Seven police officers were injured during the protests, including two with suspected broken noses, one with a broken thumb, and others with concussion.
Police said they arrested 218 people, and three people were in custody for assaulting officers.
They said all those arrested would be fined $5452 for breaching the Chief Health Officer’s directions – totalling more than $1.18 million in fines. Officers also issued an additional 236 fines.
The protests, which have occurred throughout the pandemic, are organised by fringe online groups in encrypted chat groups. Those who attend were a mix of anti-vaxxers and conspiracy theorists, as well as families and business owners who are critical of lockdowns that result in income cuts and children being kept away from school.
The majority of protesters were maskless on Saturday.
The crowd played music, chanted “free Victoria” and “sack Dan Andrews”. In tense scenes, many protesters screamed “you work for us” and hurled abuse at police who blocked streets, thwarting the crowd a number of times as it snaked through the Hoddle Grid stopping traffic and public transport.
In other instances they called on the police to join them, urging them “stand with us, do it for your kids”.
Similar protests were organised in capital cities around the country on Saturday, including in locked-down Sydney where only about 250 people turned up and 47 were arrested.
One Melbourne protester, 30-year-old Chantelle Jurcic, said she joined the march because she had had enough of lockdowns.
“I started a business in February. I then had to get another job because my business turned to sh-t. I’m done with lies, I’m done with the manipulation, I’m done with the fear-mongering.”
Despite the large turnout, there were no clear leaders of the rally and protesters argued among themselves about tactics and directions.
The Victorian government derided the protests as a slap in the face to everyone working hard to beat coronavirus. They thanked the police officers who “put themselves in the line of fire”, and wished those who’d been injured a good recovery.
“Our hardworking police officers have far more important work to be getting on with – it’s outrageous they had to waste so much time and resources dealing with people who don’t think the rules apply to them,” a government spokeswoman said.
One Victorian emergency physician, Stephen Parnis, said any injured protesters who needed treatment in hospital would be adding to an already strained medical system.
Dr Parnis, a former vice president of the AMA, used his Twitter account to remind people that the injuries from the protests would be treated by the same “overworked, stressed” emergency doctors and nurses who were working through yet another COVID-19 outbreak.
“We’ll provide care. We always do,” Dr Parnis said.
“But I’m disgusted with the few who assume we’ll always be able to pick up the pieces, while they do everything in their power to make a bad situation worse. #Covid19Vic Health services are a precious, finite resource. Please protect them.”
Victoria Police Chief Commissioner Shane Patton said on Saturday morning that 700 officers had been deployed to the rally. Officers were deployed on foot and horseback, including the riot squad.
“No one should be protesting at this time. Every protester who we can identify and who we can apprehend will receive a $5500 fine. It’s just ridiculous to think that people would be so selfish and come and do this,” said Chief Commissioner Patton.
It comes about a month after thousands of men, women and even some children flooded the CBD for a three-hour, mask-free rally that ended in six arrests and 74 infringement notices.
Our Breaking News Alert will notify you of significant breaking news when it happens. Get it here.