assortment of large anti-lockdown, vaccine sceptic and far-right groups online. Despite major amendments agreed on Monday, protests against the bill are likely to continue.
However, Saturday will see Melbourne’s state parliament also become the scene for the Victorian leg of a so-called ‘world wide rally for freedom’ – the latest instalment in a series of protests against vaccine mandates, lockdowns and other pandemic measures.
The protests have been a regular nationwide occurrence during the pandemic, including violent scenes in Sydney in July where police were assaulted and property damaged.
Melbourne has seen numerous large and violent protests against lockdowns and vaccine rules through the pandemic, including troubling scenes outside the CFMEU and at the Shrine of Remembrance in September.
Local events are planned for large public locations in all major Australian capital cities, but Melbourne’s recent protest activity has supercharged tensions around its upcoming rally.
The Campaign Against Racism and Fascism (CARF), a Melbourne left-wing group which has opposed other far-right movements including Reclaim Australia, will also hold its own demonstration on Saturday in the city’s CBD.
Hundreds are expected at a ‘stop the far right’ rally just a few hundred metres from state parliament where the ‘rally for freedom’ will assemble. CARF described their event online as a “counter demonstration” in a “national day of anti-fascist action”.
Participants in online groups where the ‘freedom rally’ events are organised are already discussing the CARF event and how to “combat” it.
Victoria Police said it was aware of the two duelling protests.
“We respect people’s right to peacefully protest without impact on the rest of the community and will not tolerate anyone who breaks the law or engages in violent or antisocial behaviour,” a spokesperson told The New Daily.
“There will be a highly visible police presence to monitor the area and ensure there are no breaches of the peace.”
Police will patrol public transport hubs, but are not planning to shut down the train or bus networks, as was seen in Sydney protests earlier this year.
Nahui Jimenez, a CARF organiser, said the group hoped to avoid violence, claiming theirs would be a “peaceful demonstration”.
“There’s a lot of different parts of the [Kill The Bill] movement, but it’s concerning the far-right is growing out of them. If you’re lining up next to the Proud Boys, there’s clearly something going wrong in the movement,” she told TND.
“We will be marching away from areas that we know they are … we don’t want clashes.”
Dr Ross, an independent researcher into far-right groups, said she believed the more extremist members of the ‘Kill The Bill’ protests – such as neo-Nazis, Qanon followers or those advocating violence – were a minority.
“It’s normal everyday people who are by far the bulk of the protesters, and its multi-ethnic … it’s a diverse group of Australians, you can’t just pigeonhole them all,” Dr Ross told TND.
“Lots of them say they’ve never been to a rally or been interested in politics before.”
“Calling them all far-right Nazis just inflames it. It doesn’t help at all.”
However, she said she was concerned about the potential for those extremist elements to provoke conflict, and noted with concern the more violent rhetoric and imagery from recent protests.
Dr Ross, whose research includes monitoring online platforms where extremists and conspiracy theorists organise their movements, said she was concerned about weekend events being hijacked by more violent actors.
She warned prominent actors in far-right and neo-Nazi communities were already discussing the potential for violence on Saturday. Dr Ross described most of the demonstrators as “protest virgins” who would likely not provoke violence, but was concerned the more extreme elements may instigate conflict.
“This is more like a rabble than a mob, but they can turn to violence. There is definitely a risk.”