When vigilante violence is condoned

Oooh he’s a little blondie like I was, says my niece, who has a little blondie of her own now. He’s not the little blondie running around anymore says his great-great auntie, who recently saw my boy, her 15-year-old nephew, for the first time since he was a toddler.

Like my youngest son, Elijah Doughty is a blondie and unmistakably Aboriginal. His beaming smile is heartbreaking today. I do not know Elijah or his family and I offer love and condolences to everyone who does. I only mention his looks because that picture of Elijah reminds me of my boy every time.

Is this personal connection what it takes to humanise Aboriginal people – even Aboriginal children – in the collective mind of white Australia? In my kids’ extended family, blondie expresses loving-belonging. I do not know if other families do this, but I know that words and gestures of loving and belonging matter, to reassure our kids, who daily face ignorant and harmful remarks, like whether they ‘look’ Aboriginal.

White Australia demands to be competent in determining who is Aboriginal, but it does not know. It may never know. Aboriginality is ontological , it is independent of white classificatory systems. Still, White Australia always knows who it can kill and incarcerate and criminalise and oppress and forcibly remove from family with impunity.

I am writing this because a white man killed a Black child, which – apparently this needs to be spelt out – is an objective moral wrong. The man was not charged with murder, and he was found not guilty of manslaughter. I am writing this because there are white people out there defending the killer, defending the legal system that let him kill with impunity. I am writing because our society is awash with racist violence and awash with normalisation of racist violence and still we let this go on and on and on.

 

Fact and law

The identity of the 56-year-old killer is suppressed by the court. He pleaded guilty to causing the death of Elijah ‘by dangerous driving’. The law categorises killings into lawful (eg self-defence) and unlawful (eg murder requires intent). The unlawful killings are further categorised into murder and manslaughter, and involuntary manslaughter. The accused can be charged with murder and come out with a manslaughter verdict, which is sui generis, a category (genus) of one (single). You can not be charged with armed robbery and get a lesser verdict like break-and-enter. This is because, as with all human societies, we say that the taking of the life of a fellow human is extremely serious.

So referring to the anonymous killer as a murderer (eg on social media) is not a good idea. It is wrong at law, and the law likes to punish those who are wrong at law. In the system we have, which was imposed by the English at gunpoint, only a court – whether a judge-only trial or trial by jury – can determine guilt on the offence. In contrast, calling the killer the killer is not wrong at law, because the killer pleaded guilty to causing the death of Elijah. What he did killed Elijah, and he conceded that by pleading guilty to occasioning death by dangerous driving.

What happened and coverage of what happened

There is no doubt, in law or in fact, that the anonymous killer got in a ute and chased down Elijah and killed him. On the evidence, the killer was told by a police officer where motorbikes are often “dumped” and went to that place. He then saw Elijah on a motorbike and chose, of his own free will, to drive in a manner that killed Elijah. This much is on the public record.

What happened next was absolutely typical of Australian law and society. To say that the not guilty verdict for manslaughter – the killer was not even charged with murder – or the sentence of three years are astonishing or incredible is to perpetuate the lie that racist violence is normally punished.

It is not. Killing Aboriginal people with impunity is the norm. If the anonymous killer had been adequately held to account… that would be astonishing. Reporter after reporter put on their grave face to ‘report’ that tensions were seething in Kalgoorlie-Boulder. That ‘there was anger’ in the Aboriginal community, as though this was some kind of abstract or independent thing. Aboriginal people are just angry, you see. Random as.

Put it this way. If my son steals a thing, it is okay to kill him. Sounds harsh? That is exactly what is being said about Elijah right now. Put it another way. The property rights of the white man are of greater value, to the white man and to white society, than the human right to life of the Black child. There is no moral universe in which this is a defensible ethical position. Yet there they are, all over the newsfeed, taking exactly this position.

Our political leaders, of course, have taken no position at all. They are all over the shooting of a white woman in America; but not a peep on the vicious vigilante killing back home. I wonder why.

News story after news story reported on what a great job the WA police did in keeping the peace. Such heroes. With their guns and their riot gear in the face of people in mourning. Since when have Aboriginal people done anything but negotiate? And been slimed for their trouble? When Aboriginal people express anger, sadness, despair… it is not just the state but white society that pushes back in the most inhumane ways.

We do this because we know our presence is illegitimate. We know we are on Aboriginal land. We do not want to admit it. So we frame perfectly reasonable Black responses, the same response any one of us would have if Elijah was OUR child, as an existential threat.

The existential bit is true. But not the threat. Fuck Camus. Forget the threat. All any Aboriginal person has asked of me is to listen, learn, and be yourself.

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