Opinion

Tarneen Onus-Williams,
Crystal McKinnon and
Meriki Onus

Why we organised Melbourne’s Black Lives Matter rally

As Black, Brown, Indigenous people and allies in the United States and across the world collectively rise up to end systemic racism and violent police practices, it was necessary for us here in Australia to also rise. This is a global movement, and this is an issue that Australia is a part of too. When the footage emerged of the murder of George Floyd by four Minneapolis police officers, as he desperately pleaded “I can’t breathe”, we were all horrified and outraged, but not surprised. We were immediately reminded of the cries of “I can’t breathe” that Dunghutti man David Dungay Jr made as he had the life crushed out of him by officers in Sydney’s Long Bay prison. We thought of Aunty Tanya Day, of Ray Thomas Jr, of Joyce Clarke, of Ms Dhu, of Kumanjayi Walker, of Veronica Nelson and of far too many others. 

Last week, we had five days to organise the Melbourne rally that was called for Saturday afternoon. We wanted to do everything to ensure the gathering of people safely. We consulted with our local Aboriginal health services – Victorian Aboriginal Health Service and Victorian Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation. Both assisted us with our health messaging here in Victoria.

They organised for more than 55,000 PPE masks, 55,000 bottles of hand sanitiser and many thousands of gloves to be distributed by their staff on the day of the rally. Other health groups and organisations likewise set up stations across the rally site and helped distribute sanitiser, masks and gloves. The health of our community is always of the utmost importance to us, and it is especially so in the time of pandemic. We also trust the autonomy of our community and our allies to ensure their own safety and adherence to Covid-19 protective regulations.

Even though we were concerned about the pandemic, we were more concerned about the potential harm that police and the state could inflict on attendees – both during and after the rally. Fitzroy Legal Service, Stary Norton Halphen and the Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service partnered to create a dedicated phone line, staffed by criminal solicitor volunteers, in case of fines, charges or negative police interactions. Many of their volunteers, and volunteers from other community legal centres, attended the rally to assist, including those organised by the Melbourne Activist Legal Support. More than 500 people volunteered their time, both on the day and in the lead-up. The marshals did an incredible job of keeping the rally safe and minimising contact between police and attendees. They stayed long after most people went home to ensure, as much as possible, everyone’s safety. 

Last week, The Age decided to publish unfounded claims by a single “senior government official” that protesters were going to spit on police. Other media outlets grabbed that headline and recirculated it. The Age’s retraction and acknowledgement of their mistake did little to undo the damage, or the surge of negative commentary building against us and the rally. By that afternoon, all types of violent rhetoric were being levelled at us: the Herald Sun branded us as “Covid-idiots”, we were trolled on social media, Victoria Police and Premier Daniel Andrews held press conferences. We were threatened with fines and investigation if we did not call off the rally.

Contrary to the public statements and threats from police and politicians, there was nothing unlawful about the rally. The chief health officer’s directions permit public gatherings in excess of 20 people for purposes that are authorised by law. Among other laws and legal rights fundamental to our democracy, the Victorian Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities Act provides that “every person has the right of peaceful assembly”. We have not yet legislated away the right to assemble and protest in this state.

The chief health officer’s directions also permit public gatherings in excess of 20 people for purposes relating to the administration of justice. Violence against Aboriginal people at the hands of police is an issue that strikes at the heart of the administration of justice in this country. It is necessary to the administration of justice in this country that that violence come to an and.

In response, we held our own press conference in Melbourne on behalf of Warriors of the Aboriginal Resistance. We reiterated our demands and held firm that we were going ahead in the east coast rallies organised by WAR. The global movement will not wait, and there are not many opportunities where Aboriginal issues of death in custody and police and state violence will be heard. It was an imperative for us to elevate the voices of the families of people whose lives have been cut short due to systemic racism and violence.

Racist policing practices and sites of state confinement, such as prisons and detention centres, are foundational to Australia. Both police and the state have violently targeted our communities and they continue to do so. At every opportunity, Aboriginal people resisted and fought back and we, under the collective of WAR, are the latest to do so. We see this as our cultural and political responsibility and obligation to do so as Aboriginal people – we must pick up the fight where our Elders left off and continue their fight for justice. For us, it is not enough to just condemn the police violence and murders happening here, in the US and elsewhere – we have to take action and stand and fight against it.

This is a local, national and international movement, and the way we have been treated is punitive and petty. But this happens whether we are in a pandemic or not. The irony does not escape us that the police on the east coast have responded to a rally against police violence and brutality with more violence and intimidation. This is an example of why reform just does not, and will not, work to end police violence. It is built this way, it is systemic, and they are operating the way that they were designed. It is not that the system can be fixed, the system is the problem – and this is why these colonial systems must be destroyed. New ways of living must be created that centre Indigenous people and sovereignties. This is the only way forward. Anything less continues to be built on the theft of Indigenous land and the genocide of our people. 

A few days before the rally, footage appeared of a 16-year-old Aboriginal boy being kicked to the ground by a police officer whose violence the New South Wales police commissioner excused as “having a bad day”. On Friday news emerged of the death in custody of a 40-year-old Aboriginal man, who collapsed in Acacia Prison in Western Australia and later died in hospital when he could not be revived. On Saturday, the day of the rally, we received word from WA that an Aboriginal woman was fighting for her life after being body-slammed by a guard at Bandyup Women’s Prison. By Monday, it emerged that the number of Aboriginal people who had died in custody since 1992 was not 432, as we were all saying at the rallies across Australia, but 437.

Aboriginal lives, and the lives of Black and Brown people, depend on us making a stand. When their lives are violently cut short, it is our moral obligation to say something and to do something – they need our collective outrage, they need us to rally, they need us to fight. We call on everyone who can to stand and fight with us, in whatever capacity you can. Our collective work together is the only way to build our collective futures.

Tarneen Onus-Williams is a proud Gunditjmara, Bindal, Yorta Yorta and Torres Strait Islander person.

Crystal McKinnon is an Amangu woman from the Yamatji Nation.

Meriki Onus is a Gunai and Gunditjmara woman from Bung Yarnda and a co-founder of Warriors of the Aboriginal Resistance.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 13, 2020 as "Making it matter".

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