In 1983, the town of Roebourne became to Western Australia what two decades earlier Birmingham had become to Alabama. Sixteen year old John Pat was killed by inebriated police and a few years later White prejudice acquitted the police. Two-thirds of Roebourne, on Ngarluma Country, was comprised of Aboriginal peoples, mostly impoverished, and this continues to remain the way to this day.
John Pat died because he was ‘Black’. Four off-duty police officers and an off-duty police aide laid into half a dozen of Roebourne’s Ngarluma, Yiindjibarndi and Banjima youth. Only minutes prior, one of the coppers had said to one of the youth, Ashley James, “We’ll get you, you Black cunt.” The copper followed him out of the Victoria Hotel and laid into him. John Pat tried to step in and pull his mate Ashley out of harm’s way. The copper belted John.
John’s aorta torn, broken bones, battered he fell backwards to the red earth. The Yindjibarndi youth was tossed, it was said by a witness, like a dead kangaroo into the back of a police van. He was dead. In the police cell the coppers did the wrong, washing down his dead body, changing his clothes before investigators viewed his body. The five coppers were charged but despite the evidence, including that charge sheets and testimonies were falsified, the all-White jury acquitted them.
The day in mourning was September 28, 1983. Four police officers and an Aboriginal police aide had returned from a police union meeting at the Golf Club in Karratha, 37 kilmotres from Roebourne. They had been drinking beer; their court trial would hear “six or seven glasses”. On arriving back to Roebourne they went to carry on their drinking at the Victoria Hotel.
Sixteen year old Ashley James was trying to buy alcohol when one of the coppers chastised him. A hotel barmaid testified that the copper swore at James, “We’ll get you, you Black cunt.” She said of the off-duty police that “they just started yelling and acting like idiots.”
James testified that one of the police officers pulled him up outside the Victoria Hotel and told him to “get fucked”. He was assaulted and James fought back. James said that he was then attacked by other police. Punches were traded. John Pat intervened and a police officer launched into him. After being struck in the face he fell backwards, his head striking the hard earth.
A witness testified that one of the off-duty police went over to the fallen John Pat and kicked him. Soon after his body was dragged into the back of a police van. The witness said his body was thrown into the van “like a dead kangaroo.”
Three youth were also arrested and detained at the Roebourne police station. Witnesses from across the road from the police station said the detainees were dragged one by one from the police van, punched to the ground and kicked.
A witness said she heard, “Come on, fight you bastard.”
“I thought the police had gone mad.”
They survived. John Pat was dead. The autopsy revealed he had suffered massive blows to the head in addition to the torn aorta and two broken ribs.
It is said that Western Australia is less racist today than it was in 1983 but some themes remain unchanged. In those days one in twelve Aboriginal males between the ages 19 and 29 was in prison. Today one in 13 of all Aboriginal adult males in Western Australia is in prison.
Roebourne is different today than it was in 1983 but the journey to equality remains a long way off, and for many of the local residents there is no horizon in sight. Dirt poor, impoverished is how a significant proportion of the Aboriginal residents languish.
Much is argued about ‘cultural awareness training’ and it was there for Western Australia’s police since 1975. For eight years prior the killing of John Pat, police recruits attended a thirteen week curriculum but a survey of Roebourne police soon after John’s death on their ‘cultural awareness’ found they had limited understandings of the Black and White binaries and histories, of oppression, of White prejudice.
But when someone yells “we’ll get you, you Black cunt” it is fact of racism, of the dislike of someone Black.
Today there are less police with a dislike of someone Black but that doesn’t mean there isn’t White prejudice and that the vantage of White privilege isn’t damaging.
One of Roebourne’s senior police testified that he approved of grabbing Aboriginal people by the hair and ‘explained’, “when Aborigines get stirred up and looking for a fight, they tend to get very greasy and slippery.”
The four officers and the police aide fronted the Coroner’s Inquest on October 31, four weeks after the death of John Pat. They limited themselves to prepared statements in which they denied using excessive force.
The inquest heard from seventy witnesses. The police testimonies were in contrast to the testimonies of others, including of experts. One police officer claimed that John Pat walked to the police lockup from the police van and that he spoke coherently. However a medical expert testified that due the injuries sustained by John that him walking and speaking was not possible.
The five accused police were committed to trial.
The trial occurred in Karratha on April 30 1984. An all-White jury of twelve males and three females would acquit them.
The five police each swore of their innocence under oath and also swore to the innocence of each other.
The constable accused of provoking the fight denied doing so.
One constable who had claimed he had “escorted’ John Pat to his cell also claimed that he had not been aware of any injuries to John Pat.
Police claimed that all punches thrown by them were in self-defence.
The court farce finished up on May 24 – 57 witnesses provided evidence. At a quarter past seven that evening the jury returned a verdict of “not guilty”.
Ashley James and others were brought up on assault charges, on resisting arrest, on hindering police, the y were found guilty and fined.
The Aboriginal Legal Services were riled and undertook further efforts to prosecute the police. But as expected they were defeated. Furthermore, in November 1985, a deliriously racist Western Australian Police Union galvanised police union delegates around the country to call for inquiries into the Aboriginal Legal Services and ultimately for the abolition of the Aboriginal Legal Services.
The Western Australian Government, thanks to a directive from its Cabinet, following the acquittal of the police, reimbursed police the legal fees incurred at both inquest and trial.
In 1986, the Western Australian Minister for Police announced that greater care would be taken in the selection process of regional police, who had demonstrated an ‘ability’ to ‘communicate with Aborigines’. Give us a break; the racism putrid. It’s about people treating one another equally.
More ‘modules’ were created to help police ‘communicate’ with ‘Aborigines’ but here we are more than three decades later with Western Australia jailing Black males at the world’s highest rate.
Our governments, bureaucracies, institutions remain hostage to racism otherwise we would still not be dragging slow on ending disparities, and we would not have increasing numbers of people living in third-world-akin conditions in the world’s 12th biggest economy, and we would not have a sordid Australian tale where its First Peoples, one in seven have been to prison, where one in four of their males have been to prison, where more of their people are jailed today than ever before.