SYDNEY - Tens of thousands of people have marched through Australia’s biggest city, Sydney, to protest the deaths of indigenous people in police custody. The rally went ahead after organizers overturned a court decision that had ruled it unlawful. Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison had urged people not to attend protests across the country because of the risk of spreading the coronavirus.
The authorities wanted to stop the rally in Sydney on health grounds, fearing that large crowds would increase the risk of coronavirus infections.
The New South Wales Supreme Court Friday said the march would be unlawful, but that decision was challenged and overturned. That meant protesters were immune from prosecution if they breached public health orders. In New South Wales state, gatherings of more than 500 people are illegal under social distancing laws.
New South Wales premier Gladys Berejiklian had urged demonstrators to stay away.
“We do not want anybody flouting the health orders. The health orders are there for a reason and in New South Wales we would not ever want to be in a position where people are denied that expression of freedom, but do it in a different way," said Berejiklian. "We cannot have thousands and thousands of people gathering together, and it only takes a couple, one or two people, to have the virus.”
Those pleas were ignored by tens of thousands of people in Sydney, who marched in solidarity with protesters in the United States. They also wanted to highlight aboriginal deaths in custody, as well as the treatment by the police and the criminal justice system of Australia’s indigenous people. They make up about a third of prison inmates, but just 3% of the country’s population.
Aboriginal elder Rhonda Dixon-Grosvenor.
“We have a right to gather on our country," said Dixon-Grosvenor. "We have a right to speak and a right to express ourselves as human beings.”
The crowds held a minute’s silence to remember George Floyd, an African American man who was killed by a white police officer in Minneapolis in the United States.
There were other large rallies in Melbourne, Adelaide and Brisbane. They were reportedly almost entirely peaceful and without incident.
Rally organizers handed out masks and gave hand sanitizer to demonstrators.
Australia has had 7,250 confirmed COVID-19 cases and 102 people have died from the virus.