People's Stories Indigenous People

We lock up Indigenous Australians at four times the rate of black Americans
by Isabella Higgins, Linda Burney
June 2020
Australia had its own George Floyd moment, only it passed without international outrage, writes Isabella Higgins.
The deep anguish felt after the death of George Floyd is something Indigenous communities understand all too well, except here, they are still waiting for their moment of international reckoning.
The response in the United States to the death has been enormous, thousands taking to the streets to protest against the death of black men in the custody of white police officers.
But it was even bigger than that, the social media outcry has been impossible to ignore, George Floyd''s death was noted by millions around the world.
For many it feels like a moment of awakening, of a struggle realised, but it''s a bittersweet scenario for Indigenous families where similar issues are at play but with none of the global attention.
It''s been more than 30 years since Australia started interrogating its own problem with Indigenous deaths in custody, but it''s an issue that often fails to command social or political attention.
Many of the recommendations from the 1987 Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody were never implemented, and it''s estimated hundreds more have died in custody since.
As Australians took to social media to denounce the events occurring in America, many Indigenous communities were left wondering where is the outcry for my family?
So does Australia have less empathy for its own deaths in custody? Or is the American influence so great that as a country we understand their race struggles better than our own?
I''ve reported on many protests against Indigenous deaths in custody in Australia. The smallest was just a few dozen people, the biggest probably at best, a few hundred.
Never have I seen anything like what''s happening in the United States right now.
Australia''s relatively small population is part of the reason — America''s African American population is equivalent to about 43 million people, Australia''s Indigenous population just 800,000 — but it''s a deeper problem than that.
In some ways Australia''s criminalisation of its black citizens is even more pronounced than the United States, but we don''t have music, movies and TV shows explaining it to us as regularly.
In the US, African Americans make up about 14 per cent of the population, and roughly 30 per cent of the country''s inmates.
Indigenous Australians make up 3 per cent of the population and about 30 per cent of the prison population.
We lock up Indigenous Australians at four times the rate of black Americans. It''s an even more jarring figure in the youth detention system, where about 50 per cent of all detainees are Indigenous.
It''s a crude and imperfect comparison, but it still paints a picture of our justice system.
One Australian case in particular that bears similarities to that of George Floyd is the 2015 death of Dunghutti man David Dungay in a Sydney prison.
Both men died while being physically restrained by officers, and after repeatedly exclaiming "I can''t breathe."
I remember a protest held by David Dungay''s family in Sydney. There were about 50 people there, and it received next to no media attention that day.
Not long after tens of thousands showed up to rally against Australia Day and climate change just a few blocks away.
No one has ever been charged for Dungay''s death.
The largest protest I''ve seen in Australia around deaths in custody was last year in Alice Springs, where the community was mourning the loss of a young man.
Kumanjayi Walker, a 19-year-old Walpiri man, had been allegedly shot and killed by a white police officer in his home in the remote community of Yuendumu, home to just 1000 people.
Hundreds travelled hours away from their home in the heart of Australia to sit in the Alice Springs town square and call for justice.
There is the added complexity that in Indigenous communities like this one, English isn''t a first language and there''s added cultural protocols about who can speak out on behalf of their people.
I remember a young mother at the protest rocking a baby on her hip, she told me her biggest fear was that her baby son could one day end up as a man with bullet wounds in a coffin.
The police officer was charged with murder. It''s yet to go to trial but it''ll be one of the few cases where charges were pressed in relation to deaths in custody in Australia.
After the arrest, there were just a few small vigils mourning a young man.
America is the land of celebrity, a pop-culture powerhouse of the world, and while perhaps not equitably, African Americans do have some access to that international megaphone.
Barack Obama, Beyonce, Michael Jordan, Kanye West, Oprah Winfrey. Those kinds of aspirational household names taught the world African Americans should be respected.
For decades now, rap and hip-hop music have explained to us just some of the challenges of being black in America, with complex ideas about white privilege, power imbalances, inequity, a stacked justice system, all distilled in a catchy chorus.
From Tupac — "Can barely walk the city streets … without a cop harassing me, searching me"— to Kendrick Lamar — "We hate the po-po, wanna kill us dead in the street fo sho".
Australia has a crop of Indigenous celebrities, sports stars, musicians, actors, writers, a handful of politicians but nothing compared to America''s influencers.
In a connected world, where activism and conversations start on social media, whether right or wrong, the words of the famous can be as good as gospel.
They speak in a language people understand, they have influence and they told us the death of George Floyd is not OK and you must speak up. And Australians did.
In Australia these incidents often occur in remote corners of the country, foreign to most of us, while most African-Americans police shootings occur in big cities.
Would the nation''s understanding about what happened during the 2004 Palm Island riots be any clearer if it happened in a major city?
An Aboriginal man died in custody, it sparked fierce riots, the officer in charge was acquitted of manslaughter, then 12 years later in a civil case, the Federal Court determined the police actions were racist.
Where there are lots of people, there is a media presence, then there is public scrutiny, that leads to accountability. When terrible things happen in remote areas, they too easily slip under the radar.
As a regional reporter, some years ago I recall a riot breaking out in Woorabinda, a small central Queensland community.
A pregnant Indigenous woman had accused police of throwing her to the ground and mishandling her during a routine seatbelt check.
The town of about 900 people was furious at the police, they rioted for days, there were a few local reports after the fact, but for the most part the incident barely made it to public consciousness.
The incident was investigated by the Queensland Crime and Corruption Commission, but there was no follow up on the outcome.
If issues happen out of the sight of most Australians, out of sight of our social media feeds, it is easy to ignore them.
But America can tell you it''ll take more than social media activism, memes about racism and protests to dismantle institutional racism.
America might have worldwide attention, all the power and influence of celebrity, and even a black president for eight years, but just like Australia, its justice problems are not going away.
2 June 2020
We have our own serious issues with deaths in custody, says Linda Burney on ABC News
ANDREW GEOGHEGAN: Well, the response in the United States to the death of George Floyd has been enormous, as we''ve seen. Thousands have taken to the streets to protest against the death of black men in the custody of white police officers. Now, here in Australia, Indigenous deaths in custody is a problem that often fails to command the same social and political attention. The Shadow Indigenous Affairs Spokeswoman, Linda Burney, joins us from Sydney.
GEOGHEGAN: As we''ve seen with those US protests, they tend to be reverberating now around the world. Is it likely that Australians will now question this nation''s treatment to our Indigenous Australians?
BURNEY: Well, I make no comment on what''s going on in America. That''s not my place, except to say that I was listening to the radio overnight and I think it''s become a much bigger issue than the death of Mr Floyd. And it seems to me that this is an issue of equality and frustration. In Australia, we had the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, which still is a very significant reminder of the situation for First Nations people in this country. And it''s a very big issue in the Aboriginal community. There have been over 430 deaths in custody since that Royal Commission, which examined 99 deaths. And we also know, Andrew, just in the last 12 months, there''s been a death in Victoria, two deaths in Western Australia, and of course, the shooting death of Kumanjayi Walker just last November.
GEOGHEGAN: As you pointed out, more than 30 years since that Royal Commission. As far as the recommendations that were made since the Royal Commission, how many have been implemented successfully?
BURNEY: Well, not very many. What happened is that Royal Commission laid responsibility at both the Federal and state governments. And, of course, there was various committees set up to monitor the implementation. But I have to say that report of the recommendations of the Royal Commission were cherry-picked and not all of them were implemented anywhere. And I think that''s the tragedy of it, really. Perhaps if they had been all implemented, we would not be seeing the terrible outcomes for First Nations people in custody in Australia that we see today.
There are many things that could be done to, I think, address the situation. But when you actually look at the statistics, they''re absolutely stark. And these are just statistics. But they are also real people, Andrew. And that''s what we''ve got to remember. In the Northern Territory, for example, something like 90 per cent of the adult prison population is Aboriginal. In many other states and territories, including Queensland, South Australia, Western Australia, and New South Wales, the Indigenous prison population is over 30 per cent.
And one of the enormous tragedies is that the rate of Aboriginal children going into statutory care is up around 40 per cent across the country. And the rate of Aboriginal young people in custody is also absolutely enormous.
GEOGHEGAN: We saw that protest in Perth last night, essentially in support of the protests taking place in the United States, but more importantly, people at that protest in Perth were saying, ‘Well, at the moment, Indigenous justice here does not get the same social, and political attention that it deserves.’
BURNEY: I think that probably people could say that particularly when you look at the seven days of absolute activism that''s just grown and grown in America and is reaching out across the world, including the United Kingdom, including Australia, and I suspect a number of other places.
But when you really examine what the issues are for First Nations people in this country, it is a tragedy. The social justice outcomes are just absolutely appalling.
You have a look at the rate of Aboriginal people in jail and the reasons they go to jail. Many of them are very short sentences. There has to be a better way to do things.
And I think that this issue that''s brought this to light in America is a chance for Australia to re-examine what the record is here and make some substantial changes into the way that custodial sentences are dealt with and the way in which Aboriginal people are incarcerated in Australia.
* The Coalition of Peaks is a representative body of around fifty Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community controlled peak organisations. Who come together as an act of self-determination to be formal partners with Australian governments on Closing the Gap on multiple disadvantages experienced by First Peoples:

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Amid coronavirus, let''s not forget about indigenous people
by José Francisco Cali Tzay, Victoria Tauli-Corpuz
UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples
May 2020
“COVID-19 is devastating indigenous communities worldwide, and it’s not only about health” – UN expert warns
The new UN Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples, José Francisco Cali Tzay, today expressed serious concerns over the devastating impact the COVID-19 pandemic is having on indigenous peoples beyond the health threat.
“I am receiving more reports every day from all corners of the globe about how indigenous communities are affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, and it deeply worries me to see it is not always about health issues.
States of emergency are exacerbating the marginalisation of indigenous communities, and in the most extreme situations, militarisation of their territories is taking place.
Indigenous peoples are being denied their freedom of expression and association, while business interests are invading and destroying their lands, territories and resources.
In some countries, consultations with indigenous peoples and also environmental impact assessments are being abruptly suspended in order to force through megaprojects relating to agribusiness, mining, dams and infrastructure.
Indigenous peoples who lose their lands and livelihoods are pushed further into poverty, higher rates of malnutrition, lack of access to clean water and sanitation, as well as exclusion from medical services, which in turn renders them particularly vulnerable to the disease.
But in the face and in the midst of such threats, the indigenous communities that have managed to best resist the COVID-19 pandemic are those that have achieved autonomy and self-government, which allows them to manage their lands, territories and resources, ensure food security through their traditional crops and traditional medicine.
Now, more than ever, Governments worldwide should support indigenous peoples to implement their own plans to protect their communities and participate in the elaboration of nationwide initiatives to ensure these do not discriminate against them.
States must ensure that indigenous peoples have access to information about COVID-19 in their languages and urgent special measures need to be taken to ensure availability and access to culturally appropriate medical services. It is a major challenge that public health facilities are often scarce in indigenous communities.
The rights to development, self-determination and lands, territories and resources must be ensured in order for indigenous peoples to manage these times of crisis and to advance the worldwide goals of sustained development and environmental protection.
The pandemic is teaching us that we need to change: we need to value the collective over the individual and build inclusive societies that respect and protect everyone. It is not only about protecting our health.”
Apr. 2020
For the first time in living memory, the industrialized world understands what it is to be entirely susceptible to disease, as vulnerable as indigenous peoples once were to diseases brought by outsiders who colonized our lands. As vulnerable as many indigenous peoples still are to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Indigenous peoples—and other local communities and Afro-descendants—do not have the same health services or government support as those in cities, even in developed countries like Canada. The virus has ripped through Navajo communities in New Mexico and Arizona largely because of a lack of clean water. Indigenous peoples also have higher rates of chronic health conditions that make us more susceptible.
Five centuries ago, isolation was our solution. It is still our solution today. Worldwide, indigenous and local communities are shutting off roads and blocking waterways to protect our peoples. My community has declared “ubaya,” or lockdown. If COVID-19 reaches our communities, it could wipe us off the map—and it already has reached the Yanomami and Kokama Peoples of the Amazon.
Yet since the outbreak began, I have heard reports from around the world that governments are failing to respond to indigenous leaders requesting health resources—and refusing to support us in isolating ourselves.
In Brazil, the government has put the fate of uncontacted tribes in the hands of a Christian pastor with a mission to evangelize, threatening the tribes’ survival. In French Guiana, illegal miners from Brazil are pouring over the border to invade indigenous lands.
In Kenya, the Maasai face potential food shortages, and lack health services, clean water, and soap and masks to protect themselves.
Many indigenous and local communities lack secure land rights, making it harder for us to close our territories to the threat. And everywhere, the pandemic is being used as an excuse to limit civil liberties and rights.
As I near the end of my tenure as UN Special Rapporteur on indigenous peoples’ rights, I am holding my breath, knowing that so many lives—indigenous and not—are in danger. Governments have not prioritized protecting us from the health threats that so often arrive from beyond our borders. And the outcome often looks like genocide—or it is.
I implore governments to protect us because it is the right thing to do. But it is also increasingly clear that much is at stake for all humanity in helping indigenous peoples and local communities.
There is growing evidence that deforestation and biodiversity loss lead to the emergence of new diseases. And the world’s top scientists have already recognized that Indigenous Peoples and local communities are the best guardians of the world’s tropical forests and biodiversity. As stewards of our forests, we play a critical role in preventing the emergence of diseases like Avian Bird Flu, Ebola, Zika, and COVID-19.
In early January, as the world awoke to the danger posed by COVID-19, the World Economic Forum released a report that acknowledged the value of indigenous peoples’ traditional practices, which have inspired thousands of pharmaceutical products.
Many of these modern medicines come from tropical rainforests. Yet these same rainforests are targeted for “economic development,” like large-scale palm-oil and soybean plantations and massive hydropower projects, that decimate our lands and our livelihoods.
I am writing these words in the hopes that those who should be our natural allies will listen: academics who know that new pandemics will emerge as forests come down; entrepreneurs who hope to use our traditional knowledge to create new medicines; conservationists who have a passion for nature but so often carve protected areas from our ancestral territories; and leaders charged with protecting biodiversity and slowing climate change.
I hope these words will inspire these allies to extend a hand to our peoples and our leaders. Involve us in your responses to the pandemic. Respect our fundamental rights to govern and protect our territories.
And I hope these words will inspire all to respect our isolation. It is our best hope of preventing COVID-19 from ravaging our communities as smallpox and other diseases once did. Should you fail to help us survive and fail to protect our rights, the cost to all of us will be unimaginable.

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