Pride and prejudice
When far-right and anti-racist groups came eye-to-eye on a Brisbane street, the result was always going to be ugly. Photo: Naz Mulla
White nationalists have called a rally in south Brisbane today. They huddle on one side of a street that runs along a park. Behind the park poke the cranes and skyscrapers of the city skyline. Getting wind of the rally weeks ago, a counter-protest has gathered on the other side of the street, to show support for multiculturalism. Two olive-skinned Greek men stand proud as a mob of angry white faces turn red, screaming and hectoring them.
Before we go any further, there's something you need to know. The olive-skinned Greeks are part of the white nationalist crew. The mob of angry whites are the anti-racists. White nationalism is confusing in 2014.
"Fascist Scum! Off our streets!" bellow the 200-odd anti-fascists at the 20 or so nationalists, a police line dividing the two.
In Greece, Golden Dawn is a fascist party that stands against immigration and multiculturalism. Its leader, Nikolaos Michaloliakos, has just been thrown into jail, awaiting a trial, charged with forming a criminal organisation. Australia First is our far-right party, also anti-immigration. In solidarity, it is protesting the jailing of Michaloliakos.
But it is not the only group here. Some Greek-Australians have formed a local Golden Dawn. That's how the Greeks have ended up standing on the same side of the street as the white nationalists. But ... but ... aren't Greek-Australians an immigrant community?
A young white guy in a shiny suit and sunglasses appears to be leading the Australia First contingent. "Abolish multiculturalism!" he yells through his megaphone.
"So you're cool with Greek-Australians?" I ask.
"Absolutely," the guy says, pulling the megaphone from his lips. "Greek-Australians. European-Australians, in general."
"So Italians are okay?"
"Yeah, they're okay."
"But back in the 1940s, wouldn't your equivalent have been against Greek-Australians because they were the 'wogs' who were coming here as immigrants and ruining white Australia?"
He shrugs his shoulders, apathetic. "What was going on in the 1940s ... we weren't around in the 1940s, so we can't really comment about what we would have done back then."
Next to him, an old man in a Golden Dawn baseball hat, brandishing a huge Greek flag, smiles like a kindly grandfather. I think he says his name is Paul but honestly I can't tell for sure. His accent is too thick.
"Isn't this a racist thing?"
"My girlfriend is a Chinese woman," is his answer.
The leader of Golden Dawn Australia, Iggy Gavrilidis, unfurls a big Golden Dawn flag. It looks remarkably like the Nazi one, while having wiggle room to claim it's just a coincidence that it's a crooked black symbol on a white background surrounded by red. Gavrilidis positions himself next to the old man with the Chinese girlfriend and the big Greek flag.
"What if a Muslim was flying a Saudi Arabian flag in Australia, would that be okay?" I ask.
A man with a British accent interrupts. "Different species," he says. Greeks and Saudi Muslims are like apples and oranges, he explains. Europeans are more evolved, culturally, and perhaps in other ways, too.
"Are you Greek?" I ask.
"I came here as a Pommy bastard in 1968. My mother is Greek Orthodox. Some of my family is originally from Syria. They had to move out and were refugees in Egypt. Now I prefer Australian culture. That's why I'm here."
He motions across the road, sneering, at his rowdy anti-fascist enemies. "If they really want their culture, they should go back home."
I'm confused. He's making out like a rainbow coalition of ethnics are gathered across the street. But besides one Islander and one Eurasian, all I've seen are white people.
"But what's their culture?" I ask. "They look like white Australians to me."
"Yes, but they want multiculture."
"But aren't you a product of multiculturalism?" I ask the Greek Orthodox British immigrant.
"No. God no."
"But you were born in England ..."
"To a Greek mother ..."
He looks at me coyly.
"I had an Egyptian mother ... just Greek Orthodox religion," he says.
This really is the "It's A Small World" ride of white nationalist rallies.
One thousand Greeks are on this street, just not exactly here. To encourage Greek participation, Australia First called the rally on a strip that holds the Greek Club and a Greek Orthodox Church. Those 1000 Greeks have chosen to attend a funeral service instead of this. Inside the church, the black-cassocked Father Dimitri Tsakas isn't happy. "The fascists kept talking about meeting at the Greek Club, so I went out in the morning, I made sure our flags were down, I made sure the doors were shut, I made sure there were guards on our gates.
"How could a people that, for a century, have migrated to every other nation on Earth, to make a living, to be a part of those societies, possibly, really support a party that beats up migrants on the streets of Athens?!"
I decide to check out what's going down on the other side of the street. I pass a small team of neo-Nazis: black caps, black sunnies, black everything, head to toe. These men, who are distinct from Australia First, serve as the menacing presence of the far-right, so the anti-fascists think twice before starting anything. Their modus operandi is to stand still as statues, cross-armed, and not peep a word, even if someone tries to strike up a conversation. Nevertheless, one mutters at me as I walk by.
"Pardon?" I ask.
"Liked you on Race Around The World," he says.
Cries of "Immigrants welcome! Nazis not!" thunder up and down the street. The anti-fascists include anarchists waving black flags, university lefties (one holding a placard of Cookie Monster saying "Bad Nazi No Biscuit"), a man in a dress and bonnet, and an army of trade unionists from the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU). In fact, about 100 of the counter-protestors are fit, mainly white, young men from building sites, wearing fluorescent safety vests.
The police line is porous and far-righters and anti-fascists have met up at points, but only a subset of anti-fascists, the trade unionists. The hippies and others are standing well back. A dozen big men surround one skinny Australia First guy in a leather jacket.
"Why's he shaking, mate?" an old, grey-haired man from the CFMEU sarcastically asks a colleague.
"Because he's shit-scared," a handsome young guy with a red beard replies.
"Is he?" sing-songs Mr Sarcastic.
"He's petrified," says Red Beard.
"You mean he's scared of us spilling some of his claret on this cement?" continues Mr Sarcastic. He turns to his army. "None of youse would spill any of his claret on the cement now, would ya?"
"Nah!" scream the workers.
"F...in' oath!" announces one.
An Islander goes nose-to-nose with the petrified Australian Firster, whose name is Michael Cole. "Welcome to the future," snaps the Islander.
Cole ducks between the men.
"Weak!" one man shouts after him.
"NAZI SCUM OFF OUR STREETS!" roar the rest.
A shuddering Cole pulls at his leather jacket lapel. "I've got my grandfather's British Legion badge on from when he fought in World War II," he says, trembling. "He was with the Black Watch and I'm a Nazi? I go to dawn service, I wear my grandfather's medals and I'm a Nazi?"
Mr Sarcastic and Red Beard have moved onto another nationalist, in black hoody and sunglasses.
"C...-sucking faggot!" shouts Red Beard.
In the far-right rally in my head it would have been a fascist, not an anti-fascist, shouting this.
Mr Sarcastic asks the nationalist what he's doing. He explains he's protesting to free the Golden Dawn leader.
"See ... see, this is not Greece," says Mr Sarcastic. "This is Australia!"
"You're in Australia!" adds Red Beard.
Another phrase that, in the far-right rally in my head, the fascist, not the anti-fascist, would be saying.
A pasty young Australia Firster with a ponytail and acne is drifting through the crowd, waving a large Eureka flag featuring the Southern Cross. A workman stabs his finger in the air. "Don't f...ing use our union flag, you heap of shit," he says. "Forty-five nationalities at Eureka, you f...ing clown. Docile f.... Go read a bit of history, genius, hey?"
Four unionists pounce on the pasty kid. Next thing he stumbles out of the pack with his flagpole stripped. Soon I see a young trade unionist walk out from the crowds wearing it as a cape. That's what this is reminding me of. The television footage of the white kids at the 2005 Cronulla riots in Sydney.
The Australian Firster in the shiny suit comes to try to calm things down. "Love your op-shop f...ing suit!" screams an anti-fascist. The crowd of university anarchists and greenies and workers laugh at his cheap suit.
"Look at you - you little anorexic f...," spits the Eureka Historian. "You f...ing dog, you're the hard man in the crew, are ya?"
Laughter rolls through the crowd again.
"You were the c...s that got picked on in school!"
The Australia First rhetoric has morphed over the hours. Under fire, they now speak of another political way. "This is about democracy!" the shiny suit man says. "About people having freedom of movement."
"You're in Australia, you f...wit," explains Red Beard. "There's no freedom of movement when you're a f...ing scum dog, mate."
"F...ing just hook him bro, hook him," adds the Islander.
Half an hour later, like everywhere else in the world, the white nationalists and anti-fascists have all started fidgeting with their smartphones. Everyone in the street looks out of energy.
Soon after, we all slog over to the nearby Greek Consulate, so the Australian Firsters can demand the release of the Golden Dawn leader. Both sides are manic again. City workers walking by are confused.
"They don't like Greeks?" one asks me.
"No, some of them are Greeks, but ... they ... you see ..." It's too hard and I give up.
No one from the Greek Consulate comes out and the far-righters, with panicked eyes upon the unrelenting trade unionists, roll up their Golden Dawn flags. With the police protecting them, they slink off to a nearby maxi taxi. An Indian taxi driver spirits the white nationalists to safety.
Everyone left is in a jolly mood. My smartphone vibrates in my pocket. It's a Facebook message from a stranger, one of the anti-racist protesters. "Saw you before. I wanted to ask what did you think of the protest? I found it a little weird. Kinda like we were the Nazis."
"Why did you feel like you were the Nazis?"
"Because we were a bigger mob harassing a smaller mob. What message are we sending them? That intimidation is okay, that's fine, you just have to have the bigger numbers? The other odd thing was marching people under the hammer and sickle flag. Is this 1945? Where people under the Soviet Union flag are chasing Nazis through the streets? It was like cosplay."
It may have been cosplay today, but Australian white nationalists have been hands-on in recent times. Last year, a neo-Nazi in suburban Melbourne plead guilty to hoarding pipe-bombs and guns. In the same city, two young skinheads are serving time for bashing a Vietnamese international student with a brick in 2012.
The violence rolls on back. Twenty-five years ago, the present-day chairman of Australia First, Jim Saleam, provided a shotgun to two skinheads who fired into the home of the African National Congress representative in Australia. Saleam was sentenced to three-and-a-half years' jail for his involvement. Perhaps today's rallies would have turned out differently had the unionists not got visceral. Maybe multiculturalists should be grateful that men more sinewed than hippies have got their back.
Just before midnight, away from the flags and fluoro vests of the Brisbane CBD, my phone vibrates again. It's Michael Cole from Australia First. He wants to tell me what happened after they escaped in the maxi taxi. "These trade union guys stormed the pub we were at this afternoon and put three blokes in hospital."
Cole sounds shaken. "Now, do you remember speaking to an elderly Greek gentleman today?"
"With the Chinese girlfriend?"
"Yeah, well, that elderly Greek gentleman is currently lying in hospital under observation because he was severely kicked to the head. He's pretty dejected. He's doped to the eyeballs."
The Queensland Police media unit confirm the essentials of Cole's story. Six to eight men stormed the Red Brick Hotel in Woolloongabba, bashed some patrons and fled. Five men were injured, three taken to hospital. A man in his 30s received a possible fracture to his cheek. A man in his 20s was left with a possible broken hand. A 66-year-old male was pushed to the ground and kicked and left with swelling and bruising to the rear of his head. No one has been arrested. The police won't confirm the men were trade unionists.
The next day, Cole will not return my calls and Australia First is spinning the story a different way. Jim Saleam has written on the party's Facebook page: "A couple of activists experienced minor cuts. However, their spirit was undeterred. The responsibility for the violence today does not rest with any worker tricked into action by the CFMEU leader-group. It rests with this small core of union officials and organisers."
CFMEU head office tell me they have not heard from police about the punch-up in the pub. They say they condemn fascism, but do not condone violence.
Saleam has two things to spin. First, his men came up short under "might is right", the very system the far-righters want. Second, his men's sense of self is built on believing they're standing for the real Australians, against the so-called leftie rabble. But what happens when the archetype real Australians - young, white working men - stand with that rabble, surround you on the street and tell you to piss off?
I stare at Jim Saleam's surname and start wondering why it kind of sounds like the Arabic word for peace. I find an old magazine article from when Jim was planning a run for parliament. He denies it, of course, but people who knew Jim's parents and grandparents from his old hometown of Maryborough, Queensland, say this: Jim's from a Lebanese immigrant family.
That's the cherry on the pavlova. Australia: where even the immigrants hate immigrants. And where even the anti-racists bash wogs.