CANBERRA, Australia (AP) — Thousands gathered in Canberra, Australia’s capital, on Friday to protest racial inequality in reaction to George Floyd’s death in the United States, while a court effectively banned a larger rally planned for Sydney because of the coronavirus threat.
The Canberra rally by about 2,000 people came ahead of larger rallies planned in Australia’s most populous cities on Saturday, with authorities concerned about maintaining social distancing.
Police on Friday successfully applied to the New South Wales state Supreme Court to declare that the Stop All Black Deaths in Custody rally planned for Sydney on Saturday was not an authorized public assembly.
The rally was expected to attract 5,000 people to the Sydney Town Hall. Police Commissioner Mick Fuller said the court ruling means “all of the police powers available to us can be used” to prevent the protest.
A state government and police also urged demonstrators not to attend a rally in Melbourne, Australia’s second largest city, because of the coronavirus risk.
In Canberra, Matilda House, an elder of the Ngambri-Ngunnawal family group who are the traditional owners of the Canberra region, said, “Australians have to understand that what’s been going on the United States has been happening here for a long time.”
Australia needs to move beyond a colonial attitude “that blacks are only here to be walked on, trodden on and murdered,” House said in the first speech at the rally.
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.
The crowd was majority white in a majority white city. Organizers handed out masks and hand sanitizer. Most protesters attempted to keep the recommended 1.5 meters (5 feet) of social distancing until the speeches began and people drew closer. Public gatherings are limited to 20 people in Canberra, but police did not intervene.
One of the protesters, Wendy Brookman, a teacher and member of the Butchulla indigenous people, said Australia should not accept more than 430 indigenous Australians dying in police custody or prison in the past three decades.
“We’re not here to jump on the bandwagon of what’s happened in the United States,” Brookman said. “We’re here to voice what’s happening to our indigenous people.”
One of the protesters’ signs read “I can’t breathe,” a parallel between Floyd’s death in Minnesota on May 25 and the Australian indigenous experience.
They were among the last words of both Floyd and Aboriginal man David Dungay, who died in a prison hospital in 2015 while being restrained by five guards.
Dungay’s mother, Leetona Dungay, said she planned to march in Sydney on Saturday regardless of the Supreme Court ruling.
“The correctional services officers and the doctors and nurses put my son under the ground, and I’m going to walk on it for my march,” she said, her voice rising to a yell. “Just like George Floyd.”
“We’re not going to stop. We’re going to march. We don’t care what any act of law tells us what to do. Coz those acts of laws are killing us,” she added.
Nigerian-born Oluwatobi Odusote, 16, and her school friends Jan Usha, 17, and Rhyse Morgan, 16, held a red, black and yellow indigenous flag during the protest.
“I thought that if America is taking a stand to save black lives, then we should help save the Aboriginal lives here in Australia, too,” Odusote said.
Usha, who is of Nigerian and Asian background, described the rally as “great” because Australia rarely addresses racism through protest.
Morgan, who is of European heritage, said, “if we’re all not equal, then no one benefits.”
Indigenous Australians are 2% of the Australian adult population but 27% of the prison population.
Australia’s indigenous people are the most disadvantaged ethnic minority in Australia. They 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.