Last Monday, about 2,000 Perth-goers participated in the first of several Black Lives Matter protests that took place in Australia over the week. The demonstration sought to express solidarity with Black Lives Matter protesters in the US and around the world, contributing to a collective call for action against racially-motivated police brutality. It’s organiser, 19-year-old Aboriginal woman and activist Tanesha Bennell, also emphasised its intention to raise awareness for the Indigenous lives lost in police custody across Australia.
Since the murder of George Floyd on the 25th of May in Minneapolis, Minnesota USA, outrage over the criminalisation and brutalisation of black bodies has dominated discourse on social media. In Australia, this has inspired the widespread circulation of information detailing Indigenous deaths in custody, in relation to which not a single offending officer has been convicted. Donations to GoFundMe pages dedicated to assisting Indigenous individuals affected by these issues have grown exponentially. Bennell’s protest, which was led by fellow activists and Aboriginal elders in Perth’s CBD, will be followed by another on Saturday the 13th of June.
Like many Australians, it didn’t take the death of an Indigenous person – or any of the 437 deaths that have been recorded since 1991, for that matter – to capture my sustained, unmediated attention. Despite my degree being adjacent to the social sciences, despite my self-conceptualisation as a relatively reflexive, sympathetic and political person, I had, prior to this week, been complicit in the continued minimisation and mishandling of Indigenous issues. The Black Lives Matter movement is, of course, not about me at all, but I want to clarify that I am not speaking from a place of moral superiority. I am writing this article because, while I cannot speak for the black experience, I can say something for the white one. I know what it means to be complacent in the face of a system that benefits you.
In discussing this country’s relationship with racial discrimination, there is nothing I can say that will be new to First Nations Australians. Instead, I want to address non-Indigenous readers, white or otherwise, who have been inactive, ineffective anti-racists in the past. I am reaching out with the intent to educate, inspire critical thinking and contribute to the conversation around affective allyship that is crucial in moving forward.
As non-Indigenous Australians, many of us distance ourselves from the United States, from police officers and from racism itself. We like to imagine that British settlement in Australia wasn’t implemented through the murder and enslavement of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders. We like to pretend that instances of police brutality don’t reflect the same socialised and institutionalised racism that informs all corners of our society. We reflexively deny any affiliation with racism as if we are immune to all conscious or unconscious racial biases. We disassociate – a self-serving and unproductive practice that we perform in order to appear unproblematic or alleviate our white guilt.
If we confront the anti-blackness inherent in our history, our society and our thoughts, we can see the reason that police brutality exists. The colonial pursuit of control over the Indigenous population has been historically enabled by violent incarceration. Disregard for Indigenous lives is fuelled by the deep-rooted demonisation of Indigenous people, whose deaths are seen as the inevitable result of their “immoral” actions. The establishment of the Aboriginal-only Wadjemup (Rottnest Island) Prison, which is Australia’s largest deaths in custody site, occurred under the pretence of “improving” Aboriginal communities. The Native Police, which operated in NSW and Queensland between 1837-1905 (approx.), protected colonial interests by recruiting young Aboriginal officers to kill their own people. Such practices saw Indigenous Australians as lawless and savage, justifying their murder and incarceration as methods of solving or “civilising” their blackness**. We can see such ideas persist well into the 1900s, where Indigenous Australians were categorised as “flora and fauna” until the 1967 Referendum. Today, the seeds of since-abolished segregation have grown into modern systems of law-enforced control, whereby Indigenous people are over-policed and other-ed on a regular basis.
The appallingly high incarceration rates of First Nations Australians are enabled by a number of legislative injustices: the over-use of move-on notices that monitor and restrict movements; the allocation of maximum penalties for low-level offences; the use of imprisonment as a punishment for unpaid fines; the age of Criminal Responsibility being as young as ten years old; and the months women spend in jail while they await court hearings for non-violent offences.
High incarceration rates make Indigenous people more vulnerable to acts of police brutality, and are therefore intrinsic to our discussions of the Black Lives Matter movement. It is important to channel our current compassion, outrage and energy into any cause that combats Indigenous death and its subsequent normalisation. We need compassion when we confront the pervasive health inequalities, family violence and alienation from country that devastates Indigenous communities. We need outrage when we face the abhorrent reality of Aboriginal suicide rates, of which Western Australia has the highest in the country. We need to acknowledge the overwhelming effects of intergenerational trauma that is further inflated by our history of invasion. When we look for solutions, we need to listen to the expertise of Elders and Community representatives, giving them the space and support to heal their communities.
In the case of day-to-day activism, it isn’t necessarily realistic to be constantly and completely invested in one arena of injustice. There are, however, many methods of advocacy, any of which we can practice to do better by First Nations Australians. I implore you to acknowledge, understand and dissect your privilege. Pay attention to the way that mainstream media depicts blackness through the lens of white supremacy. Educate yourself on the complex cultures of Indigenous Australians, who are the oldest civilisation in the world. Confront the social and systemic circumstances that disadvantage Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders. Care for Indigenous people that reside in remote communities as well as those that reside in your own. Support Indigenous businesses and donate to Indigenous causes. Speak out against racism in spaces where doing so is controversial. Vote in a way that is mindful of the interests of oppressed minorities. Protest against Indigenous deaths.
The next time you immediately question Indigenous accounts of police brutality, take note of the crumbs of colonialism still stuck in your teeth, flavouring all that you say. Ask yourself why you should expect stacks of evidence from the civilian and not from the officer. Ask yourself why we shouldn’t hold enforcers of the law to the same standards to which they hold others. And finally, ask yourself how these questions intersect with race.
It is not a coincidence.
**This information was taken from research conducted via the following books:
- Arresting incarceration : pathways out of Indigenous imprisonment by Don Weatherburn (2014)
- Conflict, Politics and Crime: Aboriginal Communities and the Police by Chris Cunneen (2001)
- Riot, Resistance and Moral Panic: Demonising the Colonial Other by Chris Cunneen (2007)