June 6. Parallel worlds
Today, across Australia, there were protest gatherings in all major cities. The Black Lives Matter (BLM) protest of the USA have caught on here. Aboriginal deaths in custody in Australia has been an issue for many decades. In 1988 the Report of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal deaths in Custody recognised the ‘underlying social, cultural and legal issues behind the death(s)’. At that stage there were 99 deaths in custody that were examined.
Since 1991 there have been 432 Aboriginal deaths in custody. (note the definition of custody is specific). Indigenous people are overrepresented in prison by a factor of 10. This is a shameful situation and one that the government says they have tried to find ways to improve. The crowds today did not agree with them.
When these protest gatherings were organised in our various states, the Prime Minister took action. Scott Morrison asked people not to go. ‘Our message is very clear that the health risks of gathering in such large numbers and into close proximity are real. Let’s find a better way and another way to express these sentiments.’
The medical advice across the country was the same: don’t go, don’t breach Covid-19 public health orders. Then came the NSW’s Supreme Court decision, in response to a police application, to ban the Sydney event. The NSW Health officer, Dr Cherry Chant, said the event would increase the change of community transmission. NSW protest organisers said they would go ahead anyway. Shortly before the now-illegal gathering, an appeal overturned the Supreme Court ban.
In South Australia the Premier, Steven Marshall, reached a different decision – he did not ban the planned gathering and march through the city centre, but asked those involved to wear masks and practice social distancing.
The protests have taken place and, I am pleased to say that, so far, they were all peaceful. 30,000 people gathered in Musgrave Park in Brisbane … (this park is an historic Aboriginal gathering place). Thousands gathered at the City Hall in central Sydney and marched down George Street waving banners. One read, ‘They say justice, we say murder!’ It was obvious that ‘social distancing’ was not and could not be observed. Some people wore masks; some police handed out masks and sanitizers. There were black tee-shirts bearing the large number 432 (for the number of deaths in custody since 1991). One organiser said, ‘we are marching in pain, anger and solidarity’.
It appeared to me that the crowd consisted mostly of young people. Many of the placards carried the now famous appeal, ‘I can’t breathe’.
Its moving to see the determination of these protestors, but for us it’s also a worry. By now, we all know how virulent Covid-19 is. One person can infect many. There is community spread – although low – in both NSW and Victoria. Also, on the news tonight was the story about a fruit-picker who flew on two flights from Sydney to Bundaberg and has been found to be positive for the virus. Contact tracing is now activated.
There would have been over 70,000 people protesting today in our bigger cities. Surely, this will result in a significant increase in infections.
Indeed, the right to protest is a basic right – BUT many rights have been held back, or deferred recently. We have not been able to go to funerals, weddings, visit our families sick in hospital or visit our grandchildren – all this was the price to pay to stop the virus and to protect the vulnerable.
A protester was asked, ‘Don’t you worry about the virus? And in the excitement of the moment, he replied, ‘BLM is too important, even if there are 100 deaths from the virus…’
We are told time and time again not to underestimate Covid-19. It is a horrible virus, attacking your lungs and reducing your ability to get oxygen to fuel your organs. Many have died on ventilators, gasping, struggling for breath.
That word ‘breath’. Those images of George Floyd, casually held down by the kneeling, hand in his pocket, policeman, will go down in history. George Floyd could not breathe, nor can people dying from Covid-19.
How many more will die as a result of these BLM gatherings in Australia today? Is that OK? Is that just life? Is this the price to pay for the right to protest at this time in history? It appears that the answer is – Yes!