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‘We know the pain’: Australia confronts police racism toward first inhabitants

People display the Aboriginal flag at a rally in Sydney on Tuesday in solidarity with those in the United States protesting police brutality and the death of George Floyd. (Loren Elliott/Reuters)

SYDNEY — The encounter began like so many others between a white policeman and an Aboriginal teenager.

At an inner-city housing estate in Sydney on Monday, a hostile conversation escalated to a verbal threat against the officer — "I'll crack you across the jaw, bro" — followed by a violent response that indigenous Australians say happens far too frequently to be anything other than racism.

The white officer strode toward the skinny 16-year-old, ordered him to face away and kicked his legs out from under him. The teenager collapsed face-first onto paving stones and let out a moan that belied his previous display of bravado.

Like the killing of George Floyd in Minnesota, the encounter was captured on a cellphone, and it enraged an Aboriginal community that is even more economically and socially disadvantaged than African Americans. Indigenous Australians make up 2 percent of the population and 27 percent of the prison population. They earn 33 percent less than other Australians and die 8.6 years earlier if they are male and 7.8 years earlier if they are female, official statistics show.

But unlike the unrest across the United States this week, a protest march by some 3,000 people through downtown Sydney on Tuesday was not broken up by police and proceeded peacefully.

On Friday, however, a court ruled that a planned Black Lives Matter march through the city this weekend that was expected to draw tens of thousands could not go ahead because of the coronavirus risk. Rallies are expected to take place in other cities, including Melbourne.

A painful history

Aboriginal Australians have a long history of mistreatment at the hands of authorities, and Floyd's death brought back painful memories for the family members of some victims.

At least 432 Aborigines have died in police custody — mostly by suicide — and in encounters with police since an official inquiry in 1991 that recommended major changes to the way indigenous people are treated when under arrest, according to a database maintained by the Guardian newspaper.

For George Floyd, an emotional final farewell

Unlike many American authorities, senior Australian police officers, politicians and prosecutors are showing a willingness to act against officers who use excessive force.

The more progressive approach began more than two decades ago. In 1997, to reduce the high number of young black people in custody, New South Wales state introduced a law stipulating that arrest should be used against juveniles only as a last resort, according to Samantha Lee, a lawyer in the police accountability practice at the Redfern Legal Service in Sydney, which represents many Aboriginal clients.

"It's the law, and police are meant to follow it," she said in an interview.

The change was part of a cultural shift toward the treatment of black people that "has now been seared in the minds of senior executive policing leaders throughout the country," said Roman Quaedvlieg, a former assistant commissioner of the Australian Federal Police.

"A healthy culture has emerged where if a complaint is made, it is investigated thoroughly," he said in an interview. "If an individual officer has overstepped that mark, used excessive force, there is an appetite to impose sanctions."

In February, a police officer in Western Australia state was charged with murder in the shooting of Joyce Clarke, a 29-year-old Aborigine who got into an argument with police officers when they were called to her home last September.

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Clarke, who was brandishing a knife when eight police officers arrived, had a tragic family history common in some Aboriginal communities. Born to an alcoholic mother who gave her up for adoption, Clarke started drinking alcohol at 7 years of age and tried to take her own life at 12, according to court records.

The response to her killing was a watershed. It was the first time in nearly 40 years that a police officer in the state had been charged in the death of an Aboriginal person, according to the National Justice Project, a legal charity. The courts have suppressed the policeman's identity to protect his family from reprisals.

Criminal defense lawyers acknowledge that police departments have introduced policies designed to protect black people from what they call aggressive policing, but they say the measures are not sufficient to stop extreme force and harassment.

In 2018, a 16-year-old Aboriginal boy was forced to strip from the waist down and squat in a police station garage by patrolmen looking for marijuana.

The New South Wales Law Enforcement Conduct Commission last month said the strip search was illegal because the boy's parents were not present — a point the teenager made at the time.

"We don't need to look to America to see the consequences of systemic discrimination," Karly Warner, chief executive of the state's Aboriginal Legal Service, said in an interview. "We see it here."

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In Sydney, the family of the teenager pushed over by a policeman this week have asked for assault charges to be filed against the officer, who has not been named publicly. They said they will pursue a private prosecution if the police do not file charges.

"We know the pain that black America is feeling in the wake of George Floyd's death, because we feel it too," the boy's family said in a statement issued on the condition of anonymity to protect their privacy.

"We live in constant fear that we're going to be abused and harassed by police, and the police get away with it. It's normalized and that's wrong. We shouldn't have to live like that."

The young police officer, who has been taken off street duties, was having a "bad day," according to the chief of police, Mick Fuller.

"I totally accept that officers need to show restraint," Fuller said on Sydney radio station 2GB. "There were probably other ways the officer could have dealt with that matter, there is no doubt."

For George Floyd, an emotional final farewell

U.S. rivals seize on protest crackdowns to turn tables on human rights criticism

As protests spread, tensions escalated over Trump’s use of military in response