Tens of thousands of people were planning to gather across Australia this weekend to protest the treatment of Indigenous people in police custody and to show solidarity with U.S. demonstrations calling for racial justice.
Chanting "black lives matter," hundreds of protesters filled Garema Place, in the capital, Canberra, Friday morning. But much larger protests were being planned for Saturday in Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Adelaide and Perth.
In Sydney, officials secured a state Supreme Court order banning a mass rally there, citing concern over the spread of COVID-19.
Organizers said the rallies were meant to show solidarity with demonstrations in the U.S. following the death of George Floyd in police custody, and "institutionalized racism that Indigenous people face in Australia," the Canberra Times reported.
The demonstrations follow similar protests in U.S. cities as well as an incident this week in Sydney involving police arresting an Indigenous teenager.
An officer was filmed kicking the 16-year-old's feet from beneath him as he put the youth on the ground. The teenager, who by law cannot be identified, was arrested but later released without charge. He was treated and released from a hospital with minor injuries.
The police commissioner for New South Wales, the state where Sydney is located, later said the arresting officer in the incident "had a bad day."
On Friday, police in New South Wales argued at the state Supreme Court for an injunction to prevent Saturday's planned rally there, where authorities say they are expecting in excess of 10,000 people. NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian has declared the Sydney demonstration "illegal," because of the need to maintain social distancing to prevent the spread of the new coronavirus.
A barrister representing the protesters argued that people who defy the ban would be at increased risk for coronavirus infection as police "corral and push" them in an effort to enforce stop the protest.
But NSW Supreme Court Justice Desmond Fagan, in announcing his decision in favor of the ban, said social distancing measures had stopped the spread of COVID-19 in Australia and that allowing the protest to go forward at this time is "an unreasonable proposition."
On Friday, Berejiklian denied she had ever given a "green light" to the protest, which has grown in the number of people expected to attend in recent days. She said her decision to declare the demonstration illegal "was because the protesters could not guarantee adherence to the health orders."
In Melbourne, which could prove the largest of the weekend rallies, police said they were prepared to fine organizers if health code violations were observed.
"It is our strong preference that the [Melbourne] protest does not occur at this time, while the restrictions in relation to public gatherings remain in place," the Victoria state police said in a statement. "If it is to proceed then it must be conducted in a manner which does not breach the chief health officer directions."
The state's chief health officer, Brett Sutton, warned: "We are still in the middle of a pandemic and this protest carries real risks for all Victorians, particularly those in vulnerable groups."
Earlier this week, Prime Minister Scott Morrison had warned against "importing the things that are happening overseas to Australia" after protesters had gathered in Sydney to denounce the killing of Floyd.
Apparently alluding to the deaths of hundreds of aboriginal people and Torres Strait Islanders in police custody in recent decades, which have helped spur on the protests, in an interview with Australia's ABC radio on Thursday, Morrison acknowledged that while his country had problems "in this space," that "we don't need to draw equivalence here."
Australia's health minister, Greg Hunt, said the weekend's protests could prove "doubly dangerous" for Indigenous people, who he noted "have higher comorbidities, lower life expectancy."
"There may well be many people associated with [Indigenous] Australia and if they attend a mass gathering, they then risk taking that back to their elders and their elderly," he said.