Coronavirus

‘Hell or high water’: Anti-lockdown protesters discuss avoiding police detection

Mounted police patrol the CBD in order to prevent an anti-lockdown protest, during lockdown in Sydney, Australia, Saturday, July 31, 2021. Source: Getty

Anti-lockdown rallies have been planned across the country this weekend, including in locked down parts of Sydney and Melbourne. Some protesters on encrypted chats have brushed off stern warnings from police, claiming they’ll attend come “hell or high water”.

Anti-lockdown protests have been organised for this weekend across Sydney, Melbourne, Perth, Brisbane, Darwin, Adelaide, Cairns and Townsville. 

Despite the large police presence flagged for locked down cities, some protesters have remained adamant that they will attend come hell or high water”.  

The Feed has seen several members of an encrypted chat with thousands of followers discussing how to avoid police detection. 

“Everyone must come...This is Australia’s moment,” one person wrote.

“I was always the one to watch the protest on TV but now I feel the need to be there,” another added.

 

One member encouraged others to print out posters advertising the rally, insisting, “they need to go into the public’s hands and people’s letterboxes.”

On Wednesday, NSW Police warned there will be over 1,000 police officers strategically stationed throughout Sydney over the weekend.

“There will be a contingent of police on the streets of Sydney this weekend that has not been seen in a number of years,” said Police Minister David Elliot. 

“If you’re attending a protest this weekend, be prepared to bring your chequebook because you will be fined and it is quite possible you’ll be arrested and put before the courts.”

Protesters at an anti-lockdown rally in Melbourne.
Hundreds rallied against Victoria's sixth lockdown.
AAP
Deputy Commissioner Mal Lanyon emphasised police are not opposed to “freedom of speech” but rather tasked to enforce the stay-at-home orders.

“Police cannot accept a protest on Saturday that risks the health and safety of the community,” Mr Lanyon said.

“We are very much monitoring the people who are considering coming to a protest... These are fringe element groups and professional agitators.”

So what will these protests look like? 

Conspiracy theory expert Dr Kaz Ross believes in areas of Australia where there’s no lockdown currently enforced, the protests will go ahead as normal with what she described as a “picnic” vibe. 

“It’ll be the usual mix in Brisbane of [people arguing for] sovereignty, fighting back against government oppression, anti-vaccination, anti-mask, anti lockdown.”

Dr Ross said due to the rising case numbers, the two largest areas of concern are Melbourne and Sydney. In Melbourne, she said there’s likely to be a larger gathering.

“It's possible that we'll see a return to the kind of policing that we saw at the beginning of the pandemic in Melbourne, which is basically the Public Order Response Team fully suited up with horses, pepper spray and arrests.”

Melbourne’s last anti-lockdown protest had an abysmal turnout. Dozens were arrested last Wednesday as footage posted on social media showed mounted police chasing a tiny number of protesters from the CBD. 

The Sydney protest will be the “wild card”, with attendance much harder to predict, according to Dr Ross.

Dr Ross said it’s likely some fringe groups and professional protesters could show up. However, she said it remains unclear whether “normal people” who aren’t politically involved will risk a huge fine to attend. 

“I don't think anyone will be making it to the centre of Sydney,” she said.

 

On July 24, over 3,000 people showed up to protest in Sydney as part of nationwide anti-lockdown rallies. The illegal protests resulted in dozens of arrests, hundreds of fines issued and more than 10,000 calls made to Crime Stoppers.

Protesters had planned to do it all over again the following weekend but police thwarted their attempts. 

The protest fizzled due to a massive police operation which included blocking roads, stopping public transport and issuing a notice to taxis and Ubers to avoid the CBD. 

What are the protesters’ grievances?

Albert Zhang, researcher at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute’s (ASPI) Cyber Policy Centre, said protesters across the country are likely to be a “melting pot” of different groups, including members of the far-right, conspiracy theorists, anti-vaxxers and those frustrated by the lockdown.

“These protests were probably more likely to be homegrown and coordinated by various Australians who have pre-existing sort of grievances against the lockdowns in Australia,” he said.

Mr Zhang said researchers at ASPI have noticed activity in these encrypted groups tends to spike during lockdown periods.

“During this period, we tend to see people sort of feel the most frustrated or express the most negative sentiment towards our [lockdown] policies.”

Protesters march along Broadway and George St towards Sydney Town Hall during the ‘World Wide Rally For Freedom’ anti-lockdown rally at Hyde Park in Sydney, Saturday, July 24, 2021. (AAP Image/Mick Tsikas) NO ARCHIVING
Protesters march along Broadway and George St towards Sydney Town Hall.
AAP

Dr Ross said the group behind this weekend’s protest, as well as the last major nationwide protests, call themselves “truthers”.

“They see themselves as part of the freedom movement. So they believe that they have almost a sacred duty to... turn up and protest against the government.”

Dr Ross said topics of mandatory vaccination and “vaccine injury” are gaining traction among protesters.

“Yes people are annoyed with lockdowns, but I think the ‘harm’ of the vaccine is coming more to the fore in the protest movement as mandatory vaccination certificates are going to become more widespread.”

While police have warned they’ll be out in force during this weekend’s protest, they’ll also be tasked with cracking down on another rally planned for less than a month from now.

 

The Feed has seen a rally event organised by the same Melbourne anti-lockdown group in collaboration with other international protest movements.

But police have warned that large gatherings could increase community transmission and keep cities in lockdown.

Mr Elliot said the spike in local case numbers in NSW is "too much of a coincidence" to not be linked to illegal protests held in Sydney's CBD last month.

"I think it is too much of a coincidence that we had a reckless gathering three weeks ago, and now these numbers just keep going (up)," he said.

"We're temporarily living with restrictions that we all want to see lifted, but the mass gathering of a group of idiots could mean that day moves further into the future.”