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George Floyd's death becomes a rallying cry for activists worldwide

Shashank Bengali, Los Angeles Times on

Published in News & Features

SINGAPORE -- The footage is stomach-churning: a half-dozen uniformed officers holding a man face down for several minutes as he gulps for air and screams, again and again, "I can't breathe." He falls unconscious and is pronounced dead a short time later.

The video is not of George Floyd, the black man who gasped those words as a white Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck in a fatal arrest last week, but of an Aboriginal Australian inmate, David Dungay, who died in a similar incident at a Sydney prison in December 2015.

As Floyd's death ignites fiery protests in U.S. cities, it has also refocused attention on cases like Dungay's -- and become a rallying cry around the world for activists battling racism, police brutality and inequalities in criminal justice in their own countries.

Rallies this week in solidarity with American protesters and in pursuit of justice at home have sprung up in such countries as France, Turkey and New Zealand. In multiethnic, liberal democracies that share many of the same ideals and flaws as the U.S., the demonstrations have served as a reminder that oppression looks much the same no matter where you are.

"We don't need to look to America to see the consequences of systematic discrimination. It's right here at home," said Nerita Waight, co-chair of a legal aid group for Aboriginal Australians. "What the U.S. protests do help with is to show that this is not just a problem in one country -- it reaches across oceans and continents."

In Australia, roughly 800,000 Aboriginal people -- descendants of those who inhabited the continent before European colonizers arrived in the 18th century -- liken their socioeconomic status to that of blacks in America. In some ways it is even worse: Though they represent only 3% of the population, they account for nearly 30% of the adults in prison.


More than 430 Aboriginal Australians have died in police custody since 1991. No officers have been convicted in the deaths.

At a rally this week that drew hundreds in Sydney, where social distancing measures because of COVID-19 have recently been eased, demonstrators chanted, "Black lives matter," and "Justice today, for David Dungay." More protests are planned for several cities across the country on Saturday.

Dungay, a 26-year-old diabetic, was eating a packet of cookies against orders when five prison guards dragged him from his cell, handcuffed him and forced him to lie face down while a nurse injected him with a powerful sedative. As he pleaded for breath, one officer responded: "If you can talk, you can breathe."

He died three weeks before he was due for parole.


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