State violence is a great Australian tradition

The barbarism at the Don Dale youth detention centre in Darwin revealed by ABC’s Four Corners in late July is only the latest example in the long-running history of brutalism carried out by state authorities in Australia.

Most obviously, this brutalism was visited upon the Aboriginal population. From the earliest days, the invading British colonial forces sought to drive them off the land to make way for white settlement. Once the sheep industry took off west of the Great Dividing Range in the early 1830s, the process accelerated, and ancestral lands that had provided food and the wherewithal for Aboriginal survival for tens of thousands of years were seized to provide grazing grounds. Hunting parties were sent out to force Aboriginal groups from their land, poisoned flour was handed out as rations, and resistance was crushed by force of arms. 

Dispossession rolled inexorably across the east coast and Van Diemen’s Land. By the middle of the 19th century, the process of extermination had penetrated deep into Queensland and, by the end of the century, had reached high up into the Kimberley in Western Australia. The result of British invasion was the decimation of the Indigenous population.

Starvation, disease and gunshot took hundreds of thousands of Aboriginal lives. Those who survived were kidnapped to work in the sheep and cattle industry and to provide domestic servants for the squatter farmers, where they were paid in meagre rations. They were subjected to violent assault and rape without any recourse to the courts, which were, anyway, in the hands of the big landowners.

Just as the Aboriginal people were being subjected to a genocidal offensive, the conscripts brought over from Britain and Ireland to perform manual labour for the fledgling colonies were also brutalised by their masters. Flogging half to death was the standard punishment for infringements of colonial regulations. 

Just one year into the life of the new colony of NSW, two men, James Williams and William Lane, were sentenced to 500 and 2,000 lashes respectively for stealing biscuits. Punishments could be especially harsh for those who challenged the political order: in 1800, a young Irishman was given 300 lashes for making and hiding pikes in preparation for a rebellion. In 1822, another convict was charged with attempting to form a union to increase rations. He was sentenced to 500 lashes, solitary confinement on bread and water for a month and transportation to a harsher penal settlement to serve out the rest of his term.

One quarter of all convicts arriving in Australia were Irish, a significant minority of the 50,000 Irish convicts being political prisoners sentenced for their role in uprisings. Whether simple criminal or rebel, the Irish in Australia were treated as the enemy within, discriminated against in jobs and housing, marginalised from the political system until the formation of the ALP in the 1890s, demonised in the media as disloyal and/or ignorant and drunken brutes and disproportionately likely to experience imprisonment, poor health and high mortality. 

The Victorian gold rush of the 1850s led to a big influx of migrants from all over Europe and China. But these free immigrants had few political rights. When, in 1854, the colonial authorities tried to introduce more onerous taxes on the miners, they revolted, setting up the stockade outside Ballarat. Determined to crush this insubordination, colonial police and soldiers from British regiments attacked the Eureka Stockade, killing up to 60 miners.

Enslavement was not restricted to the Aboriginal population. Sixty thousand South Sea Islanders were taken from their homes in Melanesia to Queensland to work in backbreaking labour on the cane fields and cotton farms of Queensland and NSW. There they were paid nothing or, at best, one-third of the wages paid to whites. Then, when the White Australia policy was introduced at the turn of the 20th century, of the 10,000 who remained, all but a handful were simply thrown out of the country. 

The Chinese were drawn to Australia in successive gold rushes over the course of the 19th century. Many returned home voluntarily in the aftermath, but some stayed on and took jobs in the furnishing trades or on the waterfront, or setting up their own shops or market gardens. Like the Kanakas, they too were swept up in the deportations as White Australia was implemented. Of those who managed to remain, many were treated as second class citizens and, even within the official labour movement, were regarded as competitors rather than comrades.

World War One led to a ramping up of militarism and repression. Hundreds of thousands of young men were signed up to the armed forces on the basis of a jingoistic campaign of lies and false glory. At the front, in Western Europe, Asia Minor and the Middle East, tens of thousands died in futile battles. 

On the home front, 7,000 people, including nearly 5,000 Germans or those of German descent, were interned in isolated camps as “enemy aliens” on the outbreak of war. Their businesses were destroyed and their families torn apart. The same treatment was meted out to German, Italian and Japanese residents, many with British citizenship, during World War Two – all told, 12,000 were locked up in prison camps by 1942.

Many hundreds of thousands of supposedly “free” workers also felt the lash of repression in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Whenever workers organised in unions – whether on board ships, on the wharves, on the railways, in the shearing sheds or in the rapidly growing construction and manufacturing industries – they soon began to suffer stiff legal penalties, savage bashings, frame-ups, deportations. 

On several occasions – in Fremantle, Melbourne, Broken Hill, the Hunter Valley and Sydney – armed violence from police, special constables and farmers’ sons was commissioned to crush the union threat. When class struggle peaked in the decade after World War One, police protecting scabs during strikes and lockouts killed workers on three occasions.

The oppression of Aboriginal people didn’t stop with the ending of hunting parties and the Native Police. Under assimilation policies, generations of “mixed race” children, or children who could “pass” as white, were stolen from their parents and raised in missions and state institutions or farmed out to white families. Perhaps the most extreme barbarism perpetrated on Aboriginal people was the use of their country as a testing ground for nuclear weapons in the 1950s, causing cancer and other sicknesses in the affected areas.

Whatever the policy towards the Aboriginal population, and its name changed over the years, the effect was the same: if not physical extermination, then the inflicting of cultural, social and psychological trauma and the denial of identity. Although the torture at Don Dale detention centre may have “shocked” Malcolm Turnbull, it comes as no surprise to anyone with any knowledge of the history of mistreatment and cruelty towards Aboriginal people in this country. Then there is the violence used against those locked up in Australia’s jails, conditions in which have been so bad that prisoners have repeatedly rioted, starting in Fremantle in 1854 and continuing to this day.

Finally, no account of state repression would be complete without referring to what is now a sustained onslaught on the Muslim population. Whether it’s the dawn raids in the full glare of TV cameras, the imprisonment in solitary confinement for lengthy sentences of those guilty of no more than thought crimes, the constant police harassment of young Muslim men going about their daily business or the media campaign of demonisation and false equation of Islam with terrorism, Muslims in Australia are now undergoing systematic persecution.

All of this abuse has several things in common. If capitalism is to prosper in Australia, the Aboriginal population must be kicked off and kept off their lands, the working class must be brutalised to ensure it works long hours for low pay to enrich the capitalist class, and the land mass of Australia and its maritime approaches must be secured from rival ruling classes. In order to do this, a big state machine of armed men and women has been built up. 

Those who staff this machine receive sufficient reward to ensure their loyalty and often are isolated from the civilian population to ensure that they are not tainted by sympathy for those they are sent out to repress. 

This is a simple process for those who occupy commanding positions in the state machine: usually drawn from the middle and upper classes, they are naturally suited to the task. 

At the lower ranks of the state’s repressive forces, the requirement that they bash and mistreat people in their charge means a highly militarised disciplinary ethos must prevail, which inevitably creates the kind of dehumanised mind that thinks nothing of torturing children in jails.