Last week’s protest outside the Victorian parliament in Melbourne was an eclectic group. Some described it as a bit like attending a family outing. But milling around the podium and mingling in the crowd were some recognisable faces — neo-Nazis and members of far-right groups that had long ago splintered and broken up.
The question is, are the extremists observers, urgers, or high level manipulators taking otherwise decent people down political paths from which there is no return?
An insider’s tale:
Brendan McKenna is a 36-year-old activist. He made his first forays into what he calls the freedom movement in the early days of the pandemic in early 2020, “when Wuhan was the central focus and theories incorrectly linking the flu to 5G installations were circulating around in various Facebook groups.”
He’s been an organiser of large scale protest rallies. At one of the biggest where thousands descended on the Sydney CBD on August 21, he was arrested and charged with breach of public health orders as well as assault police. His matter has been adjourned until May 2022.
He comes across as thoughtful and intelligent. I’d first encountered McKenna on Telegram where he seemed to be a rare voice of reason among the often hate-speckled, violent rhetoric. Not the only one, it must be said, but the most stubborn and resilient voice against extremism.
We made contact and spoke over several days about his involvement with the movement and how he has become increasingly disillusioned by it.
He doesn’t identify as an anti-vaxxer. His concerns, he says, are with what he calls the “Incoming Police State” which he describes as “an increase in government surveillance as well as the passing of draconian laws and legislations that have followed the pandemic in its wake.
McKenna acknowledges he’s a conspiracy theorist although he says his views have tempered largely because he has seen the movement change over time. He has become increasingly concerned over the role of far right activists who he says have “taken advantage of the kind-hearted and vulnerable people within the freedom movement.”
He believes the movement is essentially populated by good and decent people, worried about state overreach. The vast majority have no experience of community activism and have never attended protest rallies before.
“That often means they’re easily led astray,” McKenna said.
“There are groups out there that allow extremism, bigotry, anti-Semitism & racist messaging to fester online. It’s as though figure heads have intentionally been set up to bait and incite others all the while taking advantage of good people who one day might crack and start feeling helpless and increasingly desperate day by day. They start following any solution that comes along, no matter how costly or naive it may sound.”
He hasn’t made a cent out of the movement, but many others have. It’s what we both refer to as ‘the grift’ — money donated often in crowd-funding campaigns for groups and individuals within the movement. Some of the donated totals are staggering, hundreds of thousands of dollars. Where is the money coming from? …
I raise the spectre of ‘dark money’, money anonymously donated by foreign interests to local activist groups to destabilise the country and break down its political institutions.
McKenna has done his research on ‘astroturfed’ (fake grassroots) political action groups elsewhere around the world and can see some parallels in Australia. …
“There are those involved who appear to have relations to certain mainstream and micro parties and in some instances associations and societies. I would argue that it is more the influence of these people, along with people connected to existing far-right movements Reclaim Australia, Proud Boys, Sovereign Citizens and Lad Society, True Blue Crew, National Socialist Network, et cetera that have brought that extremist element into the fold.
“The majority [of activists] genuinely believe they are doing the right thing and would even classify themselves as human rights activists. For the most part the movement has just been ignorant and failed to see the concerns around letting these elements creep in.
Every movement and organization that opposes the modern state is infiltrated by agents of the state. As we are seeing from the trend-setting US, increasingly those agents provoke and encourage violent and extremist activity (thus providing themselves with jobs). Beware.