Content Warning: police brutality against an Aboriginal person, violence, racism
We were living in a sunny, two-storey townhouse in Brunswick – three girls, with a sprawling kitchen and big ideals. My boyfriend (now husband) would spend each day there too, drinking our tea and stacking our dishwasher.
This particular morning, Jonathan, Charlotte and I were sitting around the kitchen bench, tea in hand. Beth was still asleep. We’d been at a Christian conference that weekend, and were full of wild, surging hopes for the future. Suddenly Jonathan looked up abruptly.
Some kids just ran behind the house.
We had another property behind us, and a little garage full of our own junk. We followed Jonathan out the back door cautiously, unsure what to expect. As we filed into our courtyard, there was a screech of brakes and a yell from the street. A red-faced man in a muscle t-shirt jumped out of his car – engine still running.
Have you seen two boys?
He looked like a thug. It was evident that when this man got his hands on whomever he was looking for, it wasn’t going to be pleasant. We automatically shook our heads. Nope, sorry.
If you do, call the police immediately.
Furious, he jumped back in his car and screeched off.
We were rattled. Jonathan moved towards our garage, where two little shapes trembled.
Come out, we won’t call anyone.
Two teenage boys – one pale and blonde, one dark-skinned and dark-haired (he looked Indigenous) – surely no older than fourteen, crept out from behind our garage fence. They had leaves in their hair and were very quiet.
Do you want to come in for a cup of tea?
The boys (let’s call the Anglo boy Jack, and the Indigenous boy Patrick) came in tentatively, unsure of how to move through our home. They sat on our couch, their cups of tea spilling on the ground from their shaking hands. Jack explained that they had been doing graffiti and taking photos of it (Patrick had a very professional looking camera with him with a huge lens) when they’d been caught out and chased. We didn’t really know what to think about that, but they were young, and scared – they even asked us to close our house blinds, in case anyone saw them from outside. We did it.
Jonathan talked emphatically to them about keeping out of trouble and committing to school. He offered his phone number, in case they ever wanted support. I floated in the kitchen getting ready for work. Jonathan arranged to drive them back to their respective homes safely and I said goodbye to my household, glad things would have a happy ending, and curious about the loud buzzing I could hear overhead.
But when I walked out my front door, I squinted. The scene outside was completely shocking. Police cars had blocked off our small suburban street. Detectives, plain clothes and uniformed police (about a dozen in total) were swarming the road and footpath, and a police helicopter swung low above our heads.
As I walked towards my car, a detective in a suit came towards me.
We’re looking for two teenage boys. Have you seen them?
I balked. Do I lie? Do I wait for them to knock on the front door? Do I tell them?
I didn’t know what they had done. I didn’t believe they were truly threats. But I had an inherent trust in authority, and I didn’t want to get into trouble for harbouring criminals, either.
They’re actually in our living room.
Did they break in?
No we invited them in. They seemed shaken up. We gave them tea.
It all happened extremely quickly from this point. The man gave a signal, spoke into his radio, and about six police surrounded our property. They burst through the front and back doors, and ran inside, yelling.
Later I would learn that Jack and Patrick had heard the helicopter and asked if they could go upstairs. They hurried up there to hide, barricading themselves in Charlotte’s bedroom. The police ran in, found Jonathan strumming a guitar in the living room, and raced upstairs to apprehend the two kids.
They were violently arrested – so much so that Charlotte’s shelving broke from one of the boys being thrown up against it. Then they were dragged outside.
I watched as they came out – multiple police on each boy – Patrick writhing and sobbing, and Jack mouthing ‘Sorry’ to me as he was hauled past. It was horrifying to watch, and I remember standing there dumbly, in shock. The force the police used seemed ridiculous – these were children. The police stayed, collected the camera, recorded multiple statements from everyone in the household except me, and I thought that would be the last we heard of it. I was wrong.
That night, Jonathan received a message from Jack. He explained that both he and Patrick would be going to court, that they’d been involved in some sort of gang situation with older boys. Jack said that Patrick was probably going to be sentenced to juvenile detention, whereas he, the white boy, wasn’t sure. We never got details of what they actually ‘did’. Jonathan asked if there was anything he could assist with, and the boy said yes. He’d left something in Charlotte’s room. It was small, and black. She’d know what it was when she saw it. Could he have it back?
The next morning, Charlotte looked under her pillow to find she had been sleeping on a taser.
This part of the story was complex, and in some ways very beautiful, but it isn’t the point, so I’ll keep it short: Jonathan met up with this kid on multiple occasions, mentored him, met his Mum, and finally convinced him to surrender the taser to the police. Great outcome all round. Feel good news.
But this next bit is what I came here to share.
A few months later, I pulled up at home and stepped out of my car to see Patrick walking hurriedly towards me. He’d been waiting outside our house for someone to come home. He was clearly nervous, and kept his head down.
I was just wondering if you still have my camera. I really need it.
His camera? No, I didn’t have his camera. The police had seized it, assuming it was stolen goods. I think we all assumed, on some level. That’s the kind of bias we inherit and perpetuate.
But this kid had turned up to my house – the same house he had entered peacefully and was then violently and brutally dragged out of as he sobbed. He had overcome the trauma of that experience to show up on my doorstep, me being the same white woman who had handed him over to the police whilst promising him safe passage. In that moment I believed that camera had been his, that it had been stolen from him, and I realised there was now no way for him get it back.
I write this to illuminate a narrative I have struggled with since these events.
We can make cups of tea for both those boys, sure. We can purport to be people of peace. We can claim we are anti-racist with every fibre of our blind beings, pointing to specks in the eyes of others whilst lugging logs of wood around in ours. The truth remains:
The white kid got a mentor of sorts, some guidance and love, and finally got a bemused pat on the back for ‘doing the right thing’ and surrendering his weapon.
The Indigenous kid was brutalised, was ‘probably going to juvie’, and the peaceful piece of equipment he used to create art was taken from him, and probably sold in some auction somewhere.
When it mattered, the white kid reached out, and received our help.
When the Indigenous kid reached out, we did nothing for him.
I did nothing for him.
I did worse than nothing in many ways, because I just stood there, helpless, apologising, and telling myself over and again in my head ‘But he could have just stolen it, right?’
A wiser woman than me once identified that one of the major things getting in the way of justice, is justifying. The stories perpetrators tell themselves to soothe their own discomfort, to make their sin reasonable, or even righteous. I justified my inaction, and acceptance of the situation. I told myself why it was okay that I simply watched him walk off that day, his shoulders hunched in disappointment. And that is the mountain we must now throw into the sea – the endless justifications for why our country is so lacking. Why we are so oblivious, so comfortable. Why we are so institutionally, systemically, and socially racist.
I share this because I want to decolonise my heart, and even if I falter in it or make mistakes, I want that process to be normalised. I must do the work alone, but I want to go on this journey with other white people. We must not be afraid of going there, though of course we are, because pain is so damn villainised in middle-class culture, a thing to be avoided at all costs. Pain means punishment, to our wounded children inside, and we do not want to be punished for racism that is so deeply entrenched that it is acceptable and comfortable.
But pain is good. It’s a sign of inflammation, of weakness, of injury. It show us where we need healing. And we do need healing, though not in the same way the black, Indigenous and people of colour communities need healing. Ours is a healing from privilege.
We have taken up spaces that we have not been created for. We have attempted to thrive in countries colonised by our ancestors, rank with the atrocities and shame of those acts, unsure why everything smells so wrong. We’ve stumbled over bones in our attempts to walk towards ‘reconciliation’. We’ve dominated, injured, and perpetuated without even noticing, and that kind of continued violating does not just injure those we violate, it injures us. We are a diaspora of orphaned spirits who have inherited generational violence, and I suspect we cling to the power and land we’ve stolen, because we’re scared that if it all gets taken away and power is distributed with justice and equity, that we’ll be exposed as being worthy of nothing, and having no home at all.
White people aren’t just bad guys. We aren’t only colonisers (but we are still colonisers, to this day). We do have gifts to give and stories to tell. We do have places of belonging. We too, have ancient languages we have forgotten, ancient lands on which our ancestors walked. We have myths, and mysteries and culture, in our many different ancestral lines. We have histories and we have futures. But they should never cost the histories and futures of others – especially the ones that truly belong here – and thus far, they have. Until we seek the humility of our true belonging, not justification for our current occupation of Australia which gives us powers and weapons we can never healthily yield, we will continue to feel pain as punishment, and we will not understand the pain of those we have oppressed.
As many others have said, anti-racism means submission. It means relinquishing things we may feel entitled to. Yes, it is costly. It will sting. But unlike what our brothers and sisters of colour have had to experience, it is not the prejudicial sting of a knife or bullet – it is the sting of saline on a festering wound.
Decolonising the heart means dying to ourselves, yes. But that doesn’t mean murder or martyrdom, either. It is taking responsibility for our own healing, and that healing benefits everyone.