The mood at Melbourne’s Black Lives Matter protest was at times mournful and often angry.

Many speakers told the crowd – which stretched a block in each direction – that Australia had a shameful history that continued to this day – pointing to the 434 First Nations people who have died in police custody since the 1991 royal commission.

Worse though was that it had taken the tragic death of an African American man, George Floyd, to draw attention to the plight of Indigenous Australians in this country.

“It’s the same story on different soil,” Ky-ya Nicholson-Ward, 17, said of what has been happening in the US and in her own country.

The speakers, who included family members of Indigenous people who had died in custody or from police actions such as Tanya Day and Kumanjayi Walker, led chants including “We can’t breathe” and “Black lives matter”. Another chant involved those at the rally hitting their chests in unison to create the sound of a heartbeat.

Warren Day, the son of Tanya, said: “It took George Floyd, an African American man, to put the spotlight on Australia’s shame.

“Four-hundred and thirty-two Aboriginal deaths in custody since 1991 and still no convictions.

“We need change and it needs to start happening now,” he added.

Those in the crowd, easily in the tens of thousands, almost all wore masks but struggled to social distance close to the stage. They carried placards with messages such as “We hear you”, “Racism is a pandemic” and “Fuck the police”.

One of the organisers, Meriki Onus, said it was one of the largest protests she had seen in the city, including the massive Invasion Day rallies that have grown in size each 26 January.

When African Australian artist Sampa The Great took to the stage to perform two songs with her younger sister, the rally briefly began to move as one. Some danced. Black lives matter, she said, “because I woke up black today, and I’m going to wake up black tomorrow”.

With that, the crowd turned on its heels and marched away from Parliament House.

Melbourne’s Black Lives Matter rally heard from the families of Tanya Day and Kumanjayi Walker, who died in custody

Melbourne’s Black Lives Matter rally heard from the families of Tanya Day and Kumanjayi Walker, who died in custody. Photograph: Quinn Rooney/Getty Images

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