What will it take for Australians to recognise #BlackLivesMatter here too?


Louisa Gardner

Indigenous readers: This article contains names, images of deceased people

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Protesters close down bridge in Memphis

Demonstrators march through the streets of Memphis to protest the recent US police shootings of Philando Castile, in a St. Paul, Minnesota, and Alton Sterling, in Baton Rouge.

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 This week I watched another video of a black man dying. It's not something I searched out, and I don't like to watch these videos. Rather, they appear on my social media feeds and the news and play before I can stop them. For me and the people I love it's a reality that we'd prefer to forget about, something that is all too familiar. A childhood nightmare we put to the back of our minds to continue on.

The deaths last week of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling were received worldwide with horror and demands for justice, accelerated by the spread of viral videos of these deaths and subsequent arrests of protestors. Even in Australia, people have been organising protests and rallies in recognition of the lives lost at the hands of American police.

The deaths of these individuals is heartbreaking. But let's not pretend this issue is foreign to Australian soil. Why does this shock and anger at American police brutality not extend to the treatment of black men and women by our own system?

Ms Dhu died after she was held at South Hedland police station in WA.

Ms Dhu died after she was held at South Hedland police station in WA. Photo: ABC News

African Americans and Hispanics make up approximately 58 per cent of prisoners in America, but only around 25 per cent of the population. This overrepresentation in jail is recognised as a result of racial profiling and targeting as well as a criminal justice system that is inherently biased and favours the imprisonment of African American and Hispanic people.


In Australia, we see a similar phenomenon occurring in the overrepresentation of Aboriginal Australians in jail, making up up 28 per cent of the total prison population but less than 3 per cent of the total population.

For many Australians, the news of the deaths of Castile and Sterling last week was something terrible, brutish and - for the most part - unfathomably foreign. But for me the images and statistics and stories of families never getting justice are all too familiar. Police brutality is something I have not only seen as a child, but that my friends and family continue to experience and live in fear of.

In 2004 Mulrunji Doomadgee was found by a coroner's report to have been bashed to death by a Queensland policeman. In 2008 Mr Ward died in the back of a police van, receiving a third degree burn to his abdomen as a result of the heat of a metal seat. In 2012, Maureen Mandijarra lay unconscious on the floor of the Broome police station for six hours before police noticed she was dead.

And then there was the recent death of Ms Dhu, a Yamatji woman who died in police custody after being arrested for unpaid fines of just over $3,000. When she fell ill the senior constable accused her of being a 'junkie' and faking her illness. The woman sustained broken ribs and hit her head before she was taken to the hospital where she eventually died. The tape of this has never been released - despite the pleas of the family.

No police officer responsible for the above deaths has yet been brought to justice.

These are the stories of deaths that have received media coverage in recent years. Other Aboriginal people who face police brutality in the streets of our cities, rural towns or police stations and sustained injuries are rarely heard from. But almost 30 years since the Royal Commission was held into this issue, it hasn't gone away.

This past week I've seen all sorts of protests being announced in respect for #BlackLivesMatter. And while the horror of the past few weeks of events deserves to be discussed throughout the world, I can't help but ask: do all #BlackLivesMatter, or only specific kinds?

Following the deaths of Aboriginal Australians in police custody, there was limited exposure in national media. People seemed to lack an understanding on the issue - or worse than that, didn't seem to care.

One big difference between the two situations is that the dead in Australia don't speak.

In the US, bystanders' video footage has proven a key ingredient to the #BlackLivesMatter movement, to the extent that filming police has become instinctive. Castile's girlfriend Lavish Reynolds managed to film the whole incident, an act has protected her boyfriend in death by showing he hadn't committed any wrong. When she asked for it to be spread, it also provided concrete evidence to the American public - and the world - that her boyfriend's death was a tragic and avoidable loss at the hands of the officer.

The death of Ms Dhu (whose first name cannot be shared for cultural reasons) was investigated in an inquest in Western Australia. It was at the conclusion of this that her family requested the video of her imprisonment in the two days before her death be made public. The coroner refused.

Despite the horrific nature of the video, the tape would provide solid evidence that Ms Dhu's death was at the hands of police officers. Such a video would presumably cause national outrage, and it's likely that it would inspire anger in many people. While the video might change how people consider #BlackLivesMatter in Australia, it won't be released.

There's no point calling for justice and saying #BlackLivesMatter if we're only prepared to look outside of our borders. We can't as a society express horror at the deaths of those killed internationally for reasons linked to their race, unless we're willing to demand justice for those killed in our own communities and society.

All black lives matter. In the USA, in Australia, across the world. If we believe this, we must prioritise the voices of those hurt by such violence here in the country we call home. Our outrage needs to extend to those in our own communities, to acknowledge and value their experiences and to fight for a future in which all of us can expect justice and peace.