Thoughts on Romper Stomper (2018).

So, the much dreaded Romper Stomper is finally with us, proving that Melbourne really can look even more grim than it actually is by layering on the blue filter. Successfully making the left and right look like arseholes in equal measures, this attempt at an “extremism never works” narrative promises to give both sides headaches for at least the next few months.

First off, what’s with all the symbols in the opening credits?

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We have anarchists A’s, hammers and sickles, the star and moon and swastikas, as well as… symbols for the Spanish Falange, Polish National Revival and the Syrian Social National Party. Next to these is the Buddhist swastika and the hand of Jainism, a faith based on non-violence to the extent that practitioners avoid even harm to insects? Why are Christian symbols or the dollar sign (a politically loaded symbol if ever there was one) missing? I guess these are all symbols that threaten the stability of Australia somehow.  Anyway, it’s a confusing mass of bullshit.

Okay, so now that I have that out of my system, let’s look at the opening scene, which is basically a Hollywood version of the April 2016 confrontation between anti-fascists and the Party for Freedom at the Halal Expo in Ascot Vale. The leader of a patriotic group berates passers-by with a generic speech familiar to any and all who have ever had the misfortune of being in the vicinity of the likes of Nick Folkes, Neil Erikson of Blair Cottrell, the last of which this character, Blake Farron, is clearly based on- steroids and all. So far so good. As tensions build between Muslims, police and patriots, a group of emos anti-fascists appear and start distributing rocks among themselves. Then, at the command of their leader, they storm past police lines and begin bashing the shit out of everything and everybody, resulting in multiple arrests on both sides and a lot of minor scrapes. In the wake of the incident, a reporter discovers a young Muslim woman who has been apparently trampled. This is apparently blamed by her family members on the appearance of the laughably named ‘Antifasc’.

So we’re barely out of the gates when a number of problems immediately assert themselves. The first is the question of there being some sort of leadership hierarchy in antifascist organising. While it may be often present in Marxist-Leninist formations (though the experience of groups like Red Action shows that even this isn’t always a given), the Antifasc are immediately established as anarchists and, as anybody with any vague clue of what anarchist organisation entails, this dismisses the possibility of leadership hierarchies from the get-go. So, for example, the recent claim made by the comedian Shayne Hunter that he founded Antifa Australia was met with widespread mockery – yet even in his original article, Hunter notes that “we delegated roles out”. Delegation has always been key to the Antifascist Action model. One of the earlier formations, the AFA in England, made clear at its 1992 conference that it

would be a decentralised federation based on a regional structure – building from the existing regions of London AFA and the Northern Network. The only national structure was to be a national coordinating committee of two delegates per region, to meet as and when needed, with no powers to make policy (or certainly to impose policy – some minor national decisions did have to be made over these years, but these were non-controversial).

While we only see in this initial scene in Romper Stomper someone shouting orders, we have the immediate assumption made by the writers that any militant formation will follow a military pattern of established hierarchies- something which in years of anti-fascist organising I have never witnessed. It’s not impossible- some anarchist groups have been known to fall prey to dominant personality types, but it’s been certainly absent from any of the groups, formal or informal, that I have encountered in Australia myself. And it’s certainly not something we witnessed in the real-life confrontation:

What we see here certainly doesn’t look like a group with a leader. There is clearly an established plan of action with every participant knowing exactly what the strategy is- go in, take control of the situation, disrupt the fascist picket and seize their shit, and they do it very efficiently. The PfF is left stunned and confused, moaning that “they took our flags, they took our placards, they took everything”. What this doesn’t resemble is its portrayal in Romper Stomper, as an out-of-control skirmish with multiple arrests and Muslim by-passers getting trampled.

Where Muslim bystanders have been caught in confrontations between antifascists and fascists, there has been a tendency towards their actually joining the anti-fascist side, as the December 2017 protests in Kensington against the Milo Yiannopoulos tour demonstrated:

When the mostly African-Australian local residents saw the Trumpers with their flags and caps, something clicked.

How dare these racists come here and bring their imported American-brand of xenophobia with them?

We raised our voices to drown out their vitriol with positive messages of solidarity: ‘Black, Indigenous, Arab, Asian and White – Unite, Unite, Unite to fight the Right!’.

The locals joined our chants and the Trumpers situated themselves between the police line blocking the event, and the residents. They were facing the residents, taunting them, gesturing racist signs, and yelling at them to get out of this country.

The residents, mostly women and children who were out to enjoy the bit of sun after Melbourne’s recent rain and flooding, while still in their park behind the gate of their residence, were gathering in greater numbers as more family members came down from the flats.

Some of them ran up to their homes, grabbed Australian flags and scarves to cover their faces, and rejoined the protest to reclaim their space.

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Meanwhile in Romper Stomper, Antifasc is accused of “running off like rabbits”. What’s the point here? We have a fictional confrontation based on a real-life event. In the fictional account, Antifasc disrupt both the fascist picket and the Halal Expo itself. In the real-life incident, Antifa disrupted the fascist picket which was itself so small that it failed to impact the Expo at all- so why stick around? As the Kensington protest showed, however, when locals have been impacted by fascist and police violence, some anti-fascists have proved lacking (it should be noted here that anarchists don’t have a monopoly on anti-fascism). While the Marxist press congratulated itself, others noted that the

people who had organised the original rally at this point decided it was too dangerous and marched off for reasons I cannot fucking understand
What happened next was one of the most frightening things i have ever witnessed / experienced. hundreds of riot cops with batons and sheilds stormed the grounds of the flats, pepper spraying whole families and children as young as 8 or 9. Police cornered and beat specific people and chased others while CHILDREN holding their mum’s hands ran away screaming for their lives. Hundreds of police terrorised residents of the flats for hours after the Trump rally left. At 11pm police were still pepper spraying and beating people.
Black and Muslim people in Australia need solidarity not to be tokenised. Don’t celebrate them coming and joining your rally cause it looks good for photos and then just Fuck off leaving police to terrorise them in their homes.

(It should be mentioned that numerous individuals, including legal observers and street medics did stick around.)

In this light, Romper Stomper makes a good point, though it has been placed in the wrong context. When the writers have Antifasc decide to actively engage with Laila, one of the Muslim women who were caught up in the violence, they are instinctively following one of the oldest and most sacred tenets of anarchism: that the oppressed must lead their own struggles and not be subject to some outside vanguard that claims to represent their best interests. While anarchists have a responsibility to attack capitalism, the state and their fascist defenders, we cannot usurp other’s experience and use it to our own advantage- we can only assist in those struggles and offer our own perspectives. Though there is no doubt that everything was done with the right intention at the Milo counter-rally, the author of the above Facebook post makes a crucial observation: the left does have a tendency towards the tokenisation of minorities and in this case, its failure to engage with the community left it wide open to a police assault. It’ll be interesting to see how this plays out in the series.

Finally, I really have no objection to how the fascists are portrayed in this series, as a group of lonely rejects, creepy xenophobes, violence junkies, middle-class wankers and cheating hypocrites. This is all pretty close to reality. One character is thrown out of the group for shooting his mouth off online, reminiscent of the total incoherence of the Australian fascist movement. On the flip-side, some have said already that the ‘lumpen prole’ personalities given to some of the characters is problematic- such as Zoe’s backstory of drug abuse and prostitution. But is this necessarily so distant from the truth for many Australians? Even within the fascist movement, hard drugs are an ongoing issue, as the recent arrest of a UPF member for dealing ice and MDMA (among other things) shows. I also don’t believe it’s whorephobic to point out that the informal sex economy has yet to be coherently approached by anarchists or the left. After all- a lot of sex workers aren’t even aware that they are sex workers, let alone self-identify as such. While anarchism and leftism continue to navel-gaze, the right has made inroads into disaffected areas of society that were traditionally our stomping grounds, including among unemployed people, such as the out-of-work character Kane.

 

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