Black Lives Matter

Behind the Signs, a March Towards Justice

9 June 2020

This news opinion piece mentions Indigenous deaths in custody, suicide, child abuse, racial genocide, and police violence. Cultural warning for references to deceased persons.

Featured photo by Finley Tobin. 

The size of the crowd meeting the urgency of the moment, tens of thousands of Victorians attended the Black Lives Matter rally in Naarm (Melbourne) on June 6. Organisers tirelessly distributed hand sanitiser while genuine efforts were made to maintain social distancing; the vast majority of attendees wore masks, and many carried signs made to support the cause.

As a settler, I think it’s really important to look beyond the march to recognise its importance—in particular, to understand the meaning behind some of the signs we carried, and to acknowledge the progress that needs to happen even after we put them down. 

Like the United States, Australia has a history of and continues to perpetuate racial oppression. Reckoning with that will be the first step towards justice.

400+ Indigenous deaths in custody” (middle left)

“Convict criminal cops” (middle right)

(Photograph: Finley Tobin)

A police logo with six red handprints all over it

(Photograph: Ben Levy)

According to The Guardian’s database, 434 Indigenous Australians have died in police custody since 1991, with news of the most recent death breaking as we marched. The sign on the right names several of them—Kumanjayi Walker, Ms Dhu, David Dungay (who, like George Floyd, died saying, “I can’t breathe”), Thomas Hickey and Shaun Coolwell—though there are hundreds more. However, no police officer has been convicted for any of these deaths to this day. 

This is despite the 1987 Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, which has ostensibly failed to prevent the deaths since. Few of its 330+ recommendations have been soundly implemented to this day, and they remain as relevant today as they were then.

Indigenous incarceration: our national shame(middle right)

Close youth prisons” (bottom left)

(Photograph: Finley Tobin)

In 2018, the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare found that more than half the youth prison population was Indigenous children, despite only accounting for 5-6% of all 10- to 17-year -olds. Several Indigenous children have also died in custody, and given that the age of criminal liability (the youngest age at which someone can be found guilty and sentenced to prison) is just 10 years old, youth detention is a particularly concerning area for First Nations peoples.

In Western Australia, the incarceration rate of Indigenous kids aged 10-17 is as high as 331.5 per 10,000—that is, more than 3.3% of all Indigenous youths across the state are incarcerated. 

This isn’t an anomaly: nationwide, about 4.7% of all Indigenous men—almost five in every hundred—are in prison. Further, the rate at which Indigenous women are imprisoned is on the rise, and the discrepancy between Indigenous and non-Indigenous detention is widening.

In terms of youth detention, the Don Dale detention centre in the Northern Territory (NT) has been of particular concern. In 2000, Johnno Wurramarrba, aged 15, committed suicide. In 2014, six boys aged 14-17 were tear-gassed by wardens. A 2016 Four Corners episode exposed this incident, along with many other appalling instances of child abuse, and sparked the Royal Commission into the Protection and Detention of Children in the Northern Territory which concluded with its own set of recommendations in 2017, including the immediate closure of Don Dale. 

In 2020, Don Dale remains open, and progress on many other recommendations remains slow. Meanwhile, across the NT, every single child in youth detention is Indigenous.

We’re trying to end race war. Not start one!” (top right)

(Photograph: Finley Tobin)

Prisons are only one site of a racial struggle that dates all the way back to the arrival of the British. A series of ‘frontier wars’ and violent conflicts from 1788 and 1900 saw 90% of First Nations People perish; British weaponry and disease both played major roles. 

Notably, the Tasmanian conflict called the “Black Wars” between 1824 and 1830 saw not only warfare, but also genocidal bounties awarded for killing Indigenous folk. Colonial invaders systematically, violently, and deliberately killed the First Nations people of Tasmania, and a similar history exists for Victoria also.

Researchers and historians are still trying to piece together the true extent of these wars, documenting 53 new conflicts as recently as last year. The Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies has also remapped what Australia looked like before the frontier wars of colonisation dispossessed First Nations peoples of their land.

Defund the police” (bottom left)

(Photograph: Finley Tobin)

Today, Victoria Police’s pockets run deep, and they have become increasingly militarised in recent years. Thus, beyond the lack of accountability surrounding Indigenous deaths in custody, there’s a separate argument to be made for defunding the police altogether. While First Nations peoples are criminalised and incarcerated at alarming rates, Victoria Police are continuously using their money to increase their institutional power. 

For example, Victoria Police received a $25 million firearms upgrade in 2018, which included the purchase of 300 AR-15 rifles at the cost of $6,000 each. These semi-automatic weapons are responsible for America’s deadliest mass shootings and were banned in Australia in 1996. It’s unclear what else the $25 million went towards (300 times 6,000 is only 1.8 million), but even the National Shooting Council disagrees with this purchase. These rifles are in the hands of the Public Order Response Team (PORT), which is present at protests like this one. Farrago reporters recently witnessed (and experienced firsthand) the PORT’s brutality at the International Mining and Resources Conference last October.

Also, unlike university students who take on tens of thousands of dollars in debt to study and do so for many years at a time, Victorian police officers train for less than a year, and they get paid for the training. Imagine universities having the money to pay students to do a Bachelor of Arts.

Strong communities make police obsolete

(Photograph: Wing Kuang)

Civil rights activists around the world (such as Dr Angela Davis) have called for abolishing prisons and the police for decades. I might just leave this here for your consideration.

Sex is good but have you ever fucked the system[?]

(Photograph: Ben Levy)

Because of the history of colonial genocide as well as its ongoing legacy, there are calls for deep-rooted overhauls to the ‘system’, the network of institutions across society that are ostensibly harming and failing to meet the rights and needs of Indigenous people (i.e. “systemic/structural violence”).

Beyond deaths in custody and disproportionate rates of incarceration, there are myriad inequalities that constitute Indigenous disadvantage, and these have been reported and analysed in annual Closing the Gap reports since 2008. This year’s report states that, “progress against the Closing the Gap targets has been mixed over the past decade” and identifies key ongoing areas of concern. 

Education is one such area—for example, “more progress is required” in foundational literacy and numeracy skills, while school attendance rates have seen no improvements at all. Employment targets are also reportedly not on track. Both, like every other institution, are susceptible to racism, discrimination and tokenism as well, and a recent study showed that three in four people have an implicit negative bias against First Nations peoples. Meyne Wyatt’s monologue on Q+A from June 8 serves as a timely reminder of these experiences.

In the meantime, non-governmental organisations like Yalari and All Together Now are doing their part to close these gaps and eliminate discrimination and inequality.

The Aboriginal flag

(Photograph: Ben Levy)

The exclusive right to use the Aboriginal flag on clothing is owned by a non-Indigenous company, WAM Clothing. Around this time last year, they issued ‘cease and desist’ notices to the AFL and also Spark Health, which is an Indigenous-owned social enterprise that operates the brand Clothing the Gap. Spark Health has since started a ‘Free the Flag’ campaign to get the rights back.

What does solidarity look like after the rally?

(Photograph: Mark Yin)

We don’t yet know the impact that these rallies will have. But, for now, violence and racism continue to be a reality for Bla(c)k people in this country. 

The past two weeks have seen more people than ever sharing resources, signing petitions, contacting representatives and donating to causes—but we can’t let that stop here. What remains is an uphill battle towards reckoning with the violence of our shared past, dismantling the racist institutions of our shared present, and working towards justice and treaty in our shared future.

Farrago would like to thank Jessie Ferrari for their essential feedback on the coverage of this issue, particularly its effects on First Nations communities.


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