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A dilemma of monumental proportion

For many, the decision to attend a #BlackLivesMatter rally would have been a no-brainer. For others it would have been a struggle, but could one easily put aside one’s conscience in favour of marching?

For the more serious-minded attending such a rally where their presence would be at odds with sound medical advice and warranted political instruction … it would have been a dilemma of monumental proportion.

For Health Minister Greg Hunt it was not a dilemma:

“… Greg Hunt was expressing the considered expert medical advice he had received when he said if there is someone who is infectious in the midst of a crowd like that then it “can have a catastrophic impact”.”

Others would have seen it as a unique opportunity to protest the monumental injustices including colour of the skin they had inherited from birth, and the discrimination that is often associated with it.

Which leads me to the question: How could 432 Indigenous Australians have died while they were in police custody, yet no one was responsible? It’s not possible.

We follow those in America and say #BlackLivesMatter and that is the truth of it.

Although in Australia I think we blend our protest with other matters like respect, fairness, equality and a few words in our constitution that say our First Nation People were first among us.

Then of course comes the standard of our governance and the decline in our democracy.

Amidst all this protesting we must ask ourselves a few questions; for example, why does it take the death of an American for us to recognise our own problem?

Is it OK to protest the deaths of Aboriginal people in custody while our government and health authorities advise against protesting, warning of the possibility of a second wave of the coronavirus to hit us.

The only way you can come close to understanding this ethical dilemma is to try and understand both points of view. Here are a few of the arguments from both sides:

Against the Protests

Unsurprisingly, in this corner we have the government.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison last Thursday acknowledged during a radio interview that Australia also had problems “in this space” (Black deaths) that ineeded to be addressed, but insisted those issues were being dealt with and “we don’t need to draw equivalence here.” Adding that:

“We don’t need the divisions that we’re seeing in other countries – we need to stick together and look after each other.”

And then we have the Minister for Finance, Mathias Cormann ‘attacking’ the protesters:

“… Mathias Cormann in an interview on Sky News on Sunday launched a full-throated attack on participants of Saturday’s events in several cities because the protests proceeded in contradiction of current health advice to avoid mass gatherings.

“It’s quite irresponsible what we’ve seen there,” Cormann said. “As I think about the heartbreak of families who haven’t been able to attend funerals for their loved ones because they were doing the right thing by taking the health advice, my heart just goes out to them.”

“I mean, as they see people going recklessly to these sorts of demonstrations, that must be just awful for them to watch. I think it is incredibly selfish. It’s incredibly self-indulgent. And yes, it does impose unnecessary and unacceptable risk on to the community.”

For the Protests

Australia’s most eminent Indigenous academic Professor Marcia Langton called out the:

“… systemic inaction on Indigenous deaths in custody, using her Queen’s Birthday honour to call for urgent action.

Since the royal commission’s final report in 1991, more than 400 Aboriginal people have died in prison and the Indigenous incarceration rate is double what it was 30 years ago.

Professor Langton said she felt some of the deaths should have resulted in criminal charges.

“There have been no convictions — no convictions — of any police officer ever for killing (or assaulting) Aboriginal people.”

So, on the one hand you would have to say that the health warnings were in keeping with previous warnings, which had been obeyed and were very successful.

On the other you would have to acknowledge that 432 First Nations People have died while in the custody of police, someone was responsible, and people want to know why. There had never been a greater opportunity to protest that point.

Who can blame our Indigenous brothers and sisters (and those who support them) for raising their voices? For seizing the moment.

For those who see the point of view of the health professionals but still wish to protest during the course of a pandemic raises questions of conscience and ethics.

How can you do this while a virus is attacking everyone?

Paul Bongiorno succinctly sums up the case of both sides of the argument:

“The health risks were real, but so was the injustice and discrimination the protesters were calling out.”

For those who understand the point of view of the Indigenous Australians it raises the same questions of conscience and ethics.

Can’t you just stop killing us ask the dark skinned people?

“Ethics is only possible because we can act against our nature, based on our conscience. It stops us from simply describing what is likely to happen, and allows us to make judgements about what should happen. Of all the ways you might act, which is the best? Of all the possibilities, which one should you bring into reality?” (What is Ethics?)

My thought for the day

My ethics cannot understand my heart but I know my conscience does.

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  1. New England Cocky

    Certainly a dilemma for thinking Australians that this article well enunciates. Thank you JL.

    Certainly there is a real risk of a second wave COVID-19 outbreak being traced to the Black Lives Matter demonstrations, but in some states, we may dodge the bullet because of the few or zero recent positive identifications of COVID-19 person to person transmissions.

    Certainly our politicians have been very quick to leave the podium when questioned about Aboriginal deaths in custody that occur without police accountability … 432 seems like a systemic cover-up following the practices in the USA (United States of Apartheid).

    The incarceration rates merely further demonstrate the inequitable application of policing powers and economic disadvantage for Aboriginal families. However, there is also ingrained in too many individual police persons the inherent principles of racism that believe without adequate evidence that “white is right” while conveniently forgetting “White Australia has a Black History”.

  2. Ken

    Very well put John. For those who haven’t already I recommend watching Q&A on the ABC of Monday 8th June.

  3. wam

    A great read after the pool this morning, lord,
    Ethics is amazing, as is conscience but neither is a patch on conservatism. The strength of the fear is such that there are millions of Australians who can view the image of a white man kneeling on a black man’s neck for 8 minutes 46 seconds and not consider it as murder.
    Cormann’s ethics allows him to portray the protest at 432 deaths of Aboriginal men, women and children as indulgent and selfish.
    The ethics of police allows the profiling of Aboriginal people to allow them to be treated as an entity of the lowest denominator without individual benefits by society. the media and the services. Any discussion with conservatives and makes you realise they simply see nothing wrong with treating someone who looks different differently. They are consistent in their belief that Aborigines cannot be intellectually equal to whites the thought that such a blanket belief cannot be true when you know whites are individuals and not one size, in not considered. The culture is toxic on this topic and woebetide anyone who argues for an end to racism. I have little doubt that the men who stood by whilst their colleague murdered a black man were influenced into silence by the culture of black inferiority and, remembering he had 18 complaints on record, by the fear of the reaction of the murderer to criticism.
    The anti-Aboriginal culture will not change without a long term strategy to show the police and politicians that we are a racist country.
    Apart from some kind of education process, followed by a n accept change or resign, protests like BLM will have to become stronger and violent enough to force change??
    Anti-racism is rare and every opportunity must be cherished because racism is reinforced every day in schools, media and work places the dilemma is how can you deal with that which people don’t see in themselves.

  4. Graham

    Using blunt figures of more than 430 aboriginal deaths in custody and concern being expressed over no person being charged are misleading: a 2004 study (link below) by the Australian Institute of Criminology showed that the cause of near 90 percent of aboriginal deaths in custody in that period since the Royal Commission (145 deaths) were almost equally divided between suicide (by hanging mostly) and natural causes. The comparable figures for non-indigenous persons (627 deaths) was 46% and 33%.


  5. Phil


    Aboriginal deaths in custody.

    Oh dear a government report that explains it all then.

    What was it the Captain of the South African police in Capetown said.’ We found this black man in an alley face down with five shots in his back after a confrontation with one of my men. It is the worst case of suicide we have ever witnessed.

    Dying of ‘ Natural causes ‘. The prisoner was bad mouthing me so Naturally, I suffocated him with his pillow.

  6. wam

    Add pleading for medical attention from a cell and dying on the floor or heat exhaustion in the back of a wagon during summer on a drive to perth.
    just got a email from a cotton growing national prty friend(real not facebook) with a working bloke leaning against a high table beer in hand raving on to greta at one point he says ‘who do you think you are the ABC.’
    Head shakingly scary/

  7. leefe


    There is a thing called duty of care. Wardens in prisons and officers in police stations have a duty of care to those in their custody. They are obliged to do everything reasonable to ensure the safety and wellbeing of those persons. It is no different to the loss of life on (for instance) a building site where essential safety protocols are not insisted upon. You’re in charge, you have to take responsibility for the bad as well as the good.

    Also: being baked to death in an uncooled van during long-distance transport is neither suicide nor natural causes. Ditto dying of medical complications after pleading for and being denied appropriate treatment. Ditto being assaulted so severely that your liver is virtually in two pieces and being dumped in a cell with no observation for hours. I could go on with individual examples, for far too long. That report is not worth the envelope on the back of which some fantasist roughed it out

  8. Graham


    It is not a government report but an academic analysis of coroner findings of all deaths in custody up to that date. All in custody deaths result in a postmortem so unless you think the pathologist is in on a cover up you can reasonably assume the causes of death are genuine. Note that roughly the same percentage of non-indigenous deaths in custody are also by suicide. And unlike the 80s, most of the in custody deaths occur in prisons, not at the hands of the police.

  9. Phil

    Oh an academic analysis of coroner findings oh dear, I must have been a little confused, I should have considered that before I went off half cocked.

    I could care less where the report comes from, I’m 68 yrs old not 16. I have seen the police bash Aboriginals from the Pacific to the Indian Oceans. So all the suicides have nothing to do with the police or prison guards. Oh please. I am old enough to have watched Aboriginals rounded up and taken out of the city limits where they were not allowed to be. Not 1865- 1965. It was sport to pack them into paddy wagons kick them 30 k.m’s out of town then drive on further and throw out their shoes. Btw let’s get one thing straight, I have arrested them are you getting my drift? I know fine Aboriginal police officers who left the police force because of racism.

    It is like a cancer in the police force and the prisons department. My brother was a corrections officer for thirty years.But hey, I’m only his brother he was probably lying to me about what went on. Sure some probably died from natural causes, if you have a bad heart and some bastard that is 16 stone is sitting on your chest, you just might have a heart attack. If you have been abused and tormented for hours on end, you just may jump under a train when you are released. If you are left in a cell and they don’t come and check on your well being, there is a chance you’ll tear up a sheet and hang yourself. What was that noise in the cell at the back oh just rats. If you are an asthmatic….Now where did I leave that inhaler.

    Don’t come on here treating people like half wits. Cheers.

  10. Matters Not


    I’m 68 yrs old not 16

    Then start acting your age. Read and consider what Graham has presented. But then again, it’s noted

    I could care less where the report comes from

    Dear oh dear. Says so much more than you realise. Bye!

  11. Graham


    I am as old as you and I know the police abuses you mention did occur and probably still do away from the prying cameras of the public – but this was about the inferences that people are drawing because there have been 430+ deaths in custody and nobody has been charged.

    If the majority of deaths in custody (about 90 percent) – indigenous or otherwise – have been found by coroner’s courts to be because of natural causes or suicide then the inference that someone or multiple someones should have been charged is not reasonable nor open to society to draw.

    Have you ever read a coronor’s report? Prisons are not black holes into which offenders are just dumped. Have a look at this recent report from the WA Coroner and see just how they try and manage suicidal prisoners. It is not the greatest care you can get but the report makes it clear that they are trying.


  12. Phil

    ‘ Then start acting your age. Read and consider what Graham has presented. But then again, it’s noted ‘

    I’ll be polite for our female guests but you know what you can do.

  13. Phil

    Have you ever read a coronor’s report? Prisons are not black holes into which offenders are just dumped. Have a look at this recent report from the WA Coroner and see just how they try and manage suicidal prisoners. It is not the greatest care you can get but the report makes it clear that they are trying.

    Yes I have. And I’ll repeat if for you. I could care less where your report emanates from.

    There are people more qualified than I that would laugh at your comments. There were reports that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, The Vietnam war was predicated on the Gulf. of Tonkin incident. They currently have Julian Assange banged up in a hell hole, just waiting for him to die of natural causes. Do you want me to go on? Go peddle your fanciful opinions on Facebook. I’m sure you’ll find a mob of gullible fools with baited breath.


  14. guest

    A great part of the discussion here is about the number of deaths in custody over a period of time, in the case of the academic survey cited here, 1990 – 2004. Paul Kelly, in his piece in The Australian 10/6/20, apparently makes use of such data when he writes:

    “High rates [of incarceration] lead to the deaths, but the per capita death rate for indigenous prisoners is not that much different from non-indigenous people”.

    But as a number of people have pointed out, what part of the reports actually lists the number of deaths, whether of indigenous people of non-indigenous people, occurring as a result of police action inside or outside of the prisons? The numbers seem to record deaths only by hanging or by “natural causes”.

    So were there no deaths at all as a result of police or prison guard actions?

    It is interesting to look at a couple of Murdoch comments on recent Black Lives Matter rallies. Kelly’s essay is entitled:

    “It’s a big story: there are two ways of looking at it.
    There was a valid moral position both for and against the local Black Lives Matter protests. But gesture politics is double-edged.”

    He explains what the “two ways” are:

    “… the ABC narrative was the injustice of the Aboriginal deaths in custody and the justice of the protests, while the Sky narrative was the irresponsibility of mass protests given the health and political advice about risks to the public.”

    Never mind that commenters in the Murdoch media have been criticising the “lockdown” for its “authoritarian” elements. Nor does he mention the legal permission given to the recent rallies – but now with-drawn for next weekend. Some inconsistency here?

    “This story”, says Kelly, “was a classic in competing moralities, a micro-example of the macro story that dominates national politics…the contest over values that saw Scott Morrison prevail at the last election, a victory for Sky and defeat for the ABC.”

    Is that not a BIG “macro” story, ignoring the years of Murdoch ad hominem attacks on Bill Shorten and the trawling for preferences by big-spending Clive Palmer in the Murdoch press leading up to the election?

    Kelly goes on:

    “Activists telling the public it is part of ‘systemic racism’ are deeply counterproductive for their cause. How on earth does this in any way help any ‘voice to parliament’ referendum that needs overwhelming public support?”

    “Gesture politics,” Kelly says, “is double-edged.”

    It looks, Paul Kelly, that there is considerable public support, despite your prognostication.

    Another player in this discussion is Janet Albrechtsen in her piece and accompanying byline:
    “Politics drowned out the death of a black man.
    Essential principles such as freedom of speech and freedom of rational thought are being trampled underfoot. The race protests have become a showcase of politics as usual”.

    “One of the more chilling scenes from the protests in the US [and here in Oz, presumably] has been the sight of white people kneeling in front of black people, seeking forgiveness and redemption for things they have not done and trying to renounce their white privilege. How will this help eradicate racism? The cult-like phenomenon points to a political movement that risks losing sight of principles; one that seeks submission from white people rather than equity for all.”

    Shades of criticism of Rudd’s apology.

    Surprisingly, Albrechtsen goes on to criticise Trump for his “gesture politics” of holding up a bible in front of a church, having the police clear the way, which she says “ought to be called out”.

    But this just gives her an opportunity to criticise “the failure of many progressives to denounce the gesture politics among Black Lives Matter protestors”.

    And there are those who look for hypocrisy in others in ethical matters.

    And she finishes with the inequities of the lockdown, such as allowing the protest marches, being a “road to authoritarianism”.

    For the IPA Chairman, lack of freedom of speech, lack of freedom of rational thought, and submission to other people (showing sympathy), gesture politics, identity politics and all kinds of cliches – these rule IPA thinking and fudge the argument. Criticism of others, especially of the ABC, is the raison d’etre of IPA stalwarts.

  15. Sammy

    I have two chronic diseases both of which put me at high risk of complications from Covid 19. For this reason I worry about the protests for two reasons: 1) Could it cause a second wave of illness, 2) If it was implicated in a new outbreak how much negative attention would this bring to the protests and then the original message gets lost in the ensuing media frenzy.

    I support the protests 100% and if it was not for Covid 19 it would be a protest that I would be attending.

    I feel that once again, the media and the government are doing what they are good at: Deflecting peoples attention to the wrong things. I mean if its ok for my family and I to go to work, travel on public transport, eat in restaurants, go to the shops all in the aid of “Saving the economy” how is the protest much different?

    I sincerely hope no new virus cluster results from the protests because that will not help the cause at all. Likely even if a virus cluster was caused by some other activity the government and the media will find a way to blame it on the protests.

  16. leefe

    Do you know why so many of us attended protests?
    I can only speak for myself, but for me it was to say “this matters so much I am prepared to risk my health over it. I am prepared to risk my life. Because it is people’s lives we are talking about.”
    It’s not “gesture politics” when it can literally lead to your death. All the people saying we shouldn’t be protesting are saying they don’t care about “other” people dying . . . not just dying, but being killed by the authorities – by the very people who are supposed to be keeping them safe.

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