An open letter to Australia about police and race and the whole damn thing
We live in a land of laws. Decided by legislators, who are elected by the people. And we have a system to uphold those laws. When someone breaks those laws, the job of a police officer is to stop then, and bring them to the court for trial and sentencing. It is not the police officer’s job to administer a verdict and carry out a sentence. That’s not the way the system works, and that’s extremely important. Police acting extra-judicially is a dangerous and potentially fatal failure of the system.
At no point in our penal code does it say “the punishment for saying “I’ll crack your jaw” is having your head thrown to the ground”. This officer just made that up. Then he decided the kid was guilty, and while he’s there, he may as well just administer the punishment as well. And at the end of it all, you’ve got a kid in hospital. Not even by accident.
Obviously there are circumstances where we let police use physical force, when there is an immediate physical danger. That’s clearly not the case here. Words don’t always mean what they say. If someone says “I’ll rip your head off and shit in your throat”, we can use our judgement to tell they don’t actually mean it literally. Because everyone, including police, especially police, can determine the difference between words and their actual meaning. This kid was not in the officer’s face, screaming, with his arms swinging. He was 10 ft away, with his arms folded. A teenager. So, are you telling us that you think the kid was actually, really, truly, going to go up and crack the officers jaw? Because that’s what we need for this to be legal. We all know it wasn’t. This was violent force absent a genuine threat. And that is a dangerous and potentially fatal failure of the system. Without accountability, it can quickly descend into chaos.
The fact that this kid didn’t die doesn’t mean it’s ok. If you speed in a school zone you still get a ticket, whether someone gets hurt or not. But this officer didn’t just go faster than he should have, the car shouldn’t have even been there in the first place. He took it from verbal to physical. It’s a clear foul, right in front of our eyes.
So now what? The NSW police commissioner has suggested “we certainly could have handled that situation better”, and says he’s apologised to the kid.
And people are outraged by that. They don’t think it was even a mistake, that he did the exact right thing, and has nothing to apologise for. And that is something we need to examine.
What combination of circumstances has to take place for an adult to applaud the assault of a minor in a supposedly law-abiding society? That’s the question here. It’s not whether or not a trained adult can assault a kid for talking, it’s why on earth some people think they can. To answer that we need to go back a few years to look at how we got here.
Because notice how we haven’t said anything about race yet. So, let’s talk about William Wilshire.
He was a police officer at the Alice Springs Telegraph Line Station. He killed more than 13 people. But, they were black. So him being charged with anything was not just unusual, it was unprecedented. He was the first European police officer to be charged with murder, that was what it took, and it was only 130 years ago, in 1891. He was acquitted. Guess who paid his bail? Alexander Downer’s grandfather. That’s how recent all this is.
For 113 years before that, white men could literally kill black men, women and children, without even being charged, let alone convicted. Hundreds of massacres, all over the country. To which you say “Well, Europeans had boats and guns and superior strength, that’s how the world works ”. True. People have invaded each other since time began. Then we realised that if we wanted to call ourselves civilised, we had to stop behaving like savages.
So our laws slowly started to catch up with our ethics, and now, no, you can’t just go up and kill someone because they’re black. In theory at least. But hold on, now white men have less power! They could do whatever they want before, and now they can’t even kill a black man? Well this is bloody PC bullshit, I’ll tell you what.
And this is the phenomenon which actually underpins a lot of problems today. White men had complete power, and are reluctant to relinquish it. It’s why they hate feminism, environmentalism, and equality. All of those can be viewed as some form of limit on the absolute power of white men, who quite enjoyed being able to do whatever they want with impunity thank you very much.
To justify the founding of this country, white people had to tell themselves they were allowed to take it from the traditional custodians. To do that they created powerful myths, about both cultures, which became deeply internalised, and persist to this day. And now, when those myths are challenged, they are met with rabid resistance.
But they are being challenged, and we are slowly beginning to allow ourselves to wrestle with the idea that maybe colonialism wasn’t this wonderful thing, and that maybe the absolute power of white men should be limited in some way. And that is an active, ongoing process, which we can still see in the reaction to this incident. Because you can, apparently, still walk up to a kid and violently throw their head on the ground, and many will still try to justify it.
We need to understand that the justification for that isn’t starting from a neutral position and working up, it’s starting from 200 years ago, where white people could murder black people in their sleep, and being whittled down.
Our policing policies, and out social attitudes, are rooted in that history. It is uncomfortable to confront, but to deny it is delusion. You can’t take control of a whole continent unless you put some powerful systems in place. Some of those systems are physical, some are legislative, and some are psychological. To move beyond racism, we need to dismantle those systems. The physical ones are the easiest — you can take a fence down in an afternoon. The legislative ones are harder, they can take years of advocacy. But the psychological ones are the hardest, they are the most powerful, and they are most important. And as long as the psychological systems remain, the problem will never go away, like a cancer that won’t die.
And that’s what we’re looking at here. The remains of the psychological system put in place to justify the taking of this land from the Aboriginal people. The dying wisps of the idea that white people deserve to dominate Black People. Many people will defend that system to their last breath, that’s part of its power. It doesn’t hang around for this long through voluntary introspection.
I’ve never cared for the “how would you feel if it was your kid?” argument. Right and wrong isn’t determined by our personal relationship to the victim. What’s more interesting, is how would you feel if the officer was your kid? Is that how you tell your children to behave? To go around looking for an excuse to violently assault people? To pick on someone smaller than you, younger than you? Or, do you tell them to use their words? That it’s important to stay within the law, and to do our best to open dialogue, empathetically, to deepen our understanding.
When we hear a kid saying something like that, how about responding with “Oh shit man, you sound really upset , is something wrong? Is there anything I can do to help?” Then listen. Learn. Don’t add to the trauma. Don’t deepen the distrust.
But instead of expecting that, we’re excusing the assault, because we’ve all been trained to take the side of the white cop over a black kid. That social conditioning is part of the psychological systems that keep our colonialist structures in place. We’re still caught up in this primitive power struggle, where we see words like those as a threat, not to our safety, but to our authority. That’s why he’s gotta be put down like that. Otherwise we risk losing the whole country.
We’ve been shown a clear case of abuse of power. The fact that so many people not just defend, but applaud it, shines a light directly on the problem. We are still living that lie, and clinging to the racist myth of white supremacy. We have a chance to confront it, and address it as a community, or we can wait for a deliberate death to be caught on camera.
It will take a lot of work to fully dismantle these systems. It needs constant, conscious evaluation. Condemning this officer’s actions is just the start.
Ultimately, all cultures are built on stories. That can be one of domination, or cooperation. We can choose: William Wilshire, or Frank Gillen? Beside the bloodshed, our history is rich with stories of mutual respect, kinship. People like Bungaree, Mathew Flinders, Hamilton Hume, Watkin Tench, Gombeeree, Deedora, William Buckley, William Dawes. People who loved, listened, and learned from each other.
This country, like many others, has a big part of its history which is based on the idea that black lives don’t matter. We have fixed a lot of that. We haven’t fixed all of it.