Human rights Opinion

Black Lives Matter and the fight for genuine reform

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Black Lives Matter rally in Brisbane, 6 June 2020 (Image by Belinda Donovan)

In the wake of George Floyd's murder, the discourse around police violence has shifted dramatically, writes Michael Williams.

IN PORTLAND, OREGON there is a fence. This fence is not unlike other crowd control fences you may see at a rally or a music festival. However, this fence has become a symbol for many. It is the dividing line that separates the status quo of unchecked police brutality from progress, a civil security service that will rarefy the murders of Black people like George Floyd.

The fence was put there by the Portland Police Bureau to hold back the protesters demonstrating at the Multnomah Justice Center. The fence sat at the end of the overcrowded street; on the other side, policemen covered the T intersection. 

In the eyes of the people, the Multnomah Justice Center was the symbol of violence and oppression for BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and People of colour) and other minorities and had been for generations. Was it too much to ask to demonstrate there?

Journalist and expert in far-right extremism Robert Evans dubbed the fence, "the sacred fence", when he live-streamed the protests: 

There is a strange mix of fear and hope here. Police tactics have been at times extremely violent, but this has bred a deeply negative response to police violence and put pressure on the local government to bring about major change. The main differentiator between 'peaceful' and 'violent' protests here has, in my experience, been whether or not the police decided to deploy violence.

The Portlanders came to the edge of the fence. Their hands curled over the wires. Frontliners came face to face with the police. The crowd chanted "Take a knee". After a few minutes of chanting there was silence.

Pepper balls began flying through the wires. Frustrated, protesters responded by throwing water bottles. Things progressed into a mini warzone. Police tactically stationed themselves on rooftops and began raining tear gas and flashbangs. 

"I filmed a woman rolling her van to a stop and weeping blinded by gas," says Evans. "Street medics had to clear her eyes."

Much of the media's coverage has portrayed the protesters as violent "anarchists" or "Antifa"

Evans says that protesting is not terrorism and, that while there is a small Antifa presence, the majority of their work is peaceful:

An awful lot of street medics are also anti-fascist activists. As a general rule, many of the folks providing emergency medical care, food, et cetera at these gatherings have also participated in anti-fascist activism. Most of them are not members of any formal group. Rose City Antifa is Portland's premier anti-fascist organisation but they haven't been a very visible organised presence. That said, I'm certain many individual members of that group have taken part in these protests and helped the many thousands of less experienced activists to confront the reality of police violence.

In Australia, the Black Lives Matter protests have remained peaceful — for the most part. While it's important to consider countries like the UK and France have specific histories of police brutality, it could be argued that the peace found in the Australian protests has been largely due to the police remaining calm. The Brisbane march, for instance, had no reported cases of violence of any kind.

It remained this way until 17 June 17, when Wayne “Uncle Coco” Wharton, an Indigenous Elder and event organiser, was arrested during a protest.

Protesters marched to Roma Street Station. They chanted “No justice, no peace” and“Free “Uncle Coco”. Despite the tensions, the protesters again remained peaceful.

Jonathan Sri, the member for Gabba Ward, recorded the event. He confronted the police officers who were not wearing their identification tags — a mandatory part of their uniform. He claims that when he pressed the officers to disclose their identification numbers, the officers mumbled it under their breath — a blatant breach of the QPS Code of Conduct.

The police then corralled the protesters into Garrick Street – a side street by the station – and blocked off the exits on both sides. It was an intimidating sight. The situation was finally calmed down when Elders were able to speak to the media. They then agreed to meet with the Police Commissioner. According to protesters, Uncle Coco was actually being held at a different station.

It's important to stress that the Queensland Police Service is not the same as the Portland Police Bureau. But if unchecked, the dismissal of established civil rights is slippery and steep.

You can follow associate editor Michael Williams on Twitter and Instagram @editorscribble.

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