From the pandemic to Black Lives Matter, Australia needs to reckon with its obsession with policing

Prime Minister Scott Morrison has said we can’t draw an “equivalence” between the US and Australia on the issue of racial discrimination in the criminal justice system. He’s right. It’s worse here

The only thing more extraordinary than the intensity and resilience of the current Black Lives Matter protests in the US is the speed at which they have already forced change.

The movement has the support of a broad cross-section of the US population, and it’s harnessed that into specific and tangible outcomes across the country in just a few weeks. The mayors of Los Angeles and New York City have promised to slash police budgets, an idea once considered politically untenable in cities that adopted a punitive “zero-tolerance” approach to crime for decades. Minneapolis has voted to disband its police department entirely – and an exodus of officers in the city is already underway.

Only a minority now deny the racialised nature of how the police force operates. 70 per cent of Americans believe the killing of George Floyd reflects a broader problem with the police force. The entire premise of policing – what it’s supposed to achieve, how it actually operates, and who benefits and loses – is being interrogated and pulled apart.

But here in Australia, we’re seeing something different. While politicians from both major parties in the US have taken to the streets to support the movement, only a handful of politicians from Labor and the Greens attended the local rallies. Very few Australian politicians have spoken out on the broad questions raised by the campaign, and even fewer have grappled with the question of what role police should play in society.

“Most of the evidence we have suggests the problems here are significantly more substantial than in the US”

Instead we saw our leaders do their best to deny the existence of racial injustice in this country, in an attempt to quell local protests. The Prime Minister was probably the most honest about the real reasons he didn’t think the protests were necessary.

Scott Morrison argued that while Australia had “problems in this space”, he said there was no need for the kinds of actions that had taken place in the US.

“We don’t need to draw equivalence here,” he added.

Morrison also remarked “there was no slavery in Australia”, before backtracking and claiming he was talking about the specific situation in one particular state.

Either Morrison and the other politicians who parroted this line are oblivious to the deep racial cleavages that define our justice system or, perhaps more likely, just unwilling to reckon with it publicly because it immediately puts the onus on those in power to justify the current situation.

There is no Australian exceptionalism on the issue of racism, within the justice system or elsewhere. In fact, most of the evidence we have – or, crucially, evidence we don’t have – suggests the problems here are significantly more substantial than in the US.

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Protestors in Perth showing their support for the Black Lives Matter movement. Credit: Paul Kane/Getty Images

The Black Lives Matter movement is focused on the interrelated elements that underpin how policing and justice operates, from the structure (or even existence) of police forces, to the prison system, to the law itself.

There’s no perfect way to compare all of these factors across different countries, but we can compare how the justice system as a whole disproportionately punishes some communities. And those comparisons expose the absurdity of the Prime Minister’s argument that there’s no need to “draw an equivalence” between the US and Australia on the issue of racial injustice.

Black Americans represent 12 per cent of the US adult population but 33 per cent of the sentenced prison population. There are 1,549 black prisoners for every 100,000 black adults. Across the entire population, there are 655 prisoners for every 100,000 adults.

In Australia, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people make up 3 per cent of the total population but 29 per cent of the prison population.

The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander imprisonment rate is 2,589 persons per 100,000 adult Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population. The rate of imprisonment across the whole country is 223 persons per 100,000 adult population.

“Convincing the Australian public and politicians that policing isn’t the only way to manage society is going to be an uphill battle”

So even though Australia’s total imprisonment rate is much lower than in the US, the rate of imprisonment of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people is significantly higher than that of black Americans.

What’s even worse is that while the rate of black incarceration in the US has declined by 31 per cent in the past decade, the rate of incarceration of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people has increased 41 per cent in that same period.

Scott Morrison is actually right. There’s no “equivalence” here. The situation when it comes to the racialised nature of incarceration in Australia is demonstrably worse. This reflects not only hundreds of years of dispossession and generational disadvantage but a legal and policing system that continues to operate in a way that discriminates against Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities.

Of course, the incarceration rate only tells one part of the story. As Darumbal/South Sea Islander journalist Amy McQuire wrote, the hundreds of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who have died in custody were the victims of a legal and policing system that targets them.

A report by the Australian Human Rights Commission, examining the implementation of the recommendations of the landmark Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, found that many of the recommendations had either been implemented poorly – or not at all. Those include proposals to reform the prison system as well as the abolition of certain offences that were overwhelmingly being used to prosecute Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

An overarching problem with trying to understand the racial dynamics at play in Australia’s approach towards justice is the lack of data tracked and released by police. It’s something the Human Rights Commission has heavily criticised.

“The pandemic led to the most significant curtailment of freedom of movement outside of wartime”

Another key focus of the Black Lives Matter campaign has been incarceration rates. We actually have no idea what proportion of Australia’s prison population is made up of people of colour. Unlike in the US, that data isn’t collected or reported. It’s a similar story when it comes to stop-and-searches, arrests, charges and almost all elements of the justice system.

But in the few instances where that data does exist, it tells a story of discrimination. Every single piece of evidence we have points to significant structural discrimination faced by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in the justice system, similar to the experience of the black community in the US.

It’s hardly surprising then to see these communities demand an alternative approach to justice, especially one that doesn’t rely predominantly on violent policing and incarceration.

But convincing the Australian public and politicians that policing isn’t the only way to manage society is going to be an uphill battle, if the recent response to the COVID-19 pandemic is anything to go by.

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Mounted police in Sydney enforcing safe distancing guidelines. Credit: Saverio Marfia/Getty Images

The extraordinary powers handed to police during the pandemic to fine and arrest individuals simply for being outside of their house without a reasonable excuse were demanded by a range of influential voices, including those that normally approach huge expansions of police power with scepticism.

Back in March, when Australia was still debating how to respond to the pandemic, thousands of doctors and healthcare workers signed an open letter calling on Australian governments to immediately implement the “enforcement of strict social distancing measures”.

A widely read opinion piece by the head of an influential think tank, first written in The Conversation but republished by the ABC and The Guardian, argued that “police should visibly enforce the lockdown”.

The demands specifically for strict and visible enforcement by police were curious because data tracked and released by Google showed that the biggest drops in movement and social activity all occurred in the middle of March, before threats of fines and arrests were made.

But the pandemic had people in policy circles and the media spooked. And they demanded more powers for the police.

It led to the most significant curtailment of freedom of movement outside of wartime and perhaps the greatest expansion of police control over our daily lives in Australian history.

The level of distress and concern in the community over the pandemic meant that the small number of voices critiquing laws written and gazetted in haste and poorly communicated to the public were either ignored or mocked.

But the concerns about this huge increase in police power was founded on exactly the same kind of ideas driving the Black Lives Matter protesters: the acknowledgement that policing has, and will, always impact marginalised communities more. And that’s exactly what happened.

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Black Lives Matter protestors in Melbourne in 2016. Credit: Scott Barbour/Getty Images

In the US, the UK and New Zealand, data released by the police shows that black, Indigenous and other communities of colour were disproportionately targeted by police during the lockdowns.

In Australia, racial data on how police enforced the lockdown laws hasn’t been released. It’s not even clear if data was collected – which is a problem in and of itself.

But analysis has shown that a disproportionate number of fines for breaching lockdown orders were issued by police in towns with high Aboriginal and Torres Islander populations, and in suburbs with a higher proportion of migrant residents.

This shouldn’t really be a shock. It’s just more confirmation of how policing operates. The letter of the law itself doesn’t need to be discriminatory if it’s operating in a society where racism infects everything: from where people live, to how they live, how they interact, who reports them to law enforcement, who polices them, who judges them and who sentences them.

The most significant outcome of the demands for greater policing during the pandemic was the attempt by various state governments and police forces to criminalise Black Lives Matter protests in Australia.

Despite the fact the protests had taken place all over the world, including in cities with much higher rates of COVID-19 than in Australia, authorities attempted to channel the demands for strict enforcement into shutting down the protests.

“A disproportionate number of fines for breaching lockdown orders were issued in towns with high Aboriginal and Torres Islander populations”

In NSW they were ultimately blocked by a court of appeal, and tens of thousands marched – but the Police Minister has since announced that any future protests of more than 10 people will be criminalised. In South Australia the initial protests were allowed to go ahead, but police have since said future protests will be banned. In Victoria the organisers of the protests were fined $1,600 each.

Essentially, that means that the response from Australian politicians and police to the unprecedentedly huge rallies for racial justice and against the current approach to policing has been to escalate policing.

Thankfully, despite clumsy attempts by the Prime Minister to shut down discussions about police brutality and racism in the justice system, ideas for change are gaining momentum. The tens of thousands who marched in Sydney and Melbourne did so knowing the protest was illegal and risked being fined.

It was only months ago that many of the same people supporting the protests were looking to the police as a way to protect them during the pandemic. Hopefully, this moment has helped clarify why a system of justice with racism embedded at its core isn’t a solution to the pandemic or, in fact, any of the problems plaguing our society.

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