“Here I am again.”
“I was eleven years old, when I marched alongside my father in 1988, one year after the commencement of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody. We marched for Eddie Cameron, who was found dead in a Geraldton police lockup.”
“I am now a father, I am now 37 years old, and here I am again, marching again this Friday, this time for my niece, who had not yet been born when we marched for Eddie, who like Eddie died in a police lock up.”
Shaun Harris’ niece is the 22-year-old Yamatji woman, Ms Dhu, who unnecessarily died on August 4 in the South Hedland Police watch-house. She is thereabouts the 340th First People’s death in custody since the end of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, 1992.
The imprisonment of First People since 1992 has skyrocketed out of all control since 1992, with 28 per cent of the national prison population comprising First People, with 33 per cent of the national female prison population comprising First People, yet only 2.5 per cent of the total national population is comprised of First People. One in 50 thereabouts of all First People adults are in prison. This is racialised imprisonment. It is racism; there is no hesitation in calling it racism. It is racism through whatever lens you look. The veils and layers of racism are myriad. Western Australia is the mother of all jailers of First People, the mother of the highest arrest and imprisonment rates in this nation. The Northern Territory comes second.
In 1983, Roebourne became to Western Australia what two decades earlier Birmingham was to Alabama – a corral of flaming racism. 16-year-old Yindjibarndi John Pat was bashed to his death by an off-duty police. Four off-duty police officers and an off-duty police aide senselessly brawled with Yindjibarndi youth. An all-White jury would find the police officers not guilty.
Mother Mavis Pat said at the time of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, “I don’t know what’s going to come out of the Royal Commission but I hope it makes everything better for Aboriginal people.”
Years later, Ms Pat said to me, “Things have not got better, if anything they’ve got worse for our people.”
Tragically, Ms Dhu is the thereabouts 340th First People death in custody. The total numbers have gone up since 1992, of deaths in custody, of arrests, of the Aboriginal prison population. In the decade leading up to the Royal Commission there had been thereabouts 100 Aboriginal deaths in custody. Since the Royal Commission, most of its recommendations have not been implemented. More money was spent on the Royal Commission than on actual ways forward. Deaths in custody increased by more than 150 per cent per decade, everything worse. Where recommendations were indeed implemented over time there have been positive outcomes. So why not go all the way?
Nearly a couple of hundred deaths in custody ago, only ten years ago, Mulrunji was bashed to death in a Palm Island cell. After years of public outcries and protests, after the Queensland Government’s refusal to prosecute the police officers, one police officer was finally charged but was then acquitted by an all-White jury. On May 14, 2010, a follow up coronial inquiry found that police had colluded to protect the police officer who bashed Mulrunji. Shortly after, a Queensland Crimes and Misconduct Commission report leaked to the media stated that up to seven police officers should be charged. The Commission’s chairperson Martin Moynihan clashed with Premier Anna Bligh’s Government arguing that there is a “culture of self-protection” for police. Ms Bligh dismissed the calls for a Royal Commission and instead accepted the April 2011 410 page report by Queensland Deputy Police Commissioner Kathy Rynders. The report stated no police officer needed to be disciplined in relation to the death of Mulrunji. So it appears that it is not a crime for police officers to go rogue and bash someone who is Black. Palm Island became to Queensland, and indeed Queensland to Australia, what Roebourne had become to Western Australia, what Birmingham became to Alabama, what Wee Waa had become to NSW with the death of 21-year-old Eddie Murray. The divide and inequalities between Black and White wider than ever before and more pronounced than ever before.
There has never been a successful prosecution of a police or prison officer in that there was an unnatural hand in any of the thousands of custodial deaths. We are all tired of this bullshit. Eddie Murray was bashed to death. John Pat was bashed to death. Mulrunji was bashed to death, the list is long. Others too have died because of neglect, prejudice, racism, because of poor policies and protocols.
Because of the unnecessary death of Ms Dhu, one of the recommendations of the Royal Commission, the Custody Notification Service may at long-last be implemented in Western Australia. I met with the Federal Minister for Indigenous Affairs, Senator Nigel Scullion recently and I put the case to him for the Service, which in NSW, the only jurisdiction to implement it, has saved lives. In fact it led to zero deaths of First People in police watch-houses in the first 15 years since its implementation in 1998. Senator Scullion said, “That speaks for itself.” The Aboriginal Legal Services WA CEO, Dennis Eggington has now applied for funding for the Custody Notification Service. It only costs the host, the ALS NSW/ACT, thereabouts $500,000 per year. The Commonwealth provides the funding. The coronial inquiries that would have been had there been no CNS would have cost more if money is once again the be-all end-all argument.
Mr Harris said that deaths in custody touch far too many First People families. Mr Harris marched as an 11-year-old with his late father for Eddie Cameron, a 21-year-old in the prime of his life who died in a police cell. The night of Mr Cameron’s death there followed a riot at the police watch-house as Geraldton’s First People could take no more, as would be the case in Palm Island years later.
“A few years later, Eddie’s younger brother, Darryl, would also die in custody. I have watched Darryl’s children, who are my beautiful niece and nephew grow up without their father, not knowing their father, who he was, never getting to be loved in his arms as all children deserve.”
“For our people, having our people die in custody is personal. For our people, jailing our people at the world’s highest rates is personal. For our people, having our poor jailed, our homeless jailed, our weakest jailed, our most vulnerable jailed, having our children jailed is personal. My niece’s death in Hedland is personal,” said Mr Harris.
This Friday, at noon, around this nation, in Hedland, Geraldton, Perth, Alice Springs, Darwin, Adelaide, Canberra, Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane, there will be rallies in the name of Ms Dhu, the 340th death in custody of a Black person since the end of the Royal Commission. They will be calling for more to be done than ever before. In the name of Ms Dhu, and in the name of hundreds of others, they will not stop. Friday is the beginning said Mr Harris.
“We will make sure Australia hears them.”
We were not put on this Earth to bury our children.
We were not put on this Earth to betray one another.
But we do.
– The author of this article, Gerry Georgatos, declares an impartiality conflict of interest. He is a long-time custodial systems and deaths in custody researcher.