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Issue #1919      June 15, 2020


Across Australia tens of thousands of people took part in peaceful protests on Saturday 6th June, marching against black deaths in custody as part of the broader Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement. Similar actions were taking place around the world, all triggered by the brutal murder of George Floyd by police in the USA.

They marched with determination, calling for an end not only to black deaths in custody but for the end of systemic racial violence by police, and for justice. “We will rise up,” one protester told an ABC reporter. His anger was palpable.

Calling for an end to black deaths in custody, protesters carried placards with slogans such as “Black Lives Matter,” “No closure without Justice,” “I can’t breath,” – the latter words repeating some of the last words of George Floyd as he lay front down with a policeman’s knee pushing down on his neck. At moments, the crowd stopped to kneel, a gesture first made famous by former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick who knelt during the US national anthem in protest against police brutality in 2016.

Not since the Walk for Reconciliation twenty years ago, when 250,000 people walked across the Sydney Harbour Bridge and hundreds of thousands walked in other cities, have so many people come out to express solidarity with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

They also expressed solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement in the USA where the protests were triggered by the failure of the authorities to lay charges for the murder of Floyd. They eventually did this, but it did nothing to quell the mounting anger and numbers on the streets.

Deaths on the rise

There have been 435 deaths in custody since the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody (RC), which having begun in 1988, handed down its final report in 1991. Tragically very few of its 339 recommendations have been implemented, and the rate of black deaths in custody has continued to rise since then.

Many of the youth were on remand. Older males were denied medical treatment. In one instance, a police officer “fell” on someone. Some deaths were a result of physical assault on the part of police or correctional services personnel. There have been technically impossible “suicides,” washing away of evidence, and so on.

So far not one person has been convicted for any of these deaths.

The latest death was on Friday 6th June in the Acacia Prison in Perth. Serco, a British corporation, has a contract to run Acacia. The transnational provides a range of services to governments. It has government contracts to run the Curtin and Villawood immigration detention centres (aka concentration camps). It previously ran an offshore processing centre on Nauru.

Serco is notorious for its operations in Australia, New Zealand, Britain and elsewhere. In Britain for its failure to provide public housing that was fit for human habitation. It reportedly abused refugees at is Yarl’s Wood facility in the UK. In New Zealand, it runs prisons and has been the subject of a number of complaints, including prisoner injuries, the death of one prisoner, aggression by staff, and understaffing to ensure fat profits.

Challenging capitalism

The demand for communal and inalienable property challenges capitalism as it puts forward a case for the expropriation of private property. It creates an alternative to private property, and raises the question of the social ownership of land and other resources by all the people, black and white, in a people’s Australia.

A culture of racism is systemic in many of Australia’s institutions, resulting in maltreatment and victimisation. Indigenous communities are over-policed, in particular, Indigenous youth, are constantly stopped by police and questioned for no good reason – only because they are Black.

Earlier this month, the police had kicked the leg out from under a young Aboriginal man in Sydney bringing him to the ground, face down. The footage that went viral does not suggest the policeman responsible faced any immediate danger. His family expressed solidarity with the family of Floyd and his father encouraged his family to take a knee when they spoke to the media.

Racism is ingrained in the Northern Territory where 100 per cent of youth held in detention are Indigenous. Ninety per cent of the adult prison population is Indigenous there. Racism is also largely prevalent across the justice system.

“Paperless arrest”

In 2014 the Northern Territory government introduced “paperless arrest” laws which give police the power to lock up someone for up to four hours without a warrant or without laying charges.

The law could be used for such offences as swearing, drinking alcohol in public, making too much noise or even having an untidy front yard – all breaches that previously carried on-the-spot-fines. Of the more than 2,000 people arrested under this law, eighty per cent were Aboriginal.

Families and communities still grieve for those who lost their lives in custody and have never and will never give up on seeking justice. For decades they have marched and commemorated their loved ones. The support on Saturday from across the wider non-Indigenous community was beyond their expectations. Feelings of grief and anger were mixed with hope.

Their hopes and expectations will only be realised if a movement can now be built around a concrete set of demands. The Communist Party of Australia expresses its solidarity with the Indigenous people of Australia and around the world in their struggles for self-determination and land rights.

Dispossession and control

The system is geared toward controlling Indigenous people and dispossession. Police act with impunity and there is no accountability for their actions. In the few cases where charges were laid, all-white juries acquitted the police defendant. There are a couple of other cases pending, but they also face the likelihood of all-white juries.

In June 2005, the federal Howard government abolished the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission, the only national and representative Indigenous voice.

Two years later it passed the Northern Territory Emergency Response Act for an “emergency intervention” in the Northern Territory. The police and army were sent in to carry out anal and vaginal examinations of little children, all in the name of protecting them from sexual abuse and family violence.

It went further, providing for the Commonwealth’s compulsory acquisition of leases over sixty-five Aboriginal communities, and mandating the Minister to further acquire leases by use of a legislative instrument.

The Act and accompanying legislation also gave the government power to hold back up to fifty per cent of all welfare payments for necessary items, which could be purchased using the Basics Card (later morphed into the Cashless Debit Card) in selected stores. It scrapped the permit system that enabled Aboriginal communities to control entry into their land and deal with social issues such as alcohol abuse.

The Cashless Debit Card restricted where and what people in the specified areas could spend their social security benefits on. It gave the Minister incredible powers over organisations and people in the Northern Territory. Funding for the Community Development and Employment Projects (CDEP) came to an end, leaving many Indigenous workers unemployed.

Consistent with the assimilation, genocide, and dispossession policies of governments since colonisation, the West Australian Coalition government in 2015 announced it was closing a number of remote Indigenous communities.

It set about forcing people from their homelands by shutting down their services – electricity, water, health, etc. Once they had been forced off their land, the bulldozers moved in destroying homes and millions of dollars of infrastructure.

The Oombulgurri community, in the eastern Kimberley region, for example, had an airstrip, boat launch and road, telecommunications, power and water, a police station, school, and clinic. The Barnett government then sent in the bulldozers to turn the town into rubble. The people were removed to larger centres, where the risks of drugs, alcohol, violence, and crime were greater. They were left without support or work and put at greater risk of incarceration.

The aim of the exercise had nothing to do with the government’s claims that children were being abused. It was a land grab for the mining corporations.

Inquiries ignored

There have been numerous inquiries and several royal commissions. They include:

  • Pathways to Justice – An Inquiry into the Incarceration Rate of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples by the Australian Law Reform Commission (ALRC) (2017)
  • Social Justice Report by Australian Human Rights Commission (2007)
  • Royal Commission and Board of Inquiry into the Protection and Detention of Children in the Northern Territory (2017)
  • Little Children are Sacred (2007)
  • Bringing them Home: National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Children from their Families (aka Stolen Generations Report) (1997)
  • Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody (1991)

All of these reports draw similar conclusions and have many recommendations in common, but far from implementing them, successive governments have on the whole made things worse. This is particularly the case with the present Coalition government and the former Howard government.

Consultation with Aboriginal organisations and communities was a foremost recommendation. The inquiries rejected top-down decisions being imposed from on high.

One of the key findings in the reports was that the very high rate of Indigenous incarceration lay behind the high rate of Indigenous deaths in custody.

Despite less than three per cent of the population identifying as Indigenous, thirty per cent of the prison population is Indigenous. For women, it is now close to fifty per cent! This is the highest rate for anywhere in the world.

The racism behind the treatment of the First Nations people has a purpose: dispossession, assimilation and genocide to enable mining corporations to profit from the resources of the people. Land rights, in particular, are a barrier to these aims.

Time for justice and equality

“The Communist Party of Australia remains committed to the campaign to win recognition of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the original owners and occupiers of Australian territory and their right to own and control their land and resources.” (Political Resolution adopted at the 13th National Congress, 2017)

Land rights are central to the struggle for equality and for an end to deaths in custody.

The Communist Party of Australia calls for:

  • full recognition of land rights
  • implementation of the reports’ recommendations
  • self-determination and autonomy over homelands
  • equality
  • action against racism
  • bringing those responsible for deaths to justice
  • an end to the Intervention in the NT
  • an end to police investigating police
  • elimination of the cashless debit card
  • incarceration as a last resort.

The message is “Stop killing us!”

These are political questions and cannot be resolved by using the police and military or by force. Ultimately it is a struggle against the transnational mining corporations that at present own Australian governments. Justice can be fought for now, and while small reforms may be made, lasting, and real change will depend on changing the capitalist system, which is behind the extreme oppression of the First Nations people.

The Communist Party of Australia expresses its sincerest sympathy to the family of George Floyd and all the other families and communities in the US, Australia, and other countries who have lost loved ones in police custody.

See Black Lives Matter rally in Sydney Police brutality Sydney, US developments, and The Royal Commission into Aboriginal deaths in custody for background information on the Royal Commission.

Next article – Editorial – Homebuilder scheme won’t rebuild the economy

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