For anyone present at the mass counter-rally organised in response to the ‘Reclaim Australia’ rally in Melbourne on April 4, the racial fault lines of the event would have been apparent.
This applied not simply to the island of Reclaim Australia attendees marooned in a sea of counter-protesters, but to the ranks of the anti-racist protesters themselves.
Other than the marked exception of activists from the Warriors of the Aboriginal Resistance (WAR), representatives from various faith-based groups and handfuls of non-white supporters of larger organised groups, the counter-rally was comprised of a sea of largely white activists vocally occupying Federation Square.
To make this observation is not to deride the potential of white anti-racist solidarity or action, or to downplay the visible presence of people of colour amongst the counter-rally’s masses. Nor is it to discount the very real reasons that people of colour, more than their white counterparts, may want to avoid rallies that bring them into contact with neo-nazi affinity groups brandishing swastikas and with “14/88” tattooed onto their skulls.
Though as the converged white mass of anti-racists collectively bellowed “Whose Streets? OUR Streets!” or “Muslims are Welcome, Racists are Not” in the face of Reclaim Australia supporters pushing through the crowd, the racial dynamics of the counter-protest came into relief.
The occasion of the Reclaim Australia rallies and counter-rallies across Australia give pause to consider not only the resurgence of the extreme Right in Australia, but the nature of organising in response to it. To be clear, this criticism is not a call for ‘decorum’ or respectability on the part of white anti-racist protestors, as Brad Chilcott has recently made in an enervating piece for the Guardian.
Rather, we want to ask: what does it look like to engage in anti-racist and anti-fascist organising in Australia, in the immediate context of the ongoing displacement of First Nations people from their homelands in Western Australia, and during the height of Australia’s mass incarceration and illegalisation of people seeking asylum in this country?
What does it mean in this context for white anti-racist protesters to assert ownership over “their streets”, or assume the right to condescendingly “welcome” into a country that was forcibly occupied and still subject of active contestation by First Nations peoples? Is anti-fascist organising in Australia precisely that – organising against fascists and bigots, but not positively towards racial justice?
These debates played out in a particularly heated fashion in a recent discussion on the Facebook page of long-time antifascist blogger, ‘Slackbastard.’ Some days ago, Slackbastard posted a picture of two white men in punk get-out, holding up a large version of the poster doing the rounds in the Melbourne CBD, reading “Real Australians Say Welcome.”
The photo was posted with the approving tagline, “Keepin’ it real,” and a string of adoring and punk-loving comments followed.
A very different type of discussion ensued when it was suggested that it may be “jarring” to see a picture of two visibly white men holding a placard that, firstly, identified them as ‘Real Australians’ and secondly, promoted their condescending right to “Welcome” presumed outsiders into this country.
The comments that followed – both from followers of the Slackbastard page and, surprisingly, also detractors of the page who usually pop up to stir trouble – were alarming in their similarity.
The comments ranged from suggesting only a “self-absorbed child” would object to the photo, to asserting that “the land belongs to no-one,” to reminders that the men in the picture “were doing their best to be good people.”
Confusingly, other commenters suggested that the poster held by the two men was designed in support of the closure of Indigenous communities in Western Australia, and yet another wrote, “Everyone, including Aborigines, came here at one point or another.”
In the dying gasps of the thread, a final intervention came from a poster who could otherwise be seen posting anti-Muslim and generally hateful comments – though in this instance came out in support of the two men’s right to ‘Welcome’ others into the country.
“How about stepping down from your throne to feel some gratitude? Since when does welcome = oppression? You’re saying they don’t have the right to welcome people where they’re lucky enough to live because they’re white, and you’re condemning them for something that happened in an entirely different time?”
This thread powerfully demonstrates the point, made time and time again by writers of colour, that multicultural toleration and ‘welcome’ as practiced in Australia are the flipside of the same coin as marginalisation and exclusion.
Writing nearly 10 years ago, in the immediate aftermath of Howard government’s seizure of the MV Tampa carrying 438 asylum seekers, anti-border organiser Angela Mitropoulos stated as follows on the racial problematics of ‘pro-refugee’ protests:
The prevalent and ostensible counter-slogan of 'Refugees are welcome here' not only repeated the classificatory machinery of migration policy that obliges the other to beg, but positions the 'we' as the one who must be persuaded by such pleading, who has the authority to welcome, or not.
The concept of ‘Welcome’ serves two purposes – the first, to naturalise colonial sovereignty over the nation (you only ‘welcome’ into a house that you own), and secondly, to extend a condescending hand to those automatically presumed to be outsiders.
Though the commenters on Slackbastard’s page repeated, again and again, “well, what’s wrong with welcoming?” readers of colour would have heard the ringing of John Howard’s treacherously conditional greeting: “WE decide who comes to this country, and the circumstances in which they come.”
‘Welcoming’ is an act of largesse by a rightful owner; a promise that can be revoked as soon as the guest oversteps the mark, and overstays that welcome. The ‘Welcome’ extended by white anti-racist protesters is at once an act of displacement of Indigenous sovereignty and a reminder of white supremacy, in an act of pretended largesse.
These questions may seem semantic or secondary to the assumed primary task of confronting bigots on the streets and preventing the normalisation of their rhetoric. Yet, we return to the basic problem identified by organiser Kenyon Farrow when confronting the racial composition of the ‘Occupy Wall Street’ movement in its initial stages:
The economic crisis has disproportionately affected people of color, in particular African Americans. Given the stark economic realities in communities of color, many people have wondered why the Occupy Wall Street movement hasn’t become a major site for mobilizing African Americans. For me, it's not about the diversity of the protests. It's about the rhetoric used by the white left that makes OWS unable to articulate, much less achieve, a transformative racial-justice agenda.
Words and actions inform one another – which is the very basis for organising against the likes of Reclaim Australia. There is nothing immaterial about the words chosen, or the discourse deployed, by anti-racist organisers in Australia as they operate in the context of widening racial apartheid, manifest through policy towards First Nations peoples, immigration both within ‘mainland’ Australia and ‘offshore’ places of detention, and an ever-expanding array of ‘security’ powers bestowed on federal police.
How we speak matters no less than how we act. Perhaps by attending to this, organisers of counter-rallies may answer the basic question: if the formation of Reclaim Australia and the resurgence of the extreme Right primarily threatens Indigenous people and people of colour in this country, why are they disproportionately underrepresented in anti-fascist organising on the streets?