By ALLISON HORE
Despite being threatened by fines and arrests, thousands of protesters turned up in The Domain for an unauthorised Invasion Day rally.
Undeterred by COVID-19 public health orders restricting the number of people allowed to attend protest gatherings and police threats to enforce said restrictions, Sydney’s annual Invasion Day protest went ahead with a large showing.
The day before the protest, NSW Police Assistant Commissioner Mick Willing made it clear the protest was not authorised and warned attendees that officers would be enforcing the public health orders. Protest organisers did not back down and told allies to come along anyway.
“The stand from the NSW police may be a little intimidating, but I suppose if people put themselves in the shoes of a black person that lives in the colony every single day this is just what we face,” protest organiser Tameeka Tighe said in an interview on Triple J the night before the protest.
As promised the protest went ahead and before the protest’s 9am start time a large group of people were already gathering in the Domain, known as Djarrbarrgalli in the local Indigenous language.
Faced with an ever growing crowd, police negotiated with organisers to allow protesters to stay in the Domain. The attendees, which numbered up to 3,000, were allowed to stay and listen to the speeches provided they split up into socially distanced groups of less than 500 people.
As a trade off, rally organisers agreed not to go ahead with the planned march to Prince Alfred Park.
Throughout the morning, over 100 volunteer COVID-19 marshalls directed protesters to different parts of the Domain under police supervision, so social distancing could be maintained. Marshalls also had masks and hand sanitiser on hand as well as a QR code for attendees to register for contact tracing.
Following a performance by Indigenous musicians, the crowd at the Domain dispersed in a peaceful manner at the request of protest organisers. Police officers issued a formal warning regarding the COVID-19 public health regulations to both organisers and attendees.
Despite the protest being peaceful, a number of arrests were made on the day.
During the Djarrbarrgalli gathering one 18-year-old man was arrested for breaching the peace. Legal observers on the day told City Hub they believed the man was a counter protester and he was spotted shouting racial slurs. NSW Police confirmed the man was not part of the Invasion Day gathering and said no other issues arose at the main protest.
Following the crowd dispersing from the Domain, a clash between police and protesters occurred when a small contingent moved to nearby Hyde Park to attempt a march. Four protesters were arrested during the confrontation.
NSW police say two of the people they will be charged with COVID-19 breaches, one will be charged with hindering police and another will be charged with assaulting an officer.
Overall Commissioner Willing said he was “pleased” with how the protest turned out and he thanked organisers for their efforts in ensuring the morning went ahead in a COVID-19 safe way.
“I think at the end of the day, people were able to express their views, get in and out of that protest zone as safely as possible and move on,” he told reporters.
“Let me tell you, these are difficult things to police […] I think that the protest organisers abided by the agreement, police facilitated as best they possibly could to ensure that people were in groups of less than 500 and distanced.”
Chants of “always was, always will be, Aboriginal land” and “too many coppers, not enough justice” could be heard throughout the Domain. Protesters called for Australia Day to be abolished, justice for First Nations people who have died in custody and for reforms to address Indigenous over-representation in prisons.
Elizabeth Jarrett, a Gumbaynggirr, Bundjalung and Dunghutti woman, who helped to organise the rally said the oppression faced by Indigenous people has not been put on hold by the pandemic, so nor too should their calls for action.
“Unlike COVID, the virus of colonial racism that came to these lands in 1788 can not be defeated by self-isolation or quarantine. We need to come together and fight back,” she said.
“Throughout the pandemic our people are still being locked up and killed and our children are being taken at ever increasing rates. We will not stop until our sovereignty is recognised and we see justice.”
Over 400 Indigenous people have died in police custody across the nation since the 1991 royal commission into deaths in custody. Not one person has ever been convicted.
Greens MLC David Shoebridge told the crowd as a result of the Black Lives Matter rallies around Australia last year, a motion to investigate the Indigenous incarceration rate and Indigenous deaths in custody had been tabled in the NSW parliament.
“I look around this crowd and I see circles of decency,” he said.
Sydney’s Lord Mayor Clover Moore was not at the rally, but she took to social media to say celebrating Australia day on the 26th of January is insensitive and “a total denial of… invasion and its consequences.” She said she looks forward to a day when the government takes meaningful action to address the consequences of invasion on Indigenous people.
“For many in our community today is not a day of celebration, but survival,” she said.
“We cannot erase our history and nor should we attempt to. But a society that embraces all Australians must be based on truth-telling and respect.”
According to an Ipsos poll for Nine News 47 percent of people between the ages of 18 and 24 voted in favour of changing the date of “Australia Day,” while only 19 percent of those aged over the age of 55 agreed.