Black Lives Matter and 30 long years since the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody
Keenan Mundine is the Co-Founder and Ambassador for Deadly Connections. Keenan is a proud First Nations man with connections to the Biripi Nation of NSW through his mother who is from Taree and Queensland through his Father who is from Cherbourg. Keenan is the youngest of three boys, born and raised on Gadigal land. After losing both his parents and being placed into care Keenan made some poor decisions in his adolescence which resulted in his lengthy involvement with the justice system. Keenan found his passion in giving back to his community and working with people who have similar experiences to him. Keenan’s journey has taken him to the United Nations in Switzerland to address the Human Rights Council and share his story so that they may lean on Australia’s Government to raise the age of criminal responsibility. Keenan’s journey inspired him and his wife to create a unique, community led solution and response to the current mass incarceration and child protection crisis of First Nations people.
The Black Lives Matter movement was one that took me by complete surprise. For me personally, the movement meant growing awareness of what is happening in Australia to my people. It made me hopeful that international pressure may increase on the Australian Government, to hold them accountable for the almost 474 Aboriginal deaths in custody since 1991 and improve the treatment of indigenous people in the justice system. It also made me proud to see mass demonstration and people walking alongside First Nations people.
The impact of the Black Lives Matter movement on the organisation I’m a part of, Deadly Connections, cannot be quantified. We saw a significant increase in donations, which helped us to grow. As a result we could take on new challenges, implement sorely-needed programs, extend our family with new staff and volunteers. It also cemented our place within the justice space as the only specialist, First Nations-led grassroots organisation, achieving multiple levels of advocacy and support.
The Black Lives Matter movement elevated our voice. It put us on the map. We saw for the first time that people were seeking out Deadly Connections and demanding answers to this endemic of deaths in custody. They were asking for our answers, as Aboriginal people.
Movements fade, inaction remains
It did concern me, however, that it took the death of an African-American man in the United States for us to take a closer look at our own justice system in Australia and the way it affects our mob and our people across the nation.
As with many movements, we have seen Black Lives Matter begin to fade and the recent 30-year anniversary of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody demonstrated that the government still doesn’t truly understand the complexities that keep our mob involved in these institutions.
Thirty years on and the full scope of the Commission’s recommendations have not been implemented. In terms of alternatives to imprisonment, there has been no meaningful change at a federal, state or local level. In New South Wales, the State Government continues to commit to building new prisons and re-opening ones that were once closed. And while committed to expanding the justice system, there appears to be no similar commitment to the building of new schools or new youth centres.
Looking to Aboriginal Community Controlled Organisations
When thinking about the lives of our mob – who we continue to lose – I try not to stay negative about the lack of action from the Australian Government. Instead, I remain solutions-focused.
The government needs to hear our voices and invest in our communities by directly funding Aboriginal Community Controlled Organisations (ACCOs). Within the areas that we operate across the City of Sydney and Inner West local government areas, there is not one youth centre or community centre owned and operated by Aboriginal people.
This is why Deadly Connections was founded, because our mob are forced to go to non-Indigenous spaces. It is essential that we make First Nations organisations sustainable. The Australian Government needs a long-term commitment to self-determination for our people and communities by funding Aboriginal-owned organisations.
We do not need any more research, statistics, or data. We need solutions that are community-led and practical. Aboriginal people have the knowledge, expertise and capacity to deliver this. We need practical infrastructure and resources to be able to implement these solutions and we need long-term investment for our people to become self-determined once again.
Information should always be sought from Aboriginal people and organisations. Research what ACCOs exist within your local area. Find out what you can do that is within your own capacity. Write to your local member, ask them what they’re doing to stop Aboriginal deaths in custody. Amplify our voices through social media and show the Aboriginal community that you are just as frustrated and angry as them.
Deadly Connections’ focus is on decarceration. For one word, decarceration has a very broad scope. It comes at multiple levels, including the community, grassroots, families as well as the state and federal levels. Decarceration cannot occur without addressing the underlying causes of offending. It all stems from racism, trauma and poverty.
Poverty is criminalised. I would never chase somebody taking a loaf of bread or a piece of fruit from a shopping centre. I would ask them if I could pay for it because I know what it’s like not having anyone to turn to. When people are criminalised, they get excluded from society. It is easy for us to pass judgement on lives we’ve never lived ourselves.
We are failing to address the causes of crime all while continuing to focus on the symptoms – that is why we aren’t seeing the change we want. We can stand on the sideline and throw rocks or we can build something tangible and practical.
In the past I left it up to other people to come up with solutions. I was let down continuously. Now, whenever I see a challenge, it is my obligation to deliver a solution.
I once had a very different life from which not many people have the privilege to come back from – nor the opportunity to talk about these experiences so openly. But sharing my story only does so much. I ask readers, what are you going to do? Can you donate to our organisation, Deadly Connections? Can you volunteer your time at our office? How will you offer practical solutions to First Nations people and walk alongside us in ending Aboriginal deaths in custody? How will you make a difference?