Police in Melbourne have again fired non-lethal rounds and teargas at anti-Covid lockdown protesters to end an almost three-hour standoff at the city’s war memorial during a third straight day of demonstrations.
More than 200 people were arrested. Two officers were injured by bottles thrown at them and one was hospitalised with chest pains, Victoria police said.
Earlier, up to 400 protesters had camped on the steps of the Shrine of Remembrance, lighting flares and throwing bottles, batteries, tap handles and golf balls at police.
The protests that have seized Australia’s second-largest city for days had their genesis with members of the powerful Construction, Forestry, Maritime, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU), who were resisting a government mandate for compulsory coronavirus vaccinations for workers on building sites.
But the initial rally appears to have since been hijacked by far-right extremists, allegedly including neo-Nazis and anti-vaccination groups, who have organised via Telegram, Facebook and WhatsApp. Comments circulating on social media channels, seen by the Guardian, are explicitly racist, antisemitic, and include conspiracy theorist tropes.
Previous days had been dominated by people dressed in high-vis clothing – ostensibly tradespeople – but they were in the minority at Wednesday’s protest.
“There weren’t as many tradies as we could see – the group seemed much more mixed in terms of their motivations,” the police deputy commissioner, Ross Guenther, said.
From early Wednesday morning, hundreds of police lined Melbourne’s streets.
Despite callouts on social media channels, only a small number of people were seen outside the CFMEU’s office in the central business district. Numbers swelled during the day but the crowds were significantly smaller than Monday and Tuesday.
Police in riot gear moved through the city throughout the morning, breaking up the protesters into smaller groups. About midday, the protesters left the city down St Kilda Road towards the shrine, where they sat on the steps outside the memorial.
Police followed and formed a line in front of the memorial blocking the protesters. Authorities urged demonstrators to “leave peacefully via St Kilda Road”.
“There is safe passage to my right,” a policeman told the crowd on a loudhailer. “If you go to St Kilda Road, you won’t be arrested.”
Those who did leave by that route were fined $5,000 for breaching public health orders. But few agreed to depart.
Towards the end of the protest, the mood of the crowd grew inconsistent: some were conciliatory and seeking to negotiate with police, others resolute they would not. “The Australian people do not negotiate with terrorists,” one man yelled. “You’re all fucking dogs,” said another.
The group lacked any obvious direction and appeared unwilling to prosecute a list of demands or concerns.
One by one, protesters were pulled from the crowd by police when they refused to leave, some walking, some carried across the grass and arrested.
Shortly before 5pm, police advanced towards the final group holding out. Riot police, with weapons raised and firing foam baton rounds at protesters, overran the remaining protesters, supported by mounted officers. Police also used gas canisters to move the crowd on.
Earlier, Victoria police applied for, and secured, a no-fly zone restriction over Melbourne, arguing that protesters were using livestreamed media coverage of the protests to coordinate movement and avoid police.
This no-fly order was later amended to allow media organisations to take aerial footage and broadcast it delayed by an hour.
Veterans organisation the Returned Services League slammed the demonstration at the shrine, saying the site was “sacred and not a space of protest”.
In the aftermath, the chief executive of the shrine, Dean Lee, said he had been left “speechless and appalled” by the actions of protesters who commandeered the remembrance site.
“I cannot comprehend the selfishness of the people who would come to this sacred place and do this to Victoria’s Shrine of Remembrance. It’s outrageous, it’s reprehensible and it’s the most disgusting behaviour I could ever imagine witnessing here.”
The Victorian premier, Daniel Andrews, has condemned the “ugly scenes”. He defended his government’s decision to shut down all construction in the state for two weeks after Monday’s initial violence, saying the industry had been a dangerous vector for the spread of Covid-19, and had failed to heed public health mandates.
“Today there are more coronavirus cases in construction than there are in aged care,” he said. “There are more cases of coronavirus in the construction sector than there are patients with coronavirus in hospitals across the whole hospital system.”
There have been 350 Covid-19 cases in the construction sector – which employs 320,000 workers – in the past two months across 150 different worksites.
Andrews said only a fraction of those protesting were actual construction tradespeople and “they … should not be seen to reflect an entire industry”.
“They’re not there to protest, they’re there for a fight,” the premier said.
The police minister, Lisa Neville, said police would deploy “whatever tactics” were needed. “They have my full support in deploying whatever tactics they need to ensure these thugs, these violent thugs, are unable to cause further harm to our city and to our community,” she said.
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