Sydney BLM protest
Protesters march along Sydney's George Street in support of #BlackLivesMatter (Image: James Yousif)

Crowds defy COVID-19 fears to rally for racial justice

Sydney’s CBD was transformed into a sea of surgical masks, flags and banners on Saturday afternoon as a huge crowd gathered to express solidarity with anti-racism protesters in the US and highlight Aboriginal deaths in police custody at home.

The largely peaceful protest drew an estimated 20,000-plus people despite being banned on Friday due to fears of COVID-19 contagion. A last-minute NSW Court of Appeal decision on Saturday afternoon authorised the demonstration – one of numerous such actions held in towns and cities around Australia – to go ahead.

Some attendees handed out surgical masks and brandished bottles of hand sanitiser. “I wanted to help minimise any possible spread of disease,” said Sophie Williams, as she pumped Dettol into dozens of hands.

“This is my small way of helping everyone out.”

In crowd scenes not seen since coronavirus-related lockdown restrictions were imposed in March, the protesters gathered at Town Hall before marching shoulder-to-shoulder to nearby Belmore Park.

They chanted slogans such as “Black Lives Matter” and “I can’t breathe” – a reference to the last words of African-American man George Floyd, who died in Minnesota late last month as a white police officer knelt on his neck.

Floyd’s death has sparked sometimes violent daily protests in cities around the US against police brutality towards African-Americans.

After the Sydney event ended on Saturday evening, police used capsicum spray on protesters at Central Station after they reportedly refused to move on. However, only three arrests were made during the day.

Earlier, there were deafening cheers when the Court of Appeal decision was relayed to the crowd.

“This is one of those moments, you know, when you fight the system, and it’s a system that’s been in place against First Nations people for centuries,” said Greens MP David Shoebridge, speaking on the steps of Town Hall.

“But sometimes you have those moments when you have a win over the system.”

A minute’s silence was held in tribute to Floyd.

The protesters defied pleas from Prime Minister Scott Morrison, NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian and Chief Health Officer Brendan Murphy to “find a better way to express” their feelings.

Some demonstrators, such as Liza Onyango, 38, had brought their children along. Onyango, who was pushing a baby carrier, explained:

“I want my daughter to experience democracy first-hand.”

Neither she nor her children were wearing masks. “It [COVID-19] didn’t even cross my mind when we decided to come. I’m not worried at all,” she said.

Just before the protest officially started, a man climbed the steps of Town Hall with an “All Lives Matter” placard. He was detained and handcuffed by police, to the cheers of the crowd.

The demonstrators marched to Belmore Park, accompanied by a heavy police presence and to the tune of racially inclusive songs, such as Black or White, by Michael Jackson.

“I love that we have people who have brought their own speakers to play music for everyone,” said Kaitlin Downer, a 22-year-old university student.

Jak McKay, a 29-year-old hospitality worker from Wahroonga, said: “Seeing all these faces here today, it reminds me of how beautiful our country is.

‘But it’s such a shame to think of how much more powerful this could have been if we didn’t have corona standing in our way.”

More protests are planned for the coming days, despite warnings that the rallies could help spark a second wave of coronavirus.