AFP, September 21, 2021 — Melbourne riot police used pepper spray, foam baton rounds and rubber ball grenades to disperse a violent protest against mandatory COVID-19 vaccinations for construction workers on Tuesday (Sep 21).
More than 1,000 demonstrators wearing work boots and hi-vis jackets rampaged through the centre of Australia’s second-largest city, lighting flares, throwing bottles, attacking police cars and chanting their opposition to vaccines and lockdown restrictions.
Melbourne has been in strict lockdown for seven weeks, as the city struggles to curb an outbreak of the fast-spreading Delta variant.
Several clusters have been linked to construction sites, where COVID-19 containment measures are said to be lax.
In response, authorities have introduced ever-tougher restrictions, closing work site tea rooms, announcing mandatory vaccination for labourers and, most recently, closing almost all construction sites for two weeks.
For hours protesters opposing the measures confronted police, ignoring loudspeaker calls to leave and a final caution that “no further warnings will be given”.
Victoria state chief police commissioner Shane Patton said about 500 officers were responding to the “challenging” situation and had deployed pepper spray, foam baton rounds and rubber ball grenades.
“These crowd control equipment munitions were necessary, and they are necessary, because we can’t allow this type of conduct to go on,” he said.
“We will stop this protest. And we will then step back and investigate and hold those to account who need to be held to account.”
At least three police officers had sustained injuries while more than 40 people had been arrested, Patton added.
Brandishing “Trump” banners and chanting “you serve us”, protesters briefly occupied a bridge on one of the city’s main thoroughfares and sang a popular 1990s power rock ballad.
A number of journalists were assaulted, including one television reporter who was hit on the head with a can live on air, shortly after another incident in which he was doused with urine.
Union leaders denounced the protests, saying the issue had been hijacked by anti-vaccine activists and what former Labor party leader Bill Shorten called “man-baby Nazis”.
On social media forums that regularly feature anti-vaccine conspiracies, followers were urged to attend, “bring friends” and “wear work gear”.