Yesterday, a crowd of more than 500, the majority Yamatjis, surrounded the court house of the West Australian coastal town of Geraldton as emotions boiled over the hit and run death of two 40-year-old Yamatjis early last month. Some of the protesters stormed the court house, allegedly breaking down a door and smashing a window. They were upset after the 27-year-old hit and run driver was granted bail.
The crowd of 500 subsided to a five-hour-long rally in the town centre, calling for justice before the law and in general in society for Aboriginal peoples, that all people should be treated equally. Geraldton’s police spent most of the day surrounding the angry crowd, worried that racial tensions could explode.
A score of protesters had arrived from Perth, a four-hour drive, including Noongar rights activist Marianne Mackay.
The rally began at the court house early in the morning as the crowd waited for Desmond James Peterson, the hit and run driver. They were angry he was not charged with dangerous driving leading to death but that he has been bailed out on a relative small surety of $5000 and on charges of only leaving the scene and in not rendering assistance.
Wayne Warner, the father of one of the victims, asked “what price for a black life?” He said had it been an Aboriginal driver, that he or she would have been charged with “causing death” and “locked up”. Mr Warner said he wants the justice system to respect his daughter’s life, Christine Ryan, who leaves behind seven children, and similarly the life of the friend she was walking along with when they were struck down, that of Ossie Bynder.
“My daughter was much loved, much respected, who did many great things for many,” said Mr Warner.
The two 40-year-old victims were walking along with several children not far behind when they were struck by Mr Peterson. Several hours later, Mr Peterson turned himself into police but returned a blood alcohol concentration exceeding 0.05. When news reached the waiting crowd that he was granted bail, screams were heard, angry words ricocheted and several of the protesters rushed the court house. Police quickly intervened grabbing the protestors, pushing them out of the court building.
Mr Warner, an associate professor of rural health, is circulating a petition calling for changes to laws. “The petition is calling for more appropriate charges relating to the death of pedestrians to be laid against any driver.”
“At the moment there are just no charges that reflect the death of two very valuable and well loved community persons,” said Mr Warner. He wants to see this for everyone, for “Aboriginal victims but also for non-Aboriginal victims.”
“People have died here, and the charges should reflect this.”
The funeral of Christine (Pie) Ryan and Ossie Bynder were on consecutive Fridays, with just about the entire region’s Yamatji community turning out – more than 1,000 turned out at the funerals to grieve.
Rally organiser Joyce Capewell said, “Ossie and Pie will not be forgotten. Their children were here. Pie’s beautiful children, Ossie’s beautiful son. One of Pie’s children’s was calling out where is my mum.”
“We have had enough of our people being treated differently by authorities, by the law, by society.”
“I’ve spent a long time in the prison service as an Aboriginal Visitors Scheme officer, twenty years, and I’ve fought racism all along the way. I know racism when I see it. I know racism when I feel it. We need to get rid of the racism if our people are going to be treated equally, fairly, justly, with human worth.”
“Black and white people can only truly live alongside each other only when the racism is gone.”
“The protest was heated, it was emotional, it was full of upset. We saw one Aboriginal boy in court get a nine month sentence for a minor offence and then we saw the hit and run driver, who was drunk, get bail when we all know if he was black and in the same circumstance he would have been locked up.”
“But what we, as Yamatjis, appreciated today was the support of many white people too, they joined in the rally and said we are right, that a black life is the same as a white life. They said they were appalled at the inconsistencies. They too called for justice. They were at the court house, they marched with us, they rallied with us. Town people joined in.”
“We haven’t had this sort of racial tension since 1988, when one of our young people, Eddie Cameron, a champion footballer, was locked up for being drunk and he was found dead. This led to race riots, to the police watch house being stormed. This was during the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody.”
“Ossie and Pie are to us today what John Pat and Eddie Cameron were in our strivings for justice. Ossie and Pie will be remembered, never forgotten, and the hurt of our people at all the racism will be sought through them. There will be more rallies, there will be campaigns. Ossie and Pie will live on through all of us. They were beautiful citizens for whom their children grieve and for whom their children are proud of,” said Ms Capewell.
The husband of Christine (Pie) Ryan was at the rally, now bringing up seven children on his own – he has been devastated by the loss of his wife – all the families have. It is the racism that still hurts, it is the racism that has to go.
The police did not arrest any protester.