Where to Next?

Illustration by John T. Patten

What began as a city-wide protest in the US city of Minneapolis, when a white police officer murdered George Floyd, an unarmed African American man, has now fanned out around the world and become a truly global movement. London, Berlin, Mexico City, Madrid, Brussels, Dakar, Seoul, and many more cities have seen protests. At home in Australia, tens of thousands of people took to the streets in state capitals, and large regional centres, to make their voices heard. People from all walks of life have made a stand, in protest against institutional and criminal racism faced by black people – be they of African ancestry or Aboriginal Australian, and to say that Black Lives Matter.

The Aboriginal community used the gatherings to draw attention to the fact that despite Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s warning that “there’s no need to import things happening in other countries”, Australia has its own long, tragic, and ongoing history of injustice and brutality against black people. This fact however was seemingly lost on the Prime Minister, when he was quoted earlier in the week, referencing the protests taking place in the United States, saying “There’s no need to import things happening in other countries”, and “These are terrifying and horrible scenes. They’re very distressing scenes. And again, thank goodness we live in Australia, eh?”

Scott Morrison’s commentary was indicative of the kinds of rhetoric being generated by both sides of Australia’s political divide at the weekend. His words were met by New South Wales Premier Gladys Berejiklian, whose scrambled efforts to have the Sydney based protest declared illegal were overturned in the Supreme Court. This followed on from the Premier having previously given the Sydney gathering’s organising committee the authority to proceed, on the nonsensical understanding that it was to have been a small gathering.

Despite the Australian federal and state government’s lack of clarity or support when it comes to the plight of Australia’s First Peoples’, a large number of non-Indigenous Australians took part in the gatherings, ushering in further hand wringing from authorities. New South Wales Police Minister David Elliott made the inflammatory accusation that anyone planning to attend was “certifiably insane”, whilst Senator Mathias Cormann labeled the actions of the protesters as being “selfish” and “self-indulgent”. Cormann went on to say “As I think about the heartbreak of families who haven’t been able to attend funerals for their loved ones because they were doing the right thing by taking the health advice, my heart just goes out to them. I mean, as they see people going recklessly to these sorts of demonstrations, that must be just awful for them to watch.”

What the words of Morrison, Cormann, Elliott, and Berejiklian do is to reaffirm for those who participated in protests across Australia is that Australia’s leadership is not listening. Their words speak to the dearth of knowledge held by Australia’s political elite in reference to why systematic change is so important. In Cormann’s case, it also disrespects the sacrifices made by the Aboriginal community during the Covid-19 crisis, and how critical in terms of priority these protests are.*

Scott Morrison has failed to grasp that “Closing the Gap” and improving outcomes for Aboriginal people whilst incredibly important, is not going to manifest the required change to equalising either the number of Aboriginal people in custody, or the number of black deaths in custody being recorded each year.

Australia’s federal and state governments have failed in their duty to ensure the safety of their citizens. Aboriginal people continue to be arrested at a rate 17.3 times higher than what is faced by non-Indigenous offenders, for the same crimes. Racism is found at every layer of the judicial system, from the police, through to those handing down sentences, and the government continues to focus only on changing Aboriginal behaviours, and not those of our public servants.

We are at an important juncture in the history of Aboriginal and non-Indigenous relations in this country. Protests, where heard, have sent a very loud and clear message, that Black Lives Matter, and that change is necessary. The government response however has been deafeningly silent. The only official to offer anything – without concern, discussion, or questioning in the media, has been the New South Wales Police Commissioner Mick Fuller, following one of his officer’s having been caught on film, physically attacking an Aboriginal child, despite no sign of resistance. Fuller’s response summed up where we are politically in Australia, and how far we’ve got to go, when he stated in the same manner that a drunken footballer would in excusing their teammate of spousal abuse, “You would have to say he has had a bad day”. Fuller followed this by saying “I am sure most of the community wouldn’t want to see someone who has made a mistake sacked after making such a commitment to the community.”

One can only wonder if Commissioner Fuller had considered the day the child had, or what message he may have now sent to police officers, for the next time they interact with an Aboriginal person, let alone anyone’s children. As to what the community wants, well it’s clearly not the black community that Fuller is thinking about when making that statement.

After 230 plus years of the police responding to what the white majority wants, it’s time they started to respond to what is right.

John T. Patten is a Yorta Yorta and Bundjalung historian, educator, artist and filmmaker.

*As a person who lost their father during covid-19 lockdown, and was told he was likely to only be allowed to spend 15 minutes with him in a covid-19 isolation ward, the author speaks from a position of authority on this matter.

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