Tens of thousands of people marched through Australian cities and towns for Black Lives Matter protests on Saturday, defying an attempt from the police to ban one demonstration through the courts and despite pleas from the prime minister and state leaders for people to stay home.
In the most dramatic turn of events, a massive crowd in Sydney learned just as they were gathering outside the city’s Town Hall that the New South Wales court of appeal had ruled their rally was now lawful, overturning a court decision handed down late on Friday.
Mask-clad protesters also gathered in Melbourne, Brisbane, Adelaide, and smaller cities and towns across the country, drawing attention to racial profiling, police brutality and the more than 400 Indigenous people who have died in police custody since a royal commission into the problem was held in 1991.
“It’s the same story on different soil,” Ky-ya Nicholson-Ward, 17, told a rally in Melbourne of the similarities between what has been happening in the US and Australia.
Although the protests were sparked after the death of unarmed African American man George Floyd, public outrage was further stoked when a Sydney police officer was caught on camera slamming an Indigenous teenager face-first into the ground this week.
Still, some campaigners expressed frustration that it had taken Floyd’s death on the other side of the world to draw attention to the plight of Australia’s First Nations people, who suffer lower life expectancy and are more likely to be incarcerated than non-Indigenous Australians.
Protesters fell silent to mourn Indigenous deaths in custody and stopped to take a knee as they marched, while organisers led chants of “I can’t breathe” and “Black lives matter”. Another chant involved those at the rally hitting their chests in unison to create the sound of a fading heartbeat.
In Sydney, the “I can’t breathe” chant held special significance for the mother of David Dungay Jr, who gasped those words before he died in Long Bay jail in 2015.
“They held my son down for 10 minutes,” Leetona Dungay said told the crowd.
Warren Day, the son of Victorian woman Tanya, who died in police custody, said in Melbourne there had been no convictions despite the hundreds of Indigenous deaths in police custody in the past three decades.
“All we want is justice and to be treated as equals,” he said. “It’s not much to ask for is it? There is no room for racists in this world. We need change and it needs to start happening now.”
The protests went ahead despite warnings from Australia’s chief medical officer, Brendan Murphy, that large gatherings risked ruining the progress Australia had made in significantly reducing the number of active coronavirus cases.
Protesters in Sydney expected to defy a supreme court order that gave police the right to fine them for breaking social distancing laws but instead erupted in cheers when they learned the court of appeal had overturned the decision.
The last-ditch appeal, which was finalised 12 minutes before the rally was scheduled to begin, struck out a late-night court ruling on Friday that said the demonstration would be unlawful because current laws ban gatherings of more than 10 people. The police had sought the court order to ban the protest.
Although the prime minister, Scott Morrison, said he believed the cause was important, his message earlier in the week to protesters was “don’t go”, citing the existing health advice.
But he also questioned those drawing comparisons between Australia and the situation in the United States, where protesters have rallied for several days following Floyd’s death at the hands of police in Minneapolis.
“There’s no need to import things happening in other countries here to Australia,” Morrison said.
Most protesters heeded a call from organisers to cover their faces, creating a sea of mask-clad faces that was unprecedented in Australia given face coverings are not mandated by state or federal governments.
Although protesters sought to keep at least 1.5 metres between them, many struggled to do so closer to the stage. In Melbourne, where the crowd stretched across many blocks, some also began to dance when the African Australian musician Sampa the Great took to the stage to perform two songs.
Black lives matter, she said, “because I woke up black today, and I’m going to wake up black tomorrow”.
Crowds also gathered in Adelaide, where police granted protesters an exemption to allow them to hold a rally, as well as smaller cities such as Hobart, Wagga Wagga, Townsville, Byron Bay.
Late on Saturday, police in Melbourne said they would issue $1,500 fines to protest organisers, a move they had flagged before Saturday’s demonstrations.