Chains Unbroken: Black Lives Matter 1 year on

Updated: Apr 27



The 25th of May marks the one-year memorial of George Floyd’s death. Many remember this time to be chaotic and uncertain, with the COVID-19 pandemic reaching its apex in several countries. Reflecting on the Black Lives Matter (‘BLM’) movement, nearly one year after it reached unprecedented heights in the wake of Floyd’s death, allows us to gain a deeper understanding of these issues. Certain things can only be observed in retrospect.

Those of us living in Melbourne have been fortunate to enjoy some return to normalcy as of late, with restrictions easing and the hypertension of the lockdown unwinding. This was not the case in May last year, when we were about to enter one of the strictest lockdowns in the world. COVID-19 had an undeniable impact on the way we viewed the BLM protests and demonstrations. There was almost a moral dilemma in having to prioritise either the fight against institutionalised racism or the public health and safety of society. Those who went to protest were in opposition to lockdown regulations and those who berated the protestors were inadvertently allowing for systemic injustice to continue. In the eyes of the law at least, one was right and the other wrong, but that didn’t necessarily simplify what was a truly difficult situation.

The widespread impact of the BLM movement was particularly interesting, given that it extended from Minneapolis to Melbourne. The way in which racism is ingrained into the institutions and systems of so many countries seems unfathomable, yet it has been festering for decades, if not centuries. America’s history of slavery enabled the institutionalisation of white privilege and black oppression, with this preferential treatment extending over the 150 years since emancipation. When I was watching American protestors on TV - whose actions were characterised as ‘rioting’ and ‘looting’ - I could understand their intentions, but I couldn’t empathise with the anger I could feel emanating from them. Those like me, who are not black and have not experienced generations of anti-black racism, would never be able to fully understand.

Despite Scott Morrison’s whimsical belief that racism in Australia is ‘imported’,[1] the issue remains the same. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians make up 2% of the total Australian population, but 28% of the adult prison population.[2] This staggering over-representation is compounded by the deaths of Aboriginal Australians in custody, wherein more than 470 prisoners have died in the last 30 years. Indigenous incarceration and police violence were not ‘imported’, but instead stemmed from the same institutionalised racism shared by other countries. That is why the BLM movement has transcended national borders and created a global movement, revealing each country's failure to acknowledge and address their own ‘original sin’.[3]

A year later, we wonder exactly how much reform has occurred. The systemic oppression against Aboriginal Australians has been an issue that has been studied and discussed for decades, yet deaths have continued to rise. Even the 1987 Royal Commission inquiry into Aboriginal deaths in custody has yielded few results. Since then, close to 500 Indigenous people have lost their lives in custody.[4] Back in 1991, Indigenous Australians made up about 14 per cent of the prison population; now that figure has more than doubled to about 30 per cent.[5] The inability to address the social underlying problems is certainly disheartening, as we are left to wonder exactly what more regular citizens can do beyond protests and demonstrations.

The solution is left largely at the hands of the federal and state government and its organs. The Australian Law Reform Commission’s Pathway to Justice Report [1] supports a justice reinvestment approach in Australia and states that this is a crucial element of addressing high levels of Indigenous imprisonment. This involves shifting funds away from imprisonment and onto services for disadvantaged communities instead. When policy is being developed, it is essential for those of the First Nations to be sitting at the table and representing their communities in making decisions at the jurisdictional and federal level. However, there is work to be done at grassroots level as well, as we continue to educate ourselves, protest, sign petitions and demonstrate. While there is undoubtedly this disconnect between public opinion and politics on this matter, our role remains to shrink this gap.

The recent conviction of police officer Derek Chauvin is testament to this, as there was unanimous agreement from the jury on all charges. Chauvin was found guilty of second and third-degree murder, as well as manslaughter for his criminal actions towards George Floyd. Whilst this is a relief to millions of people, it seems somewhat incorrect to characterise this as true justice. Accountability is indeed the first step to justice, but fundamental policy change remains to be implemented in legal systems worldwide.


References:

[1] Daniel Hurst, ‘Morrison says Australia should not import Black Lives Matter protests after deaths-in-custody rally’, The Guardian (online, 4 June 2020) 1 <https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2020/jun/04/morrison-says-australia-should-not-import-black-lives-matter-protests-after-deaths-in-custody-rally>.

[2] Australian Bureau of Statistics, Prisoners in Australia (Catalogue No 4517.0, 6 December 2018).

[3] Jim Wallis, ‘AMERICA'S ORIGINAL SIN: The Legacy of White Racism’ (2007) CrossCurrents, 57(2) 197–202.

[4] Australian Bureau of Statistics, Prisoners in Australia (Catalogue No 4517.0, 6 December 2018).

[5] Australian Law Reform Commission, Australian Government, Pathways to Justice – Incarceration Rate of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander People (Final Report, March 2018) 5.

[6] Ibid.

Sneha Ramanan is a third-year Arts/Law student, majoring in Literature and International Relations. She is particularly interested in current affairs, history and human rights; hoping to continue the fight for social justice in the legal sphere.

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