30 August – The centre of the Victorian city of Bendigo was shut down as several hundred people gathered to protest against anti-Islamic groups and show their support for a planned mosque.
Victoria’s planning tribunal approved a permit for the city’s first mosque earlier this month.
On Saturday anti-fascist groups held rallies in opposition to a protest by the anti-Islam group United Patriots Front (UPF), which opposes the mosque.
The anti-racism demonstrators chanted: “Muslims are welcome, racists are not” and “Nazi scum off our streets”.
Large numbers of police officers were on the scene to keep the two sides apart.
Several clashes broke out but were contained by police.
The different groups continued to try and circle around police lines to have a head-on confrontation, but were kept apart.
Some protesters from both sides wore masks to hide their identity and some residents said they were afraid of what was going on.
One angry resident said it was “absolutely ridiculous” the protests had shut down the centre of town.
Another called it a hindrance to people going about their normal daily business, while a visitor called the protests “confrontational”.
At one point, protesters clashed after an Australian flag was burned by the anti-racist demonstrators. Police used capsicum spray on the anti-Islam protesters who were trying to push through the police line.
United Patriots Front leader Blair Cottrell was seen washing his eyes out with water after police deployed the capsicum spray.
In his speech, Mr Cottrell lashed his opponents from the anti-racist protests as “losers, renegades and traitors”. The UPF have been engaged in ongoing street battles with left-wing groups, including outside State Parliament last month.
Life-long Bendigo resident Sue McConnachie attended the rally with friends to show support for the mosque, but was disappointed with the level of aggression from both sides.
The Victorian and Civil Administrative Tribunal (VCAT) found there was “no evidence of any significant social or other effects to the community” as a result of the mosque.
Members of the UPF vowed they would go “wherever they wanted because this land belongs to us” in a posting on Facebook before the protest.
Following the rally a 26-year-old North Melbourne woman was detained and issued two infringement notices after she was accused of burning a flag.
The infringements, $607 dollars each, were issued for ‘behaving in a riotous manner’ and ‘depositing burning litter’.