SYDNEY, Australia — Warnings by Prime Minister Scott Morrison of Australia against attending a Black Lives Matter protest on Saturday because of the coronavirus risk did not detour tens of thousands of people from turning out in solidarity with Americans protesters. They called for an end to to systemic racism and Aboriginal deaths in police custody.
In Britain, the health minister’s plea for people to avoid similar marches in cities like London, Manchester and Birmingham did not stop tens of thousands from flowing to Parliament Square in London on Saturday afternoon and calling for justice in the death of an African-American man, George Floyd, at the hands of the police in Minneapolis.
On Saturday, despite fears of spreading the virus, thousands of protesters were gathering for anti-racism protests in countries like France and Germany, following marches this past week that drew tens of thousands in Japan, Sweden and Zimbabwe. The global demonstrations — including large crowds expected on Saturday in cities and towns across the United States — have effectively obliterated adherence to social distancing measures amid the coronavirus pandemic and raised fears of further spikes in infections just as many cities and countries were turning a corner in taming the virus.
Large crowds were expected on Saturday for the 11th straight day in the United States, aiming to shine a light on police brutality and seeking reforms after a long line of deaths of African-Americans like Mr. Floyd in Minneapolis, Breonna Taylor in Louisville, Ky., and others at the hands of law enforcement. The peaceful rallies have sometimes turned violent as local police and National Guard troops clashed with marchers and looters smashed stores and destroyed other property.
Many of the protesters were inspired by the unrest in the United States to call for an end to racism and police brutality in their own countries. In Australia, anger has grown for years over the deaths of Aboriginal Australians in police custody. There have been more than 400 such deaths since 1991, without a single officer having been convicted.
Despite warnings that they could be fined for defying coronavirus restrictions, protesters showed up wearing masks, holding signs with slogans like “Australia is not innocent” and shouting, “I can’t breathe” — echoing Mr. Floyd’s plea as a white police officer held his knee to his neck in Minneapolis on May 25.
The intensity, scale and scope of the protests seemed to dwarf anything Australia has seen in terms of mobilization around the issue of race since at least 2000, when 250,000 people marched for reconciliation over Australia’s treatment of its Aboriginal people.
In Sydney, the protests on Saturday came together under a cloud of tension and uncertainty. After a court ruled late Friday that the marches could not be held, citing the need for social distancing in light of the coronavirus pandemic, organizers appealed. And a higher court’s last-minute decision on Saturday let the demonstration proceed — just minutes before it started.
Among the crowds, anger was mixed with resolve.
“We will not be silenced,” an organizer shouted to the crowd of thousands, as helicopters buzzed overhead. “We will be coming to your streets until you get it right.”
Many of the Sydney rally’s supporters suggested that the attempt to cancel Saturday’s event had been an example of racism. They noted that gatherings of mostly white Australians, like farmers’ markets, seemed to have carried on without interruption.
Within minutes of the rally’s start, however, the focus shifted to the subject of deaths at the hands of police in Australia.
“No justice, no peace, no racist police,” the crowd shouted. People then marched through the usually bustling center of the city.
“I’ve never seen so many emotions expressed by so many people in my whole lifetime of protesting,” said Margaret Campbell, 70, an Aboriginal elder whose heritage is Dhanggati, who watched from the steps where organizers spoke. But she added, “What really matters is what happens when people have to make decisions — how will they vote, how will they keep it up?”
She was wearing a mask and blue latex gloves. Nearby, volunteers filtered through the crowd offering masks and sanitizing wipes.
In Melbourne, organizers handed out gloves, hand sanitizer and masks and reminded crowds to observe social distancing as best they could, but the sheer number of people cramming the streets made adequate spacing close to impossible. Throngs of masked and gloved protesters lined streets in the central business district.
Many of them held Indigenous flags, signs and clap sticks, which they struck in solidarity, chanting the words, “I can’t breathe” — not only Mr. Floyd’s cry in his final moments, but also that of an Aboriginal man, David Dungay, who died at the hands of the Australian police in 2015.
Police officers surrounded many of the Australian protests but did not engage with the demonstrators, at least initially. In many cases, the protests grew larger than organizers had expected.
Indigenous activists spoke in somber but impassioned tones to the heaving crowd in Melbourne, where protesters held signs with the names and photographs of people who had died in police custody.
“You’re on our land,” said Kaya Nicholson, a 17-year-old Indigenous organizer. She told protesters that while she appreciated their support in this moment of global unrest around race, it was crucial that Australians continue to speak up for Indigenous people.
“Don’t just support Black Lives Matter because it’s trending,” she said.
Ron Baird, an African-American living in Australia, drew parallels between Australia’s troubles and the crisis in the United States, disputing the prime minister’s suggestion this past week that Australians were “importing” problems that had not existed in the country.
“No Mr. Morrison, Australia is not the United States, but Australia does have its own long, dark, brutal past of oppression,” Mr. Baird said.
In Brisbane, a crowd of thousands gathered and marched through the city, condemning police brutality. In Townsville, in north Queensland, about 1,000 protesters gathered peacefully in a park. In Wagga Wagga, a hub for small farm towns in rural New South Wales, protesters took a knee and observed two minutes of silence.
In Britain, the health minister, Matt Hancock, cited Covid-19 on Friday in warning protesters not to gather this weekend. “Like so many I’m appalled by the death of George Floyd,” he said at a news briefing. “But we are still facing a health crisis and coronavirus remains a real threat.” He asked people not to attend “large gatherings, including demonstrations, of more than six people” this weekend.
His warning came as the infection rate increased in the northwest and southwest of England, health officials said, with the R number rising to 1 or above it.
Laurence Taylor, the deputy assistant commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, the main force in London, told the BBC that the planned demonstrations across the country were simply “unlawful.”
But social media users noted on Twitter that the government was asking people not to protest while opening up Parliament, asking some to go to work and urging others to take public transport and send their children to school. Still others added that Downing Street had lost its credibility when it rallied behind Dominic Cummings, a top aide to Prime Minister Boris Johnson who was accused of flouting social distance rules during the lockdown.
“Amazing how a hint of protest suddenly makes you want to lock things down again, but you could turn a blind eye to the masses flocking to beaches, or barbecues,” one Twitter user, Scott Handock, wrote.
Another, Darryl Griffiths, said, “Where was this energy on V-E Day and those ridiculous congas” — referring to a conga line that took place in a British town last month.
Damien Cave reported from Sydney; Livia Albeck-Ripka from Melbourne, Australia; and Iliana Magra from London. Elian Peltier contributed reporting from Paris, and Yonette Joseph from London.
Orignially published in NYT.