Black Lives Matter protests demanding societal change have already led to significant reckonings and policy changes in cities and companies in the United States, but what about in Australia?
Since the death of George Floyd, a Black American man who was killed on May 25 when a white police officer knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes, First Nations and non-Indigenous Australians have taken to the streets to demand an end to the status quo of racism not just in the US but in our own land.
From Innisfail to Darwin from Sydney to South Australia, protesters marched to highlight the number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander deaths in custody since the 1991 royal commission investigation into the issue — among other injustices.
At times, the parallels between the situation in Australia and in the United States can be painfully stark. Floyd’s final words before he died were “I can’t breathe.” Aboriginal man David Dungay Jr. said “I can’t breathe” 12 times before he died while five prison guards held him down in December 2015.
On Tuesday, Dungay family representative Lizzie Jarrett told the press there is still much work to be done and urged Australians to keep showing up to rallies and protests.
“Look at my T-shirt. I have to wear a T-shirt with my poor cousin’s face on it and the poor man across the seas that we watched share a parallel murder, and look at the difference America’s making,” she said.
“I am here today as a hurting Black woman, asking please, Australia, come with us and stand with us and help make real change where we can all be proud for once.”
Here’s why we should still be protesting.
From cities defunding police departments to people taking down monuments to racists, there is proof that Black Lives Matter protests are working in the US But Australia has a fair way to go.
The upcoming Sydney rally Stop Black Deaths In Custody: Black Lives Matter is demanding justice for the families of people killed in custody. Since the royal commission, there have been 437 Black deaths in custody, The Guardian reports.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander adults make up around 2% of the national population but they constitute 27% of the national prison population, according to the Australian Law Reform Commission 133: Pathways to Justice report. This makes First Nations Australians the most incarcerated people in the world.
On Facebook, rally organisers stated that they want “urgent moves to release people from prison and have community based solutions.” They’re campaigning for youth prisons to be shut down and for reforms to child protection policies, as First Nations children are 10.6 times more likely to be in out-of-home care than non-Indigenous children.
What are people asking for?
As in the US, many rallies in Australia want to see funds redirected from the police and believe racism is a structural feature of police forces. Activists say the huge amount of money spent on policing each year should instead be diverted to areas like education, public health and social services, which have been chronically underfunded.
“First Nations people, like African Americans, are asking for justice, to be treated as equals, to not be discriminated against, and to enjoy civil and political rights afforded to other members of the community,” Bardi woman Munya Andrews, author of “Practical Reconciliation: Strengthening Relationships For All Australians in Seven Easy Steps,” told HuffPost Australia.
“We seek an end to police harassment and brutality and for our people to move freely in our towns and cities without being considered suspect citizens and harangued as a consequence.”
Here are the positive steps we’ve taken so far.
In what Greens MP David Shoebridge flags as the “first step to address the demands for justice arising from the Black Lives Matter movement,” New South Wales Parliament launched a cross-party parliamentary inquiry this month into how deaths in custody are investigated in NSW. The inquiry will focus on the suitability of police investigating their own.
“Throughout this inquiry, we will continue our advocacy for the establishment of an independent body tasked with investigating deaths in custody [and] operate with a commitment to principles of self-determination, with a central role for First Nations people in investigating the treatment of our people,” said Larissa Behrendt, professor of law and director of research at the Jumbunna Indigenous House of Learning, UTS.
“This is also a moment to acknowledge the consistent frontline work done by First Nations families who have had family members die in custody who have been determined that other families not go through the same thing.”
Earlier this month, Western Australia parliament passed a bill to end the imprisonment of people who haven’t paid fines, a reform sparked by the case of 22-year-old Yamatji woman who died in custody in August 2014 after being jailed for $3,622 in unpaid fines.
How do we turn protests into action?
Real action happens when behavioural and cultural changes occur in society, said Andrews, who also runs cultural education programs on reconciliation.
“With the sudden and drastic behavioural changes we have seen due to COVID, we know that it can happen, people just need to have the motivation,” she said.
“We need a comprehensive overhaul of our education systems everywhere — at schools, in government, all workplaces. Where honouring our rich Indigenous heritage is core to our identity as Australians, as is acknowledging the very sad occurrences in both our past and that are happening now.”
Want to help?
First Nations-led activists and not-for-profit charity organisations said support from Australians has been strong, but we need to keep up the momentum.
“A donation’s only the beginning of the journey of reconciling in terms of what’s happening in Australia,” Kaytetye woman Rona Glynn-McDonald, founder of the not-for-profit Indigenous educational organisation Common Ground, told SBS.
“It’d be interesting to see if [one-off donations are] the same across other organisations or if it’s a conversation we need to have with Australia around what does it actually look like to support in an ongoing capacity?”
Below is a list of practical ways you can keep helping right now:
Sisters Inside – focuses on reducing the rate of First Nations women in prison
“Rabbit Proof Fence,” 2002
“Our Law,” 2020
“Inside Out,” 2015
Rachel Perkins, Boyer Lectures 2019 – three-part lecture on Voice, Treaty, Truth and the Uluru Statement from the Heart
“Always Our Stories” podcast – by Marlee Silva
“Deaths Inside,” 2020 – The Guardian Australia’s tracker of Indigenous deaths in custody
“Our Home, Our Heartbeat,” 2020 – by Adam Briggs
“Welcome To Country,” 2018 – by Marcia Langton
“Dark Emu,” 2014 – by Bruce Pascoe
“The Tall Man,” 2009 – by Chloe Hooper
“Journey into Dreamtime,” 2018 - by Munya Andrews
“Practical Reconciliation: Strengthening Relationships For All Australians in Seven Easy Steps,” 2020 - by Munya Andrews and Carla Rogers
IndigenousX – Twitter
Tiddas4Tiddas – Instagram
Actor and writer Nakkiah Lui
Writer Celeste Liddle
See the latest on protests in your city on the Stop Black Deaths In Custody Instagram.
Can’t make it to a rally? “Bombard your local politician with your concerns,” Darumbal and South Sea Islander journalist Amy McGuire previously told HuffPost Australia. “Talk to your friends and educate your own community.”
With additional reporting from HuffPost US.