Black Lives Matter – ethical questions

Black Lives Matter

Black lives matter. So do all other lives. Black Lives Matter protests around the world have galvanised countries and communities. But an inherent conflict exists in Australia. There is a desire to protest on behalf of black people, as well as the requirement to obey laws that exist to prevent further outbreaks of the deadly COVID-19.

The conflict has erupted on social media, as both sides voice their opinions on this contentious question.

I have friends who are Noongar women. During my work as a nurse at Jigalong Aboriginal Community, I lived and worked with Martu people. My empathy and respect for them resulted in a book, Other People’s Country.

My husband and I are in our eighties. We count ourselves in the vulnerable group. For three months of self-isolation, we kept to our apartment. We left only to walk for exercise every day. Our children brought our food until we were able to place online orders.

Background to Black Deaths Matter

On 25 May 2020, George Floyd, an Afro-American, was allegedly murdered in Minnesota by a police officer. The killing, watched by three other officers, was an atrocity. All four have been charged. Floyd’s death sparked protests and riots in the USA. They spread to other parts of the world.

Australia has its own issues with the deaths of black people in custody. In spite of the findings and recommendations of the Aboriginal Deaths in Custody Royal Commission (1991), over 340 black people have since died in custody in this country. White people also die in custody. Aborigines make up a greater proportion of prison populations.

Protests

Protesters Sydney
Protesters in Sydney, 6 June. Photo courtesy ABC

Protests over the weekend in Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Adelaide attracted tens of thousands of protesters. Smaller groups rallied in country towns. Organisers have planned a protest to take place in Perth next weekend.

These protests occur against a background of a once-in-a-century pandemic caused by a novel corona virus.

COVID-19

For eleven weeks from mid-March, Western Australians cooperated with the State Government to curb the spread of the deadly virus. We self-isolated. Leaving home was limited to work, essential shopping, exercise and support of vulnerable people. These include older citizens and those with chronic illnesses or compromised immune systems..

The vulnerable group also includes many Aboriginal people. They experience life-style diseases like diabetes, kidney and heart diseases. On average, they die younger than the general population.

What we did

We washed our hands like never before. Physical distancing became the norm. People with slight symptoms presented at clinics for invasive testing. We did not visit family or friends. No one hugged or shook hands. Neighbours and strangers rallied generously to support each other.

The government poured money into prevention of the spread of the contagion. They financially supported affected businesses and individuals. Hospitals and intensive care units prepared. Staff stood by.

Governments proclaimed and enforced intrastate and interstate borders.

The Australian Government enacted emergency restrictions on entry to remote Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. They aimed to slow the spread of the virus. These restrictions were made under the Biosecurity Act 2015 and remain in place until 17 September 2020.

Families, unable to visit loved ones across borders, mourned. Never has Australia been so divided.

The number of cases of COVID-19 and deaths from the disease remain relatively small. Infections were mostly related to returning travellers and contagion on ships. There was little community spread. These results were due to great restrictions and cooperation.

However, businesses crashed. Livelihoods disappeared. Individuals joined the dole queues in droves. The country faces enormous debt. Recession, if not depression, looms.

Slowly, many restrictions have been lifted. Life has returned to some semblance of normal. Groups of people can now gather, if they remain 1.5 metres apart and provide information so contact tracing can be carried out in case of new cases.

But the threat of COVID-19 has not gone away. Senior Health Officers warn that they expect a second wave of infection. Or at least spikes and clusters of illness.

Black Lives Matter questions

Against the background of COVID-19 restrictions, the Black Lives Matter protests raise serious questions.

  • Restrictions still exist against large uncontrolled crowds. Black Lives Matter protests attract tens of thousands of people. How can we justify this?
  • Health authorities consider Aboriginal people ‘vulnerable’ to COVID-19. Can we gather in large groups at the risk of infecting them?
  • How can we protect all vulnerable people if we gather in large groups?
  • How else can we show support if we do not attend protests?

CONFLICTING QUOTATIONS

My world turned on its head over the past few days. My discomfort includes my whole-hearted agreement with a statement by Australia’s Finance Minister, Mathias Corman and disagreement with one by West Coast Eagles football player, Nic Naitanui.

I rarely agree with the ideas of Mathias Corman. However, in response to a question about the Black Lives Matter protest planned for Perth next weekend, he said:

The issue is a very legitimate issue and I understand the depth of feeling, but if we want to impose restrictions across the country to the point where people are prevented from attending the funeral of their loved ones, then surely we got to have some consistency here. We can’t at the same time essentially force people into unemployment in order to protect the health of the community, to save lives, and at the same time say it is fine to have tens of thousands of people gather in the way that they have gathered in recent days.

On the other hand, Nic Naitanui tweeted:

All love from my end but saying all lives matter is like going to a cancer fundraiser and saying there are other diseases. Yes every life matters and is of equal importance/significance but right now we are highlighting black lives. That’s just my opinion as a black man.

Conclusion

In the end, as with all ethical questions, everyone must bring their own understanding of the issues and their own values to create an opinion. There is merit on both sides of the question. No absolute right or wrong exists.

The community in which I live has worked hard and sacrificed much to contain the spread of the virus. I owe them a duty of care to continue to protect them.

Because of this, my position is that the risk of enabling severe illness and deaths through the spread COVID-19 outweighs the possible longer-term gains that might come from attendance at a protest.

SOME OF MY OTHER BLOGS ABOUT COVID-19

Post isolation and mixed emotions

COVID-19 and social isolation

Join the Conversation

13 Comments

  1. Hi Maureen. Liked your balancing act with the Dilemma of Black Lives Matter. Nick Nat shows his true colours,and Mr.Corman could have saved his reputation—a little—if he had simply said something like:
    “Yes, black lives do matter—and so many people are protesting about my Government’s dilly-dallying and politicising about the Uluru Statement of the Heart – that these worldwide People’s Views are making me determined to speak to the P.M. TOMORROW and urge him to get on with the job of what thousands of Aussies want—proper Truth Telling and Proper Recognition of Indigenous Peoples’ rights….” After all, the marchers might have all gone home if he’d said that…well, at least thought about going home ! Not he.
    Maureen, in the S.O.S. Choir we’ve been having Zoom sessions in place of Rehearsals ( Mr.Corman wd be pleased with us), and Heather and I have been using yr.Book “SOS Stories” to speak on Zoom about some of the Choir people and their stories. Thanks–it’s been good. And sorry, you will be saddened to hear that Jill Wright ( whom you interviewed and wrote about in the book) died last week after a year or two of much pain and just wearing out I think. I will say hello from you perhaps in our Zoom session tomorrow ( Tues.) Best wishes Maureen to you & John… Harry Mithen

    1. Dear Harry,
      Lovely to hear from you. I saw that Jill had died, and feel very sad about it. She made such a valiant effort to live her life to the full. I loved the way she found she could write, and filled notebooks with stories and memories while we were writing the stories that were eventually published.

      I’m impressed with the words you would have liked Mathias Corman to have said, and of course you are right. We can be grateful, perhaps, that he even got as far as he did.

      The Zoom meetings sound amazing, and well done to all of you to be so creative about keeping the Spirits of the Streets Choir active and activated. Thank you for telling me the book has been useful in this context. The newsletter is also a wonderful new initiative, and I read it with great interest. Please give anyone who might be interested my warm regards.
      Best wishes to you and Heather. xx

  2. Hi Maureen,

    Great to read your perspective, as always. As you say, there are many different opinions about current events including protesting in the time of COVID-19.

    I’m interested to know why you disagree with what Nic Naitanui tweeted? Of course, if you mean that you’re concerned for the lives of everyone in relation to COVID-19, I understand your concern.

    But I think what Nic was expressing (I’m guessing) was more in response to a number of people saying, as a reaction to Black Lives Matter, that ‘All Lives Matter’. Which of course is true as a statement, but in my opinion isn’t showing respect and responsiveness to the current time, in relation to the known issue of racial profiling and police brutality experienced by many POC and in this country the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Saying ‘all lives matter’ seems like we’re negating the pain, to me.

    I definitely take your point about the protests and concerns regarding COVID-19. I think some protests managed distancing better than others. Thankfully active case numbers are overall very low, so we’ll have to cross our fingers that there won’t be too many new cases as a result. (I didn’t attend the Brisbane protest, as I’m concerned about the elderly patients with whom I’m in close contact).

    Thanks Maureen, you always make me think. Hope you’re staying warm and well.
    xx

    1. Thank you for your thoughtful remarks, again, Fiona. I did try to be balanced in my article. I am appalled at deaths in custody, particularly those of Aboriginal people. I am also appalled at the rate in which they are incarcerated for minor misdemeanors and things like not paying fines. Under normal circumstances, I may have attended the Perth protest next weekend. But after three months of isolation, along with everyone else, and the misery caused to so many people because of lost jobs and lost businesses, not this time. I’m grateful that the Australian community has taken the coronavirus so seriously and wish the timing of these protests were different.
      .
      I understand Nic Naitanui’s point, but in the context of Black Lives Matter protests during a pandemic, it seems somewhat frivolous. Aboriginal people are among the most vulnerable in Australia and there is the danger that an outbreak spread during a protest would be devastating for everyone.

      Here’s to better times ahead!

      M xx

  3. Fraught issues, both intermingled. I admire your voice, Maureen and simply wonder, if ever the world will change.

    1. Such complicated issues, Susan! But it felt easy enough to sort out my decision, once I’d thought about it. The world can only change when we make decisions that are sound. I hoped to change the world when I was younger. Now I know all I can change is my own attitude – be grateful, be kind.

  4. What a wonderful article Maureen. Beautifully written as always, and I agree with every point you make. I’ve been saying exactly the same things here, well, similar things.

    1. Dear Sue, Thank you for your support. I appreciate it. And I feel very weary. I hope it’s true, as I’ve always believed, that this too shall pass.

  5. Well said Maureen Helen. You have laid out the argument as well as anybody has. I don’ t agree with Nick Nats views. The timming is just wrong particutally when faced with COVID-19.

    1. Thanks, Miriam. My views are coloured by my age. But when I think about all of this, I get the distinct feeling that we’ve been fighting for rights all our lives. First our rights as girls and women to lead lives like our brothers, and then in safety. Then all the years of wanting some sort of equality in our marriages. Now battling the ageism that condemns old people to lives that are far from what we would have chosen. BLB? Of course.

  6. Such a dilemma …. but I have to agree with you Maureen … we can’t let these months of self isolating and doing the right thing be forgotten in the midst of being ‘seen’ to be supportive of the BLM movement. There are other ways we can show our feelings …. call out racism whenever it crosses our path … talk about it with our children and grandchildren…. and ensure that we elect to office politicians who reflect our concerns and will act accordingly on any policy making issues. Our voices matter.

    1. We do need to call out racism, Rachel. Electing politicians who reflect our concerns seems to be a bit more problematic, because they all seem reluctant to act on policies relating to racism. It is so ingrained in our society that often people don’t notice what is happening. It is very sad.

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