News & Views

Statement regarding #BlackLivesMatter

MALS puts out lots of statement out of solidarity and concern but this one is particularly important.

The barrage of condemnation, threats, political and legal repression faced by Warriors of the Aboriginal Resistance (WAR) this past week, is astounding.

We at Melbourne Activist Legal Support, along with our supporting community legal centres and firms, have nothing but admiration for the integrity, strength, and diligence shown by all the organisers of the Melbourne rally, and the many smaller regional events and those held around the country.

As organisers of the massive and historically significant rally in Naarm (Melbourne) on Saturday 6th June, WAR considered, planned, prepared for, and took every imaginable step of providing information, guidelines, distributing masks, hand sanitisers, and clear directions before, during, and after the event. They consulted and took not only advice from public health authorities but directly involved the highly experienced and expert teams at the Victorian Aboriginal Health Service (VAHS) who were present at the rally to hand out face masks and hand sanitisers.  In essence WAR took the most considered harm minimisation approach possible and went far beyond what is provided at numerous operating businesses, markets and boot camps—yet still they are condemned.   

The public health concerns about COVID-19 transmission risk of large gathering, whilst widely acknowledged as vitally important by everyone concerned. But the barrage of high-profile and public condemnation, attacks and blame levelled at WAR is now approaching something akin to a moral panic—during which groups are blamed, demonised, and scapegoated for reasons that go far deeper than any legitimate concern.

It stands in stark contrast to the considered communications around actual COVID outbreaks at old-age facilities and factories, where confidentiality, support and compassionate responses have largely prevailed.   We can only assume that racism, anti-Aboriginal, and a more generic anti-protest bias is feeding into and exacerbating legitimate public health concerns.

It is everybody’s responsibility to push back against this.

In the face of this moral outrage, WAR trusted in the wealth of experience of Indigenous controlled health practices, their own vast organising experience, and the care and discipline of the many tens of thousands of people who showed up.  This entirely voluntary, unfunded, and non-government supported organising effort should be celebrated for what it was. Simply extraordinary.

As we have stated previously, activist groups have been proactive in efforts to ‘flatten the curve’ since the onset of the pandemic. Numerous large protest events were voluntarily cancelled or postponed in response to public health directions much earlier than corporate, private or government entities in order to reduce the risk of transmission. Similarly, grassroots mutual aid networks, organised largely by social movement activists, have been at the forefront of community education, support for our health system and responses to prevent transmissions. As Amy McGuire has pointed out, despite being chronically underfunded, the Aboriginal  community-controlled health sector has reacted swiftly and extraordinarily effectively to COVID.1

The Victorian Government and public health authorities have gone to great lengths to consider and provide public advice, guidance and in numerous cases, exceptions to bootcamps, businesses, golf, fishing, and numerous sporting activities when it comes to COVID restrictions. But despite the critical role social movement protests and activities play in democratic society, the Victorian government has remain steadfastly silent.  This extraordinary oversight has left civil society organisations to plan and determine COVID safe measures for each public rallies and events with only police left to inexpertly interpret measures.  

Human Rights Watch and the United Nations has warned governments to not exploit the coronavirus pandemic to criminalise or obstruct the work of civil society organisations. We loudly reiterate that warning to the Victorian state government, Victoria Police and authorities.  It is unacceptable to use the pandemic to unduly restrict, hamper, demonise or criminalise social movement groups, organisations or activities.

MALS asserts that compassion and human solidarity needs to be at the centre of any public health response. These values are enacted by social movement initiatives such as the Black Lives Matter and End Deaths in Custody protests, and as such should be respected as necessary and vital. Hundreds of years of systemic and institutionalised racism and violence is also threatening to public health and needs to a societal wide response.

WAR has stood strong against unprecedented opposition and condemnation from the highest levels of state and federal governments, the threat of severe legal consequences and the not-so subtle threats of extreme violence from Victoria Police. They have been unwavering in the face of front page media misinformation, intense online racist threats and vitriol.

WAR deserve every ounce of solidarity and support we can muster.

Melbourne Activist Legal Support

Melbourne Activist Legal Support (MALS)

is an independent volunteer group of lawyers, human rights advocates, law students, and para-legals. MALS trains and fields Legal Observer Teams at protest events, monitors and reports on policing at activist events, provides training and advice to activist groups on legal support structures, and develops and distributes legal resources for positive social movements. MALS works in conjunction with law firms, community legal centres, and a range of local, national and international human rights agencies. We stand up for civil & political rights.
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Footnotes

  1. Aboriginal community health’s success with Covid-19, The Saturday Paper, Amy McQuire.