In the early 1990s, Harvard University political scientist Robert Putnam embarked on a series of studies that were to make his name synonymous with the concept of what is now widely referred to as social capital.
The idea, basically, is that societies with lots of networks – sports clubs, churches, community organisations – have higher social capital than do societies in which people are not joined in these ways. Putnam assembled a large body of evidence to support his case.
High social capital brought with it norms of reciprocity: people looked out for each other and acted in ways that enhanced the common good. It was especially valuable in times of trouble.
On television on the evening of July 5 2020 we saw social capital being accumulated: ordinary Melburnians bringing carloads of food and other essentials for the 3,000 people locked down in the residential tower blocks of Flemington and Kensington.
On television that same morning, we had seen social capital being destroyed: Senator Pauline Hanson delivering a divisive and ignorant rant, with racist overtones, excoriating those same 3,000 people.
They couldn’t speak English, said Hanson. They were drug addicts who were now having their habits fed at public expense.
Channel Nine’s Today show, on which this atrocity was broadcast, thought it was great sport. It put out a tweet promoting the rant and inviting people to say what they thought. Life, you understand, is measured in analytics – ratings, engagement and eyeballs.
This unleashed a social media backlash, so after studied reflection Channel Nine announced Hanson would no longer be a regular guest on the show. It also deleted the tweet mentioned above. Perhaps Hanson will just be an irregular one when an opportunity arises to ventilate hate speech.
Nine’s director of news and current affairs, Darren Wick, said in a statement:
We don’t shy away from diverse opinions and robust debate, but this morning’s accusations from Pauline Hanson were ill-informed and divisive. At a time of uncertainty in this national and global health crisis, Australians have to be united and supportive of one another.
By then, naturally, the analytics had been harvested.
No. She had exercised her right to free speech, and now she had to wear the consequences. That is the way it works in a democracy: speech that does unjustifiable harm brings consequences.
In this case there was an interesting sidelight to the free speech argument.
At 4.10pm on the afternoon of July 6 – roughly five hours after the story broke – a Google search yielded no link to any story on the issue in Nine’s two major metropolitan daily newspapers, The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.
Two searches of their websites at that time yielded nothing either.
It was in The Australian – with reaction from Hanson; it was in the Guardian Australia; it was even in the Wauchope Gazette, perhaps the first time it has ever scooped the SMH on a national story.
Long before Hanson got into the act, the large number of Sudanese refugees who live in those towers had for years been stopped, searched and questioned repeatedly by Victoria Police.
Eventually, in 2010, the police were sued under the Racial Discrimination Act by a group of young Sudanese men, who alleged the police engaged in racial profiling. That is, the police took action against them based on their race rather than on anything they were reasonably suspected of having done.
On the basis of statistical evidence from the police force’s own data base, Professor Chris Cunneen, a criminologist from James Cook University who specialises in the policing of Aboriginal people, concluded that racial profiling was happening in Flemington.
In 2013, the case, Haile-Michael v Konstantinidis, was settled at the door of the court, with the police promising to introduce training programs designed to improve relations between the police and ethnic minorities, particularly African communities. However, the police always denied the charge of racial profiling.
It was a long and complex saga, an excellent summary of which can be found here.
Against this troubled background, the potential exists for tension in the towers to reach dangerous levels no matter how well the police on duty there perform now.
By giving rein to her ignorance and prejudice, Hanson has made their job, and the lives of the locked-down residents, even more difficult. She has diminished Australia’s social capital.
And Channel Nine gave her a megaphone to do it with.
Only 40% of students in China who previously intended to study overseas still plan to, while just under 50% of those who had studied overseas plan to return to their study after the borders reopen.
These are results from our unpublished survey of 1,012 students we conducted in China between June 5 and 15. We asked them whether they would continue with their plan to study abroad post COVID-19.
These findings are not surprising. Due to growing tensions between China and the West – even before COVID-19 – middle-class parents in China had become increasingly concerned about the safety of, and possible discrimination against, their children abroad, including in the US and Australia.
The pandemic seems to have accelerated this trend.
What students say about studying in Australia
Of the 1,012 students we surveyed, 404 had registered to study abroad in the next three years (in the US, UK, Australia, Canada, Japan, New Zealand and Singapore) and 608 had been studying overseas (including in Australia, US, UK, Canada, New Zealand and Japan) before COVID-19 .
In the questionnaire, we presented interviewees with considerations and asked them to nominate which ones would influence their decision about whether to study in Australia after COVID-19, as well as in other countries.
The first group (group A) includes 304 students who had studied in Australia but who were not able to return due to travel restrictions.
Of these, 50% were undergraduates, 42% graduates, 5% doctoral students, and 3% vocational education or high school students.
The second group (group B) includes students who had never studied abroad before but had registered their intention to in the next three years, including in Australia, before COVID-19.
The second group also answered Australia-specific questions.
Not many students in either group considered issues such as more expensive air travel, less freedom in China and online lectures as critical factors influencing their decision to study in Australia.
But the two groups reacted to some factors quite differently. The students who had studied in Australia before considered the following factors as more critical to their decision:
returnees with Australian degrees are not more competitive in China’s job market compared to graduates from top-tier universities in China
life is more convenient, safe and easier at home and I don’t want to go abroad to endure the hardship as a foreign student
improved political stability and economic prospects in China
less of a chance of landing a good job with an Australian degree in China
no need to go abroad if lectures are delivered online.
The group of students who hadn’t yet studied in Australia but planned to, considered the following factors as critical:
media reported cases of Chinese being “discriminated against” or “abused” in Australia
deterioration in Sino-Australia relations
not many outstanding returnees from Australia are visible in the media to represent the success of Australian education
Australian universities lowered the entry standard for foreign students due to COVID-19
Australian degrees are perceived to be less valuable compared to degrees from other English-speaking countries, especially the US and the UK, by HR personnel in China.
What the students said
Not surprisingly, both groups considered the Chinese government’s warnings against visiting, or studying in, Australia important. A decision to study and live abroad is often made by the whole family in China. Official voices weigh significantly in such decisions.
A student who had done some of her master degree in a Melbourne university said:
After the Chinese New Year, Australian borders were closed to Chinese students due to COVID-19. Direct travel was not allowed. So I travelled to Thailand and spent 14 days in a small hotel in Bangkok before I landed in Melbourne. I had to be self-quarantined for 14 days in my rented room.
Then I found all lectures were moved online and the situation of COVID-19 became serious in Melbourne. The PM urged international students to go home. My parents were so worried. They paid for an over-priced air ticket and a quarantine-hotel in Shanghai for me for 14 days before I could go back to my hometown.
When the [Chinese] government announced the travel and study warnings, I couldn’t convince my parents that things aren’t that bad in Australia. They listened to the government and believed the ‘official voices’ rather than their own daughter.
There have been cases (though isolated ones) of Asians or Chinese people being bullied in Australia due to COVID-19. Unfortunately, social media in China often distorts such cases and amplifies the (mis)perceptions. And the tensions between China and Australia have enhanced these negative perceptions.
Sending their children abroad was once a privilege for elites with intellectual, economic or political power in China. But this is now quite common among middle-class Chinese families.
Chinese families spend a large amount of money on their children’s education. Better opportunities (either in the host country or on returning home) after study abroad is an underlining reason Chinese families invest in their children.
Australia has attracted many Chinese students in recent decades. But if Chinese students with Australian degrees are less appreciated or less competitive compared to those who study in other countries or in local universities, families will look for other options.
A Chinese student who had been studying at a Sydney university told us:
We are the clients and the degrees are a commodity; we pay for our degrees. What if the commodity loses its value? The clients will surely walk away.
COVID-19 has had a negative impact on the number of Chinese students likely to study in Australia. But the downward trend started way before the pandemic.
Australian universities need to adjust their strategies for a future that will not only deliver value for Chinese students, but also strengthen a positive perception about this value.
Colonisation is invasion: a group of people taking over the land and imposing their own culture on Indigenous people.
Modern colonisation dates back to the Age of Discovery in the 15th century, as European nations sought to expand their influence and wealth. In the process, representatives of these countries claimed the land, ignoring the Indigenous people and erasing Indigenous sovereignty.
Laws and policing were significant tools of dispossession and oppression. Indigenous people were brutalised, exploited and often positioned as subhuman. As Jean-Paul Sartre described colonisation:
[…] you begin by occupying the country, then you take the land and exploit the former owners at starvation rates […] you finish up taking from the natives their very right to work.
Colonisation is more than physical. It is also cultural and psychological in determining whose knowledge is privileged. In this, colonisation not only impacts the first generation colonised but creates enduring issues.
Decolonisation seeks to reverse and remedy this through direct action and listening to the voices of First Nations people.
The word “decolonisation” was first coined by the German economist Moritz Julius Bonn in the 1930s to describe former colonies that achieved self-governance.
Many struggles for independence were armed and bloody. The Algerian War of Independence (1954- 1962) against the French was particularly brutal.
Other struggles involved political negotiations and passive resistance.
While the exiting of the British from India in 1947 is largely remembered as nonviolent resistance under Gandhi’s pacifist ethic, the campaign started in 1857 and was not without bloodshed.
The quest for independence is rarely peaceful.
Decolonisation is now used to talk about restorative justice through cultural, psychological and economic freedom.
In most countries where colonisers remain, Indigenous people still don’t hold significant positions of power or self-determination. These nations are termed “settler-colonial” countries – a term made popular in the 1990s by academic Patrick Wolfe, who said “invasion is a structure not an event”.
Another word that is useful in understanding decolonisation is “neocolonial”. It was coined by Kwame Nkrumah, Ghana’s first president, in the early 1960s to refer to the continuity of the former coloniser’s power through economic, political, educational and other informal means.
In these neocolonial or settler-colonial countries, advocacy for the rights of Indigenous people is not always matched by action. The voices of Indigenous people for treaty and truth in culture, politics, law and education resound while practice lags.
We might kneel to remember those murdered. But we need to call on institutions to enact required reforms for decolonisation. We need to support people in organisations who speak out against racism. We need to question whether colonisation taught us to stand, in institutional uniforms of the mind, and passively watch the choking.
A recent statement from China’s education bureau warned Chinese students about studying in Australia due to “racist incidents” during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Such statements, and further moves from China’s education agents threatening to redirect students towards international competitors such as the United Kingdom, can negatively affect Australia as a study destination. Australia’s universities are already reeling from the loss of international students due to COVID-19.
There have been reports some international students from China have defended Australia as a study destination. I have been conducting in-depth interviews with ten international students in Australia about their experiences and concerns throughout COVID-19.
They too have, mostly, positive things to say.
Here are three things they believe Australia should know as we plan our recovery.
Students I spoke with reported this was already happening. One student from Peru said he had “had quite racist comments like ‘go back to your country’”. Another, from India, spoke at length about part-time jobs now being “offered only to Australian citizens. I was told not to even bring in a CV”.
On April 4, the prime minister called for temporary visa holders to “go home” if they couldn’t support themselves.
Each student I spoke with said this was the point in time when they went from feeling a part of their community, to feeling unwelcome.
One Indian student told me:
I have seen a rise in anti-Chinese sentiment and anti-Asian sentiment. I have seen my Japanese flatmate have abuse yelled at her on the street. Calling her a “filthy Asian” and things like this.
Another student spoke about Labor Senator Kristina Kenneally’s call to “reset” Australia’s temporary migration intake and give Australians a “fair go”.
Definitely, there is a growing anti-immigrant sentiment here. The talk from people in the Australian government that we should be “getting our jobs back for Australians” is constructed in a way to inherently disadvantage people like me, or immigrants. Because it is government policy it will infiltrate across the country and it’s hard to tackle that on an individual level.
Each student suggested Australia’s reputation as a welcoming, safe and diverse place was what was going to shape how parents and prospective students made decisions about where to study after the crisis.
2. International students are integrated in Australian society
The students I spoke with are looking to integrate in local communities as a central part of their overseas experience. They felt they contributed to various parts of Australian society – as tourists and volunteers.
And many played an active role in promoting Australia and their city internationally.
Daniel, from Peru, is based at a regional Queensland university. He volunteers with a local men’s mental health organisation. He’s taken over the weekly Spanish language program on the local radio station and, until the shutdown, worked part time at a bar and volunteered with a research program measuring local water quality.
Something I have learned here is about a sense of community, about being kind to others. I love Australia and the people I have met so far. Once all this is over, I will go back to my home country and teach them about what I have learned here.
3. The government needs to signal its support through clear policy
International students want clear policy responses and acknowledgement of the valuable role they play in Australia.
Australia’s flattened curve undoubtably works in our favour, giving us an advantage over the United States and the UK.
However, the government’s support and welfare may shape how parents and prospective students make future decisions.
Clear policy responses matter now. They offer a signal to students – current and future – that Australia recognises the importance of international students, and they are a welcome and supported part of our communities.
An example is Australia’s reluctance to guarantee international students will not be penalised from being eligible for a Temporary Graduate Visa if studying online. This visa allows graduates of Australian universities to stay on and work, and is essential to attracting students. Currently students are restricted around the amount of offshore study they can do to be eligible.
Canada made such an adjustment early on, announcing international students could complete 50% of their study online without it impacting their eligibility to eventually apply for a post-study work permit.
One Indian student told me:
I don’t think Indian students will be deterred from their goal to study abroad and to better their lives. But a lot of where they decide to do this depends on how the government reacts and responds. A lot of students are probably going to start looking at Europe and Canada as a better destination because of the policies they have. Canada has been doing a really great job at protecting its international student community.
International students value human connection and their expectations and contributions extend beyond the lecture hall. They are looking for responses and a recovery strategy that acknowledges this.
Paradoxically, but perhaps inevitably, as things are getting better in the wake of the COVID crisis tempers – including, it would seem, that of Scott Morrison – are becoming more frayed.
The Black Lives Matter demonstrations of last weekend marked a new stage in this strange and unpredictable journey coronavirus has taken us on.
The fallout from the murder of an unarmed black man, George Floyd, in the United States dramatically changed the COVID conversation in this country.
The protests exposed limits to the ability of leaders and health experts to persuade people to modify their behaviour.
They unleashed a backlash on the grounds of double standards, with critics contrasting how police had chased minor infringements. Those who’d always claimed the restrictions were too strict became louder in their demands they be lifted more quickly and comprehensively.
The tone of Morrison changed and sharpened, as the government struggles with its exit strategy.
Morrison says if protesters are on the streets in coming days, they should be charged. But the picture is confusing and potentially volatile.
In the Northern Territory, the demonstrators have an official OK. In NSW the police have been actively resisting more protests and are threatening fines and arrests. On Thursday night they succeeded in having the NSW Supreme Court ban a proposed rally organised by refugee advocates.
On another front, Morrison’s frustration with those premiers who are keeping their borders shut has ramped up.
Having managed the crisis very effectively so far, and received extensive praise for his efforts (this week’s Essential poll had 70% rating the federal government’s response as good), Morrison can see the danger of things going awry, either through fresh outbreaks of the virus or the reopening not proceeding fast enough.
On Thursday he was suggesting the protesters were slowing an increase in the numbers allowed at funerals (a highly emotive issue). Asked on 2GB about the NSW situation on funerals he said “the rally last weekend is the only legitimate real block to this at the moment, because we actually don’t know right now whether those rallies on the weekend may have caused outbreaks”.
But the government is sending conflicting messages, on one hand indicating the protests could hold back action while on the other hand saying action must go ahead.
Thus Morrison is insisting premiers nominate a date in July when their borders would be open (a date is important so tourist arrangements can be made).
Although there are multiple states with closed borders, Queensland is primarily in the sights of the federal government and other critics. Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk, facing an election in October, knows she has to choose the right moment to scrap the border restriction, before her hard line loses favour with her electors. She is now saying July (previously there was talk of later) and declaring she’s on the same page as the PM.
One man who attended the Melbourne rally has tested positive for COVID-19. But it will be more than another week before it becomes clear whether last weekend’s protests have triggered a health problem. And that timeline will be dragged out by protests to come. On the flip side, if there aren’t more cases, this will be a green light to accelerate progress – an unsanctioned large scale trial.
The protests have put new pressures on the opposition.
Knowing there’d be strong support for them among some in Labor’s ranks and base, Anthony Albanese stepped carefully on boggy ground, advising people to listen to the health advice.
Four federal Labor parliamentarians – Graham Perrett and Anika Wells from Queensland, and Warren Snowdon and Malarndirri McCarthy from the Northern Territory – attended rallies. There was a bit of a flurry when they got to parliament so they went for COVID tests (which didn’t mean much given the incubation period).
Despite parliament sitting this week, the opposition is still having a hard time achieving any positive cut-through. It struggles for traction with its attacks on inadequacies it identifies in government’s programs and decisions relating to COVID.
The political climate might change as the months go on; depending on the result, the July 4 Eden-Monaro byelection could affect the atmospherics of the wider debate. But at the moment people still seem turned off by political conflict, or by politics generally.
This week brought updated numbers, from the OECD, on Australia’s way out of the virus crisis. The OECD produced two scenarios, for a “single hit” and a “double hit” of the virus.
It estimated Australia’s GDP would fall 5% in 2020 in the single-hit scenario, which is hopefully the one we remain in.
But the report said: “Should widespread contagion resume, with a return of lockdowns, confidence would suffer and cash-flow would be strained. In that double-hit scenario, GDP could fall by 6.3% in 2020”.
The single hit would see recovery at 4.1% in 2021, but if there were a double hit the growth would be only an estimated 1%.
The OECD also says further policy measures would help the recovery, and notes there is plenty of fiscal room to provide them.
It’s interesting to compare New Zealand, which had a goal of “eliminating” COVID and a draconian lockdown.
The OECD predicts New Zealand GDP will shrink by 8.9% in 2020 under the single-hit scenario – but grow by 6.6% in 2021. If there were a double hit, this year’s GDP fall would be 10% and next year’s growth would be an estimated 3.6%.
New Zealand this week announced it was now COVID-free (while accepting, realistically, there’ll almost certainly be some future cases). Restrictions are now fully lifted, apart from the still-closed border.
The Morrison government from the start rejected “elimination” in favour of suppression (although in some areas elimination has effectively been the result of successful suppression).
So with the shutdown more limited in Australia than in New Zealand but the reopening more gradual, on the OECD figures the economy’s dive is forecast to be shallower here but the bounce back weaker than across the Tasman.
New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said she “did a little dance” when her country became COVID-free.
Morrison isn’t dancing just yet. While compared with many countries Australia’s record has been enviable, the way forward carries a new, and unexpected, element of uncertainty, together with those we knew about already.
FRIDAY UPDATE: More COVID restrictions to be eased; Queensland border set to open July 10
The Queensland government has indicated it will open its border from July 10, while South Australia on Friday said its borders will be fully open on July 20, and Tasmania is looking to a late July opening. Western Australia is still not setting a date for an open border.
Friday’s national cabinet, ahead of a new round of demonstrations, reiterated the health advice “that protests are very high risk due to the large numbers of people closely gathering and challenges in identifying all contacts.”
Scott Morrison again strongly urged people to stay away from rallies, and Anthony Albanese endorsed the health advice.
National cabinet agreed to the easing of more restrictions. The 100-person limit on non-essential indoor gatherings will be replaced by one person per four square metres rule.
For outdoor events including stadiums up to 40,000 capacity, ticketed and seated events will be able to be held with a crowd of no more than 25% of the venue’s capacity.
States and territories will decide when to implement these changes.
The protests against systemic racism and police violence sweeping the globe highlight the intersection between two pandemics: COVID-19 and racism. Researchers are pointing out that structural inequalities mean people of colour are hit harder by the coronavirus.
Politicians are also concerned the protests may trigger an increase in the spread of COVID-19, so public health experts are providing tips on how to protest safely.
In this week’s roundup of coronavirus stories from scholars across the globe, we explore the disproportionate impact of COVID-19, New Zealand’s success, and the latest on drug trials.
This is our weekly roundup of expert info about the coronavirus.
The Conversation, a not-for-profit group, works with a wide range of academics across its global network. Together we produce evidence-based analysis and insights. The articles are free to read – there is no paywall – and to republish. Keep up to date with the latest research by reading our free newsletter.
Pandemics expose inequality
Past pandemics have exposed existing inequalities, and this one is no different. Our experts explain why COVID-19 is having a greater impact on people of colour and other marginalised groups.
Disproportionate impact. Black Americans have been dying from the coronavirus at nearly three times the rate of white Americans, while black people in the United Kingdom are four times more likely to die from COVID-19 than their white compatriots. Medical historian Mark Honigsbaum writes about the relationship between pandemics and inequality.
Social justice is crucial to healthcare. Systemic racism means marginalised groups have limited access to resources that impact health, according to an interdisciplinary team of US health researchers. Doctors need to be trained to understand the social determinants of health to deal with problems like COVID-19, argue researchers from Rwanda’s University of Global Health Equity.
Safely protesting. Public health experts are concerned the protests will increase the spread of COVID-19. An infection prevention researcher at Monash University gives some tips on how to minimise the risk of transmission when taking to the streets.
“Fear of what others might think when they see a Black man in a mask.”. Despite masks providing increased safety during the pandemic, black and other minority groups are often subjected to racist abuse or discrimination when wearing them. Jasmin Zine of Wilfrid Laurier University explores the racial politics of mask wearing.
A lack of clean water. Clean water is crucial for hygiene and hand washing, key elements of infection control. But many people do not have access to good quality water, especially in slums and refugee camps, according to researchers from the National University of Singapore and the University of Glasgow.
New Zealand eliminates the virus
New Zealand has hit the historic milestone of zero active cases, and lifted almost all its coronavirus restrictions. Two of the leading public health experts behind the successful elimination now explain the challenge of maintaining it. Meanwhile, across the Tasman Sea, experts chart Australia’s journey in controlling the virus.
Cautious celebration. New Zealand has successfully eliminated COVID-19, but elimination is not one point in time: it requires ongoing work. Two public health professors from the University of Otago describe five ways the country can protect itself in the long term.
Asymptomatic cases. Removing coronavirus restrictions in New Zealand increases the chance of a new outbreak to 8%, according to modelling from an interdisciplinary research team. This is because there may be hidden asymptomatic cases that haven’t been uncovered by testing.
Australia’s success. On the other side of the Tasman, Australia’s response has also been one of the most successful in the world. Yet small outbreaks continue to crop up. Steven Duckett and Anika Stobart from the Grattan Institute explain four factors behind the success, and four ways Australia’s response could have been even better.
Testing is key. The success of both New Zealand and Australia is supported by a high number of tests per thousand people, according to a researcher from the University of Sydney, who poured over the worldwide data. Bahrain, Qatar, Lithuania and Denmark are also among the countries with the highest rates of testing per thousand people.
The latest on drug trials, spread, contact tracing
As the world awaits a vaccine that might not arrive, intensive research continues into possible drugs to treat COVID-19. Trials of hydroxychloroquine, the anti-malaria drug spruiked by US President Donald Trump, continue in the face of ongoing controversy.
Study retracted. One study had previously made global headlines after concluding hydroxychloroquine and the related drug chloroquine were associated with an increased risk of death. But the study has been retracted by prestigious medical journal The Lancet because of concerns over the data. Some clinical trials have been paused, while others continue.
The history of clinical trials. The concept of clinical trials might be new to many of us, but they have an ancient history. One of the earliest experiments happened almost 1,000 years ago in China, writes Adrian Esterman from the University of South Australia.
Will it burn out?. The original SARS virus disappeared in 2004. But Connor Bamford, a virologist from Queen’s University Belfast, says COVID-19 is unlikely to do the same because it spreads more easily than SARS. Instead, SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, might become an endemic virus that settles into the human population.
Contact tracing isn’t new. Contact tracing has been an important tool in controlling COVID-19 in many countries. Two researchers from the University of Glasgow examine the history behind the idea, and how it was used to tackle the bubonic plague 500 years ago.
Development risks. Pregnant women have experienced greater anxiety and depressive symptoms since the start of the pandemic. This could affect the development of foetuses, writes Berthelot Nicolas from the University of Quebec (in French).
You probably know the details of the death of George Floyd. He was a doting father and musician. He was killed when a police officer, Derek Chauvin, knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes while he cried out “I can’t breathe!”
Do you know about David Dungay Jr? He was a Dunghutti man, an uncle. He had a talent for poetry that made his family endlessly proud. He was held down by six corrections officers in a prone position until he died and twice injected with sedatives because he ate rice crackers in his cell.
At the end of a long inquest that stretched to almost four years, the coroner declined to refer the officers involved in Dungay’s death to prosecutors (who might consider charges) or to disciplinary bodies.
When I heard [George Floyd] say ‘I can’t breathe’ for the first time I had to stop … My solidarity is with them because I do know the pain they are feeling. And as for the Aboriginal deaths in our backyard … it’s not in the public as much as it should be.
A perception Indigenous deaths in custody are expected
Many people on this continent know more about police and prison violence in the US, another settler colony, than the same violence that happens here. Both are deserving of our attention and action, so what’s behind the curious silence on First Nations deaths in custody in Australia?
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have raised this concern long before today in the media and social media.
Why do we have to? The reasons are complex, but boil down to a system of complicity and perceived normality in Indigenous deaths at the hands of police and prisons. The settler Australian public simply does not see Indigenous deaths in custody as an act of violence, but as a co-morbidity.
The choice of language is important: it evokes a certain response in the reader and shapes our understandings of events. In the case of Palm Island, the often-repeated meta-narrative of so-called ‘dysfunctional’ and ‘lawless’ Aboriginal communities served to justify further acts of colonial violence.
In my 2018 pilot study on a sample of 134 Indigenous deaths in custody since the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, I found coroners considered referring just 11 deaths to prosecutors and only ended up referring five. Of those, only two made it to court and both resulted in quashed indictments or acquittals.
These are monumental figures. They are also stories of deep systemic complicity, both before and after death. And they are full lives, with loved ones who mourn and fight for them.
The scale of devastation is unthinkable – and violent, and racist.
What makes Australian silence about deaths in custody so especially bizarre is that, unlike the US, we have a mandatory legal review of every death in custody or police presence. Each case, regardless of its circumstances, goes before a judge called a coroner.
Just as public political will is always changing, so is law and legal strategy. Compared to the campaigns for justice for black people killed by police in the US, which have made relative gains, many families here are working in a complex space of honouring their loved ones, proper cultural protocols around death and the dead, and securing CCTV footage to mobilise the public for justice.
Coroners have offered mixed responses, and each state and territory’s coroner approaches the question in a slightly different way.
After the death of Ms Dhu, a Yamatji woman, in police custody in Western Australia in 2014, persistent advocacy from the families and media organisations prompted the coroner to release footage of her treatment before her death. Coroner Ros Fogliani did so
in order to assist with the fair and accurate reporting of my findings on inquest.
However, last year, NSW deputy coroner Derek Lee initially declined to release footage showing the circumstances of Dungay’s death, citing cultural respect, sensitivity for his family and secrecy over prison procedures.
Members of Dungay’s family, who had applied to have it released, responded with exasperation. It was eventually shown on the opening day of the inquest, although the fuller footage requested by the family remains suppressed from public view.
Other ways families are silenced
There are other transparency issues that give a legal structure to silence about Indigenous deaths in custody. Recently, there appears to be a new push in non-publication or suppression orders being sought by state parties in coroners courts.
In Dungay’s inquest, for instance, the media was ordered not to publish the names, addresses or any other identifying features (including photographs) of 21 NSW corrections staff members.
There have been other suppression orders in deaths in custody matters before criminal courts, such as the identity of the officer facing a murder charge in the death of Yamatji woman Joyce Clarke in Western Australia last year.
Officers in South Australia are also going to some strategic effort to avoid testifying before the inquest into the death of Wayne Fella Morrison, a Wiradjuri, Kookatha and Wirangu man, or even speak with investigators on the grounds of penalty privilege.
investigations surrounding the cause of death in prisons can have a great impact for our grieving families to at least get an account of what happened to our loved ones in the absence of our care. It can also raise the spotlight on the behaviours of correctional and police officers – like those that piled atop of my brother’s body.
Outside of coroners courts, there is the threat of subjudice contempt, when media coverage may pose a prejudicial threat to a potential trial.
This carries a risk for families who speak out about their loved one’s deaths in a way that even implies something happened or someone did something. Subjudice contempt poses liability to them personally when they speak out, but also could jeopardise their push for justice.
This puts First Nations peoples at the mercy of what can be raised before a jury, judge or coroner. With lengthy procedural delays, this can also mean a case is hard to talk about publicly for years.
This is problematic given that timely publicity about deaths in custody is what drives attention. Taleah Reynolds, the sister of Nathan Reynolds, who died in custody in NSW in 2018, said,
We’re coming up to a year since he died and we still don’t know anything more.
I feel like they don’t have any remorse; they hide behind the system. No one’s held accountable, that’s the most frustrating part.
All of this leaves our public discourse full of blak bodies but curiously empty of people who put them there.
The power of public campaigning
Prosecution or referral seems to come only from cases where First Nations families have strong public advocacy and community groundswells behind them and strategic litigation resources (not just inquest legal aid).
As the late Wangerriburra and Birri Gubba leader Sam Watson said of the campaign for justice for the death of Mulrunji Doomagee on Palm Island:
Unfortunately, the government had to be dragged to this point screaming and kicking every inch of the way. Every time there’s been a breakdown in the procedure, the family and community on Palm Island are being subjected to more trauma, drama and unnecessary grandstanding by politicians.
Right now, three deaths are either before prosecutors or in their early stages of prosecution. All have been part of growing, public campaigns driven by their families and communities — although many others, like Dungay’s family, have done the same and still been faced with institutional complicity.
Clearly, there is much legal structure that supports this silence, but the basis of the silence itself is colonisation and white supremacy. As Amy McQuire writes:
Their wounds also testify to this violence. But while this footage has been important for mobilising Aboriginal people, non-Indigenous Australia is still complacent and apathetic.
They are not ‘outraged’ because they are not ‘shocked’. There is nothing shocking about racist violence perpetrated by police, because it is normalised.
When we do hear about the Indigenous lives lost in custody, it is undoubtedly because of the persistence, expertise and courage of their families and communities who mourn them. But it is not enough to hear about justice, justice must be done.
US President Donald Trump delivered an address this week in which he threatened military action on the nation. Then he walked to the nearby St John’s Episcopal Church to pose with a Bible.
Yes, Trump held the Bible like a baby holding a spoon for the first time – unsure which end is which – but the real problem was the complete disconnection between the text in his hand and the force, both verbally threatened and actually used, to clear the way for his stunt. Tear gas and militarised police cleared crowds, including some of the church’s own clergy from its grounds, in order for Trump to pose in front of the church.
While Christian outrage at Trump’s hypocrisy is genuine, for reasons that several Christian leaders have elegantly articulated, we need to ask ourselves: did Trump do anything new? Has he done anything that powerful “Christian” leaders haven’t done for centuries?
The answer is no.
Co-opting Christianity in the service of power is almost as old as Christianity itself. In the culture war raging in America, the very president who has stoked the flames of racism and white supremacy effectively claimed God is on his side. It is deeply offensive, but it is not new.
In the early fourth century CE, Flavius Valerius Constantine would defeat his brother-in-law, Maxentius, in a battle for control of the Roman Empire. His victory would solidify him as emperor of a vast western empire.
The legend goes that Constantine had a vision before the battle on Milvian Bridge: he saw a cross of light in the sky and heard a voice that said, “in this sign, conquer”. The next morning, Constantine ordered his soldiers to paint crosses on their shields. They marched into battle as the first cross-bearing “Christian” soldiers. When Constantine won, he would attribute his victory to the God of the Christians.
While historians are quick to point out that this “conversion” of Constantine is as much myth as reality, and may have been motivated by either political expediency or sheer superstition, it marked a turning point for Christianity. The new emperor’s adoption of the cross transformed a persecuted, minority sect into a legitimate religion and, eventually, the official state religion.
The use of propaganda and standardised imagery was not new for the Roman Empire. Indeed, they were already experts in using imagery to communicate dominance, power and a certain worldview. The new element in 312 CE was the type of imagery; Christian instead of pagan, a cross representing the death and resurrection of Jesus instead of a god, goddess or symbol from the Roman Pantheon.
We have been left with a legacy in Western Christianity of powerful rulers claiming God for their cause. The Crusaders rode out to fight Muslims with chests and shields adorned with the sign of the cross, popes would wield more power than kings, and God’s name would be invoked in war after war.
Eventually, Christianity became so synonymous with colonial power and whiteness that the two can be hard to distinguish. It is telling that, in the new Western empire, no American president has been elected without explicitly signalling his Christian faith.
Photoshopped images of Hitler with a Bible started to circulate this week following Trump’s stunt. Evidence already exists for the casual way in which Hitler, too, co-opted Christianity for his cause. A 1930s propaganda book titled Hitler as No One Knows Him contains numerous photographs of Hitler designed to make him likeable. One of them has him leaving a church, implying his Christian faith and basic decency, suggesting he is a good Christian just like so many of those who were deceived by his politics and drafted to his cause.
Closer to home, the Bible arrived on the shores of Australia in the hands of those who would colonise this land through violence and domination. Its diverse history here has been described by Meredith Lake. But the Bible was, at least superficially, synonymous with white culture and power. It would be (mis)used to justify colonisation in Australia just as it was to argue for apartheid in South Africa.
The co-option of Christian symbols by Western Christian empires has meant its core symbols have often been inverted in meaning. The great irony is that the cross worn as a symbol of power and victory by imperial soldiers was first the symbol of the unjust death of Jesus, a brown-skinned Jew killed by the Roman State. It was a shameful symbol in that culture, an image for a humiliating public death.
The Bible, wielded by Trump and others like him, likewise did not begin its life as the text of the victor. Had Trump read the text he held, he would have found a story of liberation for slaves, a divine preference for the poor, a demand of justice for the marginalised, a cry of lament from those who grieve, and a damning critique of any empire that oppressed its people.
What Trump did was not new. But perhaps we are offended because his delivery was so unsophisticated, an insult to our intelligence for its lack of pretence at genuine faith. He didn’t even attempt to enter the church and pray nor open the Bible and read it.
Both church and Bible were mere backdrops, doing the rhetorical work Trump needed in signalling his virtue and values to his base. Values, to be clear, that are antithetical to both the building and the book in his hand.
The protests that have engulfed American cities in the past week are rooted in decades of frustrations. Racist policing, legal and extra-legal discrimination, exclusion from the major avenues of wealth creation and vicious stereotyping have long histories and endure today.
African Americans have protested against these injustices going back as far as the post-Civil War days in the 1870s. Throughout the 20th century, there were significant uprisings in Chicago (1919), New York City’s Harlem neighbourhood (1935), Detroit (1943) and Los Angeles (1943, 1965, 1992).
And in what became known as the “long, hot summer of 1967”, anger in America’s cities boiled over. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 had ended segregation, but not brought equality. Racial injustice at the hands of police remained. Protesters took to the streets in more than 150 cities, leading to violent clashes between black residents and largely white police forces.
White moderates condemned these armed rebellions as the antithesis of the famed nonviolent protests of civil rights activists. But Martin Luther King, Jr., himself, recognised that the success of nonviolence lay in the ever-present threat of violence.
He noted, too, that riots “do not develop out of thin air.”
Policing practices a trigger for unrest
The trigger for African-American uprisings in the US has almost always been acts by police forces, such as the recent death of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
Sometimes, unrest has broken out when police have refused to act on behalf of black residents. When an African-American teenager drifted into the “white” part of Lake Michigan in Chicago in 1919, for instance, a white man on the banks threw rocks at him and he drowned. A policeman did nothing to stop the assailants, nor did he arrest them.
From the perspective of those targeted and traumatised by police and discriminated against by society at large, property damage and looting were justified.
Such laws and customs were all underpinned by violence, including murder. From the late 1800s until 1950, more than 4,000 African Americans were victims of lynchings. They were so acceptable they were sometimes advertised in the press in advance. These were extra-judicial killings, but often included the police (or they would at least turn a blind eye to the proceedings).
Black Americans who sought better lives in northern cities found racism there, too. White landlords had a captive market in segregated neighbourhoods, such as New York’s Harlem and Chicago’s South Side, which caused them to become increasingly crowded and rundown.
African Americans were often kept out of nicer neighbourhoods in cities nationwide, either through violent acts perpetrated by white residents or even by police officers themselves. The houses of middle-class black Americans in the Birmingham, Alabama, suburb where political activist and philosopher Angela Davis grew up were bombed so often the area was nicknamed “Dynamite Hill”.
Even the presence of black officers in the police forces of northern cities could not alter the fundamentally racist operations of police forces.
The expanding wealth gap
The protests of the 1960s were driven in part by police brutality, but also by the exclusion of African Americans from full civic participation.
Even if African Americans could accumulate the capital to acquire a mortgage, a system of laws known as “redlining” prevented them from purchasing property.
That, in turn, thwarted black families’ efforts to accumulate wealth at the same rate of white families. African Americans lived, therefore, in neighbourhoods that were poorer. Those communities had worse sanitation, no green spaces, grocery stores with high prices and poorly resourced schools.
All the while, it was African Americans who continued to work in low paid domestic and service labour jobs that propped up a booming economy that disproportionately benefited white Americans. It’s no wonder the writer James Baldwin said in 1968,
After all, you’re accusing a captive population who has been robbed of everything of looting. I think [that accusation] is obscene.
The effects of those policies are still in evidence today – and play a significant role in the discrimination and disenfranchisement of many African Americans.
Black families and individuals enjoy a drastically lower median level of wealth than whites or Asian Americans. This is true even among African Americans with high levels of education and high salaries. Generations of discrimination have left their mark as black Americans have been denied the gradual accumulation of largely untaxed wealth in housing and inheritance.
Echoing Baldwin, the comic Trevor Noah observed this week,
If you felt unease watching that Target being looted, try to imagine how it must feel for black Americans when they watch themselves being looted every single day. Police in America are looting black bodies.
The ‘war on crime’ and mass incarcerations
In the wake of the 1967 unrest, federal policies shifted under President Lyndon Johnson from the “War on Poverty” to the “War on Crime”. African Americans were increasingly targeted in the expanding “law and order” and mass incarceration machine.
Today, black Americans, especially men, remain the overwhelming targets for police forces. Young black men are killed by police at a rate of 21 times that of young white men. African American women, too, are vulnerable, as several recent high-profile incidents prove.
All the while, police have been trained and equipped in ways that have blurred the line between civilian police and military forces. The violence of these police forces is becoming more difficult to justify, hence Slate running an article in the last week with the title “Police Erupt in Nationwide Violence”.
As a result, more and more grassroots groups are calling for police forces to be defunded, localised and radically demilitarised. Activists will also continue to remind us that black lives matter.
Violence has erupted across several US cities after the death of a black man, George Floyd, who was shown on video gasping for breath as a white police officer, Derek Chauvin, knelt on his neck. The unrest poses serious challenges for President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden as each man readies his campaign for the November 3 election.
If the coronavirus had not already posed a threat to civil discourse in the US, the latest flashpoint in American racial politics makes this presidential campaign potentially one of the most incendiary in history.
COVID-19 and Minneapolis may very well form the nexus within which the 2020 campaign will unfold. Trump’s critics have assailed his handling of both and questioned whether he can effectively lead the country in a moment of crisis.
And yet, he may not be any more vulnerable heading into the election.
A presidency in crisis?
As the incumbent, Trump certainly faces the most immediate challenges. Not since Franklin Roosevelt in the second world war has a US president presided over the deaths of so many Americans from a single cause.
The Axis powers and COVID-19 are not analogous, but any presidency is judged by its capacity to respond to enemies like these. With pandemic deaths now surpassing 100,000, Trump’s fortunes will be inexorably tied to this staggering (and still rising) figure.
Worse, the Minneapolis protests are showing how an already precarious social fabric has been frayed by the COVID-19 lockdowns.
Americans have not come together to fight the virus. Rather, they have allowed a public health disaster to deepen divisions along racial, economic, sectional and ideological lines.
Trump has, of course, often sought to gain from such divisions. But the magnitude and severity of the twin crises he is now facing will make this very difficult. By numerous measures, his is a presidency in crisis.
Trump, a ferocious campaigner, will try to find ways to use both tragedies to his advantage and, importantly, makes things worse for his challenger.
For starters, Trump did not cause coronavirus. And he will continue to insist that his great geo-strategic adversary, the Chinese Communist Party, did.
And his is not the first presidency to be marked by the conflagration of several US cities.
Before Minneapolis, Detroit (1967), Los Angeles (1992) and Ferguson, Missouri (2014) were all the scenes of angry protests and riots over racial tensions that still haven’t healed.
Trump may not have healed racial tensions in the US during his presidency. But, like coronavirus, he did not cause them.
How Trump can blame Democrats for Minneapolis
Not unhappily for Trump, Minneapolis is a largely Democratic city in a reliably blue state. He will campaign now on the failure of Democratic state leaders to answer the needs of black voters.
Trump will claim that decades of Democratic policies in Minnesota – including the eight years of the Obama administration – have caused Minneapolis to be one of the most racially unequal cities in the nation.
These are not terrible numbers. Yes, Trump’s leadership has contributed to a series of disasters. But if the polls are correct, he has so far avoided the kinds of catastrophe that could imperil his chances of re-election.
Biden is far better than Trump on racial issues and should be able to use the current crises to present himself as a more natural “consoler-in-chief”, but instead, he has appeared somewhat flatfooted and derided for being racially patronising.
The opportunities COVID-19 and the Minneapolis unrest might afford his campaign remain elusive.
There is reason for hope
America enters the final months of the 2020 campaign in a state of despair and disrepair. The choice is between an opportunistic incumbent and a tin-eared challenger.
But the US has faced serious challenges before – and emerged stronger. Neither the civil war in the 19th century or the Spanish flu pandemic in the early 20th halted the extraordinary growth in power that followed both.
Moreover, the US constitution remains intact and federalism has undergone something of a rebirth since the start of the pandemic. And there is a new generation of younger, more diverse, national leaders being forged in the fire of crisis to help lead the recovery.