The Sydney “Stop All Black Deaths in Custody” rally has been declared an authorised public assembly after a late decision by the court of appeal as tens of thousands of protesters rallied in cities and towns across Australia to march against Indigenous deaths in custody and the killing of unarmed US man George Floyd.
The decision came minutes before the rally’s scheduled start at 3pm outside Town Hall on Saturday.
Thousands of people marched along the route from Town Hall to Belmore Park, clapping and yelling “I can’t breathe” – the latter among Floyd’s final words – before being led in chants of “Whose lives matter? Black lives matter”.
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.
Organisers of Sydney’s Black Lives Matter protest had lodged a last-ditch appeal after the New South Wales supreme court ruled their Saturday demonstration would be unlawful under Covid-19 restrictions.
Protesters had vowed to push ahead with the Sydney rally in defiance of the court ruling, with thousands having gathered outside Town Hall by 2.30pm, half an hour before the protest was due to begin.
The Greens MP David Shoebridge confirmed only a few hours before the rally was due to begin that organisers would file an urgent appeal.
“The organisers have received strong advice from lawyers across the legal community that the decision has significant flaws that amount to jurisdictional error,” he said. “Taking the legal jargon away, the case will be that the judge got it wrong. That rally is in fact authorised and was agreed to by police.”
At Melbourne’s protest on Saturday afternoon, there was a strong police presence with a helicopter overhead and police lining parliament’s steps on foot and horseback.
Thousands of protesters held up banners with slogans such as “we all bleed the same colour”, “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere” and “tolerating racism is racism”. Protesters wore face masks and organisers offered hand sanitiser, after authorities urged people to avoid the mass gathering because of Covid-19 fears.
Wurundjeri leaders led protesters in mourning for Aboriginal lives lost in police custody at the demonstration.
In Brisbane, crowds spilled from King George Square to neighbouring blocks, with people packing stairwells and balconies, brandishing signs calling for reform in Queensland and across the globe.
Speakers, including elders and traditional owners, detailed police brutality against members of their own 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,” the Wangan and Jagalingou man Adrian Burragubba said.
At Adelaide’s protest, many of those attending wore masks and made some effort to socially distance, though large groups appeared to be in close contact. The rally and march through the city was watched by a large police presence after the commissioner, Grant Stevens, gave it his blessing on Friday.
The hardest line was taken in NSW, where the supreme court attempted to ban the rally. The late-night sitting on Friday came only after NSW police applied to the court for order to make the protest unlawful.
The NSW police minister, David Elliott, seized on the development on Saturday morning, arguing people must “acknowledge and recognise the supreme court ruling”.
“Police are prepared for anyone who just wants to flout the law,” Elliott said.
Asked if police had capacity to arrest 5,000 people, he declined to comment on “police operational procedures”.
Politicians and health officials have argued the protests risk a “second wave” of coronavirus cases, which could harm the Indigenous community, but protesters were resolute in their desire to push ahead with the events.
The marches came as reports emerged from WA that a 40-year-old Aboriginal man had died after collapsing at the privately run Acacia prison.
A WA Department of Justice statement said the man was found on Friday but could not be revived. He was pronounced dead in hospital.
Police said the death did not appear to be suspicious, although they would investigate and an inquest and internal department review would be held.
The National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Service said early on Saturday that people could not be “silent while police violence is unchecked and continues to kill our people”.
The Natsils co-chair, Nerita Waight, called on police not to issue fines to protesters on Saturday.
“Upholding freedom of expression and assembly at times like this is critical and we encourage governments to ensure that people attending the peaceful protests are doing so in the safest way possible,” she said.
“We strongly encourage governments to use methods that do not result in the further criminalisation of, or violence to, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people – including fines.”
Organisers of the demonstrations had said protesters should wear face masks, adhere to social distancing where possible and stay home if they are sick.
Police in NSW pledged to issue fines to protesters, while in Victoria the protest organisers have been threatened with $1,600 fines and the force did not rule out penalties for individuals.
The NSW police commissioner, Mick Fuller, late on Friday said police would have a “strong presence” at the rally “to ensure the law is obeyed”.
“If people choose to disobey the supreme court ruling and attend the planned protest regardless, they need to be aware they are doing so unlawfully and police will respond accordingly,” he said in a statement.
Leetona Dungay, whose son David died in Long Bay jail after shouting “I can’t breathe” while being restrained, said she would march in Sydney regardless of court approval.
“I’m marching for my son and nothing is stopping me,” she said before the court’s decision on Friday. “If we don’t march tomorrow that means they’ll keep killing people.”
“All lives matter when black lives matter” pic.twitter.com/MU7bnirmuL— Gabrielle Jackson (@gabriellecj) June 6, 2020
On Saturday, Guardian Australia released an update to its groundbreaking Deaths Inside project, confirming there have now been at least 434 Aboriginal deaths in custody since a royal commission into the issue in 1991.
The rally in central Melbourne was expected to begin with a Welcome To Country by the Wurundjeri senior elder Aunty Diane Kerr and a chant led by the Wurundjeri woman Mandy Nicholson.
Nicholson called on protesters to paint white ochre across their forehead in keeping with an Indigenous sign of mourning. Non-Indigenous protesters were encouraged to have an Indigenous person paint it for them.
Protesters also gathered in smaller Australian towns, including Wagga Wagga in NSW and Cairns in Queensland.