Black Lives Matter: Racism, riots and the power of protest amid adversity | Photos, pictures, video

Aboriginal people in the Central West say there is a deep, ingrained racism in Australia.
Aboriginal people in the Central West say there is a deep, ingrained racism in Australia.

"I CAN'T breathe." These words have been cried out by people of all races, cultures, beliefs and ages in countries across the world during the past two weeks.

To many who say them, they symbolise a 46-year-old African-American man's final moments on Earth as he lay squashed on the road, pinned down with a police officer's knee on his throat and neck.

These words have stirred reactions, and in many cases violence, since George Floyd made a final plea for his life on May 25.

Aboriginal people in the Central West say there is a deep, ingrained racism in Australia which many Indigenous people experience on a daily basis.

This is their story.

Jay French is a 20-year-old Ngyamppa man who lives in Orange and while he hasn't experienced any direct racism during his life, he believes people are not born racist, they learn it.

LEARNED BEHAVIOUR: You're not born a racist you learn to be one, Ngyamppa man Jay French says. Photo: JUDE KEOGH

LEARNED BEHAVIOUR: You're not born a racist you learn to be one, Ngyamppa man Jay French says. Photo: JUDE KEOGH

"It's what we're taught about others and about religions, it's more than just skin colour. It's something you learn and you take on," he said.

Part of the problem, he said, is that for generations children did not learn any Aboriginal history or culture at school.

"They're not taught that history so they don't know they're doing the wrong thing," he said.

"We learn about all other world history and about Australian history, but that's about the white fellas.

"The fellas I work with didn't even know we weren't classed as citizens [until after the 1967 referendum]."

While not surprised by the anger and rioting in the US, Mr French said he thought people would not react the same way in Australia.

"I don't think it would be as bad as in America, they've got looser gun laws. I don't think they'd [Australians] go that far," he said.

Today's Indigenous youth have a mindset to hate white fellas, and we're not taking advantage of what we have.

Ngyamppa man Jay French

For other Aboriginal people in his age group, he said many don't take advantage of the benefits and help on offer.

"Today's Indigenous youth have a mindset to hate white fellas, and we're not taking advantage of what we have," he said.

Wiradjuri woman Grace Toomey, 49, lives in Dubbo, a location that has the highest percentage of people with Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander origins in the Central West.

MAKE A CHANGE: It's vital that Aboriginal people get involved in their community and politics, Wiradjuri woman Grace Toomey. Photo: ORLANDER RUMING

MAKE A CHANGE: It's vital that Aboriginal people get involved in their community and politics, Wiradjuri woman Grace Toomey. Photo: ORLANDER RUMING

In the Western Plains Regional Council (as it was known at the 2016 Census), 15.5 per cent of the population (7739 people) are Aboriginal or Torres Straight Islanders.

By comparison, the rate is 6.3 per cent in Orange (2556 people), 5.7 per cent in Lithgow (1208 people), 5.4 per cent in Bathurst (2244 people) and 5.4 per cent (1307 people) in the Mid-Western LGA.

Growing up as an Aboriginal person in Dubbo, Ms Toomey said she noticed racism at a young age.

"A lot of people think it's just anger and hate, but it's a lot of things. Racism is in every aspect of our life," she said.

"As young kids we'd be followed around the shops ... you were made to feel unwelcome in certain shops. You can sense when you're not welcome."

The overt, and sometimes covert, racism she experiences makes Ms Toomey angry.

"I can totally understand why they're doing it in America, they've being wiped out by COVID-19 and they've got no social security, no support from the government, they've got nothing," she said.

Changing mindsets with regards to racism is a very slow process, Ms Toomey said, and that's why she said it was vital that Aboriginal people get involved in their community and politics.

"We've got to get into politics and the government, that's where you can make change," she said.

Wiradjuri elder Dinawan Dyirribang, 59, lives in Bathurst and he said racism was ingrained in the psyche of many Australian people.

STRONG STANCE: When Wiradjuri elder Dinawan Dyirribang was young the community started a petition to have his family moved out of town. Photo: NADINE MORTON

STRONG STANCE: When Wiradjuri elder Dinawan Dyirribang was young the community started a petition to have his family moved out of town. Photo: NADINE MORTON

"Racism is a lot of stuff, things we as Aboriginal people pick up, it's even the language that Anglo or white Australians say," he said.

"That's what this country was built on, racism and violence."

In his life Mr Dyirribang has experienced a lot of racism and remembers a story told to him by his parents after they moved from their property just outside Bathurst into the CBD when he was about six years old.

"We moved to Morrisset Street in 1967, they bought the house when the referendum was on," he said.

"John Matthews was mayor of Bathurst and he had people come in with a petition to have us moved out of town."

He also vividly remembers white people yelling racist remarks at him from their homes when he was a young boy riding his bike along the footpath.

"You can feel it, you can sense it when someone doesn't like you. Anyone can," Mr Dyirribang said.

"Sometimes [shopkeepers] they'll put the money on the counter rather than in your hand that's out."

Also unsurprised by the racial tension and riots in the USA, Mr Dyirribang said "it's been a long time coming".

"It's been simmering for years and people are just at breaking point," he said.

Policies ensure racism remains in Australia

VOICE OF THE PEOPLE: Historically protesting has led to very important results, Charles Sturt University lecturer in criminal justice Dr Piero Moraro says. Photo: SUPPLIED

VOICE OF THE PEOPLE: Historically protesting has led to very important results, Charles Sturt University lecturer in criminal justice Dr Piero Moraro says. Photo: SUPPLIED

PROTEST is fundamental to affecting change, but the lines surrounding protesting in Australia have been blurred, Charles Sturt University (CSU) lecturer in criminal justice Dr Piero Moraro says.

On the weekend, 20,000 Black Lives Matters protesters took to the streets in Sydney, hundreds of people attended a rally in Dubbo, while a protest in Orange was cancelled.

"I don't think it's the only way to make change, but this historically has led to very important results," Dr Moraro said. "It is very important, but people get hung upon how protests should be conducted.

"Every time people engage in peaceful protest the government simplifies ways to label that protest 'uncivil' or a form of 'terrorism' to legislate against it."

CSU associate professor in political science Dominic O'Sullivan said racism was deeply political in Australia and the United States.

"Racism is ultimately a political value, when the incident occurred that's been videoed [George Floyd's death] that was arguably a political act," he said.

"We don't know that this police officer was a white supremacist, but certainly the question has to be asked."

Dr Moraro said the Trump administration had contributed significantly to the size of these riots, while the president's Tweets had escalated rioters' behaviour.

POLITICS: Racism is ultimately a political value, Charles Sturt University associate professor in political science Dominic OSullivan says. Photo: SUPPLIED

POLITICS: Racism is ultimately a political value, Charles Sturt University associate professor in political science Dominic OSullivan says. Photo: SUPPLIED

"The way that President Trump has decided to answer to these riots is by using words such as 'dominate'," he said.

"It reveals what is the underlying issue here, the issue of racism, the issue of colonialism, the issue of trying to control one group with the power of the state, and I think this is contributing to the severity of this riot.

Dr Moraro said statistics show Australian "police officers tend to use harsher measures if the person in front of them is an Aboriginal person".

"We have this racial bias whereby simply being an Indigenous person is an aggravating factors," he said.

NSW Police has defended the use of capsicum spray against Black Lives Matter protesters in Sydney, insisting cops "aren't punching bags" following the aggressive actions of some at the rally.

Mr O'Sullivan said public policies in Australia allow racism to continue.

"Since the royal commission into Aboriginal deaths in custody in 1991 and its quite extensive recommendations there have been another 400 deaths in custody," he said.

Be the difference you want to see in society

LASTING LEGACY: Peter Gibbs founded IPROWD in honour of his sister who died in custody. Photo: BELINDA SOOLE

LASTING LEGACY: Peter Gibbs founded IPROWD in honour of his sister who died in custody. Photo: BELINDA SOOLE

IPROWD (Indigenous Police Recruitment Our Way Delivery Program) was born out of the pain and tragedy that almost ripped a small town apart.

Following the death of Fiona Gibbs in police custody in Brewarrina in 1997 her brother Peter Gibbs went on to found the program to get more Aboriginal people into the NSW Police force.

"When we don't work together we'll never make a difference," he said.

When he was young, Mr Gibbs doesn't remember any Aboriginal police officers in Brewarrina.

"It makes sense that there's serving officers who represent that community ... it shouldn't be us and them," he said. "You [Aboriginal people] have a different attitude towards police because your family is now part of that."

Having Aboriginal police officers also helps educate police who are not from that background.

"Who better to teach about Aboriginal people than Aboriginal people ... they learn from each other," Mr Gibbs said.

Since its conception in 2008, IPROWD has trained more than 700 people with many going on to gain employment with NSW Police as sworn and unsworn officers.

"It's an absolute opportunity for Aboriginal people to get on the pathway of their dream of becoming a police officer," he said.

IPROWD is something Mr Gibbs is immensely proud of and he works closely with officers in Western NSW and across the state.

"It's a real partnership, you've got to build something together and that's what IPROWD is all about," he said. "It's not just a course or a program ... you get to build understanding and relationships."

IPROWD applications in Dubbo close on July 20.

What do you think?

This story Racism, riots and the power of protest amid adversity first appeared on Daily Liberal.