In Australia, the Black Lives Matter movement has amassed an overwhelming amount of support across the country, with thousands speaking out about racism and demanding justice for Indigenous people.
But unlike the US, which is experiencing stunning levels of sustained protests with 16 cities taking up calls to defund or disband their police departments, it seems that our cries have remained unheard.
Thus far, governments and police departments have not expressed any intention to examine our policing system. There have been no pledges to conduct independent investigations and inquests into black deaths in custody. There have been no proposals for reducing police brutality and racialised policing.
All the while, police violence against Indigenous people continues.
As social media goes back to normal and recent protests fail to attract sizable crowds, it’s clear that the movement is beginning to lose momentum.
The main issue is that our spectrum of supporters is not expanding. The death of George Floyd mobilised thousands of people to become active supporters—while there have been active efforts to shut down protests, the fact that over 30,000 people attended a protest in Sydney despite it being initially illegal shows the strength of our current support.
But we must now start bringing in neutrals and passive opposition (i.e. people who sit on the fence, are disengaged, or disagree with the movement but don’t try to stop it).
It’s been made clear through recent debates, notably on the health risks of protesting, the phrase “all lives matter”, and the attribution of blame to all police or “a few bad eggs”, that a lot of people hold reservations about some of the ideas or methods of the Black Lives Matter movement. Some people don’t have a strong opinion at all.
This is to be expected. Many aspects of the cause, from the phrase of “all cops are bastards” to the very concept of protesting, will not come easy to those who have rarely questioned the status quo or don’t exist in a galvanising space.
“Ideas like abolitionism or civil disobedience are really challenging for me because it goes against everything you’re taught to believe or do” says one USyd student.
The mistake that supporters commonly fall into is assuming that people who are not active supporters are active opponents of the movement. Non-supporters are often shut out or their opinions and actions are ignored. There are also accusations of ignorance or racism frequently made towards these people.
In one USyd rants post, one user stated: “if you’re against the protests and posting this anonymously on usyd rants, i hope to god you’re not too much of a pussy to post it on your personal facebook, or are you scared of getting called out for being racist (sic)”.
But if a person does not currently support the movement, it does not necessarily mean they oppose its overall message. What is more likely is that they simply haven’t reached a point where they can understand and accept its ideas wholeheartedly.
On why they haven’t attended recent protests, another USyd student says: “I don’t think we should have a blanket abolition of police. It might be worth replacing these systems in some states, but I think it depends on their situation and you’d have to do trial and error.”
Calling out or condemning these people is almost always guaranteed to fail. Being accused of racism, ignorance, or complicity is extremely threatening, especially because people want to feel like they aren’t capable of such behaviour. And when people feel threatened, it is generally difficult for them to change or listen.
Make no mistake: it doesn’t mean that we should stop challenging destructive opinions or silence altogether.
Instead, understanding where these people come from is a much needed step to be able to engage with them in a way that is productive for building the movement. And then actually making the effort to speak to them is critical. Interacting exclusively with people that already agree builds insular subcultures that are incomprehensible to everyone else.
Another issue is that we are not having widespread conversations about policy. Active supporters generally know the aims of the movement—ending racist state violence, stopping black deaths in custody, defunding police and prisons, and investing in communities.
But when it comes to achieving these aims, the movement in Australia lacks consensus on the tangible outcomes we’re working towards.
The ‘8 Can’t Wait’ campaign in the US sets out a roadmap for police abolition, starting with immediate harm reduction and then divestment. Currently, campaigners are pushing for changes such as banning chokeholds and adopting a duty to intervene. Regardless of criticisms towards some of its reformist aspects, the focus on policy is working.
In Australia, however, public discourse is lagging, with much of the conversation still fixated on broad anti-racist or anti-police sentiments. We need to move beyond this and begin discussing exactly what law enforcement should look like in Australia and how we can achieve this.
Further, for those who aren’t ready to accept certain ideological arguments about race or the police, shifting the attention towards policy can allow us to find common ground.
It’s not a far cry that people would support policies such as scrapping armed police response teams or restricting the flow of military-style gear to police departments. People would also be responsive to the fact that divestment from police already occurs in several rural and remote communities through justice reinvestment programs.
The inherent idea behind these doesn’t have to be racial or ideological; it can just be about keeping all communities safe and investing more in community services for everyone.
Of course, these policies have an explicit racial element to them, so we can’t be completely race-neutral. Rather than just glossing over them, actually reducing people’s racial anxieties is necessary in the long term. But in the process of growing the movement, we must choose our battles.
While the scale of the Black Lives Matter movement in Australia is impressive, existing supporters must not get complacent. Each and every one of us is responsible for the task of keeping the movement alive and building it.
It is crucial that we continue to protest and engage in online activism. It is also important for us to make the effort to reach out to people who sit on the fence or quietly disagree, and start important discussions about policy.
The next few months will be challenging, but a challenge we simply can’t afford to decline.
The next action is a protest scheduled for Sunday 5 July at 1pm, and is being co-hosted by Justice For David Dungay Jnr, Justice4Tane, and Indigenous Social Justice Association Sydney.