Saturday, 6 June 2020 was historic. Across the continent, hundreds of thousands of people participated in huge First Nations-led Stop Deaths in Custody/Black Lives Matter protests. It’s hard to accurately estimate the crowds. Police and media downplay numbers, but aerial photos show massive turnouts, especially in Brisbane, Melbourne and Sydney. The Brisbane march was its largest since 2003, when thousands mobilised against the invasion of Iraq. Protests took place in every capital city, as well as in regional centres as diverse as Alice Springs, Ballarat, Byron Bay, Mildura, Newcastle, Townsville, Wagga Wagga and Wyong.
The protests were part of a seismic wave of global solidarity with the communities resisting across the United States. Fuelled by centuries of institutional racism and sparked by the brutal police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, its force is magnified by the unequal impact of coronavirus across colour lines. The First peoples of this continent face these same issues.
The multi-racial numbers on the streets were extraordinary. People defied threatening calls from government, both state and federal, and police not to protest, using public health concerns as the excuse. The marchers made it clear that racism is a public health issue, some placards saying that capitalism is the virus.
In Sydney, the night before the protests, the New South Wales Supreme Court ruled the march illegal. Called by the Indigenous Social Justice Association (ISJA), it was banned on the grounds that it breached public health orders. ISJA continued its organising anyway. With a long history of asserting the right to march, ISJA is experienced in challenging attempts by the state government to shut down annual marches on the anniversary of the death of TJ Hickey.
More than 20,000 assembled, ready for the march led by Letona Dungay. “I can’t breathe” were the last words of her son David, killed by police in 2015. Fresh camera footage, from days before, of a police officer slamming an Aboriginal teenager face-down onto a concrete path redoubled their determination to march. They let out a victorious cheer when the organisers announced that the NSW Court of appeal had overturned the ban just 12 minutes before.
The march in Sydney was well-organised, disciplined and determined, and the NSW cops could not help themselves! They used pepper spray “to disperse” protesters as they were leaving at the march’s end.
In Melbourne, a team from the Freedom Socialist Party and Radical Women were amongst tens of thousands who participated in the huge protest called by Warriors of the Aboriginal Resistance (WAR). Rally organisers were clear — masks and hand sanitiser were mandatory, come in groups of twenty or less, stay with your group and physically distance. The Aboriginal community-controlled health organisations distributed masks and hand sanitiser. Unionists from Workers Solidarity acted as marshals.
Since 1991 at least 432 Aboriginal people have died in custody, and there hasn’t been a single conviction. Their names were prominent at the Melbourne rally. The Indigenous Social Justice Association – Melbourne marched with huge placards showing photos of some who died, each produced with their family’s permission. Meriki Onus from WAR chaired the protest, and deaths in custody families were speakers. Warren Day, the son of Tanya Day, killed in 2017, read a statement from the family. He was joined on stage by his mum’s first cousins. Justin Grant spoke and read a statement on behalf of the family of Kumanjayi Walker, who was shot in the Northern Territory community of Yuendumu last year. He ended with the call to “stop standing on our necks.” The strength and the resilience of all of these families, who are at the heart of the movement, was acknowledged and honoured.
The overwhelmingly young crowd appreciated hearing from the elders. A Noongah elder got a huge cheer when he declared “we are the start of the revolution.” There was enormous appreciation for 71-year-old Talgium Edwards, a Stolen Generations man, who described the cop harassment he has experienced and his assertion of sovereignty in challenging the jurisdiction of the courts.
A rousing speech from Dr Ron Baird, an African American from Los Angeles now living in Australia, pointed out that while the State treats African Americans and First Nations in essentially the same way, the history of the two communities is not identical. Aboriginal people are the First Nations, and they have never ceded sovereignty. Baird explained the slave origin of his Scottish name, underscoring that African American oppression is rooted in slavery. He responded to Prime Minister Morrison’s appeal that Australia is not the U.S. — Australia has its own long and brutal past of oppression. Baird called for solidarity with Asians who face racist harassment and blame for COVID-19. He also called for multi-racial unity: “Let’s all stand together as one.”
The crowd raised their firsts to the callout from Sampa the Great. A Zambian rapper, she grew up in Botswana and now lives in Australia. She performed the song Freedom with her sister, “What do we want? Freedom! What do we need? Freedom!”
Melbourne’s protest marched from the State Parliament through the city to Flinders Street. Deaths in custody families shared statements, most raising the demand that the 339 recommendations of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody be implemented. That imprisonment must be the last resort has become a key movement demand.
Also crucial is the need to end the practice of police investigating police. What’s urgently needed are elected civilian review boards with real powers, well-resourced and directly accountable to communities.
As the rally came to the end, the Victorian State government announced its intention to fine the organisers for breaching coronavirus restrictions! These fines must be withdrawn now.
The massive protests across Australia were a powerful collective statement of rage and a declaration that the fight will continue. Latoya Rule, the sister of Wayne Fella Morrison, who died in Yatla Prison, called for people to “show up even when it’s not trending.” Everyone who marched on 6 June 2020 must contribute to maintaining the momentum. Black Lives Matter. Indigenous Lives Matter.
Alison Thorne is a founding member of Indigenous Social Justice Association – Melbourne. If you want to get involved with the Freedom Socialist Party or ISJA, contact her at email@example.com