The recent Black Lives Matter movement in the US has sparked Australians to reflect on their own history of slavery, injustice and mistreatment of the Indigenous community. Tens of thousands of people have rallied the streets in capital cities and towns across the country to protest in solidarity with the US following George Floyd’s death. In Australia, these protests seek to show solidarity with the movement in America as well as highlight the 432 Indigenous deaths in police custody that have occurred since 1991.
According to the Australian Human Rights Commission, Indigenous Australians make up three per cent of the population, yet account for 28 per cent of Australia’s prison population. This makes Indigenous Australians the most incarcerated people in the world by percentage (2,346 per 100,000). In comparison, 2,207 per 100,000 African-American people are incarcerated in the US.
There have been a number of cases where Indigenous deaths in custody have sparked protests across Australia, including 19-year-old Kumanjayi Walker last year, 55-year-old Tanya Day in 2017, and 26-year-old David Dungay Jr, who died in a Sydney cell in 2015 and called out, “I can’t breathe,” before losing consciousness.
In an online webinar hosted by socialist organization Solidarity Australia that drew 250 people, speakers shared their stories on the parallels between the US and Australia as well a reflecting on the action needs to be taken to change the current system and to fight for the lives lost in police custody.
Los Angeles-based Long Beach Black Lives Matter co-founder Michael Brown, anti-racist activist Jasmine Ali, and Paul Silva, nephew of David Dungay Jr, led the discussion on the global resonance of George Floyd’s death and the changes needed in the economic and political structure of each country.
“In Australia, racism is out there more than ever. We’re continuously watched or pulled over by police,” said Silva.
“I was attending the Black Lives Matter protest in Sydney and it’s about a four-hour drive…so on my way to the march, I was drug tested, and breath tested. Police are harassing black folks and, in some cases, as a result, they’re losing their lives just like George Floyd or David Dungay Jr.”
According to Silva, despite video footage and a coronial enquiry, no one has been held accountable for the death of David Dungay Jr, while his family continues to press on the investigation of criminal charges, as well as calling on the implementation of 339 recommendations of the Royal Commission – the highest form of inquiry on matters of public importance – into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody.
Anti-racist activist Jasmine Ali echoed Silva’s words, stating that police violence and racism is “getting more intensified”, and happening at a time of economic crisis that is akin – if not worse – than the Great Depression.
“People are now looking and questioning for alternatives on how we can have a society that’s free from racism,” said Ali.
“The oppression and worker struggles are very much intertwined in the US – we’ve seen transport workers and health workers raising demands about Black Lives Matter and walking off the job in protest.
“I think that resistance has the potential to talk about transforming the rebellion and seeing both black and white backgrounds coming together – breaking the color line – challenging racism and the system because the two are intertwined and they can’t be decoupled.”
It has been 30 years since the last Royal Commission into Aboriginal deaths in custody, with little progress made in what has needed to change.
“In particular, here in Victoria, the premier has called for an expansion of prisons, policing has also expanded and militarized, and it’s all going in the other direction. We’re not seeing demand for social services, and other services like housing and education” said Ali.
“I think there has to be a renewal of the campaigns and the struggles here as well to take up the deaths in custody fight that’s happening, such as with David Dungay in Sydney and Tanya Day here in Melbourne.”
Solidarity Australia is planning to further rally in Sydney at New South Wales parliament house on 8 July when state parliament returns, under the slogan “I can’t breathe”, as a call to justice for David Dungay Jr and to demonstrate ongoing solidarity for George Floyd.
In addition to the BLM movement in Australia, the issue surrounding the government’s treatment of refugees continue to further fuel the fight against racism.
Refugee Council of Australia CEO Paul Power has said the 1373 people held in immigration detention centers at 31 March 2020 had been held for an average of 545 days – the longest average length of time in detention since the government began publishing this information ten years ago.
“Among them are many people designated as refugees in Papua New Guinea and Nauru. Their detention is a clear breach of the Refugee Convention, which Australia signed in 1954, but there is nothing in Australian law to protect refugees from this breach of international law,” said Power.
“The end result is that people who have committed no crime are held indefinitely in detention for years, with no explanation of why they were detained, no right to appeal their detention and no indication of when they will be released.”
Many Australians have defied COVID-19 restrictions to protest in support of refugees, with more rallies expected to take place in cities including Brisbane and Melbourne towards the end of July, proving the ongoing battle against racism in Australia and the need for voices to be heard and acknowledged.
A full recording of the Solidarity Australia webinar, “Black Lives Matter: Racism and resistance from the US to Australia” can be accessed here.