Saturday, March 13, 2010

Far right attempt to hijack internet censorship rally

One feature of the otherwise successful Perth rally against internet censorship on March 6 was the attempt by a far-right political group to hijack the event.

Up to 300 people participated in the rally and march hearing speakers including internet studies lecturer Mike Kent, Greens senator Scott Ludlam and an Iranian refugee who talked about the draconian nature of Iran's internet censorship. Other speakers included Socialist Alliance senate candidate Ben Peterson and Mike Walmsley from the Liberal Democratic Party.

There was another rally in Melbourne on the same day and smaller actions in Sydney, Brisbane and Adelaide.

The Perth crowd was predominantly young having mostly been organised through FaceBook and other web-based platforms. Many participants were protesting for the first time.

Shortly after Ludlam began speaking, a neo-fascist outfit called Nationalist Alternative hung an anti-immigration banner directly above the speakers' platform. Organisers insisted that the banner be removed because its message was hostile to the aims of the rally. After it was removed, a ``Stop the Filter'' banner was hung in its place.

During the incident a spontaneous chant of ``no room for racism'' won wide support among the crowd.

In post-rally commentary, the Nationalist Alternative claimed that their views were ``censored'' and that the organisers were therefore guilty of ``hypocrisy’’. They also argued that they loyally promoted the rally and that their banner was no different to a Resistance banner that was also displayed on the day.

In fact, their efforts at ``promotion’’ of the rally seem to consist entirely of a single post on their blogsite less than 24 hours before the rally began. None of their members attended organising meetings. This token effort at ``promotion’’ was more about lending credence to the notion that they were ``censored’’ than about genuinely building the rally.

Further, the Resistance banner in question simply identified Resistance as one of the organisations supporting the rally. Along with the name of the organisation it included a Resistance slogan: ``people before profits, planet before profits’’ in small type. The Resistance banner was held by rally participants as part of the crowd.

By contrast, the Nationalist Alternative banner consisted primarily of an anti-immigration slogan which can in no way be construed as relevant to the rally aims. Nonetheless, it was placed directly behind the speakers’ platform implying that it had endorsement from the rally organisers.

Peterson, who is from Perth Resistance and was among the key rally organisers, told Green Left that ``these kinds of racist groups cannot openly win popular support for their ideas’’.

``Therefore, they try to elicit public sympathy by claiming to be victims of censorship,’’ he said.

``Far from being supporters of the rally, from this standpoint, their whole action can be seen as a set-up – a hostile attempt to discredit the movement against the filter.’’

``However, it is not censorship for rally organisers to set the limits as to how the rally will be perceived by the public,’’ Peterson said.

``Stop the filter is not a group to push racism and it is not censorship to ensure that our rally is not associated with that,’’ Peterson said.

Echoing this view, Ludlam told the March 13 Perth Voice ``I certainly didn't read that as censorship’’.

``I'm certainly against hate speech,’’ he said. ``If they're running up anti-immigration banners at a rally for free speech, especially behind the speaker, it's completely out of line. It was a grab for attention, in extremely bad taste.’’

According to Peterson, ``suppressing far right ideas is not an effective way to combat fascist groups because it diverts attention away from their obnoxious ideas into a pointless debate about whether or not these groups deserve `free speech’.’’

``But that is not what we’re talking about in this case,’’ he said. ``Just as we would not tolerate someone storming the rally platform and taking over the microphone, we have a right to determine which banner is displayed behind the speakers’ platform.’’

[This article by Alex Bainbridge, Socialist Alliance candidate for Perth, has been submitted to Green Left Weekly.]