SYDNEY (AP) — Police arrested a leader of an anti-racism protest and shut down the demonstration before it started Tuesday after courts ruled the gathering in downtown Sydney was illegal due to the coronavirus pandemic threat.
Organizer Paddy Gibson was among six people arrested in a park known as The Domain before the rally was due to start at noon. Two police officers were photographed leading a defiant Gibson away.
Police outnumbered protesters. Officers told demonstrators to move on as they arrived and the area was cleared 15 minutes before the scheduled start.
New South Wales state Assistant Police Commissioner Mick Willing said five protesters were issued 1,000 Australian dollar ($710) fines for breaching pandemic crowd restrictions. Another protester was charged with using offensive language.
“We are not anti-the-right-to-protest. This is about public safety,” Willing said.
“We understand that the issues that are in question here are significant and are sensitive to a lot of people. However, we must do what we can to ensure that the public in general are safe at this time,” he added.
The rally attracted far fewer than the 5,000 who had registered online to attend. Willing estimated that “a few hundred” demonstrators had attended.
Gibson told Nine Network television hours earlier, “We all must be COVID-safe, but we need to stand together to … say that Black lives matter in Australia.”
Outdoor gatherings are limited to 20 people in New South Wales due to the pandemic. Gibson had organized the demonstration with the family of David Dungay, an Indigenous man who died in 2015 while being restrained in a Sydney prison after repeatedly saying, “I can’t breathe.”
The demonstrators have gathered more than 100,000 signatures on a petition calling for his prison guards to be charged.
Dungay’s mother, Leetona Dungay, attended the rally but avoided being arrested or fined. She delivered the petition to a minor Greens party lawmaker at state parliament after the rally failed.
“It was a bit scary, but we’ve succeeded,” she said of the police confrontation. “We showed them a sign that we weren’t going to give up.”
A New South Wales Supreme Court judge on Sunday accepted a police submission that the possibility of community transmission of COVID-19 made the demonstration too risky to proceed.
An appeals court on Monday dismissed the protesters’ challenge which contended the judge did not have the authority to prohibit the rally.
The court rulings increase the legal powers available to police to use against protesters.
New South Wales Premier Gladys Berejiklian warned that Sydney was at a critical point of the pandemic in which authorities were battling to contain several infection clusters through contact-tracing and testing.
“We’re appealing to people’s consciences to say now the law says you shouldn’t be out there, the pandemic and I think the ethical standards say you shouldn’t be out there, please think of a different way to express your views,” Berejiklian said before the rally was due to begin.