Thousands of anti-lockdown activists marched through major Australian cities on Saturday, following an extension of Covid-19 restrictions. Multiple people were arrested and dozens charged with offenses after brawls broke out.
Protesters chanted “Freedom” as they descended on downtown Sydney without wearing masks. They blocked traffic and walked through Haymarket, a suburb that was labeled a coronavirus hotspot by New South Wales’ (NSW) top health official, Jeremy McAnulty.
NSW police declared the gathering illegal due to Covid-19 regulations that bar people from different households getting together.
Scuffles broke out after mounted police and officers on foot were deployed to disperse the crowd.
Australian media reported that some threw items at the officers and pepper spray was used against the protesters. Several demonstrators were pinned to the ground during arrests. One activist was filmed performing tricks with fire batons in front of a crowd.
NSW Police Minister David Elliott said 57 were charged, some of them with multiple offenses, and more than 90 infringement notices were issued.
“What we saw today was 3,500 very selfish boofheads – people that thought the law didn’t apply to them,” Elliott said, urging all participants to get tested for Covid-19. He added that blatant disregard for quarantine rules would only prolong the lockdown.
The minister announced that a strike force of 22 detectives had been set up to identify and track down people attending Saturday’s rally.
Similar protests were held in Melbourne, where flares were lit outside Parliament House and arrests were made, and also in Brisbane. The rallies included anti-vaccination activists.
The strict lockdowns in Greater Sydney and the state of Victoria were recently extended until July 30 and July 27 respectively, after the situation regarding coronavirus cases failed to improve. On Friday, NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian described the outbreak of the more contagious Delta variant as a “national emergency.”
New South Wales, which includes Sydney, reported 163 locally transmitted cases on Saturday, marking a new daily record. Victoria, where Melbourne is located, registered 12 locally transmitted cases.
As with previous public gatherings, officials actively tried to discourage people from rallying during the pandemic. Australian Health Minister Brad Hazzard said anyone attending anti-lockdown protests was “really silly.”
“At the present time, we’ve got cases going through the roof, and we have people thinking that it’s OK to get out there and possibly be close to each other at a demonstration,” he said.