Black Lives Matter- as relevant at home as in the U.S.?
Updated: Sep 1, 2020
Serious world events mean that, even here at Survive Law, we’re going to be serious for once and genuinely write a post without Legally Blonde memes. I’m a New Zealand qualified lawyer now living and working in New York City. Recently, I have witnessed the Black Lives Matter movement enter mainstream discourse in America and thousands of Americans finally recognize that police violence against black and brown people in the U.S. is widespread, systemic and cannot continue to occur.
While this blog post cannot possibly do justice to the scale and seriousness of police violence, particularly race-based police violence, which is responsible for the protests sweeping across the U.S. and the world, and the recent prominence of the Black Lives Matter movement (which was initially founded in 2013). According to a recent article by U.S. News (available here: https://www.usnews.com/news/articles/2020-06-03/data-show-deaths-from-police-violence-disproportionately-affect-people-of-color), more than 1,000 unarmed people died in the U.S. as a result of police violence, and around a third of them were black. However, only around 1% of police officers involved these deaths were charged with a crime, and even less convicted.
These statistics exist against a wider backdrop of racial disparities in the U.S. justice system. African Americans are incarcerated at more than five times the rate white people are and are often given harsher sentences than white people. In 2015, although African Americans and Hispanic people made up around 32% of the U.S. population, they made up 56% of the U.S. prison population – meaning African Americans and Hispanics are incarcerated at a disproportionate rate in comparison to people of other races. I encourage everyone to educate themselves by taking a look at the many excellent resources available online about these issues and thinking about why these injustices continue to occur.
Race-based police brutality, unfair treatment and high rates of incarceration of people of certain races (and, indeed, racism in general) are not uniquely American problems. It has been great to see huge protests in Australia and New Zealand in support of Black Lives Matter and against similar issues in Australia and New Zealand. However, I have still noticed that many Australians and New Zealanders, including those who live in the U.S., have a disturbing tendency to describe racial issues in America as though similar problems do not exist back home. But they do. There are striking similarities between the U.S. and Australia and New Zealand when it comes to racial disparities in the justice system.
BBC News (https://www.bbc.com/news/world-australia-52900929) recently reported that in 1987, the Committee to Defend Black Rights in Australia found that one indigenous person died in custody every 11 days. Although a Royal Commission and recommendations for change followed in 1991, most of the recommendations were not implemented and at least 432 indigenous Australians died in custody since the inquiry. Indigenous people make up only 3% of the Australian population but almost 30% of the incarcerated population, and many are put into custody for trivial offences. In fact, according to the BBC, this is about four times higher than the proportion of African Americans incarcerated in the U.S., relative to the population. Although there have been several recent indigenous deaths in custody in Australia, no police officer has ever been held criminally responsible. An excellent resource to learn more about these injustices is this report by the Australian Human Rights Commission: https://humanrights.gov.au/our-work/indigenous-deaths-custody-chapter-6-police-practices
Like Australia, New Zealand has a long history of racial problems in its justice system. An article by Auckland University of Technology academics Khylee Quince and Katey Thom summed up some grim statistics (https://theconversation.com/black-lives-matter-outrage-must-drive-police-reform-in-aotearoa-new-zealand-too-139965):
“Compared with Pākehā [white New Zealanders], Māori are six times more likely to be handcuffed, 11 times more likely to be subdued with pepper spray, six times more likely to be batoned, nine times more likely to have dogs set on them, ten times more likely to be tasered and nine times more likely to have firearms drawn against them by police.
Over the past decade, two-thirds of all victims of fatal police shootings have been Māori or Pasifika.”
Research conducted in New Zealand has also found that Maori New Zealanders with no prior history with the justice system are 1.8 more times likely to be involved in police proceedings and seven times more likely to be charged by police than white New Zealanders. Additionally, more than half of New Zealand’s prison population is Maori, despite Maori making up only 15% of the general population. (see https://www.justspeak.org.nz/ourwork/justspeak-idi-research-a-justice-system-for-everyone).
There are many ways to end racism in the justice system – by donating money to Black Lives Matter and other anti-racism movements and organizations, by peacefully protesting, by writing and speaking about these issues, and by having conversations with friends and families. But we must remember that the problems in the U.S. are not unique – they just get more international press attention. Australians and New Zealanders who support Black Lives Matter in the U.S. should make sure change happens at home too.