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Black and Blak Lives Matter: the long connected anti-racist struggle

This article was written by Clare Corbould, Associate Professor of History, Deakin University. 

It’s been a big week for Black history. Protests continue across America; police continue to bristle. A bronze statue of slave trader Edward Colston was pitched into Bristol Harbour. In Australia, focus has returned to the ongoing injustice of Black deaths in custody.

Some Australians, including the Prime Minister, suggest there is no reason for Australians to ‘import’ protests from the United States. But anti-racism has always crossed borders. It has to, because the concept of race itself has never confined itself to a single nation. As the great polymath W. E. B. Du Bois said of American racism in 1906, it was ‘but a local phase of a world problem.’

In this instance, activists in Australia seized an opportunity. The sustained and widespread protests in the US are yielding results, which even cynical old-timers are hoping might become a watershed. Marches and rallies are galvanising big and small cities in both red and blue states. Even towns such as Hamburg, New York (population 60,000) and Vidor, Texas (population 10,522) have seen protests. In Piqua, Ohio (population 21,200), Mayor Kris Lee could not recall a single other protest ever in his town other than one 21 years ago organised by the Ku Klux Klan.

Nationwide American polls indicate unprecedented majority support for those protesting police brutality. Even Martin Luther King Jr did not enjoy such support, with a large majority of white Americans in the 1960s thinking King asked for too much, too soon. Many rejoiced at his assassination.

Indigenous activists here drew a parallel immediately between the murder of George Floyd, caused by a Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin kneeling on his neck for near to nine minutes while he gasped for air and that of David Dungay Jr. An Indigenous man from Kempsey, NSW, Dungay died in Long Bay prison a few days after Christmas 2015. He was punished for eating biscuits in his cell. Restrained and sedated, his final words were ‘I can’t breathe’, said not once but 12 times in his last moments.

So, in protests last Saturday pulled together quickly by Indigenous organisers, a wide array of Australians rallied and marched. Protesters heard powerful testimony from families of some of the 434 Aboriginal men and women known to have died in custody since the 1991 tabling of the five-volume report of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody. For those who have experienced this pain, the parallel between their experience and that of African Americans protesting police brutality is clear.

Marchers in Melbourne took over deserted Collins St with call-and-response chants that again understood racism as something transcending the nation: ‘Say his name!’ ‘George Floyd.’ ‘Say his name!’ ‘David Dungay.’ ‘Say her name!’ ‘Tanya Day.’ In Sydney, protesters kneeled for nine minutes in honour of Floyd and all those dead at the hands of police. Even in Wagga Wagga, hundreds gathered and marched after Wiradjuri man Joe Williams organised the protest in three days. They took over the main street, reciting ‘All lives matter—when Black lives matter.’

The connected experiences and activism between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, African Americans and Indigenous people in the US have a long history, even though the experiences of colonial dispossession and labour exploitation were not exactly the same. As Australia and the US expanded, white settler colonists forced Indigenous people onto reservations or missions. They developed convoluted ways of thinking about race and so-called blood quantum that held Aboriginality could be ‘bred out.’ In Australia, this meant taking light-skinned children away from family and Country. In the US, Brigadier General Richard Pratt summed up the policy in 1892 in a callous phrase couched as altruism: ‘Kill the Indian, Save the Man.’

Colonists also used laws and police to exploit the labour and land of nonwhite people. The origins of the modern US police force lie in the so-called slave patrols – poor white men who hunted down escaping slaves. In Australia, early police forces played an integral role in massacres and violence that permitted colonists to seize land.

Once the land was seized, police in both countries enforced laws that exploited the labour of all people of colour, including Indigenous people, the formerly enslaved in the US and South Sea Islanders in Australia. Laws controlled their movements, whether they could own or carry weapons, even whom they could marry. By these methods, landowners and others grew rich from flourishing pearling, cattle, sugar and cotton industries.

Today, the criminal justice system generates profit and employs vast numbers in both countries—though significantly more in the United States. That system needs its own “labourers,” as it were. In both countries, the people who feed the system are disproportionately people of colour. At every level of the justice system, from laws, to policing, to the charges laid, to setting bail, settling outside court, the length of sentences, and treatment in custody – Black people are targeted more than white.

Protests in both Australia and the US have flared because in both places black people continue to be cast as criminals by dint of laws and policing methods. That labelling traps often impoverished people of colour into the criminal justice system. As Wiradjuri and Wailwan woman and lawyer Teela Reid said on the eve of the marches, Indigenous people were ‘not afraid of losing their lives at a protest or getting COVID-19 because we’re fed up and we’re literally dying at the hands of the state.’

Far from being imported, last weekend’s protests grew out of a long-shared affinity and communication across the Pacific.

The Australian Aboriginal Progressive Association, founded in 1924 by the grandfather of historian John Maynard who himself opened proceedings in Newcastle on Saturday, shared its organisation’s slogan with the Universal Negro Improvement Association, founded in New York City about 10 years earlier by Jamaican Marcus Garvey. ‘One God, One Aim, One Destiny,’ they both proclaimed as they fought for rights and sovereignty in their respective places. In the 1960s, an interracial group of Freedom Riders, including the great activist Charles Perkins and historian Ann Curthoys, started out from Sydney University to desegregate towns in northern NSW. Activist and scholar Gary Foley recalls devouring the pages of The Autobiography of Malcolm X and other books by Black Power advocates.

It was never a one-way street either. African American activists took the long journey to Australia to learn from Indigenous men and women camped out in Canberra at the decades-long Tent Embassy. When Black American celebrities visit Australia, they seek out Aboriginal people and institutions. Muhammad Ali made a legendary call to the Aboriginal Health Service in Fitzroy, Melbourne. World heavyweight champ Jack Johnson recalled that in his quest to regain his title in his fight against Tommy Burns at Botany Bay in 1908, he took strength between jabs and punches by glancing repeatedly at an Aboriginal man watching the fight from atop a fence. Johnson called him his ‘landmark.’

This tradition of connection was evident last Saturday. Protest organisers extended invitations to speakers who gave voice to the experiences of African migrants to Australia and non-white refugees in detention. These voices sounded alongside compelling speeches from Indigenous people affected by deaths in custody – and the wider racism that fuels those tragedies.

Racism is forged between and across borders, as are the benefits and advantages accrued therein to white people. Du Bois called these ‘the wages of whiteness’ – and white people in both countries continue to collect them. Anti-racism struggles are, as they have always been, ones that likewise transcend the nation. In Australia, too, Bla(c)k lives matter. It’s time for white Australians to join, listen and act.

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Clare Corbould
Clare Corbould

Associate Professor of History, Deakin University

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