18 Jul 2013

Does Trayvon Martin Matter Here?

By Chris Graham

Why has the acquittal of George Zimmerman resonated with black Australia? Indigenous people know all about racial profiling, police inaction and failures in the justice system, writes Chris Graham

The election of the United States’ first black president was one of those moments. Most of us remember were we were when we first heard about it.

I happened to be on Palm Island, a small community off the coast of Townsville, now home to more than 3000 Aboriginal people from different corners of Queensland. "Palm" is a former black penal colony, and to get sent there you had to commit such heinous crimes as refusing to stop speaking your native tongue, or getting caught hanging around a white Queensland town.

The island has a brutal history, and the tough nature of the community today is a consequence of that. But personally, I’ve always found Palm a warm and welcoming place. Had Barack Obama visited at the time of his election, he would have too. The local council raised the US flag to join in community celebrations at the announcement of a black president.

People are often surprised to learn that Aboriginal Australians take a strong interest in black American politics. Few Australians, for example, are aware of the strong historical links to the Black Panther movement in Aboriginal Australia.

It’s one of the ironies, I suspect, of modern oppression — while the oppressors somehow manage to remain stubbornly ignorant, the oppressed get more educated.

Much of it today occurs through social media, like Twitter and Facebook. And a brief glance in the last week reveals a very strong Aboriginal interest in the case of Trayvon Martin, a young Florida teenager who was shot dead in 2012 while walking home to his father’s house in a small, gated community.

Trayvon had been to the local shop to buy a packet of Skittles and a drink. He was returning home to watch the football with his dad. On his route home, Trayvon was spotted by George Zimmerman, the local off-duty Neighbourhood Watch captain.

The community had been the subject of a recent spate of robberies. Zimmerman thought Trayvon looked suspicious — what would a young teenager wearing a hoodie be doing walking through the community in the rain?

Zimmerman called police, then continued to stalk Trayvon as he waited for officers to arrive, despite being told by 911 operators not to follow the teenager. A fight ensued. Zimmerman says Trayvon jumped him and began savagely beating him. So — armed with a Tec 9 pistol — he shot the unarmed Trayvon once in the chest, killing him.

In case you missed the news, Trayvon was black. Zimmerman was not. It took police six months for police to charge Zimmerman with a crime, and only after sustained protests across the US.

This month, Zimmerman was acquitted by a Florida jury of both second degree murder and manslaughter. The protests at the verdict have reverberated not just around the nation, but around the world, including in Australia.

The issue is one that resonates with black Australia, for obvious reasons. Indeed there are so many parallels it’s hard to know where to begin. So maybe where it began for Trayvon Martin — racial profiling.

In Australia, Aboriginal adults are more than 17 times more likely to be arrested than non Aboriginal people. Aboriginal youth are 28 times more likely to be arrested.

Having been arrested, the jailing rates come into play. On that front, in the US, black Americans make up about 13 per cent of the general population, but around 40 per cent of the prison population.

But in Australia, Aboriginal people make up just over three percent of the total population, but comprise about 25 percent of the prison population.

For youth, they comprise more than 50 per cent and in some jurisdictions, such as the Northern Territory, Aboriginal people make up almost 90 per cent of the prison population.

African Americans are regarded internationally as one of the world’s most jailed people. But the fact is, they’re over-jailed at only half the rate of Australian Indigenous people. Western Australia, for example, holds the distinction of having the highest Indigenous jailing rate on earth. Our jailing rate of black males a few years ago was five times greater than the jailing rate for black males in Apartheid South Africa. Today, it is even higher.

And that’s just the statistics. The personal stories, of course, are something else.

I covered a story in Griffith in country NSW in 2009, where a young white male drove past a group of Aboriginal teenagers in his car, wearing a KKK hood and waving a tomahawk at them. Outraged, the blackfellas blocked his car, so he got out, threatened them further, and police were called.

The white male stashed the hood and tomahawk in the back of his ute before police arrived, so an agitated group of black teenagers demanded police search the man’s car.

The police refused. Instead, they sent the aspiring Knight of the Ku Klux Klan on his way before arresting several of the blackfellas (for breaching bail by being out after their curfew). Police used capsicum spray on the group in the process. One of them was a pregnant teenage girl.

Beyond racial profiling and incarceration rates, the Trayvon Martin case also raises the issue of justice for people of colour. And this is where things in Australia get really ugly.

In 2008, Mr Ward, a respected Aboriginal elder from Warburton in WA, was cooked to death in the back of a prison van after being driven hundreds of kilometres through the searing desert in a vehicle with no air-conditioning.

He died, according to the coroner, from organ failure, having suffered fourth degree burns. But Mr Ward didn’t go quietly. He bashed repeatedly on the wall of the car to try and raise the alarm. He was ignored.

Ward’s crime? Drink driving in a remote community.

No-one has even been charged with a crime over his death, despite years of warnings of the inevitably of a death if prison transport vehicles weren’t upgraded.

In Alice Springs in 2009, four young white men beat Aboriginal man Kwementyaye Ryder to death near the Todd River, after driving up and down the dry riverbank yelling abuse at homeless Aboriginal people, running over their camps, and firing a replica pistol at them.

After driving their vehicle at Ryder, he responded by throwing a bottle at them. The men stopped, and punched and kicked him in the head. He died of an aneurysm. Their sentences ranged from 12 months to four years.

This is the same jurisdiction which a few years earlier jailed Jamie Wurramurra, an Aboriginal man living on Groote Eylandt, for 12 months under the NT’s mandatory sentencing laws.

His crime? Stealing $23 worth of biscuits and cordial from a mine site kitchen. It was Christmas Day, and Wurramurra had nothing to eat.

In 2012, Kwementyaye Briscoe died in a police cell in Alice Springs after being slammed into a counter during his arrest. He was dragged to his cell and dumped on a bed, barely conscious. While police mopped up the blood on the floor, other prisoners screamed for help.

They were also ignored. One of the police listened to his iPod as Briscoe passed away. Briscoe’s crime was to be drunk. He had been arrested by police for his “own protection”.

Perhaps the most infamous of them all was the death of Mulrunji Doomadgee, an Aboriginal man who was beaten to death on the floor of the Palm Island watch-house in November 2004, where I was staying when Obama was elected to office.

I was actually there to cover the trial of Lex Wotton, an Aboriginal man who led an uprising against police after Mulrunji’s death.

His crime was to sing "Who let the dogs out" loudly as he walked past a senior police officer, Sergeant Chris Hurley, who was arresting another Aboriginal man at a domestic violence incident.

Forty-five minutes later, Mulrunji lay dead on the floor of his cell, having suffered the sort of injuries you might expect to see from the victim of a plane crash. His pancreas had been ruptured, four ribs were broken and his liver had been almost cleaved in two.

Mulrunji’s injuries were so bad that had he been beaten by police in a hospital emergency ward, he would still have died.

Like the Ward and Briscoe cases, officials ignored screams for help. At one point, footage shows Hurley walking into the watch-house, kicking a dead Mulrunji to elicit a response, and then walking out without one.

The ensuing uprising led by Lex Wotton saw the police station, court house and police barracks burned to the ground.

Lex was jailed for several years. Mulrunji’s son committed suicide. The man who comforted Mulrunji on the floor of the cell as he died also took his own life. Numerous Aboriginal people were injured and terrorized in the arrests that followed the uprising.

No police officer ever lost a cent of pay, let alone saw the inside of a prison cell.

A detective (and mate of Hurley’s) who investigated the death was caught lying on oath. There was no sanction for him, nor the investigating officers who shared a beer with Hurley on the night of the killing, as Mulrunji’s lifeless body lay cooling in the local morgue.

Hurley even got a $100,000 ex-gratia payment for property he lost in the uprising. He was later investigated for fraud (but never charged) before being promoted to the rank of Acting Inspector.

The point of all this, of course, is that Aboriginal people understand very well the outrage of black Americans (and many white Americans) at the failure of the US justice system to hold George Zimmerman accountable for the death of Trayvon Martin.

It’s a regular, almost singular, feature of Aboriginal life in Australia.

While cooling his heels in Birmingham Jail, the great black American leader Martin Luther King wrote, "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere".

It’s one of Luther King’s more famous quotes, and it was part of an open letter to African Americans everywhere.

The full text of that quote actually reads:

"We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider."

Luther King wrote that in 1963, before the advent of the internet, let alone Facebook and Twitter, the tools that increasingly allow Aboriginal Australians not only to share the pain of American injustice, but highlight their own.

Today, we live in a much more global world, so I think Luther King would probably be comfortable expanding his thesis to include anyone of colour, anywhere.

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Posted Thursday, July 18, 2013 - 16:43

The crimes listed here are heinous and sickening. But ironically, the Australian cases also look a lot more cut and dried than the death of Trayvon Martin.

For starters, Martin's killer, Zimmerman, has been cast as "white", when he is actually "hispanic", or "latino". Part of a minority himself. And between finishing his call to the police and shooting Martin dead, no-one can say for sure what happened. At least, there were no eyewitnesses. Zimmerman certainly bore wounds that indicate he had been in a vicious physical altercation. Who was the first to strike? We can only speculate. Certainly Florida's "Stand Your Ground" law, which permits use of deadly force, even if running away is an option, seems more suited to the Wild West than modern society. But it is the law of the land in that jurisdiction.

I presume the author of this piece is using the publicity surrounding Trayvon Martin as an angle to reach a wider audience. It is sad that so much injustice can be meted out in our own country with practically no-one ever seeing the inside of a courtroom for their crimes.

Posted Thursday, July 18, 2013 - 20:15

Thanks, Chris,  for this excellent summary of the state of racial profiling in Australia, and the abuses perptrated on indigenous youths and adults. It is shaming and destructive of reconciliation, healing and happiness. While these injustices are perpetrated on a group already severely disadvantaged, there is little hope that they will ever be able to enjoy the same standard of living as the rest of Australia.

It was depressing to read Ian Hall's facile comment. The point, Ian, is that if a white youth swears at a cop he's given a warning, whereas an Aboriginal who says exactly the same thing, will end up in prison, probably after being beaten.  As for the other comments, despite their examples of injustice, it seems a pity to use this important topic to indulge in homophobia.

I've emailed the relevent statistics and examples from this article to Premier Newman and Glen Elmes, the minister responsible for indigenous affairs. 

We have to keep demanding that our representaives act instead of speak. Unfortunately,  I guess there's little anyone can do about the unsympathetic ignorance of people who simply say it's their own fault. 

Posted Thursday, July 18, 2013 - 21:13

Hey heres something to think about, how about aborigines stop committing crimes, then there will be less in prison.

This article is full of lies, there is no discrimination against aborigines in the justice system, infact the opposite is true and they get preferential system.

Some people need to stop talking bs  and face up to reality the aborigines have high incarceration rates because they commit more crimes especially violent crimes. And often these crimes are against other aborigines such as wife beating, sexual assault or child abuse.

Likely aboriginel culture being a stone age culture encourages alot of the violence. Aborigine culture was very violent before settlement.

Posted Friday, July 19, 2013 - 10:33

Excellent article by Chris Graham, a top journalist in the area of Indigenous Affairs. However Aborigines are not just being killed violently by racist White Australia as in the examples Chris Graham has given - they are dying non-violently from imposed deprivation at the rate of 9,000 avoidable deaths per year out of an Aboriginal population of about 500,000 (data source: Thomson N, Burns J, Burrow S, Kirov E (2004) Overview of Indigenous health 2004. Australian Indigenous HealthBulletin;4(4): Reviews 1:
http://www.healthinfonet.ecu.edu.au/html/html_bulletin/bull_44/reviews/thomson/reviews_thomson_1.htm ).

The avoidable death rate expressed as a percentage of population is accordingly 1.8% per year for Indigenous Australians living in one of the world's richest countries as compared to 1.0% for impoverished non-Arab Africa, 0.4% for impoverished South Asia and 0.0% for Cuba (see Chapter 8, Gideon Polya, “Body Count. Global avoidable mortality since 1950”, now available for free perusal on the web: http://globalbodycount.blogspot.com.au/2012/01/body-count-global-avoidable-mortality_05.html ) and the death rate of 2.5% per year for sheep in Australian paddocks.  

Dishonest and politically correct racist (PC racist),  Lib-Lab (Liberal-Laboral, Coalition and Labor) politicians weep crocodile  tears over “the Gap”  (the life expectancy gap approaching 20 years) but ignore the realities of Aboriginal avoidable deaths (avoidable mortality, excess deaths, excess mortality, deaths that should not happen) that indicate a continuing Aboriginal Genocide (about 2 million untimely Aboriginal deaths since Invasion in 1788  from violence, disease and deprivation) as well as a continuing Aboriginal Ethnocide (only 50 of an original 250 Aboriginal languages surviving) and an appalling Educational Apartheid that means that 80% of Northern Territory  Aboriginal children fail to meet basic literacy and numeracy levels (see “Aboriginal  Genocide”: https://sites.google.com/site/aboriginalgenocide/  and “Educational Apartheid”: https://sites.google.com/site/educationalapartheid/ ).

Decent, non-racist Australians will vote 1 Green and then face the tussle of deciding who to put last -  the racist, anti-Indigenous, pro-Intervention, pro-war, pro-Zionist, US lackey, human rights-violating   Libs or the racist, anti-Indigenous, pro-Intervention, pro-war, pro-Zionist, US lackey, human rights-violating Labs.

For the Awful Truth ignored by PC racist, neoliberal  Mainstream media in look-the-other-way Murdochracy, Lobbyocracy and Corporatocracy Australia see the websites "ABC Fact-checking Unit & incorrect reportage by the ABC Australia's BBC)":https://sites.google.com/site/mainstreammediacensorship/abc-fact-checking-unit and "ABC censorship & malreportage": https://sites.google.com/site/abccensorship/abc-censorship ) and scroll down to “Aboriginal  Ethnocide”.

Posted Friday, July 19, 2013 - 12:45

This article could be seen as another outback-police-bashing exercise, especially with its declarations that each offence committed was trivial but allusions to allegations of police corruption that never lead to actual charges.

The Zimmerman case involves a man who was not in danger killing a person with a gun allegedly in self-defence. The jury found that it was not beyond reasonable doubt that it was reasonable for the accused (Zimmerman) to believe that the victim (Martin) might kill him. It created the perception that self-defence can be abused as a defence for murder, or other offences.

Allegations of unprovoked brutality in police stations don't bear any similarity. Rather than there being many parallels, I'd venture that there are none.

Dr Dog
Posted Friday, July 19, 2013 - 13:22

Iain Hall your baseless assertion is unwelcome and as described, facile. I have to wonder at your willingness to comment given your obvious lack of experience or evidence.

I can tell you having worked in the social welfare sector in Waterloo and Glebe for over ten years that police are racist, and that their racism is responsible for beatings, false arrest and many, many episodes of entrapment.

We used to call it the trifecta and every copper in NSW knows how to play it. Here's how it works.

1. Police person swears at or racially denigrates a young person who has committed no offense. Young person responds with the same or worse. Police person trys to arrest young person for offensive language.

2. Police person manhandles the young person; they resist arrest.

3. Any physical contact with the police person in this melee becomes assualt police.

Magistrates are well aware of the police form in this regard and I have heard some blistering findings from magistrates that acknowldege police culpability.

I can tell you that young people resist because they are aware of the injustice being done to them. They also don't relish the idea of being driven around in the back of a paddy wagon over gutters and across rough terrain until battered, without the need for any policeman to lay their hands on the youth.

I have seen worse baiting than just verbal. I have for instance witnessed two police driving past a group of young people holding their hands as mock pistols and pretending to shoot them. When the group expressed their outrage the police blurted the siren, jumoped out and chased the group down the street.

Many police are racist and they are supported by your wilful ignorance, Iain. Spare me.