• Melburnians gathered in July in support of the Black Lives Matter campaign. PIC: Bess Maria Zewdie

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A crowd-sourced project is helping to introduce Australians to the American movement that’s finding its way Down Under.

Letters for Black Lives: An Open Letter Project on Anti-Blackness was created by ethnographer and writer Christina Xu, who reached out to Asian Americans via Twitter in order to compose a letter that could best explain the Black Lives Matter movement to Asian immigrant communities.

The letter has now been translated into 23 languages and dialects, and edited for different diasporic communities across America, with the group proclaiming: “Our goal is to listen, support, and amplify the message of Black Lives Matter within our communities.”

The campaign caught the attention of Sydney-based activist Bridget Harilaou. 

“Once the letters went viral, I saw them and decided to organise an Australian version,” she says. “I felt it was necessary because Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have such a history of police brutality, mistreatment and oppression in Australia, which is often not understood in migrant communities.

“And, of course, the anti-blackness and racism towards Indigenous people perpetuated by Asian communities is an issue that isn’t talked about enough.”

Addressed to Asian Australians, the localised version of the letter reads, in part:

 

It’s true that we face discrimination for being Asian in this country. Sometimes people are rude to us about our accents . . .  But for the most part, nobody thinks “dangerous criminal” when we are walking down the street.

Coming from many cultures where we honour our ancestors, we must pay our respects to the black lives that have made our existence in colonial white majority countries possible.  We owe them so much in return. 

Part of that means speaking up when I see people in my community — or my own family  — say or do things that diminish the humanity of black people.  

I am telling you out of love, because I don’t want this issue to divide us.       

 

The letter draws on alarming facts; for example, highlighting that Indigenous Australians make up around 2-3 per cent of the country’s population but account for approximately 30 per cent of its prison population.

“Deaths in custody, Indigenous incarceration and police brutality have always been incredibly prevalent issues in Australia,” says Ms Harilaou. “The Asian community’s — and broader Australian community’s — lack of education about this must be addressed; hence, why I think the letter is so important.”

In fact, the response to the letter has been so positive that Ms Harilaou is looking to recruit volunteer translators to spread even further its message.

“Of the English speakers who’ve read it, the reaction has been extremely positive, and from the Indigenous activist communities [that] I’m a part of, it’s been received immensely well,” she adds. “I hope that I can start getting it translated. . .  hopefully source some more translaters to spread it far and wide.”

Letters for Black Lives is one of many initiatives coming out of Black Lives Matter, a grassroots movement that emerged as a protest against police brutality of African Americans.

The deaths of several — in particular, Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, John Crawford, Tamir Rice, Freddie Gray, Alton Sterling, Philando Castile and Sandra Bland — have drawn international media attention, with the graphic deaths of some filmed and circulated online.

Thanks to a Twitter hashtag, the movement has spread to all corners of the world, including Australia, and is being adapted to address the mistreatment of people of colour and Indigenous communities at the hands of law  enforcement.

In July, approximately 3500 Melburnians shut down parts of the city’s central business district in support of Black Lives Matter. Led by police on horseback, the protesters marched from the State Library to Flinders St Station, with banners reading ‘All Lives Will Matter When Black Lives Matter’ and ‘Always Was, Always Will Be, Aboriginal Land’.

It’s not the first time that an American political movement has made its way down under, with the establishment in the 1960s of the short-lived Australian chapter of the Black Panther Party an obvious precursor. This time, however, social media’s global reach is making such movements harder to ignore.

The emergence of Black Lives Matter has coincided with a string of events in Australia that have added poignancy to its message. A few days after the rally in Melbourne, Rebecca Maher died in police custody in NSW, the first Indigenous person to do so since 2000.

The Aboriginal Legal Service has accused NSW police of not following protocols, which require police to contact the service’s Custody Notification Service once an Indigenous person is detained.

On top of this came the screening of a damning Four Corners’ report on the Northern Territory’s Don Dale Youth Detention Centre, and other incidents in Western Australia – the charging of a 55-year-old man with the manslaughter of Kalgoorlie Indigenous teenager Elijah Doughty, which sparked protests, and a decision by the West Australian coroner rejecting  pleas to release CCTV footage showing the events leading up to the death of 22-year-old Indigenous woman, Ms Dhu, who died in police custody a few days after being arrested in 2014 for unpaid fines totalling $3622.

Advocates argue that such cases underscore the relevance of Black Lives Matter Australia, although the Melbourne rally initially drew a backlash online, particularly on sites Facebook and Reddit, where some posters questioned how the American movement could be relevant in an Australian context.

Dr Rebecca Sheehan, a lecturer in US history at the University of Sydney’s United States Studies Centre, says that the movement’s progression to Australia was completely logical, and absolutely necessary.

“[This movement] matters anywhere where there are people of colour, who are suffering from systemic racism,” says Dr Sheehan. “People who are against these movements will try any kind of response to say ‘No, this isn’t relevant here’.

“We know that Indigenous Australians have all kinds of issues that stem from systemic racism — from the taking of their land . . .  terrible health outcomes, problems with education and employment access, even having the languages that they speak not taught in the schools that they attend.”

Dr Sheehan says that a lack of visibility has largely contributed to a level of blissful ignorance for many Australians towards the plight of Indigenous communities.

“The Asian community’s — and broader Australian community’s — lack of education about this must be addressed; hence, why I think the letter is so important.”  activist Bridget Harilaou​

“The most significant difference between the situation here and the situation in the United States is one of visibility,” she says. “If you’re physically in the United States you see people of colour everywhere, and we don’t see Indigenous Australians as part of our everyday lives in Australia. So it’s much easier to go ‘We don’t have a problem’, because we don’t see it, it’s not in our faces every day.

“There [are] still tremendous problems in Australia for Indigenous Australians.”

At this year’s Festival of Dangerous Ideas, journalist Stan Grant and Black Lives Matter co-founder Alicia Garza discussed the importance of the movement for Americans and others around the world.

“I’ve lived in enough of the world to know that the world is not white,” Grant told the Sydney audience at the Opera House. “In Pakistan, in the past 10 years, 60,000 people have died as a result of terrorism, but we don’t hear about it . . . but we do hear about it when it’s in Brussels, or when it’s in the United States and when it’s in France.

“How did we arrive at a point where the lives of the majority of the world don’t seem to count for the same?”

Ms Harilaou says non-Indigenous Australians should capitalise on the moment to educate themselves about the context of their wellbeing and the plight of others.

“As non-Indigenous people, it’s our responsibility to educate our families, friends and communities on their struggle, and our benefit of ongoing colonisation, dispossession of land and mistreatment of Aboriginal people,” she argues.

“We have taken part in that dispossession by buying into European frameworks of country and sovereignty, and supporting Indigenous sovereignty is key to any liberation movements on this land.”

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