I Got Pepper Sprayed at the Reclaim Australia Counter Rally in Melbourne
This weekend saw brutal clashes between Reclaim Australia protestors, No Room For Racism protestors and police in most major Australian cities. I was part of the Melbourne counter-rally to Reclaim Australia, maniacally trying to snap photographs of the event and the conflict that ensued, when police repeatedly resorted to pepper-spray in order to debilitate the crowd. Like many other protesters and members of the media, I ended up copping a liberal dousing of oleoresin capsicum spray. It was an oddly humbling experience, stumbling away from the violence and becoming completely blinded within 45 seconds. I lay down on the road and spent the next 10 minutes screaming, convulsing and vaguely hoping I wouldn’t be trampled.
I was nervous about the Reclaim Australia rally and the No Room For Racism counter rally from the outset. Reclaim Australia’s stated objectives are to “stop Halal tax, Sharia Law & Islamisation (sic)” and the movement is supported by the United Patriots Front (UPF) who, as far as I can tell, are a neo-Nazi organisation.
I’ve attended numerous protests on the streets of Melbourne—against the forced closure of remote communities in WA, against the government’s treatment of asylum seekers in offshore processing centres, to lament the death of Reza Berati, to oppose the 2014 budget and to prevent the deregulation of universities—but Saturday was my first counter rally. While publicly opposing the government has always seemed natural, directly opposing fellow citizens is far more intimidating.
I arrived on Spring Street just before 11am and walked around the 250-strong police line protecting the Reclaim Australia event. As we walked, I asked a friend about the last Reclaim Australia event in Melbourne, the counter rally and the conflicts that had been reported. “It was pretty violent,” she admitted. When I confided that I wasn’t exactly sure what we hoped to achieve by confronting a troupe of Nazis, she explained with gentle simplicity the importance of representing an alternative voice: racism and Islamaphobia mustn’t go unopposed.
We arrived at the top of Bourke Street where at least a thousand people were gathered and speaker Ezekiel Ox was addressing the crowd like a seasoned pro. His words were decidedly positive, proud and unflinching from the bottom line: we must prevent Nazis from commandeering our streets. The crowd at the counter rally, an eclectic mix of young urbanites, old greenies, trade unionists, black-clad anarchists, non-white Muslim Australians and, of course, the Socialist Alternative, was brimming with anticipation and powered by vehement conviction. “Hate speech is not free speech,” people chanted.
We marched around the block to the western flank of the police line and reached the point where riot cops, some on horseback, hemmed in the Reclaim Australia event. You could just make out the Australian flags and see the speakers, elevated on a small stage beyond the layers of Victoria Police. I read later that there were only about a hundred attendees of Reclaim Australia, more than half of which were part of the United Patriots Front.
As some of the No Room For Racism protesters at the front attempted to break police lines and reach the Reclaim Australia event, Victoria Police punched, kicked and indiscriminately pepper-sprayed the crowd. I held my camera above my head and snapped frantically at protesters, most masked and clad in all black, as they pushed against the police and were punched and kicked to the ground by the cops. Then the first jetstream of bright orange pepper spray incapacitated scores of people. It suddenly felt like the conflict was going to be fought by proxy against the police.
Yarra City Councillor Stephen Jolly and speaker Ezekiel Ox directed the crowd to link arms and create a line in front of police while medics procured milk to treat those affected by the pepper spray. Before long, the alley next to the Princess Theatre was lined with bodies, coughing and wailing, and the streets were whitewashed with milk.
Over the next few hours, the No Room For Racism Rally held position, despite a few attempts by police to break the lines. Then members of the Reclaim Australia event began to infiltrate the crowd. They were quickly identified, shamed and pushed out to chants of “Fuck off, Nazi scum!” and “You’ll always lose in Melbourne!”
They had glitter thrown at them, milk poured over their heads and insults yelled in their faces. Australian flags were confiscated. Again and again, fights broke out, the pepper spray flowed and wounded protesters filled the alley.
Around 2pm, six or seven well-built men wearing face masks emblazoned with the Australian flag entered the crowd with heads held high and chests beaming, much to the chagrin of the No Room For Racism protestors. They were yelled at and forced back toward Little Bourke Street, the alley of the injured. As they gradually retreated, cautious, with fists held up in boxing stance, it became clear that there was a minority of counter protestors who wanted blood. Punches were thrown on both sides and there, at the corner of Spring and Little Bourke Streets, the entrance to the alley strewn with sodden victims and spilled milk, the cops opened up with the spray, nailing those fighting, as well as the injured, the medics treating them and some photographers, including myself.
It was weird and frightening to be pepper sprayed by the cops . I stumbled around a bit as the stuff took its effect and within 45 seconds, I was completely blinded. I lay down on the road and spent the next ten minutes down there. Each time I attempt at opening my eyes was agony and it was difficult to breathe. Luckily, some concerned protestors came to my assistance, poured water over my head and alerted a medic. 10 minutes of agony and total blindness ensued. The medic and a soothe-saying man who was accompanying her had both been pepper-sprayed earlier in the day and assured me that the pain would subside and I’d be able to see again. Intermittently, they poured milk in my eyes. The things they said to me, and the way they spoke was phenomenally reassuring; it seemed odd that I had no idea what they looked like. After about 15 minutes, I was able to see enough to stand up and move off the road. My whole face, particularly my eyes, ears and sinuses were badly burning, but I was relieved to be able to see.
The protest raged on and conflicts continued until about 3pm when Ezekiel Ox and Stephen Jolly declared that we’d won, that we’d outnumbered Reclaim Australia by ten to one and outlasted them. We marched back to Bourke Street for speeches about freedom, equality and Islam. It was a bit much for me at that point.
I was glad to see that the anti-racism protesters outnumbered the racists, but I can’t imagine anybody from either movement changed their mind about the other. If anything, opinions became more deeply entrenched, mine included. I still disagree with Reclaim Australia movement; I think it’s simple racism, badly disguised as nationalism.
I got on a packed tram home, covered in dried milk and pepper spray, carrying a soiled jumper and a reinforced fear of the Victoria Police. I needed a shower; it was a lot to process.