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Black lives matter

30 May 2019

Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere is a central message in two public lectures by a visiting Nigerian criminologist, coming up at the University of Auckland in June.

Professor Onwubiko (Biko) Agozino's work explores the impact of colonisation on the way racial and ethnic minorities are treated by justice systems worldwide. He teaches Sociology and Africana Studies at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University in the US, and is in Auckland as a Faculty of Arts Seelye Visiting Fellow.

His position challenges other sociologists and members of the public who believe that for some to win, others must lose. "People are presumed to be in competition for scarce resources and so those who feel relatively deprived will organise to secure more resources for their interest groups, while those who are privileged will mobilise to defend their privileges and exclude others," he says.

Conversely, people can, and do, support others out of a sense of shared humanity, whether they are aware of it or not. "For example, white people supporting the Black Lives Matter campaign in the US are not doing it as charitable work for black people, and nor are men who support the struggles of women and bourgeois professors who support the struggles of poor workers. They know that it is in everyone's interest to oppose oppression and exploitation everywhere."

He believes most of us recognise that we are "a bundle of humanity," or what Desmond Tutu calls 'ubuntu' and Martin Luther King Jr referred to as living in the 'World House'. "King wanted to remind us that we are the descendants of a common ancestor who left us a house to share. It is up to us to build a beloved community to share it or fight among ourselves and burn it down in chaos."

Celebrated Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe used the concept of 'mbari' to illustrate the same principle among the Igbo people who periodically gather to build communal clay sculptures of a house containing human figurines from different parts of the world.

"The Igbo say that what makes the world beautiful is when one thing stands, something else stands beside it; the Igbo survived in Biafra (during the Nigerian civil war of 1967–1970) after losing 3.1 million people in 30 months, mostly from starvation."

Professor Agozino's second lecture focuses on a decolonisation model of criminology. He uses the term 'liberation criminology', which emerged from his groundbreaking doctoral research on black women in the criminal justice system.

"Criminology was first developed as a way to control colonised 'Others' and has continued to be dominated by settlers and white men," he says. "Former colonised countries and Indigenous scholars tend to be excluded and marginalised, to the detriment of the discipline and at the expense of the poor, who make up the majority of the criminalised."

The liberation approach is based on the idea that as long as there is oppression, there will be resistance and a struggle for freedom. Through the democratic process, he says, liberation criminologists around the world are pushing back on legal systems which criminalise activities that should either be basic human rights or could be managed differently.

"For instance, the right of women to choose reproductive healthcare; of consenting adults to fall in love with same sex lovers; of adults to work in the sex industry. And against the so-called 'war on drugs', which has been shown to be an oppressive use of criminal justice resources.

"People are saying responsible adults should have freedom to choose what they consume, while at the same time, education is needed to discourage drug use and the health system must fund more medical treatment for addiction."

He says liberation criminologists find it outrageous that the death penalty remains in many colonised locations, even after colonisers who imposed it have abolished it in their own jurisdictions; and they oppose the concept of prison as a means of social control.

"Indigenous Australians and Māori are over-represented in prisons but mass incarceration is actually a much wider problem. For example, poor white Australians actually make up the vast majority of prisoners in the country at over 70 percent, compared to 23 percent of Indigenous peoples.

"If white people knew that white supremacy is a threat to them as well, they would likely rally behind Indigenous peoples to elect leaders who would be more responsive to the demand for penal abolition and reparative justice. Māori are obviously much more over-incarcerated at over 51 percent of prisoners, but Pākehā still make up over 30 percent of prisoners here in New Zealand, making it a problem for everyone."

He believes prisons remain "a colonial eyesore" in democratic societies."I join New Zealand lawyer Moana Jackson and the University of Auckland's Professor Tracey McIntosh and others in calling for the abolition of the prisons, so we can rely on community mechanisms to resolve disputes without criminalising the poor and the marginalised."

• Black Lives Matter, Otherwise All Lives Do Not Matter is on Tuesday 4 June from 6pm to 7pm at Engineering Lecture Theatre 1401 (401-401), 22 Symonds Street, Auckland.
• Decolonization Paradigm and Liberation Criminology is on Tuesday 11 June from 6pm to 7pm in the Library Basement B15, General Library, City Campus at the University of Auckland.

Registration on Eventbrite is encouraged as interest for both lectures is likely to be high.


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