It has been an exhausting few weeks – George Floyd’s murder and global response, the Black Lives Matter movement and people suddenly aware that there is a systemic racism issue and a power imbalance that must be addressed for people of colour. We have seen global protests demanding change. The axis has begun to shift.
Against the backdrop of COVID-19 concerns, recent protest marches took place across Australia that drew attention to Aboriginal deaths in custody and disparities that still exist for Black Australians. None of that should be in any dispute; we have had a Royal Commission into Aboriginal deaths in custody after all and 29 years later, few recommendations have been implemented. Following woeful policy announcements, further calls to action are taking place also across the country during this coming weekend.
We have been abundantly generous in communicating the issues we face and have gone the extra mile by highlighting the community based solutions and this is resisted by the government and their mouthpiece – mainstream media.
We are still dealing with misinformation surrounding history, populist conservative politics pushing the culture wars and a dismissal of documented truths perpetuated by mainstream media outlets and social media echo chambers. It has become a war on truth. Conservatives have seemingly taken the philosophy that the end justifies the means, and it is a post-truth world. They push back on a changing world, resorting to fabrications to maintain their illusionary reality. The BLM movement has brought many of these conservative illusions into sharp focus as they fight back with selective half-truths, cherry picked statistics, and outright falsehoods. Civil rights, history wars, nationalism, equality, even religion are the subject of, and tools used by both sides, with conservatives seemingly intent on taking the low road in their rush to the bottom.
We need to continue to make right the information that is often misconstrued, misrepresented and at times negated to suit their own conservative ideologies, thereby constructing falsities to further push their agendas falling back on lazy tropes such as mischaracterizing protests, misrepresenting urban vs rural/remote Indigenous issues, villainising Indigenous incarcerations and death in custody, using the tools of racism and revisionist white history in a facile attempt to project their ‘authoritative voice’.
Protest. What is it good for? There are many commentators that will regularly speak of ‘urbanised Aboriginals’ and ‘rent-a-crowds’ to distract and trivialise the subject of the protest such as deaths in custody. They believe protesters care more about symbolic affect (e.g. things such as changing dates and removing sacred objects) than advocating for tangible issues such as violence in Aboriginal communities.
These comments blatantly ignore the long, documented history of failed government policy which hasn’t addressed health outcomes, the justice system, and the open division that has evolved for numerous disadvantaged or disenfranchised Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Recent protests were not only about Black (American) lives matter – they were about Aboriginal men and women who want to be treated as human beings in their own country, who want understanding, recognition and for genuine dialogue to form so that everyone begins to see that injustice for some means injustice for all.
Conservatives like to use family discord in Indigenous communities as a rationale for why Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are a lost cause and not worthy of assistance, completely oblivious of the entire nation’s complicity including their own in this state of family trauma. Reports such as ‘Family, domestic and sexual violence in Australia, 2018’, published by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW), clearly highlight overall rates of domestic and family violence throughout this country. It made specific reference to Indigenous women and children being at a higher risk at violence within families (although it did not stipulate whether those women were partnered with Aboriginal men).
‘Debunking: You can’t talk about violence in Aboriginal communities’ by Luke Pearson has also addressed the issue of family violence, and there are numerous organisations (usually run by Black warrior women) that work tirelessly to address the violence that occurs against Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women. Women like Ngarluma Elder Josie Samson from the Roebourne community, who has spoken out about these issues. It is not that urban spaces ignore the violence that can occur in Aboriginal communities at all, we have some very powerful women speaking on these issues and working to address them.
What also needs to be addressed in this misinformation war is claims around deaths in custody, with commentators claiming that an Aboriginal death in custody does not signify proof of racism. Maybe so, when looked at through a biased lens, but this issue needs to be examined at the macro level in order to understand the systemic nature of the issue. Aboriginal deaths while in custody demonstrate a system that allows the behaviours of those within to corrupt themselves and their perceived power. Structural violence occurs for many who come into contact with the justice system. We have seen countless examples of racism – in lived experience, across numerous health, education and legal systems within Australia, so for anyone to deny that it exists whilst simultaneously both living in it and benefiting from it, is obscene. It is a misdirection, and negates the years of work done by researchers, expert knowledge holders in their field and more importantly, the continual trauma and grief held by the families who have lost loved ones to a system that denies them basic humanity.
We have seen some who are opposing Aboriginal deaths in custody using statistics that they feel prove that non-Aboriginal people die at a greater rate in custody than Aboriginal people. “With just over one-quarter (27 per cent) of prisoners in custody being Indigenous, and 17 per cent of deaths in custody being Indigenous, Indigenous prisoners were under-represented.” These stats quoted by one commentator references an old publication (2015) when Indigenous imprisonment rates were lower, and this report has been superseded by another report (2018) released in 2019 by AIHW. Using out of date information such as this is one way to manipulate the public into holding a certain perception of the issue. It also erases the contexts surrounding this data, which is a deliberate deception.
Even accepting it at face value that non-Indigenous people were more likely to die in prison custody than Indigenous people, this overlooks a range of factors. The average age of Indigenous people in prison is younger (33.6 vs 38) and the average age of death is younger for Indigenous people (49 vs 56). With the non-Indigenous prison population being older, you should expect a higher rate of deaths in custody, but there is far more nuance buried even in this statement.
However, even using these numbers are misguided, as they speak of the raw death rates comparing prison death ratios. It willfully ignores the disproportionate impact of incarceration on the Indigenous population. From the ABS Corrective Services data released June 2020, 4.7% of the Indigenous adult male population was imprisoned at that point in time compared to 0.4% of the Australian male population imprisonment rate (inclusive of Indigenous males). However, the Indigenous male imprisonment rate is still 11 times higher than the broader average male imprisonment rate, and the Indigenous female imprisonment is 14 times higher than the broader average female imprisonment rate. If instead, Indigenous people were imprisoned in proportion to their wider population, with only 2.8% – 3% of the prison population being indigenous then instead of 15 Indigenous deaths in 2014-2015, statistically there should have been no more than one Indigenous death in custody in that period.
The most dangerous time is a time of change, and those who fight the dirtiest are the ones who believe that change is not in their personal interest. We have seen this with every incremental win in the fight for civil rights. The magnitude of the shift that is happening to society today is momentous. We should all expect the response from conservatives to only escalate. At times it may feel that we are playing on an uneven playing field with the advantage all with the incumbents, but change is inevitable. It is truth, facts and most importantly justice that drives this change. Now more than ever, it is imperative that we continue to call out the conservative fabrications whenever and wherever we see them and continue popping their illusory bubbles of self-delusion with the truth that defines our lived reality.