Amid media storm and police overkill, anti-racists and anti-fascists held successful parallel rallies in Melbourne’s multicultural Coburg on Saturday 28 May.
The Moreland Says No to Racism Rally was initiated by Socialist Alliance Moreland councillor Sue Bolton, with organisers including independent left activists. Months in preparation, and endorsed by over 60 groups including Moreland council, it aimed at opposing government racism, solidarity with refugees, for a treaty with indigenous people and against Islamophobia.
However fascist groups (United Patriots Front and True Blue Crew) decided to call a counter rally at the end point of the anti-racist rally.
Other leftists — anarchists, Socialist Alternative, Campaign Against Racism and Fascism (CARF) and others — organised an “anti-fascist” counter-counter rally, gathering an hour earlier, 100 metres from the anti-racist rally. Meanwhile Sue Bolton resisted enormous pressure to cancel the rally from police, media and Moreland Council.
The two rallies reflected different tactical approaches: build a broad anti-racist movement; or directly confront fascists. Communication between the two groups of left rally organisers was poor before and during the rallies.
After anarchists left to confront the 50-100 fascists, police blocked the direct route for others. Those blocked responded by marching straight through the anti-racist rally as speeches were starting — Socialist Alternative banner at the front, pushing people away, chanting — despite it being possible to march behind the speakers. Like many, I was astonished and angered by this.
Both rallies had 3-400 people; decent numbers given the police and media scare campaign. Both achieved their aims — the anti-racist rally drew in unions and migrant communities, had impressive speakers, marched, and was peaceful, a precondition for many speakers and attendees. The anti-fascist rally prevented the fascists from marching, attracting support from local Muslim youth.
Minor skirmishes between anarchists and fascists were apparently facilitated by the police to allow a “shock and horror race riot” media report.
I think the left needs to find agreement on how to both build a broad anti-racist movement and to directly confront fascists. Why?
1. We face a serious outbreak of fascist organising centred on anti-Muslim racism.
2. Our central strategic problem is that tactics in countering fascists have been developed in isolation from mainstream labour movement and other organisations. Unlike in the 1990s, unions and ALP left figures have not endorsed or attended anti-fascist counter-rallies.
3. The left has two overall responses:
a. Direct confrontations with the fascists whenever they appear. That of Campaign Against Racism and Fascism (CARF), Socialist Alternative, and many anarchists.
b. Build broad anti-racist coalitions. This has been a significant approach for Socialist Alliance and others.
4. These approaches are not necessarily counterposed in theory or practice. CARF established a union working group that held a successful workshop. Socialist Alliance actively supported some CARF led counter-rallies.
5. The anti-racist rally gained union support, endorsed by Victorian Trades Hall, CFMEU, AMWU, ETU, NUW, NTEU, with marshals on the day from more. This is much more than CARF has achieved, and led me to be a marshal alongside fellow union activists.
6. The union leaderships supported the rally’s broad and diverse community focus. They have not supported direct confrontation with fascists. They are reluctant to endorse a “far left versus far right” street fight.
7. Once the UPF announced their aim to smash the rally with “force and terror”, more structured defence was needed: both marshalling, and a “forward defence” contingent to stop a fascist march on the anti-racist rally. Focussing on defending the community rally against attack encompasses anti-racist and confrontational tactics, and positions any violence as clearly defensive for union and community members. In a sense this is what happened, but in an incoherent way that allowed media and local traders to equate the fascists and anti-fascists as both being outside troublemakers. I see mistakes on all sides. Many anti-fascist organisers did not come to the anti-racist rally organisers saying “how can we help”, but demanding they should confront the fascists. The anti-racist organisers ruled out involvement in direct confrontation.
8. These hostilities and different tactical approaches on the left stopped development of a coherent plan to coordinate direct and forward defence of the rally.
Given that anti-racist and anti-fascist rallies were both gathering at Coburg Mall, the messy split was always likely. An agreed division of labour could have avoided this — the anti-racist organisers accepting that the anti-fascists would leave and could help keep the main rally peaceful. In turn, the anti-fascists could have recognised the significance of the forces represented at the main rally — including many people who would not attend a direct confrontation.
The True Blue Crew have already announced their next rally, in defence of the Australian flag, and we can expect further counter rallies against left events.
We need to get better coordination between left forces that support different tactics, so our events can pursue their original agendas, while mobilising community and union supporters to defence against fascist attacks.