Friday, October 24, 2014

30 years and still no closer

I often joke that one of the best things about working for a trade union is that I get paid to go to protest rallies. It's definitely part of my job description to be engaged in political actions and I am wondering why my careers teachers at high school never told me of this particular opportunity. And for the most part, it is joyful to be paid to be out on the streets yelling stuff and rallying for change.

Other days it is bullshit. Like today. I should not have to be out on the streets chanting and listening to speeches because a young Aboriginal woman is imprisoned in WA for not paying parking fines as a state-sanctioned way of her "working off" these fines and ends up dying in custody. Ms Dhu, who complained of illness whilst imprisoned was neglected both by the police officers and also by health care professionals. She was taken by police to the Hedland Health Campus where she was dismissed twice with certificates stating that she was fit to return to custody, and on her third visit to the campus she passed away. She was taunted by police and according to witnesses was crying out in agony and vomiting. All for $1000 worth of unpaid fines. All because the WA legal system as determined by the government deems it to more criminal to be financially unable to pay parking fines than it is to lock up unwell young Aboriginal women then allow them to perish. All because the health system didn't care enough to properly assess Ms Dhu's condition and give her the treatment she required. To come back from the rally and find news articles of another young Aboriginal man dying in custody overnight, this time in a Perth prison, just had me and many others reeling. It just keeps on happening, no matter how many times we take to the streets.

It is bullshit that Aboriginal people are still perishing in prison at alarming rates, and that our prison population keeps on growing. WA has the disastrous record when it comes to imprisoning mob. They're currently hitting a rate 9 times that of apartheid South Africa, according to Gerry Georgatos. 9 FRIGGIN' TIMES. Myself and a colleague had to go there recently for work and we couldn't help but joke about how we'd have to be on our best behaviour the entire time since it doesn't take much at all for mob to be imprisoned. Under the three-strikes mandatory sentencing stuff an Aboriginal kid as young as 12 years old stealing a 70c Freddo Frog will pretty much do it. I made the assertion recently that WA really doesn't seem to have learnt anything from the days of the internment camp (which is how I deliberately referred to it instead of a "prison camp" because in my opinion, it is hard to argue that the men there actually committed any crimes considering that they were engaged in frontier wars and were mainly sentenced under foreign laws they did not recognise nor probably understand) at Rottnest. They're still imprisoning Aboriginal people at disastrous rates, and people just keep dying in their system. It's a disgrace and it's high time they examined what it is they are really doing here.

It's absolute rubbish that the only people to serve time in regards to the death in custody of Mulrunji Doomagee on Palm Island were Aboriginal. One of these was Lex Wotton, who was convicted for inciting the riots. The policeman who actually eventually admitted responsibility for the death; a death which was caused by injuries as severe as a liver cleaved in two by brute force; never served time and was acquitted. Mr Wotton also had a gag order placed upon him on his release. I think the lesson we can learn here as mob is that it is more of a crime to burn property and speak about injustice than it is to kill an Aboriginal man.

It's flabbergasting that Mr. Ward was allowed to cook to death in the back of a divvy van whilst being driven nearly 1000kms across desert to face court for being drunk and disorderly. It's unconscionable that Kwementyeye Briscoe screamed out in agony and pain for five hours in the Alice Springs watch house before he was found dead in a death that the NT coroner labelled "preventable". It is just so upsetting that I could go on and on with examples of brutality, neglect and dehumanisation leading to deaths of imprisoned Aboriginal people until I have run out of adjectives and I would be nowhere near the bottom of the list.

It is, however, most disgusting that this continues. It has been nearly 30 years since the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody and despite this, few of the recommendations of this commission have been adopted. The commission came about because of the already alarming death rates and, in particular, the high profile deaths of 16 year old John Pat in WA and 21 year old Eddie Murray in NSW. 16 and 21. These young men were never given a chance and their families, 30 years on, are yet to see justice. So how many more Aboriginal people have to die in prison before we see change? How many more lives is it going to take before the recommendations of the Royal Commission are adopted? How much longer will it be before the governments, the media and the general public actually give a shit?

When I was studying drama as part of my undergraduate degree, we had the immense privilege of looking at the works of Uncle Jack Davis. Jack Davis had also been a part of the Deaths in Custody Watch Committee in WA. One of Jack's most famous works was the "First Born Trilogy". The final of three plays of this was Burungin. In this play, one of the characters dies in police custody after being taken in only hours earlier. One of the scenes features an actor walking along listing names of custody death victims and I remember how chilled to the bone I was the very first time I read it. It wasn't just that the names seemed to go on forever, it was also that Uncle Jack Davis, over three plays, had created a family group which we were connected to for generations, and with this death he just shattered anyone with a heart. It's just painful to think how much that list has grown, and will continue to grow, since he wrote it.

This needs to stop. This brutality, neglect, petty criminality and murder/manslaughter needs to end. I am posting the photos I took yesterday at the rally in memory for Ms. Dhu as a visual reminder that rallies like this need to be an unnecessary thing of the past. Too many gone too soon. Vale.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

A salient quote from a member of the "other side"

I am currently reading and re-reading Noel Pearson's recent piece in the Quarterly Essay on constitutional recognition and why he feels it's the way forward. I'm not going to dissect it here and illuminate the many parts I've questioned, disagreed with and so forth. One thing that I am going to do though is pull out a quote that, just in its solitary form, has stuck with me.

Pearson writes:

There are many ethnic minorities in Australia of equivalent or smaller size. Some of them face barriers of racism, but, I would argue, not to the degree that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples do. And these minorities are not indigenous to the nation, with the particular colonial history that brought us to where we are. Indigenous people were displaced and dispossessed in the founding of British settlement and the development of the nation. Indigenous people therefore have a unique historical and legal relationship with the Australian government.

The reason why I am quoting this is that it's precisely the kind of point I have been trying to get across time and time again. There has been a lot of rubbish and deliberate misdirection written about me and my views and I'm fairly over it. I am also aware that I occupy a particular position within Indigenous opinion and that position is of an educated leftist Arrernte feminist from a working class background. Pearson occupies a different position entirely. Yet here he is reflecting a view that I have also expressed before. To me this states that this is potentially a shared view across the Indigenous political spectrum. It's one that cannot just be dismissed because some wish it to not be the case as they too have been harmed by racism in this country.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander experiences of blackness intersect with indigeneity within this country. Nobody else shares this experience. They may share elements of it, whether these elements are skin colour, or colonisation, or language loss and so forth; of course this is the case. But they are not also experiencing these things from the vantage point of being displaced peoples within their own country. That is a unique experience to Indigenous peoples and it needs to be understood as such allowing for us to speak about this freely. To draw out elements of commonality is fine, and even desirable, when it is with the intent of being allies. But to do so as a way of cheapening or denigrating Indigenous experience by not deferring to its uniqueness due to this intersection is erroneous and damaging. Rather than combating racism in the country it instead has the ability to compound it. And indeed, it has.

I am compelled to write this because some things just don't seem to end, no matter how much I wish this to be the case. I, and other Aboriginal writers, are still being attacked, are still being misrepresented, and are still social media fodder. It's tiring and it's wrong. I'm interested in solidarity and exchange with understanding shown. It is actually possible.

That's all I have to say.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Rottnest Island: Australia's holiday destination of choice...

It takes a unique country to name a century-long former internment camp as its favourite holiday destination. Such a country would either have to be one with rather macabre fascinations or a genuine interest in acknowledging historical injustices as a way of moving towards a better future. Or it could just be Australia.

In a poll conducted by travel provider Experience Oz, Rottnest Island took the top spot when it came to favourite Australian holiday destinations. It's not surprising that the natural beauty and unique wildlife were mentioned as to why Rottnest was number one. The hundreds of Aboriginal men buried in unmarked graves probably aren't an island drawcard for most tourists. If tourists indeed know that this what they're walking over when exploring the island.

When Aboriginal people speak of our history in this country these stories are often dismissed. Every Australia Day, this national dismissal of Aboriginal experience is paraded in public for all to see. Aboriginal people are continually accused of focussing only on negatives; of promoting “black armband history” at the cost of celebrating alleged national positives. When it comes to the history of Rottnest though, to try and argue that there are positives to celebrate is impossible.

The proper acknowledgement of the gruesome history of Rottnest has been called for for a very long time. Only two weeks ago, Murdoch academic and Minang-Wadjari man Glen Stasiuk was quoted calling for the closure of Rottnest Lodge Accommodation and asking that it be turned into a museum and appropriate memorial.

Rottnest Lodge claims as part of its lodgings “The Quod” - an octagonal building housing the Aboriginal prison which was in operation from 1838 to 1931. Each luxury hotel room encompasses three of the old cells in which at least seven prisoners were crammed. The Quod grounds where five men were hung on gallows serve as a grassy area for hotel guests to sun themselves and relax. At least ten percent of the prisoners there died; of malnutrition, of illnesses, of brutality. Mr Stasiuk believes nine out of ten people who stay at The Quod don't know this history.

Certainly, Rottnest Lodge doesn't go out of its way to advertise it to potential guests either. The Quod rooms are described as being “rich in history”, which I guess is one way to put it. Additionally the Lodge itself is noted as once being the Summer residence for the Governor of WA, yet the website neglects to state much else about the other buildings.

Much of what else stands in Rottnest today was built of Aboriginal suffering. Michael Sinclair-Jones describes the island buildings and sea retainer walls that were built from Aboriginal prisoner labour, as well as the former campground which sat on top of what is the largest deaths in custody gravesite in this country. At best it seems this is glossed over with local and governmental arguments consistently being it would cost too much to acknowledge these sites. At worst, it is the denial of genocidal practices enacted against Aboriginal people to keep others feeling comfortable when visiting such places.

Gerry Georgatos states that the rate of imprisonment in Western Australia of Aboriginal men today is nine times the rate of imprisonment of black men in apartheid South Africa. Perhaps the horrors of Rottnest are not as deeply buried in the past as most would pretend. Certainly though, it is difficult to think of anywhere else in the world where a horrific internment camp has been swept so easily under the national carpet.

Australians are renowned for their love of travel and holidays. When it comes to Rottnest Island though, this travel comes at the cost of ignoring one of the most horrific examples of displacement, violence and death that Aboriginal people in Western Australia have endured. It is well overdue that Rottnest's history is acknowledged and its victims commemorated. Until then, the best holiday destination in Australia continues to be built upon a lie.