Former premier questions restrictions after thousands attend Black Lives Matter rallies

Questions have been raised over the future of coronavirus restrictions after tens of thousands of people gathered at Black Lives Matter rallies across the country on Saturday.

Most protesters wore face masks and used hand sanitiser as they marched in protest of police brutality in Australia and the United States.

But social distancing proved difficult, with many forced to huddle shoulder-to-shoulder as crowds swelled in Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide and Brisbane.

“If we can have this protest then there is no justification for the ongoing (illogical) restrictions on our lives,” former Queensland premier Campbell Newman tweeted on Saturday, along with an aerial view of the huge protest in Brisbane.

“I bet the protesters’ details weren’t recorded as would be required at any pub, club, restaurant or gym,” he added.

But earlier this week, Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Health Minister Greg Hunt warned people not to attend the protests, saying the pandemic was far from over.

“We respect deeply people’s right to express themselves. It’s fundamental to who we are. We respect the compassion behind those concerns, but we say at this moment in time there is a better way,” Mr Hunt said.

“There’s always a time for protests, but it’s not at this moment, not in a mass gathering form.

“The means of coming together and risking the spread of COVID-19 is something we say to people: please think again, please do not do this, exercise your compassion, express yourself, but do it in a way that is safe, sound and respectful of our most vulnerable Australians.”

In Victoria, police said they were concerned that such a large gathering had occurred in Melbourne “without regard” for the need to social distance.

Assistant Commissioner Luke Cornelius said the force would now consider what action to take “in relation to the organisation and conduct of this unlawful gathering”.

Officers have already said the organisers of the rally – the Warriors of the Aboriginal Resistance (WAR) – will be fined $1652 each for breaching the directions of the chief health officer.

Wurundjeri woman Mandy Nicholson, who spoke at the protest, said it was ridiculous to fine people for fighting injustice and she would contest a fine if she received one.

“It’s a democratic right to protest,” she told AAP. “We also had police marching with us and talking with us.

“It was very peaceful and a life-changing event for not only black people but everyone.”

Despite the rally being unlawful, police said they were generally pleased with the public’s behaviour and reported no arrests.

The protest in Sydney was also described as “peaceful” with just three men arrested before it began.

About 20,000 people gathered in the city’s CBD after the Court of Appeal declared the rally an authorised public assembly.

The decision, overturning a Supreme Court ruling on Friday night, gave protesters immunity from arrest for blocking roads along the planned route from Town Hall to Belmore Park.

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“Whether the police want to say it’s unjust, whether the government wants to say it’s unjust, think of the unjust things they’ve done to our people,” Lugad Omido, 25, said.

“This is what it’s here for – for us to trigger a change.”

Bob Jones, 75, said attending the protest was worth the risk of contracting the coronavirus.

“If a society is not worth preserving, then what are you doing? You’re perpetuating a nonsense,” he told AAP.

Following the march, protesters clashed with police at Central Station. A short scuffle broke out between officers and protesters as police tried to move forward in an underground section of the station.

At least two officers used pepper spray, with up to 30 people in the firing line.

In Queensland, thousands of people flocked to inner-city Brisbane, with crowds spilling from King George Square to neighbouring blocks.

People packed stairwells and balconies to get a view while speakers, including elders, traditional owners and African Australians, detailed police brutality against members of their own families and the racism they’d experienced.

“We rise together and we speak in one voice against racism … and legislation that takes away our freedom in this country … our right to have a voice, our right to be free,” Wangan and Jagalingou man Adrian Burragubba said.

In Western Australia, the Indigenous community is calling for answers after a 40-year-old Aboriginal man collapsed and died at a prison.

The Acacia Prison inmate was found on Friday but he could not be revived and was pronounced dead at hospital, the state’s Department of Justice said in a statement on Saturday.

Police said there did not appear to be anything suspicious, but they were investigating and there would be an inquest given it was a death in custody.

The Department of Justice will also conduct an internal review.

More than 5000 people packed into Victoria Square in Adelaide after its protest was given it an exemption from COVID-19 restrictions.

“This is a unique and extraordinary event … There is a sentiment that suggests people should have a right to protest on significant matters,” Commissioner Grant Stevens had said on Friday.

But he also called on protesters to be mindful of their own health and the health of others amid the ongoing pandemic.

As the protest began, many in the crowd tried to social distance, but it became less evident as they made their way down King William Street towards Parliament House before returning to the square.

Assistant Commissioner Peter Harvey acknowledged that it was very difficult for such a large crowd to effectively keep their distance.

“A lot of people did try and I must commend them,” he said.

Police said there were no arrests or injuries.

A total 7255 cases of coronavirus have been confirmed across Australia since the beginning of the pandemic, with 102 deaths.

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