Common struggle: Black Lives Matter leader talks of painful parallels with Indigenous Australia

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Countries can acknowledge their histories without being captive to them, says Hawk Newsome, who is visiting Sydney

The deaths among black adolescent Travyon Martin– shot six years ago by a neighbourhood watch volunteer who thought he seemed suspicious in a hoodie- triggered three terms on a Facebook post, Black Lives Matter. Since then, there has been progress and frustration in the name of the cause.

” The situation has been exacerbated ,” Hawk Newsome, a leader of the Black Lives Matter movement in Greater New York says, speaking in Sydney on the sixth anniversary of Martin’s death.

” There are more deaths, more police officer getting away with murder. Racism is now out in the open, in America and other countries.

“But,” he argues,” there is a stronger sense of hope. The resistance has grown stronger, and the narrative has changed. It feels like liberty is closer than it’s ever been, because so many people, all over, are involved .”

Newsome, visiting Australia with their own families – his wife is Australian- told The Guardian” there is a commonality of experience” between communities across the world who are disenfranchised and dispossessed.

He ensures similarities in the experiences of Indigenous Australia and black America: in the historical dispossession and dislocation, and in the continuing disproportionate rates of incarceration, early death and suicide, in poorer health and shortened life expectancies.

” We can understand that fight. That’s why these motions need to be global .”

Unity
Unity march for Dr Martin Luther King Jr in New York. Photograph: Pacific Press/ Barcroft Images

In the US, fierce debates over statues of confederate civil war generals such as Robert E Lee have antipodean parallels. In Australia, those arguments centre around statues of British explorers and innovators such as James Cook and Lachlan Macquarie, and their role in’ detecting’ Australia and early European settlement.

Even days of commemoration are contested. Australia Day, marking the beginning of British colonisation, is a day that many Indigenous Australians regard as Invasion Day- to be mourned rather than memorialised.

” It’s the same in America. I find it hard to get excited celebrating the 4th of July, because we never won independence .”

There are subtler- but equally insidious- forms of disadvantage too, in predatory behaviour by junk food and soft drink producers, targeting poor communities where knowledge of healthy eating is lower, or disregarded under financial and other pressures. Rates of heart disease, diabetes and other lifestyle diseases are massively disproportionate in African-American and Australian Indigenous communities.

And in the debates around “moving forward”, there are similarities too. Countries need to frankly remember their pasts in order to be able to build a fairer future, Newsome says.

” We need to have a history that is truthful, that acknowledges the past candidly. For a long time, black America has been told to’ forget bondage ‘, told’ that was a long time ago ‘. Well nobody says’ forget the Holocaust ‘,’ forget Pearl harbor ‘,’ forget 9/11 ‘.

” We have to have the conversation about our history, we have to have the debate about the statues celebrating people who committed genocide .”

Newsome argues dialogues confronting history must also acknowledge ongoing disadvantage. Pulling oneself up by the bootstraps only runs if you have shoes on.

” I’m not a fan of bootstrapping, it says that you just have to work harder to get what you need. But that dismiss that one group of people’s situation is much harsher than another’s, that some people start from a more difficult position.

” We don’t need to be given equality, merely dedicate us access, give us the same possibilities, and we can do the remainder .”

Newsome stress he is not an expert on Indigenous issues- and the duration to which those can be compared to the experience of black Americans, who are not first nations people, is part of the discussion- but other BLM leaders have depicted the same stark comparison.

” Similar poverty rates, similar mass incarceration rates, the deaths in custody that are being swept under the rug- these are all things we feel in the US so there is a deep affinity around this resistance and this battle ,” Black Lives Matter founder Patrisse Cullors said, in Australia as the winner of the Sydney Peace Prize last November.

Newsome came to global prominence in September last year through an online video showing a small band of Black Lives Matter protestors attending a’ mother of all rallies’ pro-Trump demonstration.

The video , now viewed more than 50 million times, shows Newsome and others walking through an openly hostile crowd to take to the makeshift stage, where he was invited to speak for two minutes.

” I am an American ,” he began to desultory applause. But he went on to argue that Black Lives Matter wasn’t anti-police, only anti-bad police, as it was anti-bad politician. He said that America’s strength lay in its democratic equality, in rights for all, and that” all lives matter “.

He finished his speech to widespread cheers:” if we really want to construct America great, we do it together ,” he said.

This, Newsome argues, is the way forward in an increasingly polarised global political climate: greater understanding rather than firmer redoubts of positions.

” There are people on both sides, who are very happy being angry. But that’s not getting us any progress. You’ve got to reach out, and find common ground, and do this all together .”

Newsome returns to the US this week to work in the projects of New York City, running especially around improving the health of African Americans through access to better food and improved financial literacy.

” We’re not about fighting people. We need to build a community where everybody is working together. The route we’re going to get there is through peace and love. Listen to me, I sound like a hippie: I used to talk like Malcolm X .”

Read more: www.theguardian.com

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