Rallies for #BlackLivesMatter 'selfish' — violent anti-lock-down 'understandable'

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Cartoon by Mark David / @MDavidCartoons

When white politicians and media judge peaceful #BlackLivesMatter protests as "selfish", while turning a blind eye to violent outbursts by anti-lock-down conspiracists, we are a long way from equality, writes Dr Jennifer Wilson.

IT TOOK ONLY a matter of hours for white Australian politicians and their tame commentariat to amplify – via various platforms – their vociferous judgement of organisers and participants in the Black Lives Matter protests held around the country on Saturday, 6 June.

The chief concern of this elite group is that these particular mass gatherings should not have been held in a time of COVID-19 and that Australians have now been put at risk of a second wave of infection.

Leading the pack is Federal Finance Minister Mathias Cormann, who expressed himself thus:

"I think it is incredibly selfish, it's incredibly self-indulgent and it does impose an unnecessary and unacceptable risk on to the community”

On 12 March this year, Treasurer Josh Frydenberg visited a school and was photographed in the middle of a group of students. He was awaiting the results of a COVID-19 test. He had not isolated and he had continued with his daily business as usual, despite not knowing whether he had contracted the virus or not.

This was extremely reckless behaviour on behalf of a Federal minister — one that imposed an unnecessary and unacceptable risk to the community.  It was incredibly selfish. It was incredibly self-indulgent. It also went entirely unremarked upon by politicians and Federal medical officers.

In NSW, Premier Gladys Berejiklian went so far as to attempt to have the Sydney protest banned by the Supreme Court on health grounds — an attempt that failed on appeal.

Ms Berejiklian’s concern for the health and welfare of NSW citizens did not extend to police at the protests, who, unlike many of the participants, did not wear masks. Apparently NSW Police can neither transmit nor contract COVID-19.

Unmasked NSW police also used capsicum spray on protesters in a confined space at Sydney’s Central Station, an act of utter recklessness considering the chemical causes an increased production of mucus, salivation and coughing.

On ABC’s Insiders on Sunday morning, host David Speers opened the discussion by pointing out to his audience, in case we missed it, that

“ …none of us [his guests] are Indigenous, we can’t fully appreciate the daily lives of those living with disadvantage and discrimination.”

It’s extraordinary that Speers had not one First Nations representative on his program. It’s also notable that white journalists appear to have found a way around the pitfalls of speaking on behalf of First Nations’ people, with an “I’m not Indigenous but…” disclaimer. This apparently exonerates them from having chosen to give their own views a voice, rather than those of people who actually do know about living lives of disadvantage and discrimination.

The white journalists first carefully and conscientiously noted their concerns about the flaunting of COVID-19 restrictions, then carefully and conscientiously noted the right of Indigenous Australians to protest at this moment against the injustices heaped daily upon them. Thereby striking, in their privileged worldview, the right balance of opprobrium and tolerance not unlike that visited upon small and naughty children.  

Speers and his guests seem oblivious to the fact that they are all enabling and perpetuating daily injustices by giving their own voices precedence over those of First Nations voices in the discussion of Black Lives Matter protests, at home and abroad.

It would be a good move if White journalists refused to speak publicly on these issues if there are no Indigenous voices participating in the conversation. Nothing about them, without them, seems a sensible place to begin redressing the intolerable media imbalance.  

Were it not so serious it would be funny, in the darkest of ways, that this irony went right over the heads of the cream of Australian journalists featured on the program.

Meanwhile, back in the middle of May, a group of conspiracy theorists agitating against the coronavirus lockdown held a violent protest in Melbourne, in which ten people were arrested and a police officer was taken to hospital. Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s reaction to this event was surprisingly benign:

'"I understand people’s frustration,” Morrison said, "[People are dealing] with the anxieties and the frustrations that they’re feeling; it’s a free country. People can make their protests and make their voices heard."'

This is in remarkable contrast to Morrison urging people not to attend the Black Lives Matter protests, citing risk of infection, lack of social distancing and respect for the hardship experienced by people unable to participate in ANZAC Day parades. None of these concerns was cited by the PM when he responded so understandingly to the anti lockdown protest.

The Prime Minister clearly does not regard the frustrations and anxieties Indigenous Australians experience valuable enough to deserve his compassion.

As I write this on Monday morning, White commentators continue to milk the opportunity to criticise and condemn protesters with their “should they have done it?” invitations to retrospective judgement. Minister for Tourism and Trade Simon Birmingham – asked by Fran Kelly on ABC Radio National Breakfast – declared the protests to have been “unfortunately timed”. According to the Minister, participants showed a lack of regard for other Australians making such enormous sacrifices.

Birmingham, Morrison and Cormann have worked hard yet again to pit one group of Australians against another. Strangely, none of these three senior Coalition politicians has made the same attempts to pit the anti-lockdown crowd against the rest of us.

It is difficult to escape the impression that this is a deliberate effort by conservative politicians and their tame media to whip up anger and resentment against those involved in the Black Lives Matter protest. It is also another expression of the paternalism that has consistently governed fraught relations with Indigenous people. 

On 4 June, Morrison claimed that we do not need to draw any equivalence between the U.S. and Australian situation, claiming that: 

'We don’t need the divisions that we’re seeing in other countries – we need to stick together and look after each other.'

Black Lives Matter protests do not fit Morrison’s narrative, which is strongly inclined towards denial. It was in his and the Government’s interest to prevent the gatherings if possible and, when that tactic failed, to denigrate those involved in them, and frame their activism as a selfish threat to the wellbeing of good Australians who obey restrictions, at great cost to themselves.

Morrison is enabled in the dissemination of his narrative by journalists who crowd out Indigenous voices with their own opinions and consistently fail to see their own complicity.

Criticising the actions of Indigenous people is a way of shoring up White privilege. We are a very long way from equality in this country when politicians and media conspire to silence the very voices that most need to be heard.

Dr Jennifer Wilson is an IA columnist, a psychotherapist and academic. You can follow her on Twitter @NoPlaceForSheep.

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