The organisers of Black Lives Matters protests in Belfast and Derry could face prosecution after rallies went ahead on Saturday despite warnings from police, politicians and health officials in Northern Ireland that mass gatherings were in breach of coronavirus legislation.
The Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) said a "significant number" of community resolution notices and fines were issued at protests in Belfast and Derry.
“A number of individuals, including organisers, will now be reported to the Public Prosecution Service with a view to prosecution,” said Assistant Chief Constable Alan Todd. “We will also conduct follow up inquiries to seek to identify others who may have committed offences.”
Protests planned for Newry, Omagh and Portadown were cancelled, and the PSNI said in Newry a small crowd gathered but "dispersed on our request".
In Derry, around a thousand people, the majority wearing face masks, gathered in Guildhall Square for the protest on Saturday afternoon. Face masks, gloves and hand sanitiser were provided by the organisers.
There was a significant police presence, and police officers stopped people on their way into the square and reminded them of the legislation and social distancing guidelines.
The organiser, Lilian Seenoi-Barr of the Northwest Migrants Forum, said they had demonstrated it was possible to hold a protest safely.
“Racism is a pandemic, racism has cost lives, racism is a health pandemic also,” she said, “so we are here to protect people, we are here to protect our lives from two different pandemics. We can’t choose one above the other.
“Everybody has been responsible. They have used gloves, they have used sanitisers, we’ve provided them because we promised people that at the heart of us organising this today was the health and safety of everybody. I am delighted that every one [of the protesters] is wearing a mask.”
The protesters chanted "black lives matter" and "I can't breathe" – the final words of George Floyd, the African-American man who was killed on May 25th while in police custody in Minneapolis. He died after a white police officer held him down by pressing a knee into his neck, sparking days of protest.
The crowd also knelt for eight minutes and 46 seconds, the length of time the policeman kept his knee on Mr Floyd’s neck.
Ms Seenoi-Barr said Mr Floyd’s death “has shocked the world, but we must not believe that this is only a US problem.
“We are also here because we demand change in Ireland. We are tired of [having] our boys stopped in the street, harassed, because they are black. We are tired of not having a voice, and we are tired of being intimidated.
“So for everyone who is out there today, you are here because you care, you are here because you believe that black lives matter.
“You are here risking your own lives for my life, and I want to thank you from the bottom of my heart for defying every threat and coming here to fight for us.”
Assistant Chief Constable Todd said that “in other times, we would have been working with the organisers and protesters to facilitate a lawful and peaceful protest to mark the avoidable and unnecessary death of George Floyd, however, these are not ordinary times.
“The Health Protection Regulations are in place to protect us all during this pandemic and it is everyone’s responsibility to adhere to them to protect our society.”