Police have fired pepper balls and stinger grenades at violent anti-Covid lockdown protesters on the streets of Melbourne as Australia’s second-largest city – under stay-at-home orders for the 233rd day in total – descended into chaos.
Protesters dressed as construction workers clashed with police for the second consecutive day on Tuesday, assaulting officers, smashing police car windows, throwing bottles and stones, and damaging property.
After gathering in the early morning, between 1,000 and 2,000 protesters, the vast majority of them young men, marched across Melbourne – paralysing the city and shutting down a major arterial bridge – chanting “fuck the jab” and “every day”, a reference to a promise to keep protesting daily until Melbourne’s Covid restrictions are lifted.
Police said 62 protesters were arrested and three police officers were injured along with one journalist. Victoria’s police chief commissioner, Shane Patton, said officers used pepper balls, foam baton rounds, smoke bombs and stinger grenades which deploy rubber pellets.
“These crowd control equipment munitions were necessary … because we can’t allow this type of conduct to go on,” he told reporters later in the day.
Video footage on social media showed police cars trying to leave one area before a mob attacked the vehicles with bottles and smashed windows. A line of riot police, weapons raised, then drove the protesters back.
“We will stop this protest,” Patton said. “We will then step back and investigate and hold those to account who need to be held to account. The message is clear – you can’t come in and break the law. We will hold you to account.”
The protests started with members of the powerful Construction, Forestry, Maritime, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU), who were resisting a government mandate for compulsory vaccinations in order for them to continue to work on building sites.
The union has said it is in favour of members being vaccinated but it opposes jabs being compulsory.
However, the initial rally appeared to have been hijacked by far-right extremists, allegedly including neo-Nazis and anti-vaccination groups, who organised on Telegram, Facebook and WhatsApp. Many of them arrived at the protest dressed in hi-vis clothing.
The former union boss and ex-federal opposition leader Bill Shorten blamed far-right groups for driving the protest and the violence that ensued. Shorten labelled the protesters “man-baby Nazis”.
It is not clear how many of the protesters on Tuesday were CFMEU members.
The protests were not centrally organised but a list of demands circulated online called for an end to Covid lockdowns and mask mandates. There were calls for Australia’s mooted vaccine passports to be abandoned.
The list also demanded the resignation of the Victorian premier, Dan Andrews, and called for the widespread distribution of unproven coronavirus treatment ivermectin.
The premier on Tuesday evening said there was “no excuse for the terrible behaviour we have seen in our city over the past two days”. “Acts of violence and disruption won’t result in one less case of Covid – in fact, it only helps the virus to spread,” Andrews said.
Victoria’s construction industry has been shut down for a fortnight because of high rates of Delta variant transmission and poor compliance with health orders on building sites. About 50% of building sites inspected failed Covid safety tests, the government has said.
So-called “freedom” protests have been growing steadily more confrontational in Melbourne – and more difficult for police to control.
A broader protest on Saturday also descended into violence with police overrun by protesters who, pushed out of the inner city, moved to suburban streets. More than 200 people were arrested in those protests and 10 police officers were injured, including three who were hospitalised with broken bones.
On Tuesday morning, protesters gathered outside the CFMEU building in Melbourne’s CBD before marching to the steps of Parliament House, wearing hi-vis gear, chanting and setting off flares.
Before the march began, police told the protesters to disperse, firing non-fatal pellets into the crowd. Cans and water bottles were thrown back at the police.
“Attention, this is a police public order warning. You have previously been directed to leave,” an officer within a line of riot police told the crowd. “Leave now or force may be used. No further warnings will be given.”
After briefly facing off against riot police at the steps of parliament, the demonstrators headed to one of Melbourne’s major railway stations, Flinders Street, blocking traffic and trams and chanting “fuck [premier] Dan Andrews”, “freedom”, “fake news” and “fuck the jab”.
Several journalists reporting on the protests were abused, assaulted and sprayed with what appeared to be urine. One television journalist was hit in the head with a full drink can thrown at him.
The protesters continued on to the West Gate Freeway, where they walked to the top of the West Gate Bridge that links Melbourne’s east and west. Blocking bridge traffic in both directions, the protesters loudly sang the 1990s hit song Horses – a cover version by Daryl Braithwaite is tenaciously popular in Australia – dancing and lighting flares before returning to the city and again clashing with riot police.
On Monday, riot police were called in to disperse a group of about 500 protesters, who threw bottles at the Victorian CFMEU construction secretary, John Setka, and smashed the office’s door down.
Setka said the protesters were not all CFMEU members and blamed “neo-Nazis and rightwing extremists” for hijacking the event.
“There was a small minority of construction workers, some of them when it all got violent just walked away from it. It was hijacked by the professional protesters,” he said.