In the aftermath of Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin being found guilty of the murder of George Floyd, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi received widespread condemnation for her claim that Floyd sacrificed his life for justice.
Thank you, George Floyd, for sacrificing your life for justice, for being there to call out to your mom – how heartbreaking was that? – call out to your mom, ‘I can’t breathe.’ But because of you, and because of thousands, millions of people around the world who came out for justice, your name will always be synonymous with justice.
While Pelosi’s comments were rightly deemed ‘bizarre’, ‘heinous’, ‘tone deaf’ and ‘wrong’, she did reveal a certain truth about the violence of justice in the white imagining, even in moments of its supposed arrival for Black people.
As a Blackfulla watching from so-called Australia, Pelosi’s words did not appear to be the simple matter of a poor turn of phrase. In a society predicated on an ensconced settler imagination in which we were ‘destined to die out’, a justice that is articulated as ‘synonymous’ with Black death is not lost on us. And while we wait for police officers in our own country to be held accountable for the deaths of our people, we know that justice won’t arrive with a guilty verdict, not even as a step toward it. At best it is an accountability that has arrived too late to be of any use to those left behind, offering no assurance that it won’t happen again.
Whatever form the white notion of justice takes—masquerading as a courtroom verdict, a coronial inquiry, or parliamentary recommendations, reviews and royal commissions—it never manages to stem the tide of Black deaths.
Justice, like hope and progress, is a performative gesture that functions for white people to disguise and sustain the violent and unrelenting reality of white supremacy. Their justice sustains the injustices Black people suffer, because it is always measured on their terms, and their bestowal of it, no matter how sparingly it is done, is something we are meant to be grateful for. Such bestowals, in redeeming whiteness are experienced as betrayal—a betrayal of Black hope and Black despair.
Justice is something that we are meant to believe will befall us eventually, if only we would just continue to hold out hope in the institutions responsible for the violence. Alternatively, we are told justice might arrive if we would just articulate more powerfully the tragedy of Black death; a justice only ever realised in the breadcrumbs of white benevolence. It really doesn’t matter how terrible the trauma of the CCTV footage that captures the murder of Indigenous peoples at the hands of the state, or how accurate the tabulations of Black death and disparities are, it never seems to induce the moral or political anguish we seek; an alarm that would be in keeping with the graphic images and damning statistics.
We know settlers have long rehearsed performances of shock and lament over Black graves. Their construction of justice is an extension of an artifice that really means indifference to Black lives and Black deaths.
This cynicism toward an expression of justice tethered to Black death is not a product of a failed Black imagining, of hopelessness—rather, this imagining reveals a sophisticated understanding of justice that deems Black people deserving of it in its fullest sense, not just in the dying or in death, but in life, in the living.
We witnessed this Black imagining of justice on the 30th anniversary of the handing down of the Report into the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody just last week; an anniversary of failure and inaction to address state violence. In this moment, we witnessed through a conversation which brought together Indigenous activists and grieving family members a notion of justice beyond that envisaged by Pelosi and her people.
Makayla Reynolds, a sister of Nathan Reynolds who died in custody of an asthma attack due to glaring deficiencies in his care stated, ‘justice for me, is everything that it isn’t’. We see this when Blackfullas scream down city streets, ‘they say justice, we say murder’. It’s not a sign that we’ve given up on justice. In fact, we know it via its absence, and as such, refuse to accept the state’s account of it.
Despite being denied justice time and time again, there remains a sense of urgency in its pursuit, hence the demand for it. Jason Fong, a brother who himself spent time behind bars insisted ‘justice can start with us’. Susan Dixon-Newchurch, a sister of Kingsley Dixon who died in policy custody, the investigation of which involved so many injustices, also insists upon a justice that lies in the organising within Indigenous communities. She explains justice as having ‘to skill your own families and your own communities…you have an obligation as Aboriginal people to our communities, that’s justice to me’.
Blackfullas know too well, that justice cannot be found in white institutions, white expressions, or white power. How could it ever be found in such violent things?
It is in the actions of Blackfullas that we witness it. For example, Aunty Shirley Lomas states, ‘in relation to children like my son, they can’t vote, so they have no voice, so as David’s mum it’s my job to get his voice heard and others like him and I’ll do that till the day that I die.’ Justice according to Aunty Shirley is found in the actions of the living—every last breath that a Black mother can muster. But it is in the words of a Black mother, that we also hear a notion of justice founded upon a Black humanity, instead of a Black death.
Jungaji Brady, whose Aunty Sherry Tilberoo died in the Brisbane City watch house spoke of the resistance to justice but pointed out that even in death, ‘our beautiful loved ones are alive in the words we speak’ and as such, ‘we must continue their ceremony, their songs, their stories’. He explains, ‘I found strength in knowing that the old people are alive in the words we speak’.
Justice, for Blackfullas is in the spirits of our ancestors, not in a past time or of another place; these spirits are all around us and live on through us.
Aunty Jenny Munro, likens justice itself to a spiritual being:
‘It’s a strange thing justice, I’ve never seen it, never felt it, dunno the dimensions of it, it’s very much like a spiritual being. I know that justice is there somewhere, we haven’t cited it, we haven’t seen it but we know it’s there, and it has just as strong a force as those spirits that kick you up the behind when you’re doing the wrong thing. And it’s something that’s motivated generations of people within our own country, striving for justice for its own sake really’.
If truth be told, justice for Blackfullas and Black people the world over, will never be found inside their courtrooms, or ‘up in the heavens’. It will be felt in our being, in our fighting, in our loving, and our living.
For this too is why we say Black lives matter.
The author wishes to acknowledge FISTT, Gamilaraay Next Generation and WAR Brisbane for convening the event ’30 years: Still No Justice’ on 15th April, 2021 on Gadigal country.