This side of history

When it was announced last week that there would be rallies this weekend in support of Black Lives Matter, my first instinct was supportive, but then I wondered about it in context of the pandemic and social distancing.

That’s the conundrum state governments faced leading into the weekend. We’re still under strict social distancing protocols, and it’s been drummed into us, again and again, the dangers of a second wave. Around the country, the state authorities took different attitudes, with the PM also weighing in.

In Queensland and SA there was an acceptance of the cause. In the two biggest states, Victoria and NSW, there was more angst. In NSW there was a court injunction to declare the protests illegal, later overturned. In Victoria, a more progressive state, there were warnings and threats of potential arrests for breaching protocols, but there was no effort to prevent the rallies.

By this time, I was well onside. I’d reflected and on balance considered the risk worth taking, though I know many who take the same view. The time is now, history can’t wait for the moment, and the cause worthy. My only concern was the rallies might in some way turn violent, which would undermine the whole message.

As it turns out, the rallies were almost a complete success. Around the country, hundreds of thousands of Australians rallied in support of the cause, both in the US and here as well, where it’s nearly as bad. Almost completely, the rallies were free from violence, and very few arrests made. Again, except for distinct exceptions, the police and the protestors were well behaved. In fact, it seemed awfully well organised, with just about everyone attending wearing a mask and attempting to maintain a social distance. Masks were handed out and sanitation stations setup. I’d call it a complete success but for one awful incident that marred the occasion.

In Sydney, after the march had finished and protestors were heading home, and without any sense or logic, a contingent of the NSW police chose to pen a group of protestors in Central Station, where they attacked them with pepper spray.

This is inexplicable and wrong on so many levels I don’t know where to start. What was the point of this? The rally was over, the protestors were heading home. And why would you choose to do this on such an occasion? The rallies around the world were sparked by the death of George Floyd, and the litany of police brutality that preceded it. Why prove the point on such a day? All of that is putting aside the morality of the act. The police are meant to protect, not provoke and attack.

In the scheme of things, it was a small act – a few dozen police, a few less protestors – but it appeared planned. Media were prevented from entering the station to witness the attack – we have phone footage to thank for the pictures we have. Paddy wagons were lined up. Was this an independent act of retribution? Were the police slighted by the rallies and chose to show who was boss? Any way you look at it, it’s insane and immoral. I’ll be interested to see what the fall-out is if any. There’s enough to go on in the footage to charge some officers.

If it was to happen anywhere, then it’s no surprise that it’s NSW. The police minister, who has a history of brutal opinion, should have been fired after the bushfires fiasco when he didn’t do his job. That never happened, which attests to the weakness of Berejiklian, who is unimpressive and defensive in so many ways.

In the rest of the country, there was barely a murmur. Some state governments actually praised the conduct of the rallies, and sprinkled here and there police officers took the knee in support.

I’d have preferred if Dan Andrews came out more strongly in support of the protests, though it’s hard for him given his hardline on restrictions. It’s the right side of history. As it turned out, the Victorian police arrested no-one and issued no fines, despite their threats to do so. They’ve since come out and said they’d fine the organisers, which is a token and meaningless gesture. I don’t expect that to happen, nor should it.

I hope these rallies resonate and things change. That’s the point of them.

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