Opinion: Djokovic and being a useful foil for extreme movements

By Tom Ravlic

Monday January 10, 2022

Supporters of Novak Djokovic wait outside the Park Hotel in Melbourne, which is being used as an immigration detention hotel where the tennis star is confined. (AAP Image/Mark Butler)

Tennis star Novak Djokovic managed to score a few new friends last week when Australian Border Force detained him and cancelled his visa because he is not vaccinated against COVID-19.

The organisers of the anti-mandate, anti-vaccination and anti-lockdown campaigns that have been run across Australia during the pandemic decided to rally around the world number one with a call for him to have his visa reinstated.

Their call for protesters to assemble at the site posted on the usual channels on encrypted applications had their usual slogan for ‘no vaccine passports’ and for governments to ‘end medical segregation’, but they added ‘renew Novak’s visa’ to their usual propaganda push.

The ‘Free Novak’ rally is a textbook example of how extremist groups seek to make themselves attractive to various cohorts that are angry with authority irrespective of whether it is government, law enforcement, the courts or some other group in the community for which they develop a dislike.

These groups will attach themselves to contemporary causes they are able to link – even if the link is vague – to demonstrate their views have some relevance or application in the real world to those that are particularly vulnerable such as those that have lost income or faced other hardships due to the pandemic.

Movements such as the anti-vaxxer, anti-lockdown movements have individuals in their leadership that have anti-government ideologies at the core. They engage in a variation of sovereign citizenry, an ideology that originated in the United States and an import Australia could do without.

A typical line of argument for so-called sovereign citizens is that governments are corporations and corporations cannot make laws so any rules people are told to comply with are actually a matter of consent rather than compulsion.

They don’t like paying taxes as they believe the government is a corrupt corporation. This isn’t necessarily about the ideology of government per se. They just don’t like being told by governments what to do.

That is why we saw theatrical performances by people going through hardware stores such as Bunnings at the start of the pandemic telling staff and any law enforcement officers that were called to deal with their disruptive behaviour that they did not consent to the health orders.

Some of the same individuals decided they would engage in mask burning ceremonies on camera as part of a protest. 

These stunts were uploaded to social media channels and the capacity to record and publish at will turned these individuals into legends within their own clique, fodder for newshounds busily reporting the trend and publicising them by default, and a headache to law enforcement because protest activity on the streets and elsewhere needed to be managed. 

Critics of these groups also posted that material on Twitter as a way of ridiculing the extremists while at the same time giving their propaganda a reach. 

Any publicity becomes good publicity for those that advocate a cause that is outside generally accepted social norms even if their critics, academics, politicians, intelligence and law enforcement authorities use their texts, graphics, and videos to alert the broader community to the risks they pose.

The reimposition of certain restrictions would also add further fuel for these protesters for whom Djokovic is a convenient foil because of the cause they pursue and not necessarily because they are great tennis fans.

The key thing they would have in common with Djokovic, other than advocacy against a range of measures that are intended to minimise the spread of the coronavirus, include the COVID-19 vaccination program.

It should be remembered that these characters are nothing new and, frankly, a reading of history tells us these movements have been around before.

A paper on terrorism and COVID-19 by Gary Ackerman and Hayley Peterson in Perspectives on Terrorism describes the challenges communities across the globe have observed now and in the past.

The authors point to the fact there was an anti-mask league formed when the 1918 influenza pandemic hit the United States. There were large protests organised at the time, with reports about attempts among anti-mask wearers to try bombing public officials.

“During the current pandemic, so-called Liberate activists have protested widely in the United States against local or state shutdown orders, with one person espousing anti-government animus arrested for threatening to kill New Mexico’s governor and another for allegedly threatening to blow up the Orlando Police Department’s headquarters, both over the coronavirus restrictions,” Ackerman and Peterson write.

Australia has seen something similar evolve over the pandemic and protests during 2021 provided evidence of greater radicalisation within the cohort of protesters. The presence of gallows and the call to hang politicians and other public figures by a range of provocateurs involved in the movement has echoes of what has happened elsewhere.

The Djokovic case is today’s headline and something people in the anti-government, anti-mandate, and anti-vaccination movement will exploit for their own ends. Debates over Djokovic’s entry to Australia will move on but these anti-government extremists will find something else about which to make noise and seek recruits for their movement.

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