Cover of book: Black Lives, White Law: Locked Up and Locked Out in Australia

Russell Marks
Black Lives, White Law: Locked Up and Locked Out in Australia

I found myself holding and staring at the cover of Russell Marks’ Black Lives, White Law for longer than I have with any other book.

I live in apartheid Darwin and am a stone’s throw from the Don Dale torture centre that continues to cage children in isolated confinement for days on end. The book sits on my kitchen bench as the coronial inquest into the killing of Kumanjayi Walker proceeds and another Gunditjmara and Wiradjuri brother’s life is forcibly cut short in police custody.

It’s been a fortnight, the deadline for this review is approaching, and I still haven’t mustered the mental fortitude to turn the first page.

As Darwin’s military presence continues to expand, Exercise Pitch Black – a military training operation designed to enhance multinational interoperability – ensures that the deafening sounds of warplanes pollute the skies. Although I can’t hear the sirens that are synonymous with the suburbs, I’m certain that the war on the street continues.

Unlike the settlers – of whom this book is a reflection and for whom it’s written – I see and feel everything that I’m about to read. Being locked up and locked out in Australia isn’t a headline for me and the community that I belong to – it is our reality.

Finally, after tiring of the imperialist machinery and its incessant braying of God Save the King in the aftermath of the Queen’s death, I pick up this yellow-covered book. Rage leads me to turn the first page, curiosity ensures that I turn to the next. And within a matter of moments I know Russell Marks is going to make it all make sense. Black Lives, White Law draws from the scholarship of many brilliant Black intellectuals, including Aileen Moreton-Robinson, Chelsea Watego and Larissa Behrendt, illustrating how hundreds of years of unchecked settler savagery has culminated in an incarceration epidemic like nowhere else on the planet.

Beginning with the ongoing Frontier Wars, Marks’ sprawling historical analysis and vivid personal experiences as a criminal defence lawyer bring into focus how the interlocked systems of dominance, oppression and exploitation work in unison to uphold and expand the settler-colonial project.

Using thoughtful frames of inquiry, Russell Marks showcases how locking up and locking out Aboriginal people is the only means to uphold the fictions and fables of modern society. The lies stem from the original truths: that this continent and its surrounding islands are home to the oldest continuous cultures on the planet and that they have never been ceded.

Wading through the propaganda that has both emboldened and enabled settlers to do cunning and heinous things to Aboriginal people in life and in death, in the past and present, Marks’ gaze stays firmly fixed on the systems and institutions that are precisely designed to dominate and deprive. He doesn’t extractively look at us like subjects to be studied or problems to be solved, which separates his work from other settler criminal justice “experts”. His positionality of crossing the line and looking out at the world from our vantage point gives his work greater reverence.

Diving into the archive of dystopia, Marks uses countless stories to catalogue, among many things, the myriad ways that Indigenous people have been deprived and how open season on the Australian killing fields is maintained. And how the legal system, which continues to circumnavigate sovereignty, has used key moments of inflection to tie themselves in more knots.

For the white and (not so) progressive camp that is swept up by what they perceive to be the winds of change, Marks’ book is timely. These gusts of change come and go. But the incurable contempt both sides of politics have for Blackfellas at state and federal levels throughout history and in the present never wavers.

While the faces might look different from one election to the next, the government’s archaic love affair with systems of dominance, oppression and exploitation never ceases. Their politically expedient proclamations have only amounted to more chaos. This is all they know. That is the inescapable reality.

Unlike the new wave of white carceral feminists who have thrust themselves into the limelight only to serve up more unimaginative non-solutions of police and prisons that will inevitably result in the brutal imprisonment of more Indigenous women, Russell Marks refreshingly presses pause. He rightfully concedes that settler Australia is incapable of solving the problems that it has created.  As Marks writes, “Any honest accounting of historical fact informed by basic notions of justice and legal reason must conclude that prisons are at the apex of a continuing colonial project determined to insist on an exclusive sovereign right that cannot exist.”

Reading Black Lives, White Law reminds me that this apocalypse cannot be reformed. And that we must collectively will each other towards abolishing carceral societies. 

La Trobe University Press, 368pp, $34.99

La Trobe University Press is a Schwartz imprint

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on October 1, 2022 as "Black Lives, White Law: Locked Up and Locked Out in Australia, Russell Marks".

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