I’ll admit that I’ve only been half-following the riots in Baltimore this past week, in part because life has been busy, but also because it is very easy, as with shootings in the US, to sigh and wonder when things will ever change.
Of course, change does come, albeit slowly, and the fact that police officers have now been charged with Freddie Gray’s murder is a huge step in this direction. I suppose we will see what happens in court, and whether they will be held accountable for their actions. And I suppose, it’s only a matter of time before the entrenched attitudes begin to shift.
But is it only the police who are to blame for this, or is it a deeper issue within the culture? As an observer who’s never lived in the US and whose only information about it arrives via social or traditional media, I’m not sure how well placed I am to be able to judge that. But a couple of other things happened this week which made me think about the way cultural shifts happen, and which gave me hope for both the US and for my own country.
The first was that two Australians, Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran, were executed by firing squad in Indonesia for drug trafficking offences. They had been on death row for 10 years, and had tried every avenue of appeal to have the death penalty revoked. Our government had also attempted to save them but the Indonesian government remained unmoved.
In the last days of their lives and the days after their deaths, the media has been analysing, lamenting, and discussing Australians’ opinions on the death penalty, redemption, youth, and drugs. Overwhelmingly, there has been a sense that while Chan and Sukumaran made poor choices, and should have been punished for them, given the illegal nature of their actions, that the death penalty was too harsh. Australians have been upset that two of their own should die like this. This is an important point, which I’ll revisit again in a moment.
The other event was a national day of action yesterday, on May Day, when thousands of Australians all around the country marched in protest at the closure of Aboriginal communities, in my state of Western Australia. The protests were attended by people from many different races and cultures, showing their support and their outrage at what is happening. It made national news, and Twitter was alive with pictures and support from the Australian as well as the international community. This support is important, for the obvious reason that we need to ensure that this issue does not go unchallenged, and that there is debate and discussion in the parliament as well as on the streets.
But it’s important for another reason, too, and it relates back to the deaths of Chan and Sukumaran, and how we reacted to those as well.
In the past ten years, I think Australia has undergone a cultural shift. Perhaps it’s to do with the way social media has allowed us to connect with people with whom we may not have otherwise done so. Perhaps it’s a wider global movement and we’re a part of it. Perhaps it’s just a combination of those things, and a natural progression. But when Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran were arrested ten years ago, I don’t remember the outcry at their arrests. I remember the public dismay and sadness when Shapelle Corby was sentenced, but not these two.
And why is that? I can’t help thinking that it may have had something to do those two young men, and how they looked. They’re not white, they don’t even have ‘white’ names. Chan. Sukumaran. They’re ‘not like us.’ Mainstream Australia – white Australia – and the media which does its best to read us and follow our lead, could afford to dismiss them as not really Australian, because they didn’t look the part. And as such, it didn’t really matter what happened to them.
Ten years later, things have changed. I believe that we’re more likely to view ‘Australian’ as not one single kind of person. Of course, racism and prejudice still exist. But perhaps somewhat less than before? Perhaps we’re more open minded, more willing to stand up and take part in the decisions which affect other Australians, even as they don’t affect many of us. That is a change in our culture which I’m proud of, and which I hope will continue.
And in that sense, while I sigh and wish that things were different in Baltimore and many places in the US and around the world, I do think that change will happen. Sometimes it’s violent, which saddens me, but I hope that even that will finally lead to conversations which lead to all people being respected and treated with dignity, regardless of their skin colour or their traditions or their heritage. But for that to happen, some of us need to change our minds about what it means to belong to a culture, and what we want that culture to represent. That might be difficult, but until it occurs, clashes like those in Baltimore will continue, and the injury, death, and cost to livelihoods is simply too much to pay, just so we can continue to ignore basic human rights. We can be better than that.