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Black lives matter, monument defacement and media erasure: unpacking the ethics

By Rob Cover - posted Thursday, 18 June 2020

The 2020 expansion of the Black Lives Matter protests into a global anti-racism movement in Australia, the United Kingdom and elsewhere has been welcome in countries where black and Indigenous deaths in custody remain unacceptably high.

In Australia, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are ten times more likely to die in custody than non-Indigenous deaths in custody. It has been nearly 30 years since the Australian Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody reported unacceptably high custodial death rates in 1991. While there have been some positive changes in social circumstances in that time, the rate of Indigenous incarceration in Australia has doubled. Only two thirds of the commission's recommendations were fully implemented, and much of the cultural, legal and social factors that result in Indigenous incarceration and death have remained in place. Although the Australian public is slowly learning more of the lived experience of Aboriginal, Torres Strait Islander and other minorities, there is still more to learn about how racism results directly in custodial deaths.

At the same time, Australian Indigenous youth suicide rates remain about four times higher than for their peers among the general population, with marginalisation and exclusion from social participation among the key known causes. Indeed, the lack of a sense of future is at the heart of feeling life is unliveable for some Indigenous youth, and this is a social condition emerging directly from the way in which European colonisation or invasion established the condition for Indigenous lives to be less liveable than others.


Just as the past is responsible for the conditions of African-American citizens in the United States (which built a nation based on slavery) and for the endemic racism in the United Kingdom (which built an empire on slave-trading and conquest), the ongoing disregard for the lives and liveability of non-white persons in Australia is the direct result of history.

It is therefore not surprising that much of the protest activity of Black Lives Matter includes anger about those histories and how they have been memorialised in monuments celebrating key slave-trading and colonial figures, and those who articulated racist thinking.

Widespread public anger about the social injustices that have made some lives less valuable than others is an excellent sign that an instance of crisis might generate change. Indeed, the development of a movement in Australia has been positive in not attempting to speak on behalf of Indigenous peoples and other minorities, instead making clear that it is the responsibility of everyone to listen to the lived experience of those whose colour, race, ethnicity or minority status has left their lives less liveable or at higher risk of low life expectancy or custodial death.

Self-education is important in the absence of adequate formal education on these important ethical issues and this is an uncomfortable, labour-intensive but necessary pedagogy. It demands we understand how this movement came about, why it has become global, and how we might begin to thinking about what we do with monuments and media that celebrate the shameful histories while learning as much as possible about the real, lived experience of minorities in order to bring about justice and liveability quickly.

Why now?

Although the present protests began as a response to the death in police custody of George Floyd in May in Minneapolis, they are part of a complex range of social and political conditions.


Firstly, the ongoing work of Black Lives Matter campaign for half a decade has provided the intellectual framework and impetus for responding to black deaths in custody. What has now emerged as a global anti-racism movement builds on the powerful work of the Black Lives Matter Foundation, which came about in 2013 in response to the shooting of African-American teen Trayvon Martin in Florida.

While there has been some commentary that the Black Lives Matter framework being used in Australia and United Kingdom is an 'Americanisation' of social issues elsewhere, the reality is there has been a powerful realisation that race, racism, nationalism, liveability and health inequities are mirrored across many parts of the world, in many cases the result of histories of invasion, slavery, colonisation and empire. The conditions, politics and individual circumstances may differ, but we are now seeing a growing public recognition of the lived experience of racism and how it curtails lives.

Secondly, the present circumstances of the global COVID-19 pandemic have clearly presented the conditions for race-based deaths to be seen as an urgent social crisis. The increased capacity for engagement with social issues is a result of lockdowns, social distancing, and cultural introspection about how we live healthy lives in a sustainable environment. This thinking has produced new determination on a global scale to address issues of inequality, injury, pain, untimely death and race-based murder.

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About the Author

Rob Cover is Professor of Digital Communication at RMIT University, Melbourne where he researches contemporary media cultures. The author of six books, his most recent are Flirting in the era of #MeToo: Negotiating Intimacy (with Alison Bartlett and Kyra Clarke) and Population, Mobility and Belonging.

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