On 5 January 2019, members of the far-right gathered on the boardwalk of St Kilda Beach to ‘Reclaim the Beach’. Organised by known fascists Blair Cottrell and Neil Erikson, the ‘Reclaim the Beach’ rally claimed to be a response to recent incidents of mugging involving African young people in the Port Phillip Bay area. Attendees were overwhelmingly White men, and popular sentiment was that the Australian nation state was under attack. Among those in attendance was Senator for Queensland, Fraser Anning, who just months earlier had called for a ‘final solution to Australia’s immigration problem’.
‘Reclaim the Beach’ followed a Law and Order campaign pushed by both sides of government in the lead up to Victorian election in November 2018. This campaign exploited fears of crime in order to win votes, and, was centred around completely unfounded claims about ‘African youth gang violence’ in Victoria. The rhetoric was not confined to Victoria. Peter Dutton, then Immigration Minister, said Victorian’s were afraid to go out at night due to supposed African gang violence, and connected this to the Labour party’s refusal to back Dutton’s proposed stronger (read: more racist) immigration laws.
In 2015, Goenpul and Quandamooka Professor of Indigenous studies, Aileen Moreton-Robinson published an essay titled ‘Bodies that Matter on the Beach’ in her book The White Possessive: Property, Power, and Indigenous Sovereignty.1 In this essay, Moreton-Robinson explores how the beach is a site of White possession. In doing so, she argues that the appropriation of the beach as a site of White possession functions through ways of being and also through performance enacted by the cisgender White male body.^2 According to Moreton-Robinson, this is intrinsically linked to Patriarchal White Sovereignty (PWS):
PWS is a regime of power that derives from the illegal act of possession and is most acutely manifested in the form of the Crown and the judiciary, but it is also evident in everyday cultural practices and spaces. As a means of controlling differently racialized populations enclosed within the borders of a given society, White subjects are disciplined, though to different degrees, to invest in the nation as their possession.^3
The ‘Reclaim the Beach’ rally and its surrounding rhetoric, and the rise of the alt-right more broadly, can be understood by applying Moreton- Robinson’s theoretical framework of PWS and White possession.
The yarn below draws upon Moreton-Robinson’s piece Bodies That Matter on the Beach, and responds to the ‘Reclaim the Beach’ rally. This yarn took place on the sovereign lands of the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin Nation.
In Bodies That Matter on the Beach, when Moreton- Robinson was speaking to the beach and how it is a racialised and gendered site, the first thing that came to my mind was Tracey Moffatt’s work, and the photograph of that Blackfella at the beach.
Yeah. How that body does not belong on the beach. Moreton-Robinson brings in some really interesting points in relation to gender and White male bodies ...
Specifically, cisgender White male bodies.
Which she doesn’t explicitly say. While she is talking about gender, she does not explicitly talk about cisgender male bodies, although I think there is an implicit assumption that it is a cis White man.
I’ve been thinking about which beaches she is not writing about in this essay. It is not Bargara Beach up in Bundaberg. It is Bondi, it’s Coogee, it’s St Kilda. Those are the beaches I think she is talking about. Beaches can also serve different functions. Like nude beaches are important and can be cruising spots.
I went to that nude beach near Geelong recently and I guess we are still speaking to a very urban context, but unsurprisingly, that beach was predominantly dominated by White men. I don’t think I saw any other people of colour there, other than the people I was with. While we were there, the ways that White men interrelated with us really spoke to an entitlement to and possession of that place.
How White men interrelate with each other too, I suppose. I see the way that White people use the beach. For us, the beach is Country, the water is Country. It informs our identity. Some Aboriginal people refer to themselves as Saltwater or Freshwater people. I find the way that White people use the beach, and in this case, the cisgender White male, is an extension of how they relate to Country. Maybe about a month ago, I went out to a state park about an hour from here where you are allowed to chop wood. Some dude brought a fucking electric chainsaw. Just that need to dominate their environment. If it isn’t chainsaws, that domination comes out in choosing the music that everyone has to listen to.
The UE Boom.
This uninterrogated need to control the environment and not have a relationship with where they are. The UE Boom for me was about colonisation, because it was about replicating home. It wasn’t about being somewhere else, it was that need to replicate the conditions of home.
In these spaces, the UE Boom is settler-colonialism. In the sense of colonisation literally being about going to a place and recreating home. You see that at every beach you go to, hey. Every settler has a UE Boom. It is like they don’t want to hear the sounds associated with the environment they are in. They don’t want to make a connection with that place.
Or don’t you want to be visited by other animals? No birds are going to visit you with your shitty music. No one wants to be around you. I think this is just how White bodies engage with the beach. They don’t know how to have a relationship with Country which isn’t about domination, possession and replication.
In Bodies that Matter on the Beach, Moreton-Robinson talks about how White possession functions through ways of being and also through performance enacted by White male bodies. Moreton- Robinson talks specifically about lifeguards and the ways in which the cisgender White male body patrols and possesses the beach.
Beaches matter in the imagination and origin stories of Australia. It was claiming the Eastern seaboard and rocking up on the beach. It is a significant site in the White psyche.
The image of Arthur Phillip planting the flag in Gadigal land.
In urban areas, beaches possibly matter more because it is a way for that frontier mentality to pan out. We’ve talked about why doesn’t Reclaim Australia holds these actions at Federation Square, or why they don’t hold these ‘protests’ in other places. It is a frontier.
Despite Australia being made up of hundreds of First Nations, the White settler will always conceptualise the frontier as the beach, because the Australian nation state is a continent. We see this manifesting strongly through ‘stop the boats’ and ‘sovereign borders’ discourse. It makes complete sense why these actions take place at the beach.
Which is weird because of the cognitive dissonance between White settlers wanting possession of the beach, but not actually giving a fuck about the beach. This is why I don’t understand Australian patriotism, because it is not actually about caring for the land itself. It literally could be any pile of garbage, it is just that it is theirs. They don’t care about climate change or pollution.
It’s about conceptualising land as property, having access to it, and being able to do whatever the fuck they want with it. I think we see this clearly with St Kilda Beach. Like a couple of years ago when all these Whitefellas went down to St Kilda beach on Christmas Day and decided to have a fucking rager.
Cost the council thousands of dollars of taxpayers money in cleaning fees.
But seriously, they don’t actually give a fuck.
What are they fighting for? I guess it just comes back to viewing the nation as a White possession.
St Kilda—it is a bizarre bit of beach to reclaim. I say this knowing that all of this country is sacred, but because of what White people have done, it is a shithole. Of all the hills to die on, St Kilda in particular has been experiencing intense gentrification over the last ten to fifteen years, and in a way has already been ‘reclaimed’. How can you claim something that is not yours? The Cronulla riots around Arab young people and then the ‘Reclaim St Kilda Beach’ rally in response to African Gang violence—these things don’t occur within a vacuum, they were specific White responses to dog whistling at the time. Cronulla was John Howard and that rhetoric.
The Cronulla riots occurred post Nine Eleven, so major right- wing political discourse pushing an Islamophobic and xenophobic agenda.
How many people actually rocked up to St Kilda?
A few hundred people on each side I think but, also, Fraser Anning turned up.
The action was supported by actual politicians. It is interesting where we see this kind of race hate. I mean, everyone hates Aboriginal people; these sorts of people were trying to protest the Invasion Day rally held in Melbourne, but they were weak and unorganised attempts. In towns such as Alice Springs or Kalgoorlie, those ‘community crime watch’ initiatives just police the bodies of Aboriginal people. We don’t get the rallies on the beach directed at Aboriginal people, but we do get targeted and killed by White vigilantes. What is it about us, that they can’t seem to organise around Aboriginal issues, they just go out and kill us, but they can organise around immigration stuff?
Do you think that in urban areas though, like Cronulla or St Kilda, the popular discourse that exists among people who are organising these ‘rallies’ is that Aboriginal people are elsewhere? Like, Aboriginal people no longer pose a threat to their right-wing agenda in these urban spaces, which actually, is a direct result of the visibility of our communities in urban spaces. If we think of, say, the Eora Nation, where colonisation has been an ongoing process for over 230 years, in places like Bondi, like Cronulla, the threat doesn’t exist anymore. In their eyes, they have already won the fight against the ‘native’, and now the next enemy—in order to maintain the nation as a White possession—is immigrants from non-White places.
Yeah that makes sense, and then in those other places there is a still a frontier. Well everywhere is a frontier, but they are still fighting ‘natives’.
When thinking about the ‘Reclaim the Beach’ rally, it is also interesting to consider the role of class, which isn’t really touched upon in Bodies That Matter on the Beach.
The discourse right now globally and also in Australia, where we see the rise of the alt-right—just a euphemism for fascism and White supremacy—is coming about because White people are experiencing class struggles. White people are galvanising around this rhetoric of ‘they took our jobs’, which is obviously bullshit, but seeing themselves as really hard done by. There are opportunistic people who are galvanising them around White supremacy, when they are actually experiencing class struggle. White supremacy is experienced and carried out across all stratas of society, but if you did look at who is going to these things and who is able to be convinced by this rhetoric, it is poor people. If class was the only factor, why aren’t there all of these Black and brown people out here being bigots. I think it’s Whiteness, other people will say it’s class.
I’m just thinking about this piece by Palawa Professor Ian Anderson that I was reading the other day—he was speaking to the rise of One Nation in the late 1990s. Relating to what you were just saying, he says, ‘in this conservative ideology it was the White Aussie Battler who had become the endangered species, or the dispossessed’.4 This narrative manifests so clearly in relation to the ‘Reclaim the Beach’ rally held at St Kilda.
If you did analyse (and I’m sure some PhD student will do it one day) the way in which Blair Cottrell talks about White nationalism and the need for a White ethno state, he uses the exact rhetoric that Blak people, or any other marginalised group, uses. It is the exact same rhetoric and call to action. This is what the far- right have always done. This was Pauline Hanson’s whole thing.
Even now, with the rise of One Nation again. Except this time, the enemy has changed.
But the victim has stayed the same, which is interesting. Have you seen that narrative going around at the moment around their being less White people in Australia? For the far-right, to be Australian is to be White, so the future of Australia is under threat. I just saw the graphic going around suggesting White middle-aged men now make up ten percent of Australia’s total population. White middle-aged men are overrepresented in power, but actually a minority in terms of raw numbers. It is interesting, maybe their numbers are dwindling, but that is not a bad thing. The case remains that they are not an endangered species. I guess from their perspective they are experiencing class issues, but they have the wrong enemy. Perhaps that is the role of unionism, which could be a really powerful tool in galvanising these people around class issues but actually helping them see who the enemy is.
Another thing I find interesting when thinking about the beach as a possession in respect to the ‘Reclaim the Beach’ rally, is thinking about not only the bodies of White men from the far- right, but also about the role of Victoria Police in that action, often cisgender White male bodies. Even when not physically cisgender White male bodies, VicPol is undoubtedly an institution that is built upon PWS. At actions such as this one, it is interesting to think about the role that cops play in maintaining the nation as a White possession. It was at the ‘Reclaim Australia’ rally back in 2015 that images of cops literally high-fiving members of the United Patriots Front emerged — so, very public displays of solidarity between the two groups were evident. Then we think about the ‘Reclaim the Beach’ rally where there were police boats in the water and then helicopters circling over the rally. I think this specifically speaks to how the beach is a site of White possession. It is border patrol, like they are protecting the ocean from this outsider threat.
What were the cops going to do in the water? What a waste of resources! It’s absurd.
But interesting. I think VicPol choosing to patrol the border at this action really speaks to the beach as a site of White possession.
Although the attack only happened yesterday and our analysis may be inadequate and reflect the freshness of the attacks, it would be remiss and disrespectful of us not to mention Christchurch. At time of yarning, forty-nine Muslims were killed across two different mosques in Christchurch. One of the men responsible is a twenty-eight-year-old White man from Grafton, Queensland. It has been interesting and predictable to see the way in which the media here are framing what happened in Christchurch. There was the initial reticence to call it terrorism, the reluctance to name White supremacy and Islamophobia as the ideology at the heart of the attacks and this morning, the headline of the Courier Mail reads, ‘Working Class Madman’. This is disgusting—it relates to our discussion around the ‘Aussie Battler’ in Professor Ian Anderson’s article, but it is also hypocritical. White men get to be mentally unwell when they do something bad. What they have done here is attempt to pathologise something normal to the White settler, White patriarchal sovereignty. This was a peak performance of PWS.
Peak PWS. This act of White supremacist violence that has just taken place in Christchurch is so clearly an example of a White Australian man viewing the nation as a White possession. I think this act of terrorism against the Muslim community points to how this conceptualisation of the nation as a White possession extends beyond the Australian colonial state to all settler-colonial nations that have been created under the British crown. We see this manifest socially and culturally through a nationhood brotherhood logic that exists across settler-government institutions, too, illustrated by Scott Morrison referring to Kiwi’s as ‘our cousins’ in his immediate response to the attacks.
These attacks are devastating, but something that has been heartening to see both from Mob here in Naarm and by observing Māori responses to the attacks in Aotearoa, is how Indigenous peoples always stand in solidarity with those targeted by PWS, whether they are our African and/or Muslim siblings. As Indigenous peoples, we reject the weaponisation of our Indigeneity by White supremacists in an effort to turn Indigenous peoples and non- White people against each other, in order to generate xenophobia and other forms of bigotry. Further, as Indigenous peoples, we reject the claims to our sovereign lands as White possessions, and will continue to fight to dismantle the White cisgender patriarchal regime that underpins the Australian settler-colonial nation state.
Natalie Ironfield belongs to the Dharug nation and has been living on Wurundjeri land since 2013. Natalie works as a research and educator at The University of Melbourne, and teaches into the Doctor of Medicine, the Bachelor of Arts and the Bachelor of Arts Extended program.
Nayuka Gorrie is a Gunai/Kurnai, Gunditjmara, Wiradjuri and Yorta Yorta writer. Their work spans social commentary for publications such as The Saturday Paper and The Guardian. They co-wrote and performed in Black Comedy Season 3. They are writing a book of essays, developing a webseries, and co-writing the next season of Black Comedy.