Below is an account of events surrounding the meeting of November 24 at Penrith Council. (See also : Owners of the new Islamic community centre owners just want to be part of community, Ian Paterson, Penrith Press, November 27, 2014.)
Please note that council has scheduled an extraordinary meeting to take place on Monday, December 8 at 7pm to further discuss the proposal for a Muslim community centre in Penrith.
The meeting will again attract a range of neo-Nazis, White supremacists and other racist and fascist oddballs drawn from the ranks of the Australia First Party, Party for Freedom and Squadron 88.
A Facebook event page has been created to promote attendance by anti-fascists and anti-racists.
Please join and invite your friends to the event. For further information please write [email protected]
Thanks to Anonymous for the text!
On Monday the 24th of November, Penrith City Council (in outer Western Sydney) held a meeting to discuss a development application for a community centre and prayer space for the local Muslim community. A previous meeting of the council on the same issue attracted a hostile crowd of racist locals, egged on by Councillor Marcus Cornish‘s disgusting rhetoric about the crime such a centre would bring to the area, and culminated in the applicants for the centre and supportive councillors requiring a police escort home. [NB. Another Councillor opposed to the development is Maurice Girotto. At the time of his election to Council Girotto was a member of the Australia First Party. He subsequently quit the party.] Appeals from local Islamic community groups and the Nepean Greens for support were answered by (primarily) young people from across Sydney, determined to take a stand against racism and challenge the pervasiveness of Islamophobia in Australian society.
What happened in Penrith on this particular Monday night needs to be understood as representative of a broader pattern of far-right activity. As part of a strategy that seeks to fragment communities along lines of race or ethnicity, the far-right acts to channel the populist anti-Muslim bigotry peddled by politicians, talkback radio demagogues and tabloid hacks into localised expressions of exclusion and marginalisation. The idea of a small community of people having somewhere to meet, worship and celebrate things like weddings doesn’t seem so threatening, so it must be framed as the first step towards a much more dangerous future. In the same way that vocal sections of the Australian internet are trying to portray Vegemite’s Halal certification as support for “ISIS”, a community centre in Kemps Creek is conflated with the spectre of “radical Islam”.
The process begins with challenges to development applications, whipped up online and resourced on the ground by ostensibly respectable, well-funded organisations like the Q Society. When these efforts fail, as they often do due to their spurious grounds and the blatant agendas underpinning them, the campaign will escalate to the staging of volatile displays of apparently ‘grassroots’ opposition. This is nothing short of an invitation to the extreme-right, and must be named as such.
Protest and counter-protest
From the early afternoon, anti-racists from Sydney’s west gathered at the site to scope out the situation, and to ensure that a clear anti-racist message of solidarity would greet members of the local Muslim community arriving to attend the meeting. By five o’clock they were joined by a number of autonomous antifascists and anti-racist students from a number of Sydney universities. Our numbers continued to grow steadily as the afternoon faded into evening. Discussions were had about what an effective political response to the Islamophobic hysteria would look like, what was in our power to achieve, and how people thought they would best be able to contribute. We also approached members of the Muhammadi Welfare Association to convey our solidarity and ask about anything we might be able to assist them with.
Not long after we arrived, two or three local ‘anti-Islamists’ turned up, dragging a huge stack of placards along with them. A bloke wearing a ‘Royal Australian Infidel’ t-shirt tied a Strayan flag around his shoulders, produced a copy of the Quran and came over to favour assembled anti-racists with a host of tired canards about the evil contained within. Not in a racist way, you must understand, cos he’s not racist. That a British organisation who also call themselves the Infidels are a group that split from the English Defence League because the EDL wasn’t racist enough is just a coincidence. He gave his name as James, and informed us that he’s a proud Army reservist. He’d die for the flag, for Straya, and for Penrith.
But he’s not racist. Not like the Australian Defence League, or those scum from Australia First. In fact, he hates Nazis. Don’t ask him, he’ll tell you.
James is rumored to be a manager at a McDonald’s (presumably not at one of the branches that serves Halal certified burgers), and beyond the Colours of Cronulla ’05 ensemble, he was doing a pretty good job of playing the downtrodden workaday Aussie bloke. Despite his sudden and rather curious interest in the finer points of local development ordinances, James makes for a convincing ‘concerned not racist local’ because his resentful ethno-nationalism is submerged beneath an almost evangelical feel-good patriotism. Counter-posed to all the bollocks about the exceptional peril posed to the globe by Islam is a seemingly positive politics, concerned with the promotion and celebration of the inherent virtues of Australian society.
It’s not terribly coherent, it is aggressively and demonstrably ignorant on a whole range of questions, but it definitely resonates. The narrative is a familiar one, beloved as it is by the political and media classes, and functions to twist anger about undeveloped local services (that might otherwise be leveled at politicians and their campaign donors) into an active, festering resentment of “undeserving” minorities. It sounds pretty racist because it is, so the trick is to claim it all in the name of a core Australian value that itself is viewed as beyond reproach, in this case ‘the fair go’ (or variously ‘ANZACs’, ‘freedoms’ and ‘our way of life’) to make it sound more positive and legitimate.
James went through this whole routine for us a couple of times, but nobody had told his mate who was rather more forthright about his feelings about people of colour, came over to have a go and was swiftly relieved of his placard. Shortly afterwards, James had a go at the anti-racist banner and briefly lost his flag. He came up shadow boxing and yelling about how no one touches his flag. It was all a bit sad, and the cops wandered over to stand in the middle.
So far, so predictable.
Shortly afterwards, it became apparent that the anti-racist gathering was being filmed, discreetly, by a man and woman with a video camera some 50 metres away partially behind the cover of some trees. Aware of potential Australia First spotters in the area, the couple were approached and asked why they were filming us, and which media organisation they were working for. They were instantly defensive, claiming they were just there to ‘film the building’ and they had every right to do so because it was a public space. It was just a coincidence that they were filming anti-racist activists in the process, and that they had chosen this particular evening to come and film the dull concrete façade of the council chambers was purely happen-stance. What was certain is that they had nothing at all to do with the planned anti-Mosque demonstration, but for some reason they packed up in a hurry and told us to go back to our Greenie heroin squat as they buggered off.
To an experienced eye, it was quite obvious that this was an intelligence gathering exercise, and no one was surprised when they both joined the racist mob later on. Though it may seem a rather trivial encounter, it does raise important questions about safety and security for anti-racist activists (on which there is more to say later), and foreshadowed what was to come.
The next forty minutes to an hour was uneventful with the anti-racist contingent leaving the patriots to defend an empty concrete square and moving closer to the entrance to link up with other Mosque supporters. A few cops stood around looking bored. Anyone entering the car park was greeted by the massive ‘Smash Racism’ banner, and that meant that new arrivals on the scene picked their side of the square and pretty much stayed there. Whilst a few more attempts were made by members of the Muslim community to reason with the anti-Mosque lot (needless to say they weren’t particularly fruitful), activists settled on a plan to provide a visible, vocal opposition to anti-Mosquers when they marched to the entrance of the chambers.
It was about this time we noticed some familiar faces mixing with the anti-Mosquers. A few were identified immediately as supporters of the Australia First Party, three to five of them at this point, with one even helpfully dressed in an Australia First Party t-shirt. They quietly distributed some literature. No sight of Dr Jim [Saleam, Führer of the Party] yet, but it’s pretty likely he was in a car nearby whilst his underlings figured out whether it was worth him appearing in person. A few other faces anti-racists recognised were regular attendees at Islamophobic events in Sydney (such as the anti-Halal demonstration at Woolworths in Marrickville a couple of months back), though are more likely rallied by anti-Islamic Facebook groups, overlapping with the far-right rather than claiming a specific allegiance to it. While we stood around dutifully waiting for the eventual shouting match to begin, numbers on the anti-Mosque side continued to grow, from a dozen to maybe three or four dozen, and the longer they stood around the angrier they got.
I can’t say exactly when it all kicked off, but it would have been about 6:30 when suddenly they all started coming across the square towards the entrance. Anti-racists moved too, partially blocking their path with the banner, but with too few numbers to actually stop them. A few of our group were punched and there was lots of pushing and shoving before the small handful of police on the scene got between the two sides and forced them apart. A heated, and at times surreal, conversation then raged over the police line. Constructive dialogue it was not.
Alongside a long list of standard tropes and crusader rhetoric about Islam so familiar that it makes discussion of it redundant, the anti-Mosquers focused their attention on personally threatening anti-racists. Though there were some overt threats of violence, particularly against the anti-racists the crowd thought to be Muslims, they were mostly concerned with painting a detailed picture of what would happen to individuals under the global caliphate that would be sure to emerge if Penrith’s Shia population was able to build a community centre. For instance, a queer comrade was approached by an anti-Mosquer, and asked if he was “a gay”. When he answered in the affirmative, a few locals gathered around to tell him what would happen to him “under Islam”. Women were also singled out for this treatment, informed with relish about the barbarity of female genital mutilation/circumcision and how violence against women is enshrined (apparently uniquely) in Islam. They were told they’d deserve this treatment in the future for supporting Muslims now.
Our mob wasn’t buying any of it, and tried to challenge the racist nonsense, with little success. After more than a decade of hysteria about terrorism, Islamophobia has gone mainstream enough to be embraced with an ironically religious fervour. Because we didn’t want to engage in a ‘my flag is better than your holy book’ conversation, by the end, pretty much all we learned was that they weren’t racist because Islam is *not* a race! We, on the other hand, were racist. Against white people! How dare we have the temerity to be Australian and not ‘proud’!? We chanted ‘no pride in genocide’, they chanted ‘Aussie Aussie Aussie, Oi Oi Oi’ with tears literally welling in James’ eyes.
Jim Saleam, captain of Team Australia First, picked this most opportune time to emerge from the car park, and our crowd greeted him with a chant inviting him to follow his leader. Though the Führer himself apparently didn’t feel like mixing it up with the locals, he was accompanied by a couple of his minions carrying a large Australia First Party flag. Despite earlier claims to the contrary from James, the arrival of actual neo-Nazis was not met with confrontation, disavowal or even unease by the local ‘non-racist concerned citizens’. Several Australia First representatives, in addition to Dr Jim and his flag, were pointed out by anti-fascists to a crowd who really didn’t seem too bothered.
Indeed, some were enthusiastic, endorsing AFP’s hardline racist and nationalist platform on the basis that it stood up for Australia (at one point someone claiming to be a local even threw a Nazi salute during a rendition of ‘Aussie Aussie Aussie’, defending his actions on the basis of (sic) “I’m German”). Others refused to recognise the presence of the white supremacists, or engage with calls from the anti-racist side to denounce them, preferring to endlessly change the subject to something irrelevant but comforting like ‘ANZACs’ or the monarchy. Maybe there were a few in the crowd who weren’t entirely comfortable with associating with a bunch of swastika-lickers, but they were silent. For the moment, the nazis were allies of convenience and they were going to stand together. They were in an angry majority, with licence to say whatever they wanted and they were going to make the best use of this time.
So much for the respectability politics of James & Co.. But there was more yet to come.
As the clock approached 7pm and the cops began to allow people into the public gallery, the anti-racist side was joined by about twenty young women of colour who told us they saw the public call out, organised themselves and travelled out to Penrith to challenge the rising tide of bullshit. Hats off to them. They were snarky, tenacious and extremely resilient in the face of a hostile crowd that had now expanded to include Ross “The Skull” May and about five of his goons from neo-Nazi groupuscule Squadron 88. Also spotted lurking in the carpark at this time was pseudo-celebrity racist Sergio Regdelli, of the ‘Ban The Burqa’ mural on Station Street in Newtown, who attended the Faceless Parliament stunt dressed as a Klansman.
As a few boneheads in unseasonable bomber jackets threatened and jeered at anti-racists from behind the police lines, The Skull performed his decades-old ‘white power’ routine for the crowd and a couple of nearby TV cameras. It was a turgid, despicable display and he was given free reign by the police to personally taunt, dehumanise and humiliate the people of colour who had come to stand with Penrith’s Muslim community. From ‘mud races’ to ‘Jewish conspiracies’, ‘Chinese masters’ to ‘illegal refugee scum’, The Skull’s lengthy rant was designed to polarise.
But here’s the thing: it really didn’t.
No one broke with the mob, no one challenged him. At best, there was silence. If there’s only one thing worth remembering about everything that went down in Penrith on this balmy Monday night, it’s that even the crudest embodiment of a neo-Nazi caricature will be welcomed into a ‘non racist concerned local’ crowd as long as he’s also against the Mosque.
In one particularly revolting example, a young woman of African descent was singled out by The Skull for particular attention. He loudly taunted her, calling her “nigger” and referenced the ‘good old days’ when people like her were enslaved and Australia was ‘pure.’ He went on to accuse her of having Ebola and AIDS while he made monkey noises at her. A sizeable chunk of the remaining locals laughed in approval, and those who didn’t, I suppose, would rather pretend that this wasn’t happening. Though most of this interaction was captured on film by a cameraman working for Channel 9, it was not broadcast, and none of the articles available about Monday’s protest even bothered to acknowledge the presence of self-identifying neo-Nazis, even when they – perhaps unwittingly – published photographs of some of them.
Nicholas Hunter-Folkes, the public face of the ‘not racist but’ Party for Freedom, was the last far-right shit-stirrer to arrive. A bit of a shame for him that he arrived a bit late to catch all the locals before they went into the meeting, but he gave it a good old go anyway. A mainstay of the Sydney far-right, Nick and his mates from the anti-Muslim protest group Faceless currently think it’s the height of awesome to don Islamic garments and ‘infiltrate’ public spaces because ‘something-something-radical-Islam’. Though Nick and his mob aren’t exactly beloved by the Australia First Party (or other neo-Nazis), mostly due to their Zionism, there was no indication of acrimony between any of the far-right camps. The leaders of both organisations kept amongst their own, but their lackeys were much more fluid.
It wouldn’t be fair to call it a love-in, but in practice, there was an integration of far-right forces on the ground. Enough integration, in fact, to keep anti-racists trapped near the entrance to the chambers for the entirety of the meeting with no clear way out. This could not have happened without this de facto collaboration. Whilst the leaders made the speeches, the foot-soldiers fanned out around us and cut off our exit route. A couple of very tense hours followed, though arguably the worst part was not the threat of violence lurking in the darkness, but that we were made a captive audience to Nick and his bloody megaphone.
All told Australia First managed to mobilise about 8-10, Faceless/Party For Freedom similar numbers and Squadron 88 about five. There were also two jokers in Guy Fawkes masks (probably from the so-called National “Anarchists”) and an additional presence from another handful of far-right heavies displaying no particular allegiance, who consorted early in the evening with the Squadron 88 mob as they tried to goad anti-fascists into a fight. Later, a few of them were drawn into Nick’s ‘Freedom’ circle, and stood for a group photo amidst a further round of Aussie Aussie Aussie-ing.
This collaboration, however fleeting, matters because it contributes to their morale and paints a rosy picture of their level of organisation and commitment that makes them credible. The fact that their presence actually continued to grow into the night, reinforced by locals who had arrived specifically for a fight with ‘Muzzies’ is testament to this fact. Whilst it’s highly unlikely that this situation will last, the fact remains that on Monday night, whatever beefs they had with one another were set aside in favour of collectively whipping up as much fear, anger and racial resentment as possible. Those who might argue for ignoring them underestimate how much that would serve to embolden them, particularly in the wake of the first time in recent memory the far-right have been able to appear in public without being quickly dispersed by anti-fascists.
Related to this is the question of the police. Though opinions about the police clearly differ amongst anti-racists, the experience of Monday night should make clear that they cannot be relied upon to protect demonstrators from racial harassment, physical intimidation or even assault. Australia’s Racial Discrimination Act specifically prohibits public acts designed to “offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate people of a certain race, colour or national or ethnic origin”, but the police allowed these very acts to go on right under their noses all night. Though The Skull was eventually told by the police to go and stand on the corner of High St (where he sieg heiled at traffic in his white pride world wide t-shirt for the remainder of the evening) after repeated attempts to intimidate anti-racist activists, all of his mates standing around looking for a fight were granted the freedom to pretty much do what they wanted.
The hostile police response when some amongst us asked for assistance or protection in leaving the area is also worth mentioning in this context. The best the cops had to offer people who feared, with very good reason, for their safety was a promise to ‘hold the other side back’ whilst they tried to cover the kilometre to the train station. In any other circumstance, this would be absolutely unthinkable. A lawyer in our ranks was incredulous, time and again raising the duty-of-care the police had for anti-racist demonstrators with the chief officer. But these appeals fell on deaf ears. If you consider the number of police deployed to any even vaguely progressive protest in Sydney, and contrast that to the three public order officers and handful of regulars available to protect Penrith’s Muslim community and its supporters from hundreds of hostile racists, you must conclude that they are not neutral actors. When we understand them as such, we are better equipped to ensure our collective safety.
After being trapped in a tense stand-off for about two hours, cut off from leaving safely by a line of large men looking for a fight, anti-racists finally withdrew when the fascists came together for a photo opp. To be honest, they were probably pretty bored by then. Despite all the big talk and chest thumping, there was no meaningful attempt to physically attack anti-racists, and while we stood together it would have been difficult for them to do so anyway: they prefer to attack people when they’re isolated, or if they try to break and run. That’s what the protracted intimidation routine was about, and it doesn’t work if you don’t let yourself panic.
Though the threat of a physical attack loomed over us for much of the night, and for a while the situation looked very bad, we should be explicit when we say that everyone got home safely not because of the cops but because we stood together in tremendously difficult circumstances.
Think of it this way: they did not pass. The boneheads weren’t able to enter the meeting, to attack anyone, or to push their nonsense without consistent challenge. They did not win.
The centre was approved and we demonstrated active solidarity with Penrith’s Islamic community. We all got home safely. In a qualified sense, we achieved what we set out to do.
With these experiences in mind, we must turn our attention to next week.
Next Monday the 8th of December, Penrith council will meet yet again to discuss the Islamic community centre at Kemps Creek. There is a planned ‘locals’ protest, and the Faceless group are announcing a presence from 5:30pm. They must be opposed, and the local community requires our solidarity. To conclude, here are a few things we need to think about between now and then.
• Preparation and coordination: when are we arriving, what’s our purpose, how are people best able to contribute and what is our exit strategy? More importantly, what is the Muslim community planning on doing, and how do we work to support these ends? These are all questions better asked in advance. Take some time to consider the options and compare notes with others.
• Always stick together: don’t arrive or depart alone. Pick a protest buddy, and be sure to stick with them the whole afternoon. Check in with other demonstrators on a regular basis: it’s imperative to open channels of communication with allies you don’t know immediately. This builds morale and solidarity, but also ensures that everybody knows the score.
• Challenge the narrative: though it’s understandable we didn’t have anything to distribute last Monday with such short notice, that’s no excuse this time around. We need literature that challenges the racist filth distributed amongst the crowd by AFP and that makes explicit their neo-Nazi origins. We also need to point out explicitly that ‘concerns’ about infrastructure, though obviously functioning as a smokescreen for racism, are actually legitimate questions with a class orientation. We need to point out that services and opportunities suck in Penrith because governments don’t care about working class areas, not because the Muslim population needs a community space.
• Be aware of the far-right, but don’t give them too much credit: it is perfectly legitimate to feel intimidated by a large bloke in camo pants with Nazi tattoos — it’s exactly why they dress like that. This doesn’t make him brave or invincible, and if we outnumber them, it doesn’t matter how tough they want to look. We need a short leaflet that can be used to inform our allies about the danger presented by the far-right, one that encourages vigilance but not despair. Try to keep a cool head, stand together and watch each other’s backs. If boneheads show up, form up in a way that makes you harder to attack, and be sure to keep experienced people capable of defending the group on the flanks. Have multiple exit strategies.
• Be aware of the limitations and biases of the police: work on the assumption that they are unwilling or unable to help protect you. This is not about ultra-leftism and is not an invitation to belittle people who feel like they need to ask the cops for protection: it’s about being prepared for any possible outcome.
• Be aware of far-right intelligence gathering. This is up to the individual, but the fascists like to take pictures at events like these, and they will sometimes use those pictures to try to harass and intimidate anti-racist activists. Confront them where possible and take steps to protect yourselves. A practical defence is a banner or a flag in front of their camera, or a mask on your face.
• Film them back. When ‘non-racist concerned citizens’ stand with neo-Nazis, we need to be able to produce evidence of this. Document who turns up, any affiliations they represent and how they interact with one another.
• This is a wake up call for the left. Penrith, like much of Western Sydney, is a political vacuum. Politicians only pay attention when there are votes to be had, and the overwhelmingly working-class locals understandably resent this. Deciding that it’s too hard to organise on an ongoing basis in the west reproduces this dynamic, leaving this territory open to the far-right and abandoning local minority communities who need our solidarity and local progressives who need our support.
Stay safe, stand together. ¡No pasarán!