Why Aussie BLM protests must happen

They've been labelled "selfish", "reckless" and "appalling" but Australian Black Lives Matter protesters are finally getting national attention and if their momentum is lost now it would almost be disrespectful of their efforts thus far.

When Australians talk about Black Lives Matter, their viewpoint is usually the same - "Of course they matter, but protest later, not in the middle of a pandemic!"

But where is the evidence these protests - which are done with COVID safety at the forefront - have triggered any outbreaks?

Victoria's Health Department denied its state's second wave of coronavirus had been triggered by protests.

Six people who attended Melbourne's largest Black Lives Matter protest in June later tested positive for coronavirus however a department spokesperson admitted "currently, no known nor suspected episodes of transmission occurred at the protest itself".

Our politicians have done an incredible job during the coronavirus pandemic and have been praised around the world for taking a step back from the podium and allowing the experts and doctors to take the reins.

So why aren't our politicians embracing the evidence now? The evidence that there's been zero coronavirus outbreaks from Black Lives Matter protests.

Or even the advice that when Australians aren't able to social distance, they should wear a mask and maintain hand hygiene - exactly what protesters have promised to do.

It's wild to think that it took the footage of an African American man being suffocated to death by a white police officer on the other side of the world to trigger widespread interest here.

It's tragic because Australia had its own George Floyd more than four years ago.

The horrific footage of Mr Floyd, which showed him begging for his life and telling the police officer more than 20 times that he couldn't breathe, rightfully triggered global outrage.

But for the family of David Dungay Jr, an Aboriginal Australian who died in December 2015 after six prison guards stormed his cell and piled on top of him, it was another harrowing reminder that their son and brother was still waiting on justice.

And while the US burned and millions protested in the streets - despite the massive coronavirus risk - Mr Dungay's family were left questioning, "where's our outrage?"

Mr Dungay cried "I can't breathe" more than a dozen times in the last nine minutes of his life in a situation heartbreakingly similar to Mr Floyd's final moments.

A coronial inquest in 2019 found the cell raid was unnecessary and not properly authorised, but no one has been held accountable.

Next week, on July 28, Mr Dungay's family will march a petition of more than 90,000 signatures to the NSW parliament, calling for charges be laid.

But how has a group of 1300 people, promising to wear masks and keep their hands drenched in hand sanitiser, peacefully walking less than two kilometres up to Parliament House in Sydney found itself featured so heavily in the nation's discussion this week?

Because of the coronavirus crisis of course.

Even though health authorities are yet to prove a single link between coronavirus outbreaks and Black Lives Matter protests - even when tens of thousands of people crowded together around Australia's capital cities in June.

Even though millions of Australians are more than happy to pack themselves into shopping centres, pubs and grocery stores every day.

So let's look at some facts.

Since the coronavirus crisis started in March, dozens of restaurants, shopping centres and pubs have become the centre of virus outbreaks, triggering frantic detective work from health authorities to stop the illness from spreading.

Take the most recent example - the Crossroads Hotel in south western Sydney where one Melbourne man attended a party with mates and quickly spread the virus to more than 50 people.

In relative numbers, a protest of 1300 people, with another 4000 interested in attending, is quite small for a city protest.

You'd be hard-pressed to find a protest that's garnered so much national attention in the past year.

The prime minister has addressed the protest numerous times, NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian is asked about it almost every day and NSW Police Commissioner Mick Fuller has also lashed the protest and will take the organisers to the Supreme Court today in a bid to stop it.

Organiser Paddy Gibson has also been doing the rounds on breakfast TV.

But as Mr Gibson told Today yesterday - "It has to happen right now because the world is finally listening … Timing is everything in politics. It is absolutely crucial".

Isn't the whole point of protesting to be disruptive? To get attention for your cause? To stir something up in people and lead them to debate?

Black Lives Matter protesters would no doubt argue now is the perfect time and they'd also argue they can keep it COVID-safe.

So perhaps all the "controversy" around their protest is less related to the risk of community transmission and people wanting to silence this issue.

Attending Sydney's Black Lives Matter protest myself in June, it was incredible to see how seriously everyone was taking coronavirus.

Attendees scoured the crowd looking for people not wearing masks, immediately offering them one for free, and organisers lined the streets with huge bottles of hand sanitiser, eagerly pumping it into everyone's hands.

Have you headed to a shopping centre recently? Have you seen the half-hearted attempts to get you to sanitise on your way in? Or the people who seem to have given up on social distancing and queue directly behind you, breathing down your neck? Or the very few people wearing a mask?

Even take the stunning revelation from Premier Dan Andrews on Wednesday, who said one in two Victorians were still going about their business while waiting for their coronavirus test results.

And 3810 people who had been tested between July 7 and July 21, about 90 per cent did not isolate between the first onset of symptoms and getting tested, Mr Andrews.

"Fifty-three per cent of people are continuing to go shopping, continuing to go to work, continuing to do all sorts of things even though they've got symptoms, they feel sick, sick enough to get a test, and then, somehow, are not willing to stay at home and wait - on average - a couple of days, and sometimes sooner - to get the results of that test."

"We can't have, any longer, nine out of 10 people taking too long between when they first feel sick and when they get tested.

"And we certainly cannot have 1 in 2 people who are waiting for a test result simply going about their business as if they didn't have symptoms, as if they weren't waiting for a test result, as if this wasn't a global pandemic. We just can't have that any longer."

Premier Dan Andrews said thousands of Victorians are still going out even when they’re waiting to hear if they’ve tested positive for coronavirus. Picture: David Crosling
Premier Dan Andrews said thousands of Victorians are still going out even when they’re waiting to hear if they’ve tested positive for coronavirus. Picture: David Crosling


Victoria is doing an average of 20,000 to 25,000 tests a day meaning thousands of people in the coronavirus-riddled state are not only ignoring the government, they're also doing it when their health is obviously bad enough or they've done something that would warrant a coronavirus test in the first place.

And yes, Victoria Police are working hard to stop these people from doing this but where's the outrage?

Or are they saving their energy for their crowded Sunday shop so they can then head home and log on to rant about an event that has less than 5000 people interested in it?

An event, mind you, that's about half the size of that group of Victorians Mr Andrews mentioned who are still wandering Melbourne while they wait for their coronavirus test results.

As organiser Mr Gibson put it this week, Black Lives Matter protesters don't have the luxury of waiting for the "right time".

"I do understand people would be concerned. I was at the markets on the weekend where hundreds, if not thousands, of people went through the markets," Mr Gibson told Today.

Paddy Gibson believes now is the perfect time. Picture: Jonathan Ng
Paddy Gibson believes now is the perfect time. Picture: Jonathan Ng


"I can tell you now that our protests are far better organised and with better attention to COVID safety than what I saw at the markets with people piled on top of each other, no hand sanitiser everywhere and very few masks.

"Everyone will have a mask at the rally and we will have hand sanitiser and we can spread out far more safely than people in shopping centres."

"There isn't one example of transmission at a protest in the last few months and I've been to many protests in this period of time, not one.

"But there is plenty of transmission that's happened in shopping centres. None of them have been closed down.

"We say this is a double standard. We say if we are allowed to space out, it will be far safer to be on the streets with our critical message, end the mass incarceration of Aboriginal people, deliver justice for the people that have been killed. We want to see charges laid.

"This is a very important demand and we believe we can do it safely if it is facilitated."

Originally published as Why Aussie BLM protests must happen