Beauty is in the streets. From Minneapolis to Melbourne, from Adelaide to Zurich, millions of people know the name George Floyd. They know how and why he was murdered. They know racism plagues every country and that everywhere there are victims like Floyd, murdered by the state. They have poured into the streets to demand justice, to declare solidarity, to join a rebellion that has already changed the course of history.
As of 7 June, almost 200,000 people have marched in Australia, insisting that Black lives matter and, in particular, demanding an end to Aboriginal deaths in custody. Initial marches in Perth, Sydney and Canberra brought out thousands, despite being held with little notice, mid-week, in winter and in the middle of a pandemic. By the weekend, as the uprising in the US entered its 10th day, 60,000 turned out in Sydney, and similar numbers in Melbourne. In both, the city centres were choked with protesters for hours. Around 30,000 marched in Brisbane and more than 10,000 in Adelaide – marking one of the biggest protests in that city in decades. There were also protests in many regional cities, including 3,000 in Wollongong and 1,500 in Wagga Wagga.
The numbers are incredible. What makes them even more remarkable is the context of the lockdown. People in Australia and across the world are rightly cautious of mass gatherings that could expose themselves and their communities to the virus. There is mass opposition to lifting restrictions and to the prioritisation of profits over lives. Yet the movement in the US has stirred a determination to protest and to find a way around the risks of mass assembly. At the demonstrations, there was barely an unmasked face in sight, though you could tell people were smiling from their eyes – as we all looked around admiring our new pandemic protest aesthetic and feeling moved by the enormity and energy of the crowd. It was clear that, as well as anger, people had a sense of pride at being on the right side of an important historic moment.
Disgracefully, there was a cynical campaign to prevent the demonstrations from going ahead. This was spearheaded by the Labor Party, which once again committed itself to the wrong side. Attacks on the protests by Labor MPs were quickly backed up by the media and by senior Liberal Party ministers, including prime minister Scott Morrison. The stated ground for opposing the protests was the health risk they posed. This was totally disingenuous, especially when pushed by the main proponents of lifting restrictions.
The police had received their lead. In Victoria, they announced that they would be fining protest organisers and attendees, something that they are yet to back down from. In Sydney, the Supreme Court banned the demonstration after an application from the police. Activists there are all too familiar with that kind of court ruling. It occurs more frequently to protests organised around the issue of racist police violence.
Thousands were prepared to defy the ban in Sydney, none more so than Leetona Dungay. Her son, David Dungay, was murdered by guards in Long Bay jail in 2015. The day before the rally, she confirmed to the media that it would be going ahead: “Black lives matter and we are not going to stop, we are going to march. We don’t care what an act of law says, because those acts of law are killing us. I’m marching for my son, and nothing is stopping me”. Twelve minutes before the official start of the rally, the courts overturned the ban, to the jubilation of the massive crowd that had already gathered, and to the dismay of the riot police, who were seen sullenly abandoning their posts when the news came through.
The defiance speaks to the scale and brutality of racism. As many placards declared: “racism is a pandemic”. In Australia, Aboriginal people are consistently the victims of extreme police violence. Since the 1991 Royal Commission into Black Deaths in Custody, there have been 432 more deaths. There have been zero convictions of the cops and guards who committed the murders. The slogan “You say justice, we say murder” – chanted as David Dungay’s family moved through a guard of honour to lead the Sydney rally – encapsulates the complicity of the entire political system in each of these racist murders.
But for the Dungay family and so many other grieving Aboriginal families, the rallies were also about resistance. Samara Fernandez-Brown, whose cousin Kumanjayi Walker was killed in Yuendumu in 2019, addressed the Adelaide rally: “The death of George Floyd has resurfaced a whole bunch of pain for my family and I. And a whole bunch of fight!”
Racism in Australia has many other victims. Muslims, who have been subjected to the racist “war on terror” for almost two decades, and Africans, who have become punching bags for the police and the media in recent years, made up a significant proportion of the rallies, clearly inspired by the struggle for justice for George Floyd. In Melbourne, refugees Moz Azimi and Farhad Bandush addressed the rally with a solidarity message, broadcast to us from their makeshift prison cell at the Mantra hotel in Preston – a spotlight on another racist atrocity committed by the Australian state. DyspOra (Gabriel Akon), a South Sudanese rapper and activist who grew up in refugee camps, spoke of the “freedom” he now experiences: “I’ve been a survivor all my life, so I was surprised when I came to Australia to find out I had to survive racism”.
Scott Morrison pleaded to protesters not to import “issues from America”. Kenya Matsebula, an African Australian socialist who spoke at a 3,000-strong rally in Canberra, responded to this with the simple truth: “The same system of racism is already here”. She argued that Morrison should make like Trump and find himself a bunker in Parliament House, in front of which the rally gathered. And, as if in rebuke to the claim that this house stands for democracy and progress, she said: “Real power is in the streets. It lies with the ordinary people who are resisting and fighting back against systemic racism”.
Her sentiment was echoed by the thousands of people who took to the streets. We felt powerful. Not only because we stopped traffic and took over the city, but because the people in their masses showed that there is enormous opposition to racism in Australia. To us, Black lives matter. In this we are connected to the protesters rising up in the United States, the heart of global capitalism. In this we are connected to the majority of Americans, who support the protests. In this we are connected to people the world over who have joined this movement. The claim that people do not care about racism does not hold up. We have the beginnings of a broad, multiracial movement of which solidarity is the beating heart. Everywhere people recognise the system of oppression that killed George Floyd, and everywhere we want to bring it down.