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.


  1. Thank you for posting this. We are on the other side of the world, but we still care. How can we help?

    1. Hi Michelle. I recommend signing the petition Ms Dhu's family created. Here's the link for you and anyone else who may be looking to help, and apologies that I didn't actually link it when writing the above:

  2. A belated comment. Thanks for your post. It's a history lesson - a sad and unjust history lesson, and too few want to learn it.