The time before risk becomes well understood is a time in which values are projected into the undulating hazy cloud of the future, just to give them shape and meaning. Every fear expressed is a message. Every change celebrated is a message. The things deemed urgent and valuable? That’s a message. The things deemed too risky? That’s a message, too. What lies are told, and what truth is told – those are all messages about values held.
Over the past few weeks, watching Australia’s anti-racism protests manifest in delayed parallel with those in America and other countries, one single message has been clear.
The threat of racism is consistently denied and dismissed, and the threat of protesting against racism has been inflated. Media outlets and police authorities have all told protesters a single, clear and unified message: your voice is dangerous, and you ought to shut the hell up while we get on with the urgent stuff, like shopping and rugby league.
The right to breathe
The Black Lives Matter movement rose in America before it rose in Australia, intensified by the torture and murder of George Floyd, but fuelled by a string of horrific murders committed by American police officers on innocent black citizens. Breonna Taylor, Sandra Bland, Kathryn Johnston. Seven year old Aiyana Stanley-Jones. There is a long, deep and awful recent history of beautiful people who have lost their lives for no reason beyond white police officers and their deadly, racist habits.
In Australia, there is an epidemic of violence towards Indigenous Australians. “More than 400 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have died in custody since the end of the royal commission into Aboriginal deaths in custody in 1991”, writes Guardian Australia. Indigenous Australians are incarcerated at a rate far higher than the average, and consequently a disproportionately high number of Indigenous people lose their lives in jail. Protests in Australia, focusing on this tragic trend as well as racist violence committed by the state in general, came a few days later.
There are many differences between Australia and America, but there was one core emotion that I felt came through in tweets, photographs, videos and interviews from people attending protests in both countries. This was existential.
They were demanding the right to be alive, to exist as a living being inside a home or in a country without having doors blasted down by police clutching no-knock warrants, or being incarcerated for months for meaningless charges like parking fines.
“Aboriginal lives, and the lives of Black and Brown people, depend on us making a stand. When their lives are violently cut short, it is our moral obligation to say something and to do something – they need our collective outrage, they need us to rally, they need us to fight”
“We were working with local health organisations, we had 55,000 PPE masks and 55,000 hand sanitiser bottles”, said organiser, Crystal McKinnon an Amangu woman from the Yamatji Nation, on the 7am Podcast from the same outlet. “The rally is lawful and an essential service. It’s a health matter, a crucial health matter that Aboriginal people are dying in custody. To say that one thing is more important than refuses to understand what’s happening to our people in this country. it’s just as urgent and just as important, and the two things aren’t in competition”.
The stories from the speeches given at these events, readily available on live streams and clips, detail a litany of avoidable tragedies. There is no missing the rage and passion driving these protests. Decades of systemic oppression have resulted in the denial of health and safety, and too often, the right to breathe. The risks outlined here were real and horrific. So how did Australia’s public health agencies respond to the health fears of Indigenous Australians, held against the backdrop of a pandemic and the cloudy uncertainty of risk?
The priorities of public health authorities
Protests arose several months into a pandemic that had, in many cities and countries, been slowed by banning crowds, keeping people apart in public spaces and shutting down transport, workplaces and schools. So was protest a betrayal of the months of sacrifice put into fighting COVID19?
In America there was relatively broad support for protests against police violence, though paired with repeated suggestions for infection controls, and a range of related constructive suggestions.
“Yeah, the reason they are in favour of this is because the cause is objectively just, there’s just no way around it. The public health authorities that are supporting this…have for years decried structural racism as a driver of chronic health concerns”, Dr Cassandra Pierre told podcast Science Vs. “There is a lot of pain there’s a lot of grief, that I feel and I know other feels … and that needs to a catharsis and often that’s in a vocal manner. People are going to want to shout it’s what protests are about, so if you can, if you’re going to be shouting, try to be as careful as possible”.
As outlined by the podcast’s host, Wendy Zukerman, 500 physicians staged a sit-in, 1,288 public health professionals signed an open letter in support of the protests, and the American Public Health Association supported them.
In Australia, the remarks of public health professionals were noticeably less sympathetic to the cause of Black Lives Matter protests. Compare the remarks on shouting from Dr Pierre above, to those of UNSW Professor Marylouise McLaws: “While they’re shouting slogans of ‘Black Lives Matter’, those particles could have COVID-19 virus in them”.
State and federal health officials were roughly in line with this, with most urging people to completely stay away from protests. “The easiest way to avoid becoming infected by- from COVID, by being part of a protest is to not be part of a protest”, Deputy Chief Medical Officer Paul Kelly told the ABC. “My advice to people is there are other ways to protest, there are other ways to express your concern about racism and discrimination and violence”, Deputy CMO Michael Kidd told Sky News Australia.
This was not the first corona-time protest. In May several thousand people across Australia gathered in groups of 500 or more in various cities to protest vaccination, 5G and lockdown regulations. The organiser’s of Sydney’s conspiracy-rally claim 3,000 people turned up to that one alone.
This protest – not an effort to fight the public health scourge of racism but literally an effort to remove the controls in place to protect public health – drew this response from the Chief Medical Officer, Brendan Murphy:
“There is, unfortunately, a lot of very silly misinformation out there….I understand people have the right to protest but they should not be breaching those social distancing rules and if they are, they should be held to account”
Go, if you want to, but just follow the rules. In response to organised protests that not only breached social distancing guidelines, but were actively urging for the removal of controls to fight COVID19. Whatevs. You have a right to demand the worsening of the coronavirus pandemic. Just do it right.
The exact same dichotomy existed in Australia Prime Minister Scott Morrison, who said “It’s a free country”, when asked about the 5G protests, but repeatedly and loudly condemned the Black Lives Matter protests – despite both technically breaching social distancing guidelines.
Tellingly, much of the anti-protest efforts emerged alongside a stream of news announcing the reopening of sports stadiums to massive crowds. Often, the news items simply ended up right alongside one another on Twitter, or announced sequentially in news reports, with no awareness of what both implied when put together.
A week after the BLM protests, health agencies responded to this comparison. Those crowds are fine because they’re ticketed, you see, and therefore contact tracing is easier. They detailed the incredible efforts that have gone into ensuring sport can proceed.
All of this is presumably accurate, but it’s also an elucidation of priorities. Protest – at least, the anti-racist ones – were perceived as a luxury that can be deferred indefinitely. Sport is vital – we cannot live without it.
“In principle there is a rather big difference between a single protest and a return to spectator sport in Australia. Returning to spectator sport in Australia is important for Australians to see us working towards that”, said Deputy CMO Dr Nick Coatesworth. What about returning to the democratic right for unheard anti-racist voices to ensure they’re heard? Why is that indefinitely on hold for the months and probably years until a vaccine is found? (Don’t answer that, we know why).
Black Lives Matter protests are existential. The right to live, to breathe, to exist as a human being. But in every one of these transcripts, the most generously they are treated with is a sympathetic nod (and even one horrifically placed ‘all lives matter’), paired with a dismissal of any possibility of working collaboratively with organisers to reduce risk. “Protest is essential; that’s why we’re working with a group of organisers to develop guidelines and pathways for reopening protest to citizens” is something that was never said.
This, while experts worked furiously, around the clock, to ensure stadium sport can proceed safely. Again, the Prime Ministerial linkage was clear. “The fact that I would still be going on Saturday speaks not just to my passion for my beloved Sharks; it might be the last game I get to go to for a long time”, said Morrison, on March 13, two days prior to the closing of mass events and right when Australia’s case-count was climbing rapidly (he later backtracked).
What an incredible illustration of the priorities of public health authorities. Anti-racism isn’t seen as a public health concern; it’s seen as a lefty luxury, while sport is treated as entirely essential. Perhaps it is; but the two clear standards simply trace the shape of racist dismissiveness.
One exception: the Public Health Association of Australia (PHAA) released a statement that was in stark contrast to the health officials. They directly pointed out that fight to protect life from racism, and from coronavirus, were not in competition:
But the PHAA’s intervention, a full week after the first protests, was certainly too little, and too late. All this, while the protest’s organisers had to fend off attacks from Australia’s media outlets, too.
The deep-set racism in Australian media
The attacks began before the first footfall of protest. In Victoria, the Premier, Daniel Andrews had been generally supportive, even saying protesters would not be fined. Then The Age newspaper published a front page story claiming that the organisers were planning to spit at police and use “inflammatory chanting” (their words, honestly), to start and fight and get footage of police brutality.
The day after the story, The Age apologised. That was well after Andrews had changed his mind and came out against the protest; well after the damage was done. The lie was the first line on a front page story on one of Victoria’s biggest newspapers. This was systemic racism exercised through blatant racist tropes working anxiously and quickly to try and quash the voices of dissent and protect the status quo.
After this, for several days, there was a clear narrative being pushed that the protests would result in the delaying of lifting restrictions. In a single press conference, it is repeatedly asked, and each time health officials insist there will be no such delays. When I first read these I couldn’t figure out why this kept getting asked because no one would say who’d made the claim; I could only see that journalists were in absolute, stunned disbelief that they were getting negative responses:
Digging further, it became clear that this line of questioning came to dominate these press conferences because the Prime Minister, Scott Morrison said so, in a media interview (he also said protesters should be charged for attending, and also lied by stating that there was ‘no slavery’ in Australia, for which he later apologised – what a time):
As Guardian Australia’s Katharine Murphy pointed out, this directly contradicted Morrison’s previous remarks. “Outbreaks are not a reason to slow things down”, he’d said one month prior. The claim that protests were delaying the lifting of restrictions was a blatant ploy to turn the public against BLM protesters. It turned out that the National Cabinet later accelerated the lifting of restrictions, despite the occurrence of BLM protests:
After the protests eased off, two things happened.
First, people who had attended the protest and also later tested positive for coronavirus were breathlessly presented as vindication of warnings that protests would cause trouble. In the first case, someone tested positive, but later negative. In another, an attendee tested positive but health officials insisted they almost certainly didn’t contract the virus there and likely didn’t spread it due to use of infection control. That was buried by branding the person as a “black lives matter protester”:
Why not brand them with any of the other many places they went to? Why specifically label them with the one place health authorities say they’re unlikely to have acquired it at? I’ll give you a hint: it’s systemic racism in Australia’s media industry
When a third case emerged, the same thing happened – no evidence of acquisition or transmission at the event, and plenty of other places the person had gone, but BLM presented as the key factor:
Alongside these efforts to brand protesters with one targeted event of the many places they’d been, the ‘fears’ came about. ‘Fears of a second wave’. This is a small selection of the headlines:
“I think in two weeks time after these protests, that’s when we’ll be able to judge the risks that we’re taking here. Because if we do see a second wave, I think that would do a great dissserve to the organisers of the rally. People will look at this protest movement and the way it might happen later” said Channel Nine’s political reporter, David Crowe, on the ABC’s Insiders (all-white) panel.
It’s two weeks later, now. So what has happened?
How to fabricate a protest-caused pandemic
It isn’t here yet, and if it hasn’t risen within fourteen days, the chance of it rising now is small. Protests were held in all states and territories, but only Victoria has seen an increase in cases, and that is almost entirely down to families in quarantine breaking isolation and visiting others. That’s led to the delay of lifting of restrictions:
Even taking Victoria’s increase into account, for the weeks since the protest, it’s clear that variations are in line with previous weeks, and that the vast majority of cases are from Victoria’s family and quarantine outbreaks:
Stretching that timespan out even further, you can see the total absence of any ‘second wave’ in the context of the size and duration of the ‘first wave’:
Thought none of these new Victorian cases have any confirmed linkage to any protest, the fact they coincidence with the two-week timeframe for emergence of symptoms means exactly what I predicted it to mean:
Politicians went particularly wild with the ‘blm bump’ lie. “For Andrews to fail to mention the impact of his 10,000 people protest on the spike in COVID-19 cases demonstrates his culpability”, said Victorian opposition leader Michael O’Brien. “Why don’t you take responsibility 4 your actions on protests” said MP Georgie Crozier. “Chairman Dan let 10,000 people illegally go protesting 2 weeks ago … coincidence much?” said Liberal MP and Quinn Mallory lookalike Tim Smith.
This is outright medical misinformation from elected officials, on par with those who say vaccines cause autism because a child who received a vaccine also has autism. As you might expect, there has been zero effort to counter this from media outlets, including those with fact-checkers, and no counter from public health agencies, state or federal.
Of course, anti-vaxxers don’t get a free run, because the worldview hurts everybody. Racist misinformation hurts minorities, and so it is free to exist unchallenged within a system that is racist, and particularly racist towards Indigenous Australians.
America has failed to see any protest-related bump in COVID cases, as reported by Slate. “The absence of surges in the cities with massive demonstrations but few other large gatherings has taken many officials and health analysts by surprise. However, as they’ve examined the data and the video footage, one thing has clarified matters, to an extent: A large percentage of the protesters wore masks”. Ditto in the place I live, Norway. And Switzerland.
Five days ago, Australia’s federal Deputy CMO, Paul Kelly, released another statement reiterating opposition to protests and defending sporting events on the grounds of strict protocols put in place. On the same day Victoria’s bump was being falsely framed as protest-caused, AFL player Connor McKenna was diagnosed with coronavirus, after he travelled extensively to play matches.
This won’t stop. The anti-racism protests will be linked to everything, no matter how tenuous the linkage. The absence of any second wave tsunami of cases has resulted in an anxious and urgent need to fabricate a connection. In a deeply racist media and political environment, there is no resistance to this pseudoscience and misinformation.
Recognise these things and work to shut them down
The most logical pathway to minimising risk would, of course, mean curing the problem that creates such frequent tragedies. Australia’s police forces – particularly in Victoria and New South Wales – have been put forward as the enforcers of public health regimes, often granted far more power than was required, which resulted in minorities being targeted with fines far more than average.
The New South Wales police were particularly bad. A few days prior to the protest, an officer was filmed slamming an Indigenous teenage boy into the ground head first. After the NSW Black Lives Matter rally, police officers corralled a small group of remaining protesters into an enclosed space in central station, blocked them in, and immediately began dousing them in pepper spray. None of the police officers were wearing masks (in stark contrast to the protesters, who mostly did).
Police forces, media outlets and even public health agencies each manifested the consequences of deep, ingrained systemic racism with their reactions to the pleas of long-hurt people crying out to be no longer hurt.
Dr Janine Mohamed, CEO of the Lowitja Institute wrote in Croakey:
“They were reinforcing the racist profiling and stereotypes that we are violent. Placing the problem with us – rather than calling for action on police and state violence.
It was the same from much of the mainstream media – reflecting the systemic racism within all mainstream systems.
Journalists were putting the hard questions to Indigenous people (asking individuals to speak on behalf of our whole community) about why we were marching. Not putting the hard questions to governments about their failures”
It is a flat circle. The systemic racism that the protesters were fighting against was activated in response to and in opposition to their cries for justice. Public health authorities, media, politicians and police could have come together, recognised the cry for help and freedom from harm, but at every step the voice of protesters was buried, either through the dismissal of their right to protest, through outright misinformation, or through the violent actions of police officers.
Australia’s media industry needs far better representation from marginalised communities. Australia’s politicians will never change, but their lies could be scrutinised and contextualised if media outlets weren’t aligned wholly with the racist aims. Public health intiatives should rise from the ground up and be powered by community, not punished by police. When the cops become the enforcers of safety and human health, you end up with crowds of humans trapped in an enclosed space screaming with the pain of their eyes burning and their throats choking. Public health agencies need to recognise that protest – in the form of large crowds of furious people making noise – must remain part of a democratic society, and begin working towards figuring out how to make it as safe as possible, in collaboration with activist groups. If they continue to dismiss it, it makes their message loud and clear: anti-racism is a luxury that can be delayed.
Recognise how deep and pervasive racism is. Note the subtext. Look at where reason is applied, and where it is forgotten. You might gain a greater insight into the fury and the long-held pain of protesters.
Header image – Black Lives Matter Melbourne, 6 June 2020, by Matt Hrkac on Flicker