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A stand-off between police and protesters at Melbourne’s Shrine of Remembrance that lasted several hours came to an abrupt end on Wednesday when police fired tear gas and non-lethal rounds at the remaining demonstrators before making several arrests.
It was a dramatic end to the third day of protests in Melbourne, which began with construction workers angry about a vaccine mandate and other health orders but has grown to include various objectors to vaccinations and coronavirus lockdowns.
Anti-lockdown protesters face off with Victoria Police at the Shrine of Remembrance in Melbourne on Wednesday.Credit:Eddie Jim
The crowd at the Shrine of Remembrance featured hundreds at its peak, but had thinned out to just a few hundred when police decided to move in after several hours of surrounding the protesters and urging them to leave.
Compared with the protest that swept across Melbourne on Tuesday, the demonstrators that occupied the memorial for several hours largely refrained from violence. Some police, however, were treated for head injuries after protesters threw bottles at them.
When hundreds of riot police and other officers moved in and began to make arrests, the crowd scattered from the Shrine shortly before 5pm.
Police offered protesters safe passage to leave until about 3pm. At 4.20pm, they surged forward and took a position metres from the increasingly agitated mob.
By 5pm the grounds around the Shrine were deserted, its lawns covered in rubbish including a full can of chickpeas, tear gas canisters and leftover “bean” rounds.
Dozens of people who passed up the offer to leave without incident earlier in the day had been led away by police.
Members of the protest group at the Shrine periodically chanted a mix of anti-vaccine slogans and invective at Premier Daniel Andrews, as well as singing the national anthem, holding a minute’s silence for people who have died by suicide during the pandemic and at one stage dropping to the ground in front of police officers.
They chanted “freedom”, “every day” and at one point the chorus of John Farnham’s You’re the Voice.
Police surround protesters at the Shrine.Credit:Wayne Taylor
Many were unable to articulate their rationale for attending the protest, some citing bizarre conspiracies and claims the mainstream media were complicit in concealing information about the COVID-19 vaccine.
“We are living in a police state and a lot of people have been paid off,” said a man called Adam, who refused to give his surname.
Another man said a group called the Vanguard controlled the Australian media, who was refusing to tell the true story behind the protest.
On Tuesday, several thousand people – including many far-right activists – rampaged across the city and onto the West Gate Bridge, resulting in several violent scenes.
Riot police blocking Melbourne’s Elizabeth Street this morning.Credit:Erin Pearson
Earlier on Wednesday, scattered groups of protesters engaged in a game of cat and mouse with Victorian riot police.
Police pursued small and seemingly disorganised groups of protesters, who marched along several CBD streets including Elizabeth, Flinders and Queen streets, blocking traffic as they walked.
A handful of arrests were made as members of Victoria Police’s Public Order Response and Critical Incident Response teams converged on the city in a show of force, stopping people who attempted to enter the CBD and checking their identification.
By early afternoon, protesters were growing in numbers near the Melbourne headquarters of the CFMEU, north of the Queen Victoria Market, where there was also a large police presence.
The Civil Aviation Safety Authority also imposed a five-day restriction on aircraft flying above the inner-city at the request of Victoria Police, in a move that will force media to delay aerial coverage of protests for an hour.
The construction union’s office windows have been boarded over after protesters, enraged by the state government mandating of COVID-19 vaccination for those employed in the building sector, gathered there on Monday, throwing projectiles including bottles.
Victorian construction union leader John Setka said any CFMEU members found to have participated in violent protests would be expelled from the union.
“Let me tell you, people that were involved in the violent protest, they may as well go pick fruit in Mildura somewhere because they will not be working in our industry,” he told ABC radio on Wednesday morning.
Police surrounded protesters at the Shrine.Credit:Wayne Taylor
Government and opposition MPs condemned the protests.
Premier Daniel Andrews said in the morning that Victoria Police would “take action against those who did the wrong thing yesterday”.
“They’re not there to protest; they’re there for a fight.”
Mr Andrews said that despite a few thousand people choosing to protest, about 90,000 people got vaccinated on Tuesday.
“That’s the more important number. They know that the way out of this is not violence, it’s vaccination,” he said.
The Andrews government has shut the state’s construction industry for two weeks, blaming low COVID-safe compliance at building sites. There are more than 330 active cases across the sector.
Shadow Attorney-General Tim Smith said the protest was “an insult to the more than 100,000 Australians who have died in the defence of our country and its values in all wars”.
The RSL’s Victorian branch and the chief executive of the Shrine of Remembrance both said the Shrine was an inappropriate place to protest.
Protesters sit on the steps of the Shrine.Credit:Erin Pearson
Aboriginal healthcare worker Vivian Malo has followed the protesters around for the past two days. Dismayed at their actions, she regularly shouted at the crowd, calling them losers and telling them to go home.
“They are getting into the minds of people with true concerns. It’s disturbing,” she said.“I don’t believe it’s a true representation of CFMEU.”
Prime Minister Scott Morrison criticised the protests from Washington, DC.
“None of us are above the law,” Mr Morrison said.
“These are measures that we have seen in other states and when it comes to the construction sector and the outbreak, similar arrangements were put in place in NSW and I think it is very important, that we exercise that patience, and we get through what is a very difficult time.”
Additional reporting by Annika Smethurst, Simone Fox Koob and Michael Fowler
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