Social justice activism and activist movements have certainly taken a massive hit in 2021, spurred largely by the continuing coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic and we go into 2022, largely in the same position that we were going into 2021; in a stage of rebuilding.
Protest movements overall in 2021 shifted from a sole emphasis on mass mobilisations to strategies involving more targeted actions – adapting to a new post-COVID normal that included imposed limits on the number of people allowed to gather. Where mass mobilisatiions did occur, they took a rather different look – especially at the start of the year – as movements largely adapted to a new post-COVID normal that included limits on crowd gathering sizes.
2021 Invasion Day rally in Melbourne.
As always, January 26 marked Invasion Day – which has become an annual event and is always one of the biggest rallies of the year in Melbourne. 2021 was no exception to this, though numbers were well down when compared to previous years. As an example of how mass mobilisations looked different, adapted to fit within the public health measures imposed by the state, attendees were marshaled precisely into groups of 100 (the maximum crowd size permitted at this time), spaced 10 metres apart. A mammoth effort for a crowd consisting of thousands of people.
As rules were relaxed and a permit system was put in place to allow events with crowd sizes larger than what the rules at the time permitted, large mobilisations once again took a more familiar form.
2021 Palm Sunday Walk for Justice For Refugees
The refugee rights movement also staged numerous mobilisations and actions, led predominantly by groups such as the Refugee Action Collective and Fight Together For Justice. The Park Hotel in Carlton became a staging post for refugee rights protests in 2021 as the hotel was repurposed into a detention centre by the government to detain dozens of refugees.
The biggest mobilisation for refugee rights came with the Palm Sunday Walk For Justice For Refugees on March 28, which has also become an annual event whereby refugee rights activists and groups as well as religious and church groups converge for a common purpose.
The continued plight of the Murugappan (Bilo) family was also a staging post for the refugee rights movement.
First image: two activists scale and occupy the roof of Federal Treasurer Josh Frydenberg’s electorate office. Second image: an Australian flag is burnt on the steps of Victorian Parliament in protest against climate inaction By and large; small, targeted actions would become the main tactic for Extinction Rebellion activists in 2021.
On the environment and climate justice movement – Extinction Rebellion held its Autumn Rebellion / week of mass disruption from March 22 to March 28 – holding Carlton Gardens as a base while also coordinating a number of actions in and around the Melbourne CBD. Though compared to it’s Spring Rebellion in 2019, like with other movements, numbers were well down.
Extinction Rebellion would continue doing actions throughout the year when the COVID-19 situation permitted – taking into account reduced numbers – which became increasingly targeted, more direct and more daring – with tactics including blockades of key infrastructure such as fuel terminals and occupying space at politicians offices.
Student walkouts also occurred the week prior to the Autumn Rebellion, in Melbourne led by Uni Students for Climate Justice – drawing a respectable, albeit smaller compared to some past climate protests, crowd.
School Strike 4 Climate, Melbourne, May 21.
On May 21, School Strike 4 Climate (SS4C) also mobilised in dozens of locations nationwide, drawing in school students and their supporters. A crowd of 5,000-10,000 attended the Melbourne rally, numbers that were well lower when compared to SS4C mobilisations – which drew tens of thousands – pre-COVID.
First image: women’s March For Justice in Melbourne. Second image: women’s March For Justice in Geelong.
The women’s movement was also spurred into action under the banner of the March4Justuce – formed in response to the alleged rape of a political staffer in Canberra, as well as historical allegations of rape being made against Attorney General Christian Porter. Thousands rallies in Melbourne on March 15, while later that day – thousands also rallied in Geelong, the largest rally the city had seen since the marriage equality rallies in 2016-17 (and possibly bigger than those).
The Free Palestine movement would also get a shot in the arm in response to escalating violence and oppression of the Palestinian People at the hands of the Israeli Government – which at the time was facing almost certain defeat in the latter’s legislative election.
Pro-Palestine rallies in Melbourne.
Two large pro-Palestine rallies were held in Melbourne on May 15 and May 22. The first rally getting an attendance of 8,000-10,000 people, while the second rally drew a crowd numbering 25,000-30,000 people. They were the largest pro-Palestine rallies ever in Melbourne, and were among the largest mobilisations of the year.
Large rallies were also held in Melbourne in protest against the military coup in Myanmar, as well as protests standing in solidarity with the plight of farmers in India – who were facing legislation introduced by the Modi Government, described by opponents as leaving farmers at the “mercy of corporates”.
Things had seemingly returned and settled in a new normal. Victoria had gone months with zero new local COVID-19 cases…
…Until new COVID-19 cases sent Victoria into a series of snap lockdowns, which would turn into a lockdown lasting several months.
These lockdowns would incapacitate the ability of movements on the Left to organise and mobilise through the second half of 2021.
However on the other side of the political spectrum, a far more sinister movement was building. The self-described “Freedom Movement”, which had been building and mobilising against vaccinations even before the 2021 lockdowns were imposed, continued to organise and mobilise, even during the lockdowns and in the face of repression by the police.
This movement’s lack of actual demands beyond the conspiratorial would prove to be its greatest organising strength – allowing it to be flexible and shift priorities as the political circumstances changed, gradually settling on a platform of the not-so-conspiratorial opposition to vaccine mandates.
While Left movements were complying with public health orders by not mobilising during the lockdowns, the “Freedom Movement” had largely free-reign with little to no opposition, on the streets, in the mainstream media or otherwise.
This was despite this movement being led, by far-right figureheads from within neo-nazi organisations, to smash and vandalise the offices of the Construction, Forestry, Mining, Maritime and Energy Union (CFMMEU).
The flexibility of this movement would also allow neo-nazis, confined to the underground, to have an open platform and a captive audience of thousands of people from which they could recruit from.
Despite union offices being attacked in such a brazen way, the upper-echelons of the union movement didn’t strengthen their already weak stance on vaccines or public health – which has been a position of having two-bets each-way or not saying anything on the matter at all. Nor were there any calls by the leadership of the union movement for workers to mobilise in response to such a brazen attackl after lockdowns were lifted.
While industrial action and stop work actions occurred during periods when not in lockdown, where this has occurred – it has largely been driven by rank-and-file union members, rather than by central union offices.
Geelong Regional Library Corporation workers stop work over their pay and working conditions.
Disappointingly, the union movement as a whole goes into 2022, a multi-election year in Victoria, in a weaker position than it went into the 2019 Federal Election. While there’s still plenty of time between now and the next Federal Election – so far, there’s no evidence to suggest that the union movement will initiate mass mobilisations on the scale seen during the Change The Rules rallies leading up to the 2019 Election; which would at least give the movement something to work off.
The later months of 2021 finally saw Victoria exit lockdown. The “Freedom Movement” rallies were approaching the maximum possible extent, increasing to several tens of thousands, in response to the Pandemic Laws Bill that was being debated in Victorian Parliament with violent iconography, antisemitism, neo-nazi call signs and other far right imagery littered throughout these rallies.
Rally opposing fascism and the far-right.
This movement however would face its first, albeit symbolic, opposition from November 20. The Campaign Against Racism and Fascism (CARF) – largely confined to initiating refugee rights protests earlier in the year – initiated anti-fascist anti-far right rallies in response to the “Freedom Movement”, just as it did against the far right Reclaim Australia and the neo-nazi United Patriots Front several years earlier (the reason why CARF was formed), successfully driving these two groups back underground.
Although like with other Left movements in the later months of 2021; the CARF rallies – although drawing relatively respectable numbers – struggled with attaining massive numbers. The climate movement also struggled for numbers, even in the face of the Glasgow Climate Conference (COP26) and numbers of people attending refugee rights protests were down compared to the start of the year.
So, where do social justice movements stand going into 2022?
In all likelihood, towards the end of 2021, people were just glad to be out of lockdown and boots-on-ground activism wasn’t front of mind for a lot of people.
We exit 2021 and go into 2022 in much the same position we exited 2020: in a state of needing to be rebuilt. The issues people passionately took to the streets about in the first half of 2021 aren’t going away. Pending any major catastrophe, or changes in public health measures by the government, broadly speaking Left movements should be able to rebuild in 2022, as they were beginning to in the first half of 2021, and end next year in a stronger and more renewed position.