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Indigenous Australia

Now is the time for Australia to finally face up to its demons

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Protests have begun in major cities around Australia, not only as a sign of solidarity with the U.S. but to highlight our own racial problems (Screenshot via YouTube)

Racial tension overseas is serving as a wake-up call for other countries to recognise their own issues, including ours here in Australia, writes Hayden Marks.

WHEN I WAS 15, I was fired from my job at Big W for stealing. I had been caught on camera stuffing some CDs down my shirt before sneaking them into my backpack at the end of my shift. Being a stupid teenager, my entire thought pattern was, “if I don’t take these now, I’m just going to illegally download them anyway — so what’s the difference?” As you can see, I didn’t put too much thought into it.

The day after I was embarrassingly caught on camera shoving CDs down my shirt, I was “arrested” by police mid-shift, taken home to the wrath of my mother, who then accompanied me to the police station where I then had a conversation with the police chief and was ultimately let off the hook. At least by the police — my mother didn’t speak to me for a week. Fair enough.

 It was less than a day between getting caught stealing on camera and the resultant firing and “arrest”. I had stolen approximately $80 worth of CDs.

George Floyd was 46 when he was murdered by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin. Apparently, it was a fake $20 bill that had brought him to the attention of police. He did not resist arrest, he had already been restrained, he was not putting up a fight — except a verbal one for his life. He died pleading for said life, saying that he couldn’t breathe with a knee in his neck on the side of the street in the middle of the day, for a fake $20 bill.

The difference in outcome between the two stories is immeasurable — despite the fact I had objectively committed the more serious offence and that is if Floyd had truly committed any offence at all.

Why, then, was I let off with nothing more than a slap on the wrist and a berating to be better, while Floyd ended up dead on the street? Obviously, the circumstances were different. There is the fact that I was a minor to consider and that being Australian, we don’t have the same level of issues with police brutality that America has.

There is also the fact that I am white.

Perhaps my punishment would have been harsher if I was Aboriginal, or if was Sudanese, or if I was any of the other minority groups within Australia who, more often than not, will be where the finger is pointed first. I don’t know, it is not a question anyone is capable of answering.

But there is another angle to look at here. Derek Chauvin was arrested four days after he killed George Floyd. Like me, he was also caught on camera committing his crime. Before he was arrested, he was also fired. But the interim was days. Which raises the question: how, in a just and fair world, can a young boy caught shoplifting on camera be fired from his job and arrested by police in a more timely manner than a police officer caught on camera murdering an innocent man in the street?

Perhaps a sadistic nod to the apparent prioritisation of property over human life which has inexplicably filled my news feeds over recent days. Either way, the fact that people had to fight for Chauvin – caught killing a defenceless man on camera –  to even be arrested, shows how far we have left to go.

Reading the news from afar and being so far removed from it that I don’t know what I should say, what I can say, and even if I should say it — I have been at a loss. George Floyd is one of many black Americans in recent months to be killed for no reason. Let us not forget Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor, or the many others who have been extrajudicially killed over the last decade alone, without any kind of change or action taken to right the continual wrong

But with riots, looting and clashes between protesters and police spreading throughout American cities seemingly as fast as the fires still burning in Minneapolis and with no obvious end to the situation in sight – a situation 401 years in the making – it seems that finally, now, enough might actually be enough. At least for the American people.

But what about the Australian people? What is an Australian, so far removed from the problem, supposed to think and do about it?

For a start, we can prove that we mean it when we say #blacklivesmatter by facing our own demons and recognising, confronting and making up for our wronging of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders. Just last year, Joyce Clarke and Kumanjayi Walker were shot dead by police officers, both of whom have since been charged with their murders and are awaiting trial.

What’s worse is that I had never heard about either shooting until it came time to write this article, but I knew about George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor immediately. So why aren’t these deaths of our own people and in our own backyard being widely reported? Why I am experiencing racism through an American lens when there is more than enough at home here in Australia?

Or what about Aboriginal deaths in custody. There have been 432 Aboriginal deaths in custody since 1991 and not a single conviction.

None of this is to mention our own brush with institutionalised oppression through the guise of “protection” which came in a very similar form of slavery to that which black Americans were also subjected to. Stealing children and putting them into white families – the stolen generation – or taking away able-bodied people to work farms, kitchens and homesteads.

Even if it is too late, now, more than ever, we need to not only show our solidarity with and offer our hand in support to those being oppressed overseas, but we need to look our own oppression in the mirror, recognise its ugly face and work collectively to banish it forever. And the best way to start is to accept that we have a problem and actively pursue ways in which we can fix it.

Hayden Marks is a teacher and an aspiring author. 

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