I remember when I looked into the eyes of a mother who had lost her daughter to the despicable veils and layers of racism, whose life ended at just 22 years young, and the words that poured out were “There are no words for your loss…” The ages shall not dim injustices perpetrated. There are no words for anyone, not for any mother, father, sibling, partner who has lost a loved one to the brutality of injustice.
For those who have been cruelly and brutally taken from us we strive in their memories that it should not occur to others. Though they cannot be brought back to those who long for them, their families and we others strive in their names. We strive to see to it that others are not needlessly lost as they were.
On August 4, I attended a remembrance event in the heart of Perth for the 22-year-old Yamatji woman, Ms Dhu – who needlessly lost her life as a death in custody. The event was coordinated by the Deaths in Custody Watch Committee Western Australia (DICWA). The Committee’s chairperson, Marc Newhouse, walked over to me – we had not spoken for some years and his words resonated deeply. He said, “Here we are again.”
Indeed – tragically.
Ms Dhu died within 48 hours of her detainment on ‘unpaid fines’. South Hedland Police had been called out to an alleged disorderly. Instead of assisting Ms Dhu into crisis care they arrested her – and her boyfriend – after a background check. For $1000 worth of unpaid fines, Western Australia’s draconian laws – out of sync with the rest of the nation – hurled the police officers into arresting the physically unwell Ms Dhu.
My good friend, Dr Marcus Woolombi Waters, a Kamilaroi man, summed it up accurately, “Twenty-two year old Aboriginal woman Ms Dhu spent the last three days of her life vomiting up blood in agonising pain in a police cell, and was taken to hospital two times only to be released back into police custody as she lay dying.” The third time police took Ms Dhu to the Health Campus, 48 hours after her arrest on lousy fines, Ms Dhu would be pronounced dead.
“It makes our mob wonder how is it that people can continually commit acts of such evil – I am not sure about Western Australia but in Queensland we have the State Penalties Enforcement Registrar where you can pay your traffic fines off fortnightly for an amount negotiated that is affordable.”
“So there is no excuse for what happened to Ms Dhu and ultimately someone has to be made accountable otherwise this type of behaviour is allowed to continue.”
We are corralled in gilded cages – in rules and laws that brutally throttle us. These wicked laws, that the ignorant monger. We must not fear what can be done to us, but together rise in numbers to chase away these laws that criminalise people – and if martyrdom is our lot then so be this. But we need feet on the ground and together united.
The arrest of Ms Dhu was within the law. The law caged Ms Dhu, chastising her as a criminal, casting death upon her. In 1988, NSW did away with jailing ‘fine defaulters’ however Western Australia – the nation’s backwater – still continues on with this law. Within weeks of Ms Dhu’s death I travelled to Canberra to lobby government ministers – in particular the Minister for Indigenous Affairs, Senator Nigel Scullion – to push Western Australia to implement the Custody Notification Service (CNS). I, and others, have written widely on the CNS so I will not go over old ground however had it has been in place in Western Australia at the time of Ms Dhu’s arrest I believe that the stout advocacy of the CNS would have saved her life. Since the implementation in 1998 of the CNS in NSW and the ACT there has not been a single police watch-house death of a First Nations person.
Senator Scullion agreed that the CNS should be established in Western Australia and he personally lobbied the Western Australian Government to implement the CNS. The Western Australian Government agreed but it is taking forever and a day to move to the implementation – amongst other long overdue promises. My concern is that another life will be lost. Another family torn apart – another community shattered. Furthermore, I am concerned that the Western Australian Government should not attempt to water down the CNS but ensure it is in the least the equivalent of the CNS that is in place in NSW and the ACT and protected by the 2005 Powers and Responsibilities Act.
Both Western Australia and the Northern Territory must implement the Custody Notification Service – now. Vulnerable people are being locked up – for crimes that are not crimes. In the Northern Territory we have the paperless arrest laws.
Northern Territory Coroner, Greg Cavanagh called for the removal of the paperless arrest laws. A 59-year-old gentleman, Kumanjayi Langdon died in a police cell within three hours of his arrest. He was not a criminal.
Kumanjayi Langdon was arrested for drinking in a public place.
“He died in his sleep with strangers in this cold and concrete cell,” said Coroner Cavanagh.
“He was entitled to die in peace, in the comfort of family and friends.”
“He was entitled to die as a free man.”
The paperless arrest laws allow Northern Territory police to lock up an individual for up to four hours.
In the striving for what is right – not for what suits the ignorant among the privileged class – we cannot rest until laws such as the paperless arrest laws and the jailing of fine defaulters are done away with. We cannot rest till the Custody Notification Service is established across the nation.
At least one in ten – and up to one in six – of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders living today has been incarcerated. This is an abomination, moral and otherwise. It is racialised imprisonment, it is racism.
Former chair of the DICWC, Marianne Mackay, who lost the father of her eldest child as a death in custody once said, “We are sick to death of our people being jailed. We are sick to death of this sickness. We are sick to death of every injustice against us.”
Relentless campaigners such as Ms Mackay, and such as Ms Dhu’s uncle, Shaun Harris must be understood in terms of the incredible battle they are fighting for all of us. They deserve our unwavering support – feet on the ground, to be there in numbers again and again and again, till the justice is done in that bad laws are changed.
I have stared into the eyes of many who have lost loved ones. Their anguish perpetuated into ongoing pain compounded by the years of silence by our governments and the various instruments of oversight who have failed their responsibilities. Governments have allowed bad laws to continue. The cruelties of bad laws have delivered situational trauma into composite and multiple traumas for the affected families. Mavis Pat has been crippled by the loss of her 16-year-old son, 32 years ago. The Murray family was torn asunder after the loss of their 21-year-old son and brother, 34 years ago, with affected family devastated to this day.
Though many of us will strive for what is right in the name of the common good, there are no words for the loss of a loved one.