A mob that has spent days rioting in the Melbourne CBD has made its way to the Shrine of Remembrance, where there is a tense stand-off with hordes of armed riot police.
Chanting “every day” from the Shrine, hundreds of mostly men without masks, some still wearing high-visibility clothing like in days earlier, have marched through the city to the memorial.
Heavily armed police have the Shrine surrounded.
Shrine management and the Victorian RSL reacted angrily to the landmark being targeted by protesters.
“The Shrine of Remembrance is sacred. It is not a place of protest,” Shrine chairman Captain Stephen Bowater said.
“The Shrine exists to honour the service and sacrifice all those who served our nation in war and peacekeeping.
“Any protest on its grounds is disgraceful and disrespectful to the honoured memory of Australian servicemen and women.”
The RSL also accused protesters of disrespecting “the sanctity of this time-honoured place”, as well as veterans.
It marked the third day of confrontations as what started as a protest against mandatory COVID-19 vaccinations for the construction sector and a closure of building site tea rooms has turned into wider unrest.
Despite Melbourne’s stay-at-home orders and a warning from authorities, several hundred demonstrators returned to the CBD on Wednesday morning.
One man told a live stream he walked to the shrine because “those people died for us, and now they want to take away our freedom”.
Earlier, riot police moved in to shut down dozens of people marching down Elizabeth and Collins streets, in the Melbourne CBD.
There were arrests as police and protesters clashed. One group of protesters sought cover in a nearby Chemist Warehouse after police pelted them with non-lethal rounds and pepper spray.
Deputy Premier James Merlino refused to call those in the city protesters, instead describing the scenes as “a mob acting criminally”.
He said they were putting health workers, themselves and the Victorian public at risk.
“What we have seen over the last two or three days is criminal behaviour that does not represent our great state in any way, shape or form and that behaviour will not drive our case numbers down,” he said.
Police have permission to use crowd control force against anyone trying to repeat the seven-hour “cat and mouse” game seen in Melbourne on Tuesday, when up to 2000 protesters led police across the city and shut down the West Gate Bridge.
About 500 police were used on Tuesday, arresting 62 people, some for assaulting police, but most for breaching public health orders.
Earlier on Wednesday, Premier Daniel Andrews, flanked by Police Minister Lisa Neville and Chief Commissioner Shane Patton, said Tuesday’s protests were “ugly”.
The state government has shut down the construction industry for two weeks in metropolitan Melbourne, City of Ballarat, City of Greater Geelong, Surf Coast Shire and Mitchell Shire.
Getting a COVID-19 vaccine was also made mandatory for the industry, prompting another protest in front of the CFMEU office on Monday, which turned violent.
By Tuesday, the crowd of 1000 to 2000 took to Melbourne’s streets against the state government, CFMEU and police.
Authorities say while there are construction workers in the crowds, there have been other groups including anti-lockdown activists dressed in high-visibility clothing.
Mr Andrews defended shutting down an industry of more than 300,000 workers for about 340 COVID-19 cases linked to construction, and stood by the vaccine mandate.
“These rules will not change because of the conduct of some of the people that were out there yesterday, they don’t speak for the construction industry,” he said, noting the vast majority of tradies were getting vaccinated.
Victoria had 628 coronavirus cases and three more deaths on Wednesday, the highest daily tally in the current outbreak.
The regional city of Ballarat will also emerge from a seven-day lockdown at midnight on Wednesday.
Authorities believe the local outbreak has been brought under control, but strict rules remain, including masks outdoors and indoors and a ban on home visits.