There is a shared history between Australia’s First Nations people and black Americans. From the black dockers in Sydney who shared their knowledge with our early political organisations; to the African-American sailors who joined our struggles at La Perouse; to our Black Panther comrades who inspired and collobarated with our mobs in the Black Power movement in West End and Redfern; to our own Deaths in Custody battles – we always have and we always will stand in solidarity. America’s civil rights struggles have informed our own, and it is apt that Martin Luther King looks out atop our red, black and yellow flag in Newtown, one of the very first crime scenes in this country.
We also have a shared present reality in that our young black people are being murdered by the system at epidemic rates. According to Operation Ghetto Storm, this is at the rate of one every 28 hours in the USA. Here, police custodial deaths for First Peoples, and for all Australians, have gone up instead of down since the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody (RCIADC). First Peoples are less than 3 per cent of Australia’s total population, yet we comprised 29 per cent of the total Australian prison population. Broken down by gender, First Nations women account for more than 33 per cent of all incarcerated women in Australia, while First Nations men account for 28 per cent of all incarcerated men. From 2008-11, 33 of the 159 deaths in prison custody were Indigenous prisoners. The reality here is that it is much more likely that a black person will die in custody than a non-Indigenous person because we are grossly overrepresented by our disproportion inside, in proportion to our small population outside.
Since 1788, with the importation of the English injustice system, our people have been locked up inside white cages. We have been condemned as criminal by an alien legal framework, not judged by our own culturally appropriate frameworks. We never caged our animals, let alone our criminals, and being caged is not in our genetic or cultural memories. Our people do not belong in cages, and we certainly do not belong in cages because of unpaid fines. Gerry Georgatos states that “Hundreds of Australians endure the ordeal of jail because of unpaid fines, their poverty a burden. Disproportionately First Nations people are incarcerated ‘to pay off’ their fines.” The only people who belong in cages are those who are a real, not perceived, threat to society.
Being caged is traumatic enough; add on the distress of not being believed when you are sick, being humiliated because of stereotypes, being excessively punished, and the crippling impacts of isolation and guilt on a person’s spiritual health. Consider also that many of our people come out of the system in a worse state than they went in. It is indeed true that a significant proportion of our suicides are by people who have been incarcerated, and this does not even count those who have previously been interred by the welfare system.
Yet for every black person who has broken a white law, where is the equality of the converse? How many whitefellas have broken our laws against rape, murder, massacre, child theft, the permanent destruction of our underground water, the theft of land and of resources? Why are they not only not sentenced in our law, but not even in their own? The answer to this lies within the historical and ongoing structures of institutional racism, summarily: Break black law and prosper. Break white law and die.
What message does this institutional racism send to young black people, who are trying to transcend their historical legacies and live lives worthy of the fight our ancestors bled for? To stay down in the gutter where they were born? To become potential target practise if it’s cold outside and they choose to reach for their hoodie? To believe that if they see cops they have to run in fear for their lives? To see unpaid parking fines as a choice between continuing poverty or death in a cage? To see a criminal every time they look in the mirror? To feel guilty for their skin?
For the victims of the state, this is not just a case of wrong place and wrong time, or even wrong skin, wrong side of the system, or wrong luck. It’s too easy to make this circumstantial. It is not a passive act to shoot a child, or leave a young woman dying, so let’s not victim-blame. These are killings. This is active death-dealing. It is not circumstantial that these people are black and it is not circumstantial that the killers are part of a racist system. There is a pattern here, evidence; a tapestry woven of white chains choking frail black threads, winding so tight that it becomes stained red. The system does not just passively not care; more than this, it actively does not care. It actively neglects and brutalises.
It is not enough that grieving families be given an impartial coronial inquest. It is not enough that the murderers in uniform go to trial. It is not enough that Deaths in Custody receive a Royal Commission, or that disempowered communities riot to be heard. None of this, in the statistically improbable chance that they are followed through in a total, unbiased and satisfactory manner, will bring back our dead. No sentence or coronial finding will take away the hurt and anger their system has brought about. The problem cannot be the solution.
These outcomes have never brought about satisfactory justice. What needs to happen is a complete overhaul, not just of the judicial system, but of all systems that feed into it; ergo, an overhaul of social attitudes and policy. The police in the USA are doing a great job, upholding their motto to protect and serve – of protecting the system and serving the state, of continuing the deep-rooted racism from a shameful history by bringing it into modernity. If you have kids, who will one day grow up to be cops, judges, nurses or screws, you must show them that the life of Ms Julieka Dhu is worth just as much as the life of a white girl. You must teach them that their duty is to protect and serve us, the people, not their own skin and system.
The reality is that black deaths, here and there, are not seen as worthy. Black deaths are seen as different, lesser. When a white person is killed by a white person, it is a tragedy. When a black person is killed by a black person, it is expected. When a white person is killed by a black person, it is usually reported as a gang-related crime. And so, when blackfellas are killed by a white system, it must also be understood as gang-related and oppressive, not simply dismissed as all in the line of duty. The organised crime gangs, the boys in blue, are the real thugs. Their hierarchy is as tight as sin, their violence is internally encouraged and their self-interest is preserved.
Another reality is that black deaths here are worth even less than black deaths over there. Where were the twitter storms for Julieka Dhu? Where were the pickets at police stations for Mr Phillips in Kalgoorlie? Where is the nation-wide outrage for Maureen Mandijarra? Where was the global solidarity for Mr Ward in Warburton? What is the difference between a boy being shot point blank by cops in the USA, and a boy in Redfern being chased by gunjis, fearing for his life and left bleeding, based on what the narratives in his history have told him? For these killings to be counted, to be seen as important and worthy of the same coverage and outrage as our American counterparts, we also need to be seen as human, worthy and respected. The evidence shows that we are not.
This is not about left or right wing politics, or about skin-deep, socially constructed differences. This is about humanity, and until every mother and father, sister and brother stops to imagine what it would feel like to lose one of their own to violent police brutality, or inhumane murderous neglect, until everybody is just as outraged that this is happening to somebody else’s young people, not much will change. Even more, everybody needs to stop and ask themselves, “How would I feel if this happened to mine, and nobody cared?” Because not caring is very much part of the problem.
Strip this all away and what we have is that a young boy was shot, and a sick woman was left for dead. If you have the privilege of walking around at night with your hoodie up, if you have the privilege of remaining uncaged and alive despite pissy parking fines, if you have the privilege of telling a cop to not shoot you and having them listen, if you have the privilege of riding your bike through your suburb and not being chased by the gunjis, fearing for and losing your life based on narratives in racist histories, this does not mean you should not care.
If you aren’t outraged, chances are you have that privilege. And if that sounds harsh, consider that we envy your privilege, that we do not have the luxury of not caring, that if we could, we would dedicate our lives to the pursuit of pleasure, not fighting for our basic human rights to be respected by a system that is killing our warriors and leaders of tomorrow.
It is not enough to simply be saddened or discomfited by these deaths, dismissing them as fatalistic, dismissing them as something that happened to other people, to people you have no connection to. It is not enough to feel helpless, you must be outraged. You must find the death of Mulrindji just as tragic as the death of Mike Brown. You must be just as outraged at the death of Julieka Dhu as the death of Trayvon Martin. You must find the police killing of Eddie Murray in Wee Waa just as abhorrent as the police killing of Mark Duggan in Tottenham. No human life is worth more than another. No black death in Roeburn is worth less than a black death in Ferguson.
Because this is the heart of the problem with Black Deaths in Custody. It is seen as our problem, not touching wider Australia, let alone the world. Our deaths are not widely known about and are not widely protested. Let us take a cue from the people of Ferguson, from the people from Tottenham, UK. When these killings take place, we need to hold those responsible accountable, all of us, not just the families and communities who have lost.
And so, if you’ve only ever protested things that affect your own demographic – those of your nationality, skin colour, sexuality or gender – then you are part of the problem. The false divides of race, religion, geography and politics are entrenched in historical construction and perpetuated by our politicians and their media mouthpieces. The real divide is class, and the truth is that we are disproportionately overrepresented in the lowest rungs. It is not enough that we stand in solidarity with other black communities. It s not enough that a smattering of staunch and dedicated whitefellas stand as allies. This solidarity is very important, but it is not enough.
We have never had anything handed to us; no human rights legislation, no social justice victory. Every little thing we have ever gained inside of this system has been the result of hard work, constant campaigning with solid, loud and outraged voices. Yet twenty years on, they have still not implemented most of the recommendations from the RCADIC. And twenty years on, the rate of active, neglectful killings are higher and growing.
Doctor Luther King’s dream has turned into a nightmare: his vision for resilient leaders has been shot full of bullet holes; his hope for our daughters has been left for dead in a cage, ridiculed and forgotten; his hope for our sons has been crushed under the weight of police feet and knees, bleeding and broken. In solidarity with the communities who are grieving wrongful losses, and in alliance with those still protesting their injustices, then and now, let us all be outraged.
– Defender Of The Faith, 15th September 2014, Cadigal country