It’s been a violent few days in Melbourne, Australia, where construction workers and other demonstrators are clashing with police as they protest the government’s COVID-19 vaccine requirements.
Amid the surging delta variant, officials in Victoria state — where Melbourne is the largest city — recently announced a vaccination mandate for construction workers that requires each employee to show proof of at least one dose by Thursday.
Some 13% of the state’s active COVID-19 cases are linked to construction sites, according to local media.
Increasingly violent opposition to the vaccine mandate
Construction workers who are opposed to the new restrictions have made their positions known in protests that have escalated in recent days.
After the government closed down tearooms at work sites, some workers took their lunch breaks outside on Friday. They set up tables and plastic chairs in multiple intersections in central Melbourne, blocking roads and holding up traffic.
On Monday, people gathered outside the headquarters of the prominent Construction, Forestry, Maritime, Mining and Energy Union to protest the mandate, chanting and yelling before attempting to storm the building.
Angry protesters threw bottles and smashed loudspeakers, according to local media reports.
Riot police deployed on the scene allegedly used rubber bullets and pepper spray to disperse crowds, the BBC reported, adding that the headquarters building was damaged and “several people” were arrested in the process.
The union later issued a statement condemning the violence “in the strongest possible terms,” noting that an unspecified number of people were injured by violent acts, including the throwing of bottles. But it also distanced itself from the protesters, attributing the actions to “extremists or people manipulated by extremists.”
“This crowd was heavily infiltrated by neo-Nazis and other right wing extremist groups and it is clear that a minority of those who participated were actual union members,” the statement said.
Others have alleged that neo-Nazis and anti-vaccination groups organized on encrypted social media platforms before arriving at the protest in “hi-vis” clothing to look like construction workers.
Bill Shorten — the former opposition leader and current member of Parliament who serves as shadow minister for the national disability insurance scheme and for government services — said in a TV interview that some protesters were construction workers while others were “fake tradies.”
“There is a network of hard-right, man-baby Nazis,” he said, “people who just want to cause trouble. … They want to complain about the vaccination, and they deserve to get the full force of everything that’s coming their way.”
A two-week construction site shutdown
Monday’s events, as well as the continued rise in COVID-19 cases, prompted state officials to shut down construction sites in Melbourne and certain regional areas for at least two weeks, beginning Tuesday.
Workers will be required to show proof of at least one vaccine dose when sites reopen on Oct. 5, according to a statement from Victoria’s treasurer, Tim Pallas.
“The Victorian Government will work with stakeholders over coming days to determine the best way for the industry to show full compliance with the [Chief Health Officer] Directions,” Pallas added.
More violence and arrests on Tuesday
In the meantime, protesters took to the streets again on Tuesday.
According to The Guardian, “protesters dressed as construction workers” assaulted officers, smashed police car windows, hurled bottles and stones and damaged other property.
It counted some 1,000 to 2,000 demonstrators, mostly young men, marching across the city and shutting down a major bridge while chanting “f*** the jab” and “every day,” which the newspaper says is a reference to a “promise to keep protesting daily until Melbourne’s Covid restrictions are lifted.”
Citing police, it says 62 protesters were arrested, and three police officers and one journalist were injured. Officers deployed pepper balls, foam baton rounds, smoke bombs and stinger grenades, Victoria’s chief police commissioner told the paper.
Graphic and expletive-laden videos on social media depict violent scenes. One TV journalist was hit in the head by a full drink can as he reported live (after reportedly already being tackled and having urine thrown at him), and posted tweets showing protesters kicking a dog.
Government officials such as Melbourne’s lord mayor are calling for an end to the violence and for people to focus on the public health crisis at hand.
“Anger isn’t going to make this pandemic end any quicker,” Victoria Premier Daniel Andrews tweeted. “Acts of violence like we’ve seen in the city in the last two days isn’t going to stop people ending up in ICU, or be any help to the nurses treating them. Literally only one thing will — getting vaccinated.”
According to Andrews’ COVID-19 road map, Melbourne’s lockdown will lift only when 70% of eligible residents are fully vaccinated.