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Aboriginal Deaths in Police Custody Are Fueling an Australian Black Lives Matter Movement

There have been huge turnouts for Black Lives Matter protests in every major city in Australia. Organized in solidarity with demonstrations in the US, they’re fueled by racist policing at home and the staggering rate of Aboriginal deaths in police custody.

The New South Wales Police formed a protective perimeter around a statue of Captain Cook, the British explorer who initiated the colonization of Australia, during a Black Lives Matter demonstration in Sydney, Australia. (David Shoebridge / Twitter)

On Monday, June 8, residents of Matraville, a suburb in Sydney’s southeast, briefly found it difficult to breathe. This time, the air was laced with tear gas.

Overhead footage captured the source. Following a fight in the Long Bay Correctional Complex, six Indigenous men had used towels to spell out “BLM” in an exercise yard. In response, riot guards flooded the yard with gas.

Long Bay is where David Dungay, a twenty-six-year-old Dunghutti man, was killed in 2015. Dungay, a diabetic, refused orders to stop eating a biscuit. Six Immediate Action officers stormed his cell before five of them pressed down on his back until he died. Like George Floyd and Eric Garner before him, Dungay’s last words were, “I can’t breathe.”

Guards at Long Bay claimed the inmates’ Black Lives Matter protest was apolitical, in line with Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s suggestion that the “divisions we are seeing in other countries” should not be “imported” to our shores. It’s a deflection that was outright rejected by the many tens of thousands of people who came out for Black Lives Matter protests on June 6, across all major cities. Defying bans on demonstrating, a range of radical Indigenous groups including Warriors of the Aboriginal Resistance as well as individual activists called the rallies. Indigenous residents of more remote cities and towns, often scene to worse poverty and brutality, also took a stand: over seven thousand marched in Perth, one thousand in Darwin, and five hundred in Alice Springs.

The rallies drew long-overdue attention to Dungay and the 436 other Indigenous people who have died while in police custody since 1991. The Black Lives Matter movement in Australia is growing and making it impossible to ignore the nation’s systematic, racialized violence.

Criminalization

Although Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people make up around 2 percent of the population, they constitute a stunning 28 percent of Australia’s prison population. This is a considerably higher rate of incarceration than that faced by African Americans, who make up 12 percent of the United States’ adult population and 33 percent of the prison population.

This is the result of systematic police victimization. In New South Wales, police pursue 80 percent of Indigenous people caught with cannabis through the courts, seeking convictions where most others are let off. Similarly, the Western Australia Police have disproportionately jailed Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people for unpaid fines, so much so that the WA parliament, pressured by BLM rallies, recently passed laws making imprisonment for unpaid fines a last resort, to be taken only under a magistrate’s orders.

Or take the Northern Territory police who pepper-sprayed and tasered Johanness Manggurra, a twenty-four-year-old Aboriginal man, after he turned up to a police station to discuss paying his unpaid fines. Manggurra was subsequently charged with resisting arrest and sentenced to six months’ jail.

Even in Victoria, the nation’s most progressive state, the prison population has doubled over the last decade. Teenage prisoners are a rapidly growing demographic, and of them, 40 percent are from Aboriginal, Pacific Islander, and East African backgrounds.

Blame most certainly lies with police forces and prison administrations. Yet as the depth and breadth of this pattern suggests, responsibility goes all the way to the top.

The Northern Territory Intervention

The most salient example of the nexus between government-level and police racism is the Northern Territory Intervention. Following the 2007 release of a report rearticulating long-ignored details of socioeconomic neglect in the Northern Territory, John Howard’s Liberal government declared a national emergency, citing unsubstantiated allegations of abuse of children in Indigenous communities.

This is how he sold the Northern Territory Emergency Response, known more commonly as the “NT Intervention.” Seventy-three Indigenous communities were occupied by police and military forces. Howard’s emergency legislative package suspended the Racial Discrimination Act of 1975, giving police exceptional powers applying only in “proscribed” areas. These included blanket bans on the sale of alcohol on Aboriginal lands, the right to enter and search homes and vehicles without a warrant, and expanded power to arrest people suspected of intoxication.

The NT Intervention abolished land permit systems, seized community-controlled assets, and replaced limited community self-determination with non-Indigenous government business managers. At the same time, it built eighteen new police stations, reassigning interstate and federal police to staff them.

All this was touted as an emergency response to child abuse. Although the Australian Crime Commission was given $5.5 million to investigate, not one case of child sexual abuse was brought to trial. As a 2009 report by Thalia Anthony, a lecturer in the University of Sydney’s law faculty, details, in the years of the NT Intervention, the number of sexual abuse cases investigated remained broadly consistent.

As Anthony outlines, at the same time there was an incredible 250 percent increase in police investigations of driving-related offenses. In 2008–9, police investigated 6,774 registration and roadworthiness infringements, up from 2,835 in 2004­–5. In the NT, minor offenses carry jail time. Driving an unregistered car without a license can attract twelve months’ jail. Driving without a license plate attracts six months.

The result was an enormous spike in the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander rates of incarceration. In 2009, 82 percent of the NT prison population was Indigenous. By 2020, the rate had increased a further 2 percent. The consequences are still a blight on Indigenous communities more than ten years later, as is over-policing. Just this year, a four-month-old baby died following the arrest of her twenty-one-year-old mother by NT police.

Simultaneously, the number of children and teenagers from an Indigenous background in prison tripled. Detained children, some as young as eleven, have been subjected to strip searches, isolation, and tear gas, denied access to bathroom facilities, and beaten.

Labor’s Stronger Futures legislation, brought in by Kevin Rudd after Howard’s defeat in 2007, guaranteed that the Intervention would never be wound back. It was promoted on the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s Lateline, by Tony Jones. In addition to prominent conservatives, a host of liberal commentators backed it. Perhaps this is why, despite directly contributing to Aboriginal deaths in custody, it is barley discussed today.

White Laws, Black Victims

Though Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have born the overwhelming brunt of state violence, the demonization and harassment of African Australians equally illustrates the link between politics and policing.

Nine years ago, Michael Atakelt, an Ethiopian Australian was found dead in the Maribyrnong River, in Melbourne’s west. In the years and months leading to his death, along with friends, Atakelt had been subject to police harassment, including spurious arrests, searches, questioning, intimidation, and racist verbal abuse. Mere days before his mother made repeated, ignored attempts to lodge a missing person’s report, he had been taken into police custody. Then he was found, drowned.

African-Australian residents of Melbourne’s west blamed police and responded with angry protests. Although the circumstances of Atakelt’s death are still unknown, their hostility to the police was not misplaced. In 2013, the Victoria Police settled out of court with six men of African descent who alleged harassment and violence. In 2014, three officers were sacked and others disciplined for having produced and distributed racist stubby holders. In 2015, more emails were leaked — this time that had been shared among up to one hundred officers. In addition to pornographic and homophobic content, they depicted nonwhite men being tortured.

This does not occur ex nihilo. In a vicious feedback loop, racialized patterns of criminalization are both encouraged by and give apparent credence to racist political campaigns. By creating the perception of criminality, criminalization seeks to manufacture a structural basis for racist politics.

This was the case with the “Apex Gang,” an alleged association of Sudanese young people with no structure, no group identity, no leaders, and no assets or criminal enterprises. In fact, Apex was basically a graffiti tag. Although statistics showed an overall decline in violent crime, then prime minister Malcolm Turnbull described “growing gang violence and lawlessness in Victoria.” To many Victorians’ surprise, Peter Dutton described us as “scared to go out to restaurants.” In reporting on crime, the media selectively sensationalized ethnicity, helping to manufacture a narrative.

The statistics that were utilized to back these claims unraveled on closer inspection. In addition to ignoring demographics, they were based on charges, not convictions. The ethnicities of those charged were recorded by the same police officers who already disproportionately target people of African backgrounds.

The point of this scare campaign, as well as policing patterns that tried to legitimize it, was the 2018 Victorian state election. However, it failed to achieve its desired result. When Labor’s Daniel Andrews won a landslide victory against the Victorian Liberal Party’s Matthew Guy in 2018, all talk of an African gang crime wave subsided. So devoid of reality that it failed to achieve its purpose, there was no longer any point to the pretense.

Despite his progressive platform, premier Daniel Andrews never countered the racism. Instead, his policies have managed to outflank much of the Right. Just last year his government boasted about giving police a $3 billion funding boost. Since 2014 — when Andrews was elected — the number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in prison has increased by 70 percent. Labor does not typically drive racism in the same way as the Liberal Party. But in power, the ALP’s actions are often just as damaging — and all the more insidious, given the blind eye that many on the center-left turn toward the party.

“All History Is Contemporary History”

The roots of Australia’s structural oppression of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people sink deeper than the exigencies of any one electoral campaign. This much has been indicated by the controversy over statues associated with racism, following the first wave of Black Lives Matter protests on June 6.

For example, Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton denounced calls to topple statues of Captain Cook, the British explorer who initiated the colonization of Australia by declaring it terra nullius: no one’s land. The NSW Police formed a protective perimeter around a statue of Cook during a BLM demonstration in Sydney. Captain Cook’s bronze progeny has even found a scant few defenders on the liberal left.

Yet neither the police nor Liberal Party politicians were anywhere to be seen when mining company Rio Tinto recently dynamited a forty-six-thousand-year-old Aboriginal site which was highly significant to the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura people. Dozens more sacred sites are under threat across Western Australia because they stand in the path of mining. With its historic ties to the White Australia policy, and its contemporary subservience to mining interests, it would be just as forlorn to expect the ALP to stand in solidarity with Indigenous people.

This gets to the heart of the problem. The politicians who maintain and direct structural racism are extending the logic of Australia’s colonial drive to dispose First Peoples of their un-ceded lands, in order to clear the way for the extraction of resources. The police and prisons are the enforcers of this project, and racialized violence is the most important and enduring weapon in their arsenal. By no means do they limit it to Indigenous people; many other racialized minorities are also targeted, including those from African, Pacific Island, and Middle Eastern backgrounds.

But none of this will be news to the Long Bay protesters. They already know that to the Australian authorities, black lives don’t matter.