Mask powers to be tested as activists face off
A confrontation between far-right and hard-left activists in Melbourne tomorrow will test the strength of new police powers intended to unmask the antifa, a militant protest movement that employs face coverings to anonymously target neo-Nazi groups.
Laws that enable Victoria Police to disperse protesters who conceal their faces came into force this week, 72 hours before antifa activists are expected to march through central Melbourne to counter a tough-on-crime rally led by right-wing figure Avi Yemini.
Antifa activists say they need to wear masks to conceal their identity from far-right groups and protect themselves against pepperspray attacks. Masks make it difficult for police to identify protesters who damage property and assault rival protesters and police.
For the first time since the antifa movement emerged in response to Reclaim Australia and other anti-Islamic groups, Victoria Police will tomorrow have the power to direct anyone wearing a face covering to leave the area.
Masked protesters who refuse to leave can be charged. The maximum penalty is a $792.85 fine. Also under the new laws, an offence of violent disorder attracts a greater penalty if the offender is wearing a mask. The maximum penalty jumps from 10 years in jail to 15 if an offender conceals their face.
Police in other jurisdictions will assess the impact of the Victoria Police powers. In the ACT, traffic police can force motorists to take off a mask and in NSW and WA police can demand people take off masks to confirm identification.
Victorian Attorney-General Martin Pakula said the intent of the laws was clear: “There is no place for violent cowards who wear face masks to hide from the law.’’
Mr Yemini, who has organised his Make Victoria Safe Again rally to promote a hardline law-and-order platform, urged those at his rally to show their faces. Debbie Brennan, an organiser of a counter-rally, said anti-fascist activists had a right to wear masks. “There is nothing sinister,’’ she said.
Anti-fascists in Melbourne