“I can’t breathe.”
The last words from George Floyd when he was brutally murdered on the street by a police officer who held his knee down on George Floyd’s neck for NINE MINUTES. The other officers at the scene did nothing. They stood by and did nothing.
They were the same words said by David Dungay, an Aboriginal man, in 2015 when he was pinned down in a cell in jail by 5 NSW prison guards.
“I can’t breathe.”
Photo by @meldcolephotography (George Floyd Protests, Staten Island NYC 2020)
I like to think of myself as a friend (or ally) to Aboriginal peoples. I like to think I listen well to the plight of minority groups. I educate myself, I’ve read books, I’ve spent significant time in an Aboriginal community in Australia. I studied Aboriginal studies at Uni.
But I’m still complicit and I still benefit from a system that was designed to enfranchise me and disenfranchise our First Nations peoples. I don’t pay rent to the traditional owners of the land I live and work on from which sovereignty was never ceded.
I’ve been grieved by what I’ve seen happening in the US over the last couple of days. Police driving SUVs into crowds of people, pulling out huge guns on unarmed civilians, tear gassing peaceful protestors so the President can make a speech. And at the same time as feeling grieved, upset and disturbed I have wanted to retreat into my comfort, into my safety, into a shell of privilege that doesn’t ask anything of me. So I have challenged myself to try and sit in that grief because for Aboriginal people who have to face up to intergenerational abuse and trauma, over 400 deaths in custody, stolen land, lost languages … when they can be killed by police for eating a packet of biscuits as was David Dungay, the least I could do as act of solidarity was not to try and escape my feelings as quickly as possible.
Photo by James Brick Wood SMH (Photo of rally in Sydney on Tuesday 2nd June)
Since 1991, when there was a Royal Commission into Aboriginal deaths in custody, there have been more than 400 deaths of Aboriginal people when held in police custody. Australia has the highest rate of racialised incarceration in the world . We are removing children from their families and into our of home care at rate that will become “the second stolen generation”.
And let’s be clear. We still haven’t created a treaty between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and the Australian government. Our Government has not embraced the Uluru Statement from the Heart. We live on land where sovereignty was never ceded. We live on stolen land and we do not pay rent to our First Nations peoples.
We have systematically gone about ignoring the rights and the plight of Aboriginal people in Australia today.
Amidst these moments where the whole world is witness to an event, for many of us all we end up doing is reposting our collective trauma onto social media. We post a black image as a signpost to our stance but don’t back it up with substantial action. It becomes trauma porn. It is vapid. We alleviate our guilt by somehow justifying what we’ve done adds up to something. And we reshare it, we post about it again, we talk about it but we do nothing. And worst of all we don’t elevate the voices of those who should be.
Some of us pray. That’s a good start. We’re Christians, we like to pray. But prayer is meant to be the thing that happens before we take action. It's not an “instead of '', it is the precursor to. It is the match that lights the flame. Prayer in this instance should move us to the question Dr Cornel West posed, “How do we keep alive moral and spiritual standards?” It is action oriented.
Here are some practical things you can do to take action and stand in solidarity with Aboriginal Australia:
- Donate money. A lot of people are doing it tough financially at the moment. NGOs are cutting staff because of their loss of donations. Aboriginal Legal Service NSW/ACT works to reform the system to ensure Aboriginal people don’t die in custody. They advocate and work to ensure out of home care is a last resort. There are a lot of amazing Aboriginal organisations out there you can donate to.
- Brooke Prentis Aboriginal Christian Leader and CEO of Common Grace is encouraging people to write to the Minister of Corrections or Minister for Police in your state and ask them to take action to stop deaths in custody.
Educate yourself. There are all kinds of resources out there. The Guardian has put together a database on Aboriginal deaths in custody.
- Film: Our Generation
- Books: Dark Emu by Bruce Pascoe, Radical Hope by Noel Pearson, Talking to my Country by Stan Grant, In Denial by Robert Manne, Coercive Reconciliation (a series of essays) edited by Jon Altman and Melinda Hinkson. There are so many books, these are some of the ones on my shelf. I have more reading to do. You can find a list of books here.
- Support National Reconciliation Week
- Listen. Don’t rush to talk. Rush to listen!
I was a part of a friend's church service on Sunday morning over Zoom. And we were discussing National Reconciliation Week and someone remarked, “It seems to me we talk about reconciliation, but we put the burden of that task at the feet of Aboriginal people. I don’t see many white people working towards reconciliation.”
It is way past due we put in the work!