Tens of thousands of people have rallied across Australia in support of the Black Lives Matter movement and to protest Aboriginal deaths in custody, defying calls from health officials and the prime minister to stay home amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Large protests swept Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Adelaide and some regional towns on Saturday in solidarity with the BLM movement and African-American George Floyd, who died while he was being arrested in Minneapolis.
The Australian protests also showed support for the Aboriginal community and highlighted the high levels of indigenous incarceration and deaths in custody.
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Thousands of people, many wearing masks, were already gathered in front of Sydney’s Town Hall on Saturday when the NSW Court of Appeal declared the Stop All Black Deaths in Custody rally an authorised public assembly.
The decision, overturning a Supreme Court ruling on Friday night, gave protesters immunity from arrest for blocking roads along the planned route from Town Hall to Belmore Park.
About 5000 people were originally expected to rally in honour of Mr Floyd and Australian man David Dungay Jr, but NSW Police say 20,000 protesters turned out in Sydney.
Some held signs saying “Police the police” and “Same s*** different soil” as the crowd chanted “I can’t breathe”, the final words uttered repeatedly by Mr Floyd and Mr Dungay.
“They held my son down for 10 minutes,” Leetona Dungay said of her son’s death in Long Bay jail in 2015.
Following the march, protesters clashed with police at Central Station.
A short scuffle broke out between officers and protesters as police tried to move forward in an underground section of the station.
At least two officers used pepper spray, with up to 30 people in the firing line.
NSW Police made just three arrests in Sydney, which Assistant Commissioner Mick Willing said was a “really positive result”.
Meanwhile, police will fine Melbourne rally organisers $1652 each for breaching the directions of the chief health officer.
Victoria Police had earlier warned the Warriors of the Aboriginal Resistance they could face fines if they went ahead with the rally and on Saturday evening followed through on their warning.
Assistant Commissioner Luke Cornelius noted that although the meeting was unlawful, police were generally pleased with public behaviour.
“As of 5pm, there were no arrests made during the protest and we are not aware of any acts of violence or property damage,” he said.
Thousands of people also flocked to inner-city Brisbane with crowds spilling from King George Square to neighbouring blocks.
People packed stairwells and balconies to get a view while others brandished signs calling for reform in Queensland and across the world.
Speakers, including elders, traditional owners and African Australians, detailed police brutality against members of their own families and the racism they had experienced.
“We rise together and we speak in one voice against racism … and legislation that takes away our freedom in this country … our right to have a voice, our right to be free,” Wangan and Jagalingou man Adrian Burragubba said.
In South Australia, more than 5000 people packed Adelaide’s Victoria Square.
Speaker Jack Buckskin, a Kaurna and Narungga man, welcomed the large turnout, telling the gathering whether Aboriginal or non-Aboriginal, they were all part of the same society.
“This is about us coming together as people,” he said.
There was a large police presence at the rally and march through the city but Commissioner Grant Stevens had on Friday given it an exemption from COVID-19 restrictions.
Hundreds had also registered their interest in attending a candlelight vigil on the lawns of Parliament House in Hobart.
Australia’s Chief Medical Officer Brendan Murphy earlier said that while people had the right to protest, mass gatherings were dangerous in the midst of a pandemic.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison had also urged Australians not to attend protests.
© AAP 2020