Black Lives Matter protests begin in Australia despite coronavirus crowd ban

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Black Lives Matter protests across Australia on Saturday got underway against a backdrop of possible clashes between demonstrators and police in Sydney, after a court sided with police that the gathering posed too much risk for spreading the coronavirus.

The first gathering in the southern city of Adelaide was held to honor George Floyd and to protest against the deaths of indigenous Australians in custody.

That was the plan in Sydney as well, where thousands of people were expected to rally. But New South Wales state Supreme Court Justice Des Fagan ruled on Friday that the rally was not an authorized public assembly. Fagan said he understood the rally was designed to coincide with similar events in other countries.

“I don’t diminish the importance of the issues and no one would deny them in normal circumstances,” he said. “No one denies them that but we’re talking about a situation of a health crisis.”

Floyd, a black man, died in handcuffs while a Minneapolis police officer pressed a knee on his neck even after he pleaded for air and stopped moving.

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Sydney crowds gather despite COVID-19 ban

In Sydney, outdoor gatherings are restricted to 10 people, while up to 50 people can go to funerals, places of worship, restaurants, pubs and cafes.

Sydney rally organizers, before deciding to lodge a last-minute appeal to Fagan’s ruling, urged anyone still wishing to attend “as an individual” to obey social distancing and wear masks to ensure safety.

Early reports from Sydney said there was a crowd of about 500 and a large police presence about an hour ahead of the scheduled protest. There was one early scuffle when police removed a man who appeared to be a counter protester carrying a sign saying, “White Lives, Black Lives, All Lives Matter.”

Crowds filled Victoria Square in Adelaide after police gave special permission for the event to proceed despite COVID-19 restrictions. The march through the city was held after Commissioner Grant Stevens approved the rally on Friday.

“This is a unique and extraordinary event. There is a sentiment that suggests people should have a right to protest on significant matters,” Stevens said.

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A man in aboriginal dress takes the knee in solidarity with Black Lives Matter protests, Sydney, Australia, June 6, 2020. (AFP)
A man in aboriginal dress takes the knee in solidarity with Black Lives Matter protests, Sydney, Australia, June 6, 2020. (AFP)

Aboriginals protest in Brisbane

In Brisbane, the Queensland state capital, organizers said about 30,000 people gathered, forcing police to close down two major streets. The rally appeared orderly, though, as police handed out masks to protesters and other officials provided hand sanitizers.

A Maori group did a traditional haka, or war dance, during the Brisbane protest.

On Friday, 2,000 demonstrators gathered in the national capital Canberra to remind Australians that the racial inequality underscored by Floyd’s death was not unique to the United States.

“Australians have to understand that what’s been going on the United States has been happening here for a long time,” said Matilda House, an elder of the Ngambri-Ngunnawal family group who are the traditional owners of the Canberra region.

A demonstrator who interrupted House, arguing that the rally’s focus should be on “what’s happening in the United States” rather than Australia’s colonial history, was shouted down in a heated confrontation with several protesters. The demonstrator eventually followed the crowd’s advice to leave.

Indigenous Australians make up 2 percent of the Australian adult population but 27 percent of the prison population. They are also the most disadvantaged ethnic minority in Australia and have higher-than-average rates of infant mortality and poor health, as well as shorter life expectancy and lower levels of education and employment than other Australians.

A man in aboriginal dress takes part in the Black Lives Matter protests in Sydney, June 6, 2020. (AFP)
A man in aboriginal dress takes part in the Black Lives Matter protests in Sydney, June 6, 2020. (AFP)

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