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Black Lives Matter rallies attract tens of thousands

An estimated 20,000+ people attended the Black Lives Matter rally in central Sydney to commemorate the police suffocation of George Floyd and call for inquiries into Aboriginal deaths in custody. Photo: Alec Smart

By ALEC SMART

Rallies in support of Black Lives Matter on 6 June attracted tens of thousands across Australia to commemorate George Floyd, a black man who was suffocated to death by a Minneapolis police officer in the USA.

Most of the demonstrators followed health authority guidelines to wear masks to limit possible spread of Covid-19 infection.

The rallies, in capital cities as well as regional towns, also called for investigations into deaths in custody of Australian Aboriginals and Torres Strait islanders and inquiries into alleged systemic police violence when dealing with Indigenous communities.

Despite comprising 2% of the population, First Nations people make up 28% of Australia’s prison population. Although a Royal Commission into black deaths in custody in 1991 issued 339 recommendations to remedy the situation, there have since been 432 Indigenous deaths in custody, several of them attributable to police violence.

Furthermore, 56 per cent of the Indigenous people who have died in custody since 2008 were on remand or in protective custody and not convicted of a crime.

The Sydney rally defied a NSW Supreme Court ruling banning the protest, instigated by NSW Police, which was implemented the day before the march under the NSW Govt’s Covid-19 restrictions. After the ban was announced on Friday, NSW Police Commissioner Mick Fuller released a statement threatening to fine protesters who attempted to gather.

“If people choose to disobey the Supreme Court ruling and attend the planned protest regardless, they need to be aware they are doing so unlawfully and police will respond accordingly.”

On the day of the rally, Sydney’s Town Hall Station and most streets surrounding the gathering point were closed whilst the organisers of Black Lives Matter rally lodged an urgent legal challenge to the ban in the NSW Court of Appeal.

The Appeal Court challenge was successful and they overturned the ban at 2.45pm, just 15 minutes before the rally began at 3pm, by which time there were already thousands of people in place protesting.

However, the previous day’s Supreme Court ruling deterred many from going; Sydney might have attracted more than the estimated 20,000 people who participated, as Brisbane’s rally attracted 30,000 people.

After the Sydney rally, a small group of less than 100 demonstrators round Central Railway Station were caught up in a melee after police tried to disperse them. Officers used pepper spray in the station promenade in what some legal observers videotaped and alleged was unprovoked usage prior to police issuing a formal move-on order over a loudspeaker.

David Dungay’s strangulation
Speakers at the gathering included Leetona Dungay, the mother of David Dungay Junior, who was suffocated to death in Long Bay Correctional Centre in Matraville on 29 Dec 2015 when 5 custody officers attempted to force him to move to a neighbouring cell. Dungay, just 3 weeks before he was due for release after 7 years in custody, was a paranoid schizophrenic and under assessment in the mental health unit of Long Bay Gaol.

After Dungay was observed eating a pack of chocolate TimTam biscuits and ignoring a prison guard’s instruction to stop, a team of SWAT-style officers from the Immediate Action Team (IAT) were ordered to move Dungay to a cell with CCTV coverage. Dressed in full riot gear, they hauled Dungay to the cell and pinned him to a mattress whilst a medic injected him with a dangerous sedative, midazolam hydrochloride (which can lead to respiratory depression).

As they held him down he began choking and vomited into his lungs. Dungay warned his captors he was suffocating, the pleas recorded on one of the restraining officers’ body cameras. A report later revealed that the IAT officers’ response to Dungay’s cry of help was: “if he can still talk, he must therefore be able to breathe.”

In the video of his murder, David Dungay’s last words were “I can’t breathe”, which he called out 12 times as he slowly died.

George Floyd’s strangulation
George Floyd’s last words were also “I can’t breathe’.

Minneapolis Police officer Derek Chauvin was filmed by a bystander pressing his knee firmly on Floyd’s neck whilst two other officers restrained the nightclub security guard, arrested for allegedly paying for items in a neighbouring shop with a counterfeit banknote.

Chauvin pinned Floyd’s windpipe beneath his knee for eight minutes and 46 seconds, despite his victim repeatedly warning that he was suffocating, and continued the restraint for two minutes and 53 seconds after Floyd stopped breathing. The four arresting officers, one of whom warned spectators away and told someone to stop filming, failed to provided medical assistance, even after they determined Floyd had no pulse. They also delayed medics from resuscitating their victim, to the point where it was too late to bring Floyd back to life. Two autopsies have since found Floyd’s death to be a homicide.

In the video of his murder, George Floyd repeated at least 16 times that he could not breathe.

After Floyd warned, “I’m about to die”, Chauvin told him to “relax”. Then, after Floyd cried out for his mother as his nose began to haemorrhage, he begged, “Don’t kill me” one last time, then died.

Eric Garner’s strangulation
Floyd’s death is comparable to the death of Eric Garner, a black man who was also suffocated by police officers six years earlier. On 17 July 2014, Garner, who had just calmed a street fight by others, was arrested under suspicion of selling untaxed cigarettes by police called to the scene, an accusation he immediately denied.

New York Police Department (NYPD) officer Daniel Pantaleo approached Garner from behind and attempted to handcuff him. When Garner pulled his arms away, saying, “Don’t touch me, please,” Pantaleo placed his arm around Garner’s neck in a chokehold, then slammed him into a glass shop window before they crashed together onto the pavement. Three uniformed and two plainclothes police officers then restrained Garner on the ground.

After Garner was held in a chokehold for 15 seconds on the ground, officer Pantaleo then used both hands to press and hold Garner’s face into the sidewalk, despite repeat protestations from Garner that he was suffocating.

After Garner lost consciousness, he was left lying on the pavement for another 7 minutes until an ambulance arrived, although the four-member ambulance crew did not administer first aid upon discovery of the body. Both the city medical examiner and an independent hired by Garner’s family concluded that Garner’s death was caused by “compression of the neck”.

Despite the state medical examiner ruling Garner’s death a homicide, the U.S. Department of Justice declined to bring criminal charges against officer Pantaleo. It took another five years before a NYPD disciplinary hearing judge recommended on 2 Aug 2019 that Pantaleo be terminated, which was subsequently implemented on 19 Aug 2019.

In the video of his murder, Eric Garner is heard saying “I can’t breathe” eleven times while lying face down on the sidewalk.

The incident was filmed by Ramsey Orta, a member of Copwatch, an autonomous activist organisation across USA that observe and document police activity to deter police misconduct or brutality.

After the Garmin strangulation video went viral, Orta filed a complaint of police harassment against NYPD, alleging he was being targeted in the wake of his filming. Soon afterwards he was arrested on weapons charges and in Feb 2015 incarcerated in Rikers Island Prison, ranked as one of the ten worst correctional facilities in the USA.

In prison he was repeatedly ill and alleged he was being poisoned by prison guards – on one occasion blue-green pellets of brodifacoum rat poison were found in a meatloaf, and although Orta refused to eat it, other prisoners that did so vomited blood. Orta was thereafter allowed to receive food brought in by his wife during prison visits. However, Orta claimed that the prison officers would continually sabotage his food parcels and repeatedly threaten and batter him given the opportunity.

Taking the knee
Sydney’s protest started at Town Hall and marched to Belmore Park, where, at 4.30pm, everyone dropped down on one knee. This action repeated the stance taken by the Black Lives Matter movement for social justice in the USA, in which participants drop to one knee during the national anthem and other symbolic events to show support for black people victimised by police.

The action, now known as ‘taking a knee’, was started by American football player Colin Kaepernick, a quarterback with the San Francisco 49ers who is also a major financial contributor to African-American charities and community groups.

It is a tradition across the USA to play the national anthem, Star Spangled Banner, before sporting events, and players are encouraged to stand with their right hand over their heart as a mark of respect.

In Aug 2016, Kaepernick and his 49ers teammate Eric Read chose to drop to on knee during the anthem at the start of a pre-season National Football League (NFL) match, to call attention to issues of racial inequality and police brutality. The controversial action gained international notoriety and in the following months was adopted by other athletes across America, sparking both widespread support and condemnation, the latter by people claiming it disrespected the American flag and national anthem.

In Sept 2017, eight months after he assumed the presidency, Donald Trump announced at an Alabama Republican Party campaign rally, “Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, ‘Get that son of a bitch off the field right now, out, he’s fired. He’s fired!’ You know, some owner is going to do that. He’s going to say, ‘That guy that disrespects our flag, he’s fired.’ And that owner, they don’t know it, they’ll be the most popular person in this country.”

As the taking a knee protest gained momentum, on 23 May 2018 the NFL released a National Anthem Policy, stating that players and team personnel were obliged to stand during the national anthem and those who chose not to stand were required to remain in the locker room until the anthem was over. Players who violated this code while on the field faced punishments, with additional threats of disciplinary action for the teams in which they played.

President Trump commended the NFL leadership, saying they “did the right thing,” adding, “You have to stand proudly for the national anthem or you shouldn’t be playing. You shouldn’t be there. Maybe you shouldn’t be in the country.”

(However, on 5 June 2020, during the nationwide protests in the wake of George Floyd’s killing, a group of American football players released a video listing the names of black people killed by police. They demanded the NFL condemn racism and admit that its policy against taking a knee during the national anthem was wrong.

In response, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, who previously oversaw condemnation of the knee protest, reversed the decision and released a video saying the NFL’s policy had been wrong, encouraging players to protest peacefully).

Nike boycott and response
The National Black Police Association publicly supported the taking a knee protest, announcing: “The NBPA believes that Mr. Kaepernick’s stance is in direct alignment with what law enforcement stands for — the protection of a people, their human rights, their dignity, their safety and their rights as American citizens.”

However, the National Police Association rejected it outright and publicly called for a boycott of Nike products due to their sponsorship of Kaepernick.

Despite a backlash on social media criticising Nike’s endorsement of Kaepernick’s actions, including conservative opponents who filmed themselves burning and cutting up Nike brand clothing, and President Trump condemning Nike in a Twitter tweet, the company opted to continue their partnership with Kaepernick.

In Sept 2018, for its 30th anniversary, Nike released its “Dream Crazy” advert narrated by Colin Kaepernick. The 2-minute video featured many athletes who overcame physical and social restraints to pursue their goal of becoming accomplished sports people. These included a paraplegic basketball player, an Iron Man battling a brain tumour, a young wrestler born without legs, and the World Champion USA women’s soccer squad revealing that their earnings were only a quarter of their male counterparts.

Within five days after the advertisement began broadcast, Nike sales increased by 31% and within a week Nike’s stock price surged to the highest in the sportswear company’s history. Nike emboldened by their stance, created a humorous meme poking fun at their detractors and released an advert that provided instructions on how to burn their products “properly”.

All three men that inspired the Black Lives Matter rallies across Australia, David Dungay, George Floyd and Eric Garner, died from “asphyxia due to compression of the neck” caused by being deliberately pinned down by law enforcement officers into a position in which they could not breathe.

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