Dungay Junior, a Dunghutti man, died aged 26 while in custody at Long Bay jail in 2015, after being restrained and sedated when he refused to follow guards’ orders. He was in jail for assault, aggravated attempted sexual assault, and being party to robbery.
Before he died he said 12 times he couldn’t breathe – the same words choked out by George Floyd before his own horrendous death. Dungay’s family are anguished that a 2019 coronial inquest found none of the five guards who restrained him should face disciplinary actions.
Commissioner Fuller told 2GB’s Ben Fordham that “we know from the Victorian protests it put a lot of lives at risk and it’s just not worth it”. He said “relying on some pretty good intelligence in Victoria” the protests had a part in the outbreak. Fordham said the protests had led to an “outbreak of complacency”.
It seems odd to hold protesters responsible for public health, but alleviate others in the community – apparently so impressionable they take their cues from protesters – from that same duty.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison said the planned Sydney protest was “appalling” and asked: “What gives people a ticket not to obey the law?”
No doubt Morrison’s and Fuller’s comments are reflective of what most Australians would think of the protests, even as they attend restaurants and cafes and host the kinds of family get-togethers that have actually been linked to outbreaks of the virus.
Organisers of Tuesday’s protest have said attendees will distance themselves from each other, wear masks and use hand sanitiser. But a mass gathering of 500 people seems like a very bad idea, notwithstanding the protesters’ obvious diligence in trying to be COVID-safe.
Police receive little credit for it, but they are also frontline workers, and face great risk on a daily basis. The rally is also against the law – at present no more than 20 people can gather together in NSW.
But amid the outrage, perhaps we can acknowledge the different lens through which Aboriginal people might see the health threat, and the laws which are supposed to protect us all.
In a powerful essay published in the Guardian this week, Miles Franklin-winning author Melissa Lucashenko described attending a Black Lives Matter rally in Brisbane in May. “If you aren’t Aboriginal, you will have no generational memory of Australian governments actively trying over two centuries to wipe your mob out,” she wrote.
Lucashenko invited non-Aboriginal Australians to “imagine the trauma of discrimination, imagine the sheer terror” that led First Nations people to rally, even though they are statistically at far greater risk than other Australians if they catch the virus.
Earlier in the week, comments from another renowned novelist, Peter Carey, were reported in The Australian. Carey spoke to a podcast about his friend, the brilliant art critic Robert Hughes, who died in 2012. Hughes was heavily criticised after he was accused of racism in the messy fallout from a horrific car accident he caused near Broome in 1999.
Carey said the whole country “turned on” Hughes, essentially projecting our white guilt onto him. “It’s a racially guilty country that needs to turn so viciously on one of their own who they suspect is revealing themselves,” Carey said. “All white Australians know that every day [they] are the beneficiaries of genocide”.
In Australia the Black Lives Matter movement has been criticised as a sort of cheap American copy, and for having vague goals.
On Monday, the Council of Attorneys-General (consisting of Australia’s federal, state and territory attorneys-general) have a chance to do something tangible for the cause of Aboriginal justice. The council will meet via video link to discuss the issue of raising the age of criminal responsibility from 10 to 14. In Australia, 10-year-old children can be arrested, charged and imprisoned as though they were adults.
This issue overwhelmingly affects Indigenous kids because they are so vastly over-represented in the justice system, and so badly at risk of being criminalised young. According to figures from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, 773 kids under 14 were placed on supervised court orders in 2018-2019, and more than 570 were placed in juvenile detention. About 65 per cent of both groups were Indigenous kids.
Justice groups, lawyers and paediatricians all urge the change to the age of responsibility.
The campaign has been afoot since 2018 but the Black Lives Matter movement has made the reform timely and imperative.
Jacqueline Maley is a senior journalist, columnist and former Canberra press gallery sketch writer for The Sydney Morning Herald. In 2017 she won the Peter Ruehl Award for Outstanding Columnist at the Kennedy Awards