I’ll admit that I cannot speak for any BLM protestors or organisers in the United States as I am not in that country and haven’t been following that country’s news too much. I have, however, taken part in the peaceful BLM marches in Osaka and Kyoto and can cite from their Twitter accounts. Obviously, individual motivations will all be different and Japan is not the United States but at the same time, I believe that some common trends can be noticed and mentioned.
However, before I get into the statements of organisers, I would like to focus on one particular quote from your question that, in my opinion, is fallacious:
I'm genuinely curious what the rationale is for supporting the mass gatherings and protesting following the death of George Floyd, despite previously having supported the social distancing during the pandemic. While I understand these people feel strongly about racism and police brutality, they also felt strongly about the pandemic.
You used despite, implying that it is not possible to agree with both statements at the same time and you also used the past tense felt when talking about the pandemic. This is a false dichotomy. It is possible to feel strongly about racism and police brutality while also feeling strongly about the pandemic and it is obviously also possible to feel strongly about neither of the two. The key thought that many organisers of protests* will have had – and which were certainly present in the minds of those organising in Osaka and Kyoto – is how to organise a protest without exposing the participants to the dangers of infection with SARS-CoV-2.
Black Lives Matter Kansai originally expected their Osaka march to be joined by around 200 people and received permission by officials and police to do so. However, it became clear that many more people wished to join so they re-negotiated with the police and city and also received permission to have a greater crowd under a number of conditions. Thereafter, they tweeted out the following on their official Twitter account (@blmkansai):
BLM Kansai did not expect such a positive response from the public. We originally planned for around 200 people. However, we are now making arrangements to accomodate for more working within guidelines for public health as the number of marchers increases. We have spoken to the city of Osaka and the police and have gained authorization from authorities to hold marches in groups of 200. Every 200 marchers will be separated by a designated organiser. We have been instructed to separate every group of 200 people by 50 meters.
We will announce and ask participants to social distance by marching with the people in their household, keeping 2 meters distance from other fellow marchers beside them. The use of umbrellas and parasols helps keeps [sic!] social distancing constant as we walk together. To prevent the risk of infection, we are requiring all marchers to wear masks and gloves. Protective eyewear is also encouraged. Thank you for your understanding.
I think the above statement clearly shows that BLM Kansai feels strongly about both the pandemic and racism and police brutality because during their marches for awareness against the latter they clearly established guidelines to prevent the spread of the former.
The same can be said for Black Lives Matter Kyoto whose march was exactly two weeks later. They tweeted out the following messages:
If you are attending the march this Sunday, please wear a mask, practice social distancing (1-2m/6ft), and do not attend if you are feeling sick. We are still worried about corona virus and trying to make the march safe for everyone. (source)
- Wear a mask and maintain a social distance
If you have experienced COVID-19 symptoms or are at risk infecting someone who is immunocomprimised, do not attend.
In addition, I recall a Tweet (but cannot locate it by briefly skimming across the official BLM Kyoto account) effectively stating that there were exactly two weeks between the marches in Osaka and Kyoto so if you attended Osaka’s and didn’t fall ill you can attend Kyoto’s as you would be past the officially recommended quarantine period.
Of course, you might argue how they would enforce mask-wearing etc. among such a large group of people. As I mentioned, I participated. I saw many people gathering at Maruyama Park in Kyoto or Nakanoshima in Osaka, most of whom were already wearing masks before they arrived. In addition,** the organisers in Kyoto
- provided masks
- made sure that the participants marched in three lines when leaving the gathering area
- made everyone disinfect their hands when leaving Maruyama Park
- and made everyone register with Kyoto city’s official Covid-19 contact tracing QR code*** to facilitate contact tracing if somebody was found to be infected after the march
I tweeted out the above just after the march ended.
* Obviously, there are only organisers if a protest has been organised and planned on a scale before it happened. I gather that many protests in the United States were unorganised, spontaneous gatherings for which there will never be a clear group of organisers and for which no such conscious prior considerations could be made.
** I have to restrict the following remarks to Kyoto only. I think they had masks on-site to deal out in Osaka in case someone forgot theirs but I didn’t make note when the memory was fresh because it only became a question 10 days later so I may be subject to selective memory. In Kyoto, I did pay attention and tweeted about it just after the march ended.
*** This is really just a registration with Kyoto city that you (with email address) were at this gathering. In case of somebody being infected, the local public health office would establish that they had joined the march and then use the list of emails to alert all other participants, as far as I understood.