By ALLISON HORE
Protesters took over Oxford Street on Saturday, ahead of the Mardi Gras parade, in an effort to put the politics back in pride.
Despite police threats to shut down the protest earlier in the week, at around 2pm hundreds of protesters carrying pride flags of all sorts descended onto Taylor Square, the center of Sydney’s LGBTQI+ community.
The rally was organised by activist group Pride in Protest, who have long lamented the “pink washing” and “sanitisation” of Mardi Gras. They estimate up to 3,000 people showed up for the protest, but more conservative guesses have the group closer to 1,000 people.
Among the issues the protesters hoped to draw attention to are a One Nation education bill which would outlaw mention of gender diversity in schools, treatment of LGBTQI+ refugees in Australian detention, the rights of sex workers and Indigenous deaths in custody.
The crowd assembled in Taylor Square heard from a diverse range of LGBTQI+ speakers including Indigenous people, refugees, sex workers and politicians. Mark Gillespie, a 78er, also spoke at the rally. He said the crowd turning out, despite police threats to fight for justice, gave him hope for the future.
“I’m going to get a little emotional because as I stand here on this occasion I am recalling the first Mardi Gras,” he told the crowd.
“Those of us who were active politically in the 60s and 70s, like me, we had an energy and we knew where it came from. I remember that night where we broke through the cordon of police, and we called out ‘off to the cross’, I remember what was fuelling us was- and I think it’s fuelling you today- is this desire for justice.”
Police oppose the march
In the lead up to the protest, organisers say NSW police had formally opposed the protest citing coronavirus concerns and public health orders, despite NSW seeing zero COVID-19 transmissions for over a month. 36,000 people were also set to descend upon the Sydney Cricket Ground for the official event later that same evening. Protest organisers called the double standard “hypocritical”.
However, widespread backlash from the LGBTQI+ community, Labor and Greens politicians and human rights organisations led NSW Health to grant the demonstration an exemption from the public health order limiting Sydney protests to 500 people.
This is the first such exemption that has been granted by NSW Health, Health Minister Brad Hazzard refused to give an exemption to an Invasion Day rally in Sydney in January. Pride in Protest touted the decision as a win for the right to protest in the state, but said the exemption didn’t really address the root of the issue which is the “over policing” of Mardi Gras.
“This is a massive win for not only the right to protest but for the queer community to say that the fight against transphobia and homophobia cannot wait,” they said in a statement.
“The police will not stand in the way of our community demanding our rights this Mardi Gras.”
Putting politics back in pride
The official parade had a sprinkling of political messages. The First Nations group leading the parade themed their entry “Black Lives Matter”. Members of protest group Extinction Rebellion made a showing, carrying an effigy of Gladys Berejiklian behind jail bars labelled “koala killer”- a reference to a controversial planning policy.
The NSW Police float was also briefly held up by political satire group, the Department of Homo Affairs, who fittingly dressed as cricket umpires and stood in the path of the marching officers holding a “Cops Out- HOWZAAAT!!!” banner. The four members of the group were each slapped with $165 fines for their stunt.
But compared to the radical origins of Mardi Gras, the official parade was mostly sanitised and corporate-friendly. Speaking in front of protesters on Saturday afternoon April Holcombe, from Community Action for Rainbow Rights, said it’s important these radical origins of pride are recognised and honoured.
“Mardi Gras, the original Mardi Gras, was a protest. Stonewall was a riot. And that’s how we can be where we are today, but we still have so far to go and we need to remember that,” she said.
“It was protest, it was mass action that got us to where we are today, and it’s going to be protest and mass action that gets us the rest of the way.”
Following the speeches at Taylor Square, the protesters took to the streets, marching down Oxford Street towards Hyde Park. Leading the way for marchers was a group of activists carrying a huge pink, white and blue transgender pride flag. Organisers say it’s the largest trans pride flag in Australia.
When protesters reached the intersection between Oxford, College and Wentworth Streets they came to a halt in an attempt to prolong the group’s occupation of the street. Police issued formal move on orders to the protesters at the front of the procession, and they continued into Hyde Park. There, organisers thanked the attendees for coming along and sending a strong message that politics belongs at pride.
“We have made sure that pride has taken over the streets, that there has been a real mardi gras,” said Evan Gray, a member of the organising team and spokesperson for Pride in Protest.
“The police came out in force, but we beat them in the courts and the streets. It’s not the police that keeps us safe, it’s the community – we can do anything when we unite together,” Pride in Protest said on Facebook.
At the mardi gras march protesters move out of Taylor Square and onto Oxford Street. Quite a large group gathering after the event was granted an exemption from public health orders yesterday. pic.twitter.com/LOzVhhbFlo
— Allison Hore (@AllisonM_H) March 6, 2021