I’ve felt uncomfortable many times filming this story. I’ve felt uncomfortable telling people I’m working on this story. Heck, I’m uncomfortable writing this now but here’s an uncomfortable truth. Reclaim Australia is very real, very vocal and I fear this is just the beginning.
There will be more rallies, more violence, more outrageous Facebook posts and more impassioned debate. Why are they gaining momentum? Well, let me give you a history lesson.
In the wake of the Lindt Café Siege which claimed the lives of two innocent Australians, a suburban Sydney mum decided enough was enough. I can’t tell you her real name so let’s call her Catherine. I’ll tell you why later.
Catherine went online as so many disillusioned people do and discovered a page with a title that seemed to sum up her sentiment perfectly. Reclaim Australia.
It attracted people just like Catherine who claim to be regular mums and dads fed up with so-called Muslim extremism and its impact on their view of ‘Australian culture’. They connected, bonded and watched as their simple Facebook page became an online national movement with tens of thousands of likes, follows and shares almost overnight.
Before I go on, I should point out that Man Monis was no Jihadi. The Lindt Café Siege was the work of a crazed gunman who should’ve been in jail well before that December day.
But Catherine and friends didn’t and still don’t see it that way. To them, this was Muslim extremism in full.
They pressed ahead with Reclaim Australia attracting several right wing fringe groups along the way. Perhaps it should’ve stopped there. But an online forum to vent frustrations wasn’t enough. They wanted anti-Islam rallies and protests across Australia that were supposed to be peaceful.
Those rallies would be anything but. They attracted ‘counter protestors’ or anti-fascist groups who jumped into the fray and perhaps inadvertently, put these rallies at the top of the TV news bulletins with a scuffle here and a burning Australian flag there.
Reclaim’s self-described mums and dads aren’t well versed in the unpredictable dynamics of protesting. Particularly when you’re espousing provocative and confronting ideas.
The ugly aftermath of those Melbourne rallies taught them that violence was a very real risk so they decided they needed muscle and spun off a unit to deal with that. A fellow traveler called Shermon Burgess formed the United Patriots Front and drafted body builders, martial arts experts, even a cage fighter to look after security.
But Reclaim and UPF’s poster boy is Blair Cottrell. He was born in Frankston south of Melbourne. His presence is imposing and his demeanor is careful and calculated. He doesn’t say any more than he needs to and perhaps that’s because it’s gotten him in trouble before. Mention publications like the Age Newspaper and his face becomes a contorted red emblem of disgust.
His speeches start quietly and become a screaming crescendo with words like ‘unite’ and ‘community’. I would hear one of these speeches in full at the Bendigo rally.
Attending one of these rallies is like waiting for a gun to go off. You know the shot is coming, you just don’t know when. The first Bendigo rally against a proposed mosque shocked me to the core. It started out peacefully enough. Nearly 400 police on foot and on horseback made sure of that.
Let me say right here that our men and women in blue were professional, calm, vigilant and respectful. They were about to be tested in what would become one of the biggest police operations outside Melbourne.
Again that word comes to mind. Uncomfortable. I felt uncomfortable listening to members of the United Patriots Front as they shouted into the microphone to cheers and chants and bouncing placards. I saw two young boys, perhaps 8 and 10, standing just in front of the stage. Their mother stood behind them delivering their innocent ears to speeches they’ll no doubt hear again. The eldest had a flag draped across his back, the other with a flag tied around his head that were two examples of how our flag was used that day.
Then, suddenly one was alight and all hell broke loose.
That trigger was pulled as a counter protestor atop a street lamp put a lighter to the flag - an incendiary act that sent the Reclaim and UPF crowd rushing towards the barricades and line of police. Two somehow smashed through and were quickly attacked. Capsicum spray broke up the fight and calm was restored as countless people struggled to wash the painful orange liquid from their eyes. Amongst the groaning and the shouting I realized we have much bigger problems than a burning Australian flag.
As the Islamic Council of Victoria’s Kuranda Seyit said, ‘it was sad to see Australians fighting Australians’.
My first visit to a mosque was like walking on to the surface of Mars. Growing up a good Catholic boy I wondered where all the statues were. Where were the paintings on the walls? Where were the pews and the golden chalices? I was struck by the serenity of it all. Men acknowledged me by placing their right hand on their heart. I learnt this was to say ‘you are in my heart’. I wondered why they knelt down with their foreheads to the ground. I was told this was to signify their complete insignificance in the presence of Allah; to stoop low in the presence of something and someone so great.
Hate preaching? God, sorry, heck no! Peace was here. Love was here. Hate wasn’t and I was so grateful for the experience.
The original Reclaimers are now deeply entrenched in their new political world. During our interview with Catherine she told me about the threats she’d received since helping establish the Reclaim Australia Facebook page. She spoke of one threat to behead her and have her children finger paint in her blood.
This mum from the suburbs has started something that is raging out of her control and is precisely the reason we can’t tell you her real name. I don’t believe Catherine meant for it to go this far but I can’t help but think she’s pretty chuffed that it has.
Australia has a population of nearly 24 million people. At the time of writing, Reclaim Australia’s Facebook page has more than 35,000 likes. The United Patriots Front has nearly 20,000 likes.
They’re significant numbers but compared to the rest of the population, well, you do the math. But their ability to preach, amass and recruit through various social media sites is staggering and downright scary. So are some of their Facebook posts which will not be mentioned here.
A lot of people ask me, ‘why are you giving these people air time?’ It’s a fair question and one I have thought long and hard about. I have to then ask, why not?
These are real people with a serious story to tell as are those who are standing up to oppose them. Their actions concern a lot of people, from the Prime Minister down. So, do they warrant our attention? Their motivations, views and aspirations should be questioned and that’s exactly what we’re doing.
Alex Cullen's investigation into Reclaim Australia airs Sunday, October 18, at 7PM on Channel 7.