Originating in the African-American community, the Black Lives Matter activist movement has arrived in Australia.
Last weekend, there were Black Lives Matter (BLM) demonstrations in Sydney and Melbourne. There was also rally in Perth this weekend.
I was sick with a cold when I got the invitation on Facebook to go the Melbourne rally, but I couldn’t stay home. I’ve been watching the BLM movement with great interest since the 2013 shooting death of African American teen Trayvon Martin. I’d been watching from a distance and feeling helpless. I had to go to the Melbourne rally to show solidarity with the movement and with my Black friends who are perpetually grieving and terrified for their children.
The ABC reported that 3,500 people attended the rally on Sunday, 17 July. We gathered at the State Library of Victoria. Aboriginal elder Aunty Gail performed a Welcome to Country. She was followed by various speakers. The names of Black Americans recently shot and killed by police officers were read out loud. Some of their stories were told. It was a moving display of solidarity. And then I watched Melbourne embrace the BLM movement.
Aboriginal people, Torres Strait Islanders, indigenous people from West Papua, African-Australians, and African-Americans took to the mic and told their stories. People of colour along with White Australians surrounded them, listening, and carrying signs with slogans like “All lives will matter when Black Lives Matter” and “Stop Aboriginal deaths in custody”.
“My name is Takara. I am a Black woman and I will not be silent,” Takara Allen told the crowd.
In Australia, I learned a new narrative of Blackness. In the US, Blackness is associated with people whose ancestors were brought to the New World as slaves and some members of the African diaspora (I say “some” because African does not equal Black). In Australia, Black means Aboriginal and this is not dependent on skin colour.
Police brutality isn’t as visible in Australia as it is in the US and police shootings are rare. Still, the history and legacy of colonisation offers Aboriginal people plenty of good reasons to embrace BLM. Look at statistics around incarceration:
- 26% of the prison population in Australia is Indigenous and Aboriginal people make up about 3% of the Australian population.
- An Aboriginal person 14 times more likely to be locked up, compared to a non-Aboriginal Australian.
- 33% of people involved in police custody incidents are Aboriginal.
- Between 1980 and 2000, 18% of men and 32% of women who died in custody were Aboriginal.
Organiser and Aboriginal woman Yarramun Conole talked about the death of Aboriginal woman Ms Dhu, who died in custody when she was locked up for unpaid fines. She told the crowd, “The governments really don’t care for Black lives in this country, we’re just tossed to the side, we’re told that we’re dole bludgers, we are told that we’re good for nothing and we’ll never be good for anything.”
“Our lives, our Aboriginal lives, are taken behind closed doors,” speaker Jesse Corby said. “You don’t see it like the gun violence in America.”
Blackness in Australia also includes non-Aboriginal Black people. These are often cast as migrants. That’s why people like organiser Zarah Garbrah are told to go back to where they came from. Garbrah is a non-Aboriginal Black woman who was born in Australia.
As an American, nobody assumes I came to Australia seeking a better life. They don’t assume I came by boat (little do they know I arrived in America by boat). Speaker Jafri Katagar Alexander is a Black immigrant from Johannesburg, South Africa. “People say to me ‘Get back on the boat’. I didn’t come here by boat, I came here by Qantas.”
Blackness in Australia also includes other indigenous people. After encouraging everyone in the crowd to hug someone next to them, Ronny Kareni urged indigenous people everywhere to unite. He talked about West Papua and called for an end to police brutality against its Indigenous people. He reminded people to continue to take action after the demonstration ends.
We walked a kilometer (about half a mile) down to Flinders Street Station. The crowd chanted “Black lives matter” and “Always was, always will be, Aboriginal land”. I looked around me and I saw Asians, Muslims, Indians, and other people of colour that are routinely depicted in the media as a dangerous Other that threatens the Aussie way of life and must be stopped. Professional basketball player Liz Cambage and Nathan Lovett Murray, a former Essendon footy player, were also in the crowd.
At the intersection outside Flinders Street Station, people sat down in a circle to listen to more speakers including Aboriginal leader Robert Thorpe and Wentworth actor Shareena Clanton who addressed the crowd saying:
“I am a Wongatha/Yamatji and Noongar/Gitja woman from Perth, Western Australia. My father is Etowah Cherokee/Blackfoot and African American from Mobile, Alabama. My Grandmother grew up in a time where she had to get on top of her roof to shoot at the KKK to stop them from coming after her and burning crosses on her front lawn. I want to make it clear that we are not trying to start a race war, we are trying to end one.”
The rally was heavily guarded. I’ve never seen so much police. They stood shoulder to shoulder on each side of the street and groups of them blocked the intersections. There were also mounted police. As I listened to the speakers in the circle, I wondered what the cops were thinking.
Earlier that day, a small group of counter-protesters lined up outside the library. They had their faces covered and held a sign that said “Blue Lives Matter” and smaller anti-BLM signs. They were eventually led away by police. Later, counter-protesters were contained by police. They are reportedly members from the United Patriots Front, a hate group with neo-Nazi associations.
Fortunately, I didn’t see any of them. All in all, it was a peaceful event with no arrests. I was disappointed to see such little coverage of it in the media, which prompted me to write this blog. Prior to BLM rally, I’d seen alarmist headlines such as “Victoria Police warn of Black Lives Matter protest violence”. This Herald Sun story is actually about extremist groups attempting to hijack the peaceful protest, but you wouldn’t know that from the headline.
Then there was 3AW radio presenter Neil Mitchell expressing his fears and condescendingly telling his guest, Maki Issa:
“I would rather see 6,000 people made up of a lot of Africans like yourself getting the message out there to other young Africans, who we know are offending on a daily basis almost, to do the right thing. I mean, is that something that you’ve ever considered?”
Issa was one of the lead applicants in a 2013 Federal Court racial discrimination case against Victoria Police. He later co-authored a report exploring the policing experiences of 10 young men of African and refugee backgrounds from Flemington, Sunshine, Noble Park and Dandenong. Instead of listening to his lived experience and what his research has shown, Mitchell perpetuated the same racist myths and told Issa what he wants instead.
3AW’s Tom Elliott was equally clueless is his Herald Sun opinion piece. Wrongfully claiming that “different racial groups in the USA are now segregated by law”, he fears Australia “is headed down the same racially divisive path”. He’s missed the last 200+ years. Elliott misunderstands, confuses, or lies about affirmative action, inclusivity, and the concept of safe spaces. Saying that nothing good will come from the constitutional recognition of Aborigines, he compares the importance of Aboriginal culture in Australia to having Mediterranean food. All lives matter, he wrote, and wants a rally to celebrate the fact that we’re all Australian. Did Elliott forget that we already have one? It’s called Australia Day (granted, it’s not a very good one). And then there’s Anzac Day, AFL Grand Final Day, Melbourne Cup Day, and every other day.
After the BLM rally, there were a few reports such as this one from 9NEWS, this one from The Age, and this one from The Huffington Post. News of a peaceful rally with 3,500 people doesn’t sell like news of a Black people committing violence. But people who were on the ground documented it. They shared widely on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram with the hashtags #BlackLivesMatter and #BLMaus. Hundreds of photographs have also been shared and uploaded to the Facebook events page here.
Black Lives Matter. In America. In Australia. Everywhere.