Thousands of protesters have taken to the streets in Australia’s capital cities to support the Black Lives Matter movement and call for an end to systemic racism towards indigenous people.
With masks over their mouths, thousands protested Aboriginal deaths in custody while bearing signs saying “Police the police” and “Same sh*t different soil”.
The Sydney crowd stood slightly apart from one another outside Sydney Town Hall as they rallied amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Town Hall railway station was closed and there was a large police presence in the city monitoring the rally.
Several protesters climbed on top of a glass entrance to Town Hall Station before police asked them to get down.
The crowd clapped and repeated “I can’t breathe” – the last words of US man George Floyd as a police officer knelt on his neck and quite literally squeezed the life out of him.
They were also led in a question-and-answer chant:
“Whose lives matter?”
“Black lives matter.”
In Melbourne, Wurundjeri leaders led protesters outside the Victorian Parliament where they mourned Aboriginal lives lost in police custody and expressed their solidarity with the US Black Lives Matter movement.
Protesters wore face masks while organisers offered hand sanitiser. Volunteers also reminded protesters to space themselves out.
Authorities had urged people to avoid the mass gathering because of COVID-19 fears.
One speaker remarked that it took the death of an African-American to put the spotlight on the deaths of indigenous Australians.
“We all bleed red because we are human,” another speaker said, to shouts of support from the crowd.
“Violence has been here for a couple of hundred years and your system’s nuts,” said another speaker.
There was a strong police presence with a police helicopter overhead. The mood among both protesters and police was peaceful.
Protesters held up banners with slogans such as “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere” and “Tolerating racism is racism”.
No lack of hand sanitiser, gloves or masks at the Melbourne #blacklivesmatteraustralia rally. Volunteers offering supplies at entry points to the protest site at Parliament House @theage @smh pic.twitter.com/s02cq24tTa
— Rachael Dexter (@rachael_dexter) June 6, 2020
Victoria’s Chief Health Officer Brett Sutton had warned that just one COVID-19-positive person at the rally could spread the virus and squander the gains made during the virus lockdown.
Premier Daniel Andrews’ message on Friday was a simple “Don’t go”.
Victoria Police warned rally organisers could be fined $1651 because of COVID-19 restrictions, and that fines might also be issued to individuals.
There were similar scenes in Brisbane, where crowds spilled from King George Square to neighbouring blocks, with people packing stairwells and balconies as they brandished signs calling for reform in Queensland and across the globe.
Speakers, including elders and traditional owners, detailed police brutality against members of their families.
“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.
Cheers and applause echoed through the streets as he called for justice and government-funded trauma support for families whose loved ones die in custody.
“While our people are dying in custody, our voice has gotta become louder, become a roar,” he said.
In a separate press conference, Quandamooka woman and state Environment Minister Leeanne Enoch encouraged Queenslanders to speak out.
“This issue is not just about turning up for one day, it is about turning up every day,” she said.
The Brisbane protest is one of many across the world in support of the Black Lives Matter movement, sharing public outrage following the death of African American man George Floyd while being arrested in Minneapolis.
The Queensland Aboriginal and Islander Health Council said the circumstances surrounding Mr Floyd’s death were all too familiar to minority communities in Australia.
At least 432 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have died in police custody in Australia since the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody report in 1991.
The QAIHC aims to eliminate health disparities experienced by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. It said the impact of institutional racism and systemic bias experienced by First Nations people was having a direct impact on their wellbeing.
“Behind every life taken is a broken-down family and a disrupted community clouded in anger, mistrust and confusion,” it said in a statement.
“The long-term health impacts after a death in custody or incident of police brutality are endless.”
— Jan Bowie (@JanB_QLD) June 6, 2020
They included poor mental health, social and emotional distress, injury, harmful alcohol and substance use, self-harm, suicide ideation and attempts, and exacerbated physical health conditions due to disengagement with the health system, the QAIHC said.
“The death of one can very quickly become the death of many,” it added.
Queensland’s Human Rights Commissioner Scott McDougall urged Australian governments to actively work with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities in a “power-sharing” way.
“There are scandalously disproportionate numbers of Aboriginal children, women and men detained within a criminal justice system which habitually repeats patterns of policing established under past policies of dispossession and protection,” he said.