Posters created by Australian primary school students in support of the Black Lives Matter movement have prompted a police minister to call for disciplinary action.
The placards—which sported slogans such as “Stop Killer Cops” – were created by Year 5 and 6 students at Sydney’s Lindfield Learning Village in February as part of an exercise that asked them to reflect on what they’d read, seen or heard about key moments in recent Indigenous history.
Some posters featured the hashtags #JusticeNow, #WeCantBreathe and #EndWhiteSupremacy; others featured the Indigenous Australian flag and the clenched black fist often associated with the African-American civil rights movement. All of them were reportedly the original work of the students themselves, based on their own experiences of and reactions to contemporary news and current affairs.
It was on Wednesday, April 21, the same day that former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin was found guilty of murdering George Floyd, that images of the posters surfaced in print and digital newspapers – originally via the front page of conservative Australian masthead The Daily Telegraph, under the incendiary headline “School White Wash: Primary students given a lesson in hating cops.”
In response to the media storm that ensued, the principal of the government-funded Lindfield Learning Village, Stephanie McConnell, sent a letter to parents and carers explaining their side of the story and clarifying that “the comments on the posters were not taught to students.”
That letter, seen by VICE World News, explained that “posters referring to police were created… as part of a pre-learning activity aimed at identifying what Year 5 and 6 students knew before they started studying contemporary Aboriginal history… Students at this school are not taught to fear or distrust police. We have a positive relationship with police, working with local police youth liaison officers regularly throughout the year.”
Nonetheless, the imagery immediately drew the ire of New South Wales police commissioner David Elliott, who made short work of turning the children’s posters into a new front for the “culture wars” by accusing the school’s “left-wing teachers” of racism, political bias and indoctrination.
“It’s very sad. This is the sort of indoctrination that distorts our education system; it’s the sort of behaviour coming from ideologues that work in the education department that want to skew what Australia stands for,” Elliott told Australian breakfast news show Today. “I can’t believe that we’ve got these left-wing teachers out there acting racists themselves by saying ‘white lives don’t matter’ – well they do. Everybody matters. And we should be concentrating on reading and writing in these schools, not this sort of political indoctrination.”
He’s now calling for the teacher who ran the class to be sacked.
During the course of his indignant Today show diatribe, Elliott insisted that “NSW Police aren’t American police,” that “we [in Australia] have a much higher level of respect for our police because… when they do the wrong thing there is a process,” and that “what’s going on in America at the moment [is] not our war.” Speaking to breakfast news show Sunrise, he further claimed, “We don’t have a race problem here in Australia.”
His statements are not entirely true.
This month marks 30 years since the Australian government’s final report of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, and just one week since the NSW Parliament delivered a report into the issue.
In those 30 years, at least 474 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have died in police and prison custody. At least five of those deaths have happened since the beginning of March. And no police or prison officer has ever been held accountable for any of them.
In spite of Elliott’s suggestions that Australia “doesn’t have a race problem,” Indigenous Australians are dramatically overrepresented in the country’s prison population—they are, in fact, the most incarcerated people on Earth—and Human Rights Watch recently suggested that the Australian government’s continued failure to address Indigenous deaths in custody tarnishes the country’s rights record and global standing.
“Three decades since the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, First Nations people in Australia are still unacceptably being incarcerated and dying in prison,” said Elaine Pearson, Australia director at Human Rights Watch. “Given the recent spate of Indigenous deaths in custody, it’s clear that this is a national crisis.”
So far, there is no evidence that the teachers “indoctrinated” or “brainwashed” students. The school claims none of the students who designed the posters in question were taught the slogans by teachers or expressly instructed to write them.
Politician David Shoebridge, of the minority Greens party, also pointed out that such political expression could just as easily be interpreted as the sign of a class that is engaged and in tune with matters of international importance.
“In schools across NSW, teachers are responding to what students are interested in, and grounding their knowledge in the real world,” Shoebridge told the Sydney Morning Herald. “This should be commended.”
Police minister Elliott, for his part, has been embroiled in a number of controversies in the past, including impersonating a police officer for the purposes of intimidating a 17-year-old driver; using highly restricted firearms meant for the Army and corrections officers; and, in response to revelations that NSW Police strip-searched underage girls, stating he would want officers to search his own children if "they were at risk of doing something wrong."
Previous VICE reports also highlighted examples of NSW Police force’s chequered history over the past few years, including NSW police officers evicting people who didn’t have drugs from "Above & Beyond" festival in 2018; performing strip-searches on more than 100 girls over the course of three years, including two 12-year-olds and eight 13-year-olds; and allegedly forcing Black Lives Matter protesters into an enclosed section of a Sydney train station before pepper spraying them, then leaking the email addresses of more than 150 people who lodged formal complaints about the incident.
The posters have since been removed from Lindfield Learning Village, and the NSW Department of Education is undertaking a review to see if any disciplinary action needs to be taken.
In a statement to VICE World News, a spokesperson from the Department said: “The comments on the poster are in no way endorsed by the department or represent the department’s view of police, who do an indispensable job of keeping the community safe and secure. The school has been reminded of the controversial issues in schools policy.”
The controversial issues in schools policy is the state-sanctioned directive on how controversial issues should be dealt with in schools. The policy states that schools are neutral places for rational discourse and objective study, and that discussion of controversial issues should allow students to explore a range of viewpoints and not advance the interest of any particular group.
VICE World News approached NSW Police for comment, but was told to contact David Elliott’s office. David Elliott’s office did not respond.
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