You’ve heard the news, you’ve seen the protests, but are you listening to what is being said? Leanne Elliott investigates why Australia and the world are speaking up to say enough is enough.
After you read this article, get your stopwatch ready and sit down. While you let your stopwatch run to 8 minutes and 49 seconds, imagine you are pinned down on your stomach, hands behind your back. You can feel knees digging into your back and your neck as your stomach and face are pressed against hard rough concrete. The pressure on your back and neck builds as the knees press down, it gets harder and harder for you to breath. You repeatedly call out for help with the little air you can draw into your lungs, but the pressure doesn’t stop, and nobody helps you.
Breathing becomes almost impossible, and you begin to feel light headed. You try to call out but you do not have any air left in your lungs as the pressure becomes too much. Your surroundings become fuzzy, you can still feel the pressure on your back and neck as you see the light begin to fade; you are losing consciousness. And then, with knees still pressing down on your limp, unconscious body, your pulse stops.
That was the last 8 minutes and 49 seconds of George Floyd’s life.
On 25 May, Minneapolis police escorted 46-year-old George Floyd, in handcuffs toward their police vehicle. George was suspected of having used a $20 counterfeit bill, however as they reached the police car George laid on the ground, telling police he was not resisting but that he did not want to get into the police vehicle. What followed has devastated a family, shocked the world, and has thrust the topic of institutional and systemic racism to the forefront of conversation.
Video of George Floyd’s death has been seen by millions of people and has sparked mass protests all over the world. The list of Black Americans who have died because of police actions is long and heartbreaking. Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Sandra Bland, Mike Brown, Trayvon Martin, Sylville Smith, Philando Castile, Stephen Lawrence, and so many more. This time, however, people and organisations from all over the world are sending a clear message to the ‘establishment’; enough is enough.
The official autopsy report has classed George Floyd’s death as a homicide, listing “cardiopulmonary arrest complicating law enforcement subdual, restrain, and neck compression” as the official cause of death; which is the long way of saying he had a heart attack due to the pressure on his neck. The report also listed a number of other injuries George Floyd had sustained during his arrest, and noted a number of possible contributing factors including heart diseases and drug use.
But let’s be clear. The contributing factors listed in the coroners report should not overshadow the facts. Despite George Floyd telling officers “he could not breathe” and that he “was going to die” the officers did not change their position. Despite one officer reporting he could not find a pulse, the officers did not attempt CPR. Instead, they continued to restrain an unconscious and defenseless George Floyd for a further 2 minutes and 56 seconds.
The four former police officers involved in George Floyd’s death now face various charges. Chauvin, the former officer who knelt on George’s neck has been charged with second-degree murder, which carries up to 40 years in prison; and, the other three former officers, Kueng, Lane, and Thao, have been charged with aiding and abetting second-degree murder, and aiding and abetting second-degree manslaughter..
Ashley Collman’s recent article for Business Insider reports that lawyers for two of the officers, Kueng and Lane, have told the court the two officers were inexperienced, having only been on the job for as little as four days, also suggesting the two officers “had no choice but to follow the command of their ranking officer, Derek Chauvin.”
Throughout recorded history ‘just following orders’, more commonly known as ‘Superior Orders‘ or the ‘Nuremberg Defense‘, has been used as a defense. Perhaps most famously, it was used as a defense by Nazi soldiers in an attempt to justify their actions during WWII. This defense rests upon whether the court believes that Kueng and Lane thought they were acting lawfully.
Meanwhile, as the legal spectacle kicks off, George Floyd’s family along with millions of people continue to demand justice for George and an end to racism.
Australia is No Stranger to Racism
Despite the NSW Supreme Court ordering the protests over the past weekend illegal, Australians too have answered the call to action. Thousands have joined the mass protests happening across Australia, with George Floyd’s death causing many Australians to look at our own backyard. Australia’s treatment of Indigenous Australians and racism within Australia has been a long-standing issue, at times even garnering international attention.
The roots of racism in Australia date back centuries, however, it is only recently that genuine, albeit small, steps have been taken to acknowledge and reconcile with the truth surrounding our ‘Black history’. But, the prevalence of racism in Australia, and the effects of racism are something the wider community may not be exposed to, or understand.
“Most people of colour are aware of these issues due to lived experience,” says Loren Collyer, Indigenous Student Advancement Officer at the Wollotuka Institute. “The question I think people need to ask themselves is what sort of society they want to live in and to look beyond their own experiences.”
“Gandhi wisely said that “The greatness of a nation can be judged by how it treats its weakest member” and I think that is something that resonates here.” – Loren Collyer, The Wollotuka Institute
There have been over 400 Indigenous deaths in custody since the 1991 Royal Commission, none of which have garnered the attention and response as George Floyd’s death. “I think the death of George Floyd has […] really fuelled a fire that has already been burning in our communities, we have just had enough,” says Loren.
George Floyd’s death was public, it occurred in a public place, in front of people, cameras, and eventually the world. The protests which have followed represent a collective outrage calling for justice and the abolition of racism. But, as Loren points out, “unfortunately deaths of Aboriginal people in police custody happen in Australia every year but take place in remote communities, or in correctional centres out of the eyes of the rest of the nation.
“I think that the media in Australia should also take responsibility here – when does an Indigenous person dying in police custody make the front page? There is a great silence among mainstream media about these issues and that needs to change.”
“We are usually framed in a ‘Wanted Poster’ as criminalised failures. You don’t know the individual personally but the media allows you to draw negative conclusions. The person in this frame is ‘the Aboriginal problem.” – Des Jones, Does The Media Fail Aboriginal Political Aspirations? 2019
In a recent Conversation article Alison Whittaker raises issue with the Australian media’s representation of Indigenous Australians, and the lack of justice for Indigenous people who have died in custody and their families. Figures in the article state that since the Royal Commission report (1991), there have been 423 Indigenous deaths in custody and no convictions. I repeat, zero convictions.
Losing a loved one is painful, but losing a loved one while they are in custody of the police or criminal system, knowing in the last minutes of life they were calling for help, but it never came; knowing they were telling officers they could not breathe, but the officers did not listen; knowing that your questions may never be answered or that you may never find justice… that is a pain most of us can only imagine.
But, it is a pain that some families live with every day. David Dungay Jnr died in 2015, suffocating while prison officers restrained him in his cell. David repeatedly told the officers he could not breath, but they did not listen.
“None of the officers involved were charged or disciplined. [David’s’] family are left with no answers, with no one taking responsibility and a heartbreaking silence from the nation about the wrongdoing that led to the death of their son,” says Loren.
This is only one story. The list of Indigenous people who have died in custody is long, it is heartbreaking and in many cases, preventable. Not only do we need change, we need to ensure that the institutions, systems and governments which have let the Indigenous community down time and time again, are held accountable.
Where do we go from here? One thing is certain, we must ‘maintain the rage’, but we must also grow and learn. With each little action, each little word, as individuals and as a part of a community, we must continue to be advocates for positive change.
“I think the first step is simply to make sure as an individual you are aware and educated about what is going on in your own backyard, in your own community,” says Loren. “Don’t turn a blind eye to these issues. Talk to people, ask questions, look behind the front-page story and find out what’s really going on.”
Change can start with not being silent, not sweeping racism under the rug, ignoring it or putting it into the too hard basket, and by not tolerating media or political bias and sensationalism. Change often starts with knowledge and understanding, so take some time to learn about history, learn about and expose yourself to other cultures, and other opinions.
All Images by Mitchell Treharne.