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  • Writer's pictureFiona Prior

As America Burns

Updated: Jun 9, 2020

Corona Virus, lack of jobs, increasing tension due to poverty and limited opportunity, the right to carry arms, genuine political protest infiltrated by bored and violent trouble-makers … it is all a hideous formula for disaster.

I remember going to New York years ago - almost 28 years ago, in fact - and my taxi driver had a little crown on his dashboard. I asked him what it symbolised and he quickly told me the story of Rodney King. I was as horrified then as I am today re George Floyd.

When a protest is actually based on continuing social injustice, trying to quell the righteous heat with para-military is a temporary band-aid that gets less and less effective, as those protesting feel proportionally more and more certain they have nothing to lose, a belief reinforced by history, quite literally.

To address deeply embedded, inter-generational social inequity requires incredibly hard work, visionary policy-making, farsightedness – effectively rupturing that closed system of poverty, disadvantage and pain so that the pathway of a boy or girl born in a ghetto and growing to adulthood is not limited to joining the working poor, getting pregnant (in the case of the girl), or selling drugs – or any combination of the fore-mentioned that perpetuates the ghetto life-style. Option Two in addressing the violence caused by injustice is to call in the riot police. Even from the most unemotional perspective, it is obvious that the money America outlays to perpetuate a system that is clearly not working; the costs associated with an ever-increasing prison population; the financial and social cost of crime, violence and unfulfilled lives … is money wasted (the US accounts for 4% of the world’s population, but 21% of its incarcerated population, according to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).)

And what about the minority of violent trouble-makers who some believe are plants to turn the peaceful protests violent and justify the curfews and para-military troops? If they were planted by extremist groups for their own ends then, more than likely, they are still a product of the social disenfranchisement that has caused the protests in the first place. Give young men and women a life with hope, prospects, employment; something to aim for that they feel they can achieve and you immediately create a safety shield between them and online recruiters and extremist factions. Give them a life where they feel they have drawn the short straw and they are completely vulnerable to ‘causes’ packaged in heroic terms and/or terms of revenge. Same old, some old ... Social injustice needs to be addressed, dignified lifestyles need to be the obtainable expectation of all, and alternative occupations to an ever inadequate job supply need to be devised and made apparent, so that young ones don’t feel like failures if they don’t find employment in a diminishing market.

God help America (minus the bible) … and keep those marchers safe.

And fingers crossed that the majority of those who marched kept their social distancing. Australia’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders have managed the pandemic so well to this point, it would be a double tragedy if they are now afflicted due to the protest march.

Unsurprisingly, on theme was my visit to the 22nd Biennale of Sydney, slowly being reopened round Sydney. My stop was at the Art Gallery of NSW to view its section of ‘Nirin’ (the Wiradjuri people of western New South Wales word for ‘edge’).

Photographer Barbara McGrady reminded us, as if it is needed, that those issues being so loudly protested in the US are also an open wound in our own backyard.

image by Barbara McGrady, 'Justice For TJ Hickey' Mother & relatives of teenager TJ Hickey speak at a rally to protest his death while being pursued by police in Redfern, 2013' (2014). This version was created for the 22nd Biennale of Sydney with generous support from the Australia Council for the Arts. Courtesy the artist. Location: Art Gallery of New South Wales

image by Barbara McGrady, ‘Black Lives Matter, Martin Place’ (2015) This version was created for the 22nd Biennale of Sydney with generous support from the Australia Council for the Arts. Courtesy the artist. Location: Art Gallery of New South Wales.

The urgent states of our contemporary lives are laden with unresolved past anxieties and hidden layers ...

Optimism from chaos drives artists in NIRIN to resolve the often hidden or ignored urgency surrounding contemporary life.

(Brook Andrew, Artistic Director 22 Biennale of Sydney 2020)

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