Tens of thousands of Australians defied warnings from health authorities Saturday to join Black Lives Matter rallies around the nation.
While the marches were generally peaceful and without incident, things turned ugly in Sydney in the evening when a confrontation between police and protesters at Central Station ended with allegations that several people had been pepper sprayed.
— Jack Fisher (@jackffisher) June 6, 2020
A last-minute court decision to overturn of the ban on Sydney’s “Stop All Black Deaths in Custody” rally came minutes before its scheduled 3pm start.
In Melbourne, huge cheers broke out as organisers announced the Sydney protesters were allowed to hit the streets.
But it’s the Melbourne protesters who will pay the price – to the tune of a $1652 fine for every organiser from Warriors of the Aboriginal Resistance, and potentially some in attendance.
“Police will continue to investigate the events of today to determine whether any further follow-up enforcement activity is required,” Assistant Commissioner Luke Cornelius said in a statement on Saturday.
The coronavirus was undoubtedly a concern. Protesters were conscious of the health risk, with one remarking ‘this could be a COVID catastrophe’ but it was mixed with another concern – that violence would break out.
A short woman with dark curly hair weaved through the throngs of protesters on Melbourne’s central Bourke Street.
“Sanitiser? Mask?” she asked.
She squelched the gel into outstretched hands and the smell of ethanol wafted through the air.
A man wearing a black armband appeared. “Spread out, please,” he told a group of friends huddled together.
As marshals distributed hand sanitiser, legal observers in fluoro pink vests from Melbourne Activist Legal Support shadowed the police.
The organisers stressed at the beginning that the crowd should not “do anything that distracts from the message” that black lives matter.
And for their part, the protesters were calm and considered.
When it came time to march, despite organisers’ best efforts to keep everyone separate, the almost perfectly spaced protest quickly became bunched, with thousands passionately chanting for justice as they pressed together.
“I feel overloaded being around so many people,” said one female protester.
“I’ll shower when I get home,” another remarked from the thick of the crowd.
But despite their misgivings, the Melbourne protesters – most wearing masks – stood respectfully to listen to the son of Tanya Day, who died in 2017 after she fell asleep on a train and was taken into custody by police.
Warren Day was angry.
“We need change,” he told crowd to passionate applause.
His mother, a 55-year-old Yorta Yorta woman, had been drinking, and two hours into her intercity train journey she slipped into slumber, her legs allegedly blocking the aisle.
The train’s conductor called the police on the “unruly” drunk woman who couldn’t find her ticket – five hours later Ms Day was being taken to hospital from her police station cell after falling and hitting her head.
There have been 432 Indigenous deaths in custody since 1991 yet no one has ever been convicted.
Proportionally, Australia’s First Nations people are among the most incarcerated in the world.
Now, the death of George Floyd at the hands of a white US police officer has sparked a global outcry that has given fresh voice to their anger.
In Sydney, the crowd chanted “I can’t breathe”, the phrase uttered by both George Floyd and Australia’s own 26-year-old Dunghutti man David Dungay Jr in their final moments.
Mr Dungay died in 2015 in Long Bay prison hospital after being restrained by five guards for refusing to stop eating a packet of biscuits. He was a diabetic and only three weeks away from being released.
A 2019 inquest into his death revealed footage of Mr Dungay being restrained by the officers.
He can be heard yelling “I can’t breathe” 12 times.
Mr Dungay’s mother, Leetona Dungay, and nephew Paul Silva were marching in Sydney on Saturday.
They held my son down for 10 minutes,” Ms Dungay said.
Walking alongside them in the huge crowd was Bob Jones, 75, who said it was worth the risk to rally for change despite NSW Chief Health Officer Kerry Chant’s warning the event might help spread the coronavirus.
“If a society is not worth preserving, then what are you doing? You’re perpetuating nonsense,” Mr Jones said.
The Sydney protest was almost deemed illegal.
An urgent application from the NSW protesters was heard from 2pm on Saturday after organiser Raul Bassi asked the Court of Appeal to overturn the Supreme Court’s Firday night decision to ban the rally.
“Our respectful submission is that the court will now correct that error,” Mr Bassi’s barrister Stephen Lawrence told the court.