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Black Lives Matter – Origin and Relevance for Australia

Rosie Ashley, 14 August 2020

Black Lives Matter – what is it?

To kick off our research sprint we needed to take a step back to understand the context of Black Lives Matter (BLM) and its origin. In 2013, the BLM movement began in the United States, opposing police brutality and violence against people of colour. Since then, a series of protests have rippled through the United States in response to black people being killed by police, and police being acquitted or not satisfactorily held accountable for these killings. Some of the main protests under the movement include:

  • In 2013, the first protest in response to the acquittal of the police officer responsible for the death of Trayvon Martin.

  • In 2014, the death of Michael Brown by a police officer sparked widespread protests in Ferguson, Missouri.

  • In 2020, reportedly largest protests in United States’ history in response to the death of George Floyd who was killed by a police officer during his arrest.

Earlier protests in 2013 and 2014 were met with reforms and procedural changes, such as implicit bias training and increasing community relations initiatives. However, independent evaluation has found the impacts varied from site to site and this intermittent reform has not seen drastic or lasting change. The most recent protests have increasingly challenged this piecemeal reform approach. These protests have recognised the systemic nature of discrimination against black people (and minorities) by police, prisons, and the justice system, and in response demanded systemic change.

And what does Black Lives Matter mean in Australia?

This call for change has resonated globally, and highlighted parallels in Australia where Indigenous people make up 28 percent of the prison population but only 3 percent of Australia’s total population. Similarly, 4.7 percent of all Indigenous men are in jail, compared with 0.3 percent of all non-Indigenous men.

The BLM movement has reinvigorated conversations around the discrepancy between how Indigenous and non-Indigenous people are policed. In NSW, police reportedly pursued in court 80% of Indigenous people found with small amounts of cannabis, while letting the majority of non-Indigenous offenders off with a warning. In Queensland, research from 2017 found a quarter of all adults and more than 40 percent of children charged with public nuisance were Indigenous; when they only make up 3.5 percent of the Queensland population. In WA, it has been reported that Indigenous drivers are 3.2 times more likely to receive a fine after being pulled over than their non-Indigenous counterparts.

These statistics are not new. Nearly thirty years on, the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody – which found that Aboriginal people are more likely to die in custody due to being arrested and jailed at disproportionate rates – is more relevant than ever. Unfortunately, recommendations under the Royal Commission which sought to reform the prison system or amend offences which are overwhelmingly used to prosecute Indigenous people have not been implemented.

Resulting from the BLM movement is increased calls to #DefundThePolice and keep the community safe in other, primarily preventative, ways.

What is Abolition in the context of Black Lives Matter?

Abolition of police / prisons or ‘Defund the Police’ – in its various forms – has been supported by many BLM activists[1] and other key thinkers, including Alex Vitale, Debbie Kilroy, and Ruth Wilson Gilmore.

At its crux, abolition of, or ‘defunding’ the police in the context of BLM has envisioned that “social problems are better addressed through social responses”:

Defunding the police means shrinking the scope of police responsibilities and shifting most of what government does to keep us safe to entities that are better equipped to meet that need. It means investing more in mental-health care and housing, and expanding the use of community mediation and violence interruption programs.” (Christy Lopez, Washington Post)

The vast majority of activists and key thinkers do not wish to get rid of the police entirely – with many seeing that they have a clear role in law enforcement – but suggest that their remit should be constrained.

Activists have called for funding to be redirected from police budgets toward prevention or specialist activities which address the root causes of many issues which are currently policed:

“Instead of criminalizing homelessness, we need publicly financed supportive housing; instead of gang units, we need community-based anti-violence programs, trauma services and jobs for young people; instead of school police we need more counsellors, after-school programs, and restorative justice programs.” (Alex Vitale)

Activists have also seen the BLM Abolition movement as a wider reform to the criminal justice system as a whole, challenging people to rethink current conceptions of policing and prisons. Activists have proposed various alternatives to incarceration, and ways to improve the experience of incarcerated people to increase their rehabilitation into society, such as provision of education and job-training opportunities whilst in prison. Others have looked to other countries where prisons have a greater rehabilitative focus, such as Finland where prisoners are able to leave every day, which is supported by relatively low recidivism rates.

Next up: The arguments for and against Abolition. This series of posts stems from an internal research project at Inside Policy. Over the next few weeks we'll be posting updates on what we have learnt, exploring key concepts and the potential implications for our communities.

[1] The term activist has been used in this blog, reflecting the self-definition given by Eva Lewis (Youth for Black Lives co-founder) that: “to be an activist is to act on behalf of solving social and political issues. It is to be at the forefront of a movement, often times compromising your own energy in order to seek justice and evoke change”.

Photo credit: Black Lives Matter - Making Art Confrontation w/ Colonial Statues - Police then arrest the artists - Free Them Now - FreeThemNow - Defund 52 Division


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