Mavis Pat at her sons memorial 29 years later - Image, Gerry Georgatos

Mavis Pat at her sons memorial 29 years later – Image, Gerry Georgatos

On 28 September 1983 a young life came to an end that sent a community into tears before it became rage and outrage dulled into anguish and sorrow by the passing of time and a litany of broken lives. The tears of 28 September 1983 filled Roebourne, breaking the hearts of its Yindjibarndi peoples. A mother, Mavis Pat, lost her eldest son, 16 years young. John’s death contributed to the call for an inquiry into Aboriginal deaths.

This year, 30 years on, John Pat will be remembered in a national remembrance – Roebourne, Perth, Alice Springs, Darwin, Adelaide, Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane and Cairns.

Ms Pat has often said that in years since the death of John Pat, there has never been an official apology to her.

On September 25, the Deaths in Custody Watch Committee will coordinate a public rally at the steps of Western Australia’s State Parliament, and call upon the State Government to table a motion apologising to the Pat family. Speaking at the event will the Acting CEO of the Aboriginal Legal Services WA, John Bedford, WA Young Person of the Year, Noongar Lewis Abdullah and Helen Ulli Corbett, the co-founder and former chair of the National Committee to Defend Black Rights.

The Deaths in Custody Watch Committee WA is calling on the Western Australian Government to make an unreserved apology to John Pat’s mother and family. The Watch Committee is dissatisfied by the lack of adequate response to the recommendations from the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody 1987-1991, and is calling for an audit of the implementation of recommendations. It is also calling for the establishment of an independent authority with legislative powers to investigate complaints about police and corrective services, for the passing of legislation that holds corporations and government legally responsible for their role in a death in custody and for the repealing of mandatory sentencing laws.

Some things have changed however not enough has changed. John Pat’s mother Mavis remembers him every hour of every day – there is a hole in her heart that nothing can mend, such is a mother’s pain.

I have seen Mother Mavis cry for her son, John Pat, who is not lost to her, nor is he lost to his sister and brother however they are emotionally emaciated by the anguish of the pain that his life is one that has not been lived as it should have been. For John Pat was 16 years young when racism murdered him. Mavis, and John’s siblings Glen and Maisie have gone on with their lives, in Roebourne, but the trauma of that day 30 years ago has left its haunting legacies.

Mother Mavis’s pain is shattering, often bringing her to her knees, her head buried in her arms or in her lap, and her cries often heard by others. Her son did not die in an accident, her son did not die of illness, he did not die by some means that in the least could make some sense – her son was stolen from life by the rapacious prejudices of racism – her son was a ‘black cunt’ bashed to death. The colour of his skin, his very identity, historical and contemporary, cultural and political were the liabilities that the ugliness of prejudice caught in its net. Racism is an ugly bastard, a divisive scum. It destroys the perpetrator and the victim, mangles the collective consciousness. Mother Mavis and her two remaining children, John’s younger sister and brother, live day in day out, slipping into every sleep with the rush of thoughts that John died not because of who he was in his mind’s slopes or in his heart’s valleys but rather for who he wasn’t – he was not born ‘white’. He was someone the brimstone of ill-kept racism, the taunting simmer of vicious hate made inferior in allowing others to consider themselves superior and with such assumption that they could believe that “a black cunt” like John Pat should not walk alongside them.

To remember the life lost, of young John Pat, with less passion and with fettered rationales is to misunderstand and misrepresent racism and the hate that it obliges – it is to allow for racism to steady a foothold. In order for perpetrator and victim to not be held hostage by racism they must understand racism so as to move forward. His death must be remembered with the same despair that the Roebourne community greeted the shocking news – when four off-duty police officers and an off-duty police aide, inebriated by the effects of alcohol and by the bitter tasting wash of their prejudices, and by generations of cruel and nescient stereotypes shoved down their throats, vilified the life out of this boy.

Last year, on September 28, once again 100 people coalesced to remember John Pat, his life, its meaning, the legacy, to honour his passing, to remember his spirit, and to honour the future, our unfolding human rights language – that John Pat lives on in our urges for a better world, one far removed from the vacuum of senseless inhumanity that in a mere fifteen minutes when police officers and young Aboriginal youth clashed young John Pat would leave this life. 100 mourners, Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal, from far and wide, remembered John Pat at the now historical museum-like Fremantle Prison where a memorial stands forever to young John, inscribed with the ode dedicated to John Pat by the late Dr Jack Davis. Every year we come to the Memorial to remember John Pat, and at times his mother too, from Roebourne afar. Mother Mavis, and her youngest son, Glen, have sat through the proceedings again and again, in a well of tears as if 29 or 28 or 27 years ago were yesterday. Glen was 8 years old when his brother twice his age was taken from him.

On September 28 2000 the Australian Human Rights Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner Dr Bill Jonas said, “His death, investigated by the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, became for Aboriginal people a symbol of injustice and oppression. But more than a decade after the Royal Commission, Aborigines are still dying in custody at alarming rates. And they continue to be imprisoned for minor offences despite the recommendations of the Royal Commission that jail should be a punishment of last resort.” Dr Jonas continued, “The over-representation of Indigenous people in the criminal justice system is a continuing crisis. All levels of government have failed to respond adequately to the recommendations of the Royal Commission and the draconian mandatory sentencing regimes of the NT and WA have ensured that Aboriginal people continue to be jailed for trivial matters. John Pat was almost 17 years old when he was found dead in a police station lock-up in Roebourne, on 28 September 1983. He died of head injuries sustained during the fight with off-duty police officers outside the local Victoria Hotel. Four officers and a police aide were later charged with his manslaughter but acquitted at trial.”

During the evening of what would be John Pat’s last day of life, the four off-duty police officers and the police aide came to the Victoria Hotel after a night of revelry and drinking at the local golf club. What would come to pass in the minutes ahead would tear a hole so deep in mother Mavis Pat that a world would cave in within it and sink the hopes of a family and scar a community – for Roebourne, in the heart of Yindjibarndi, is known Australia-wide for the death of John Pat, and not for its red earth, its yellow sands, the vast landscapes, or for the warm seas nearby that wash its pebbles and rock. There are few people who bring on the mention of Roebourne without contemplating the vile racism that killed John Pat – Roebourne is to Western Australia what Birmingham is to Alabama.

John Pat was ‘found’ dead in a prison cell, his head having been smashed on the hard earth after falling backwards from the blows to his head thrashed from the subterfuge of a violent one-sided altercation with the off-duty police officers. How can mother Mavis Pat forget the loss of her son? She cannot. The pain has not eased in the 30 years since, and if anything it has crippled her.


In the decade since the 1991 Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody recommendations, – 339 recommendations – Aboriginal deaths in custody went up by 150%. This trend continued during the last ten years. Indeed, it is 22 years since a royal commission into Aboriginal deaths in custody and yet little seems to have changed. Indeed, in terms of the Australian Institute of Criminology’s crude totals, the numbers are as bad as ever, human lives are still being lost. In terms of proportion to total deaths in custody, Aboriginal deaths are proportionately higher than they were three and two decades ago. In terms of imprisonment rates these have shot through the roof, with today Aboriginal peoples comprising more than one in four prisoners as compared to one in seven prisoners at the time of the royal commission. Deaths in custody is a horrific problem for Australia, and for the national moral compass, for Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal peoples. Australia has a worse death in custody record, in terms of rates, both prison-custodial related and police-custodial related than most other nations of our equivalent social wealth or thereabouts. Australia, in terms of proportion to population rates and proportion to prison population rates has a worse record than England, Wales and Scotland.

Half a dozen years ago during Masters research I was stunned when I began formulating comparative data globally. I found Australia has higher incarceration rates for our Aboriginal peoples than did South Africa of its Black peoples during the final years of apartheid. At the time I found that Australia incarcerated Aboriginal adult males at five times the rate than did apartheid South Africa of its Black adult males. And in Western Australia the rate was eight times. In 2013, the comparative data has the national incarceration rate of Aboriginal adult males at six times and in Western Australia at nine times. It just gets worse.

I also found that Australia incarcerates its Aboriginal adult males at a marginally higher rate than what does the United States of America of its African-American adult males. This is a disturbing statistic because the USA is the mother of all jailers, with nearly one per cent of its population imprisoned.

Australia’s imprisonment of Aboriginal peoples is racialised imprisonment, therefore it is racism.

Last year, I spoke to mother Mavis and brother Glen at the end of the annual remembrance of a son and brother, and their pain was as deep as those that have come before. I was reminded of pain as if past and present collapse in time, and Roebourne and Fremantle are the same earth, as if John had walked before us. Mother Mavis expected the world to change when the royal commission was convened. Singed with grief, felled by a heap of racism, she said in a statement to the royal commission, “I don’t know what’s going to come out of the royal commission but I hope it makes everything better for Aboriginal people.” Near thirty years later mother Mavis knows all too well that little has changed. Alcohol numbs the pain when it grips her so tight that she can bear no more.

The off-duty police officers had continued their drinking at Roebourne’s Victoria Hotel before they unnecessarily brawled, and with great viciousness, with the local Aboriginal youth who had also been drinking. The fight never had to have happened, it was a choice, a decision, a conviction, it was brought on needlessly however with the highest cost, that of a human life and with a hurt through to so many that its pervasiveness is yet to yield. The off-duty police officers could have walked away, most certainly, or acted with a modicum of humanity, instead hate and spite urged them on. Prejudices with their origins-of-thinking generations old, and generations removed, fired their synapses, flushing morbidly their thinking. 1983 was not 1933 and the excuses of the police officers and the police aide run thin. John Pat died of head injuries, a torn aorta and his bruised and battered body finished up a thornbush of broken ribs. One witness was straightforward with testimony to the Supreme Court in 1984, of the unconscious and likely lifeless John Pat – that he was “thrown like a dead kangaroo” into the back of a police van.

The outrage from John Pat’s death contributed to the call for the royal commission, and flowered, for only a few short springs, a trickle of hope.

The late Dr Jack Davis wrote in his book, John Pat and other poems, “Write of life, the pious said, forget the past, the past is dead. But all I see, in front of me is a concrete floor, a cell door, and John Pat.” In every visit I make to a prison, I see John Pat in everyone, young and older, and every prison cell I walk past I see the dank concrete floors and what little boys, and girls, with innocence born, will grow up to see day in day out, with heads lowered, concrete floors and John Pat. The pigment of their skin and the holes in their pockets telling them of a difference which was once unknown to them and in a better world would be unknown.

The Coronial Inquest which began on 31 October, 1983 during 21 days, heard from seventy-seven witnesses. On February 6, 1984, four police officers and a police aide were committed for trial on charges of manslaughter and they were brought before the Supreme Court in Karratha on 30 April 1984. An all-white jury of 12 men and three women acquitted them. There has never been a successful prosecution against any police or prison officer in that they contributed an unnatural hand in a police or prison custodial related incident. Let us remind ourselves that it took confrontational protests and the burning of the Palm Island Police Station to bring to the light of day the death in police custody of Cameron Mulrunji Doomadgee and yet justice has not been done, Officer Craig Hurley is yet to atone while Palm Island councillor Lex Wootton was sent to prison.

Roebourne’s name came to everyone’s lips with John Pat’s death. It all started when one local boy, Ashley James, was threatened by one of the off-duty police officers when he sought to make a purchase from the hotel’s bottle shop. The off duty police officer was heard to say, “We’ll get you, you black cunt.”

With racism fuelling the inebriated police officer, he followed Ashley James. Verbal abuse was levelled at the youth and it was so loud that it alerted the other officers to the prospect of a melee. The cruelty of the policeman pursuant of his prey led to him knocking Ashley James to the ground. Let us ensure the context of the day is understood, in that it was not the fact the officers were inebriated that caused the violence. It may have compounded the situation, however it was their racism, and this should not be argued against. Ashley James fuelled with anger retaliated and hence a brawl ensued. Some of the other Aboriginal youth, including John Pat tried to intervene and break up the brawl, to rescue their mate however they found themselves either attacked by the other officers or drawn into the fight. Apparently, John Pat had tried to pull Ashley James away from the heart of the brawl. It was at this point that one of the off-duty policemen, with an obvious deep hate wandering in his heart, walked up to John Pat and punched him in the mouth. A number of blows to John Pat spiralled from the officer’s hateful heart. A witness would testify, “he fell back, and didn’t get up. I heard his head hit the road.” John Pat was not the victim of just one punch, however of many punches. His life may have ended just after his head hit the road however such mitigation is foolhardy – the punches that struck him in the head, after his body was battered, and with such a force that they sent him pummelling to the ground and with such force that his head was whipped back on its neck’s nape that it would hit the ground before the rest of his body. The punches that sent him spiralling back, head first, to the earth are what killed him. Don’t blame the hard earth, this is outrageous and gutless. An intention was behind the attack on John Pat. The involved police officers may have been acquitted however till the end of days they carry with them a wrong that lies and cowardice cannot undo, they carry with them the fact they slaughtered the life out of a young man and little can perceptually modify this – John Pat was a victim, and the police officers and others past and present, inter-generational prejudices were and are the perpetrators. Aboriginal Elder, the late Dr Jack Davis AO, BEM once said, “The beginning of the cause of deaths in custody does not occur within the confines of police and prison cells or in the minds of the victims. Initially, it starts in the minds of those who allow it to happen.”

The Roebourne brawl between the off-duty police officers and Aboriginal youth lasted less than fifteen minutes, and with on-duty police arriving as the remnants of the brawl lingered, as battered and bruised Aboriginal youth were trashed into submission. The testimonies of the event are disturbing and stir the conscience of the reader – there are those who state the lifeless-like body of John Pat was kicked by a policeman, and that another policeman lifted his head by the hair to view his state. Nearby residents testified that six other youths were beaten by the off-duty police officers and some were being beaten while John Pat lay unconscious and possibly dead.

The forensic pathologist, Dr John Hinton reported that John Pat died of multiple injuries, his head injuries caused swelling and a brain haemorrhage, and that indeed he was victim to at least ten blows to his head. There were half a dozen bruises above his right ear and therefore at one stage he had been degenerated into a punching bag. The bruises and injuries to the rest of his body were so horrific that his aorta was torn, and to one family member this is as if his heart had been broken by the violence of man in the same ways the heart of Aboriginal peoples had been broken by those who chose for far too long to treat them as lesser.

John Pat’s body was laid in a police cell, however after it was confirmed he was dead, police officers washed him prior to photographs of his body being taken. During the Coroner’s Inquest investigating police officer Detective Sergeant Scott when cross-examined commented that it appeared the Roebourne Police could have engaged in a perversion of the course of justice and that they may have falsified police statements and records. To Aboriginal peoples this is nothing new, it is not news to them and for to time to come will continue to not be news.

I can write with depth analysing the police reports and court transcripts and I am well versed in them however I believe it is more important that nearly 30 years after the death of young John Pat not to look into what we inherently know was a crime, was inhumane, was unnecessarily violent, was a cover-up, was cowardly by the courts of the day to deflect and was the burning hot racism of Western Australia’s police and of all those who judge rather than stand alongside and get to know one another, that instead I write of the harrowing pain, the anguish that lingers in the affected, such as in mother Mavis, brother Glen, sister Maisie, of metastatic wounds, of pain that moves like the wind and hurts as if flesh on razor-wire, pain without borders, from people to people, Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal. With the understanding of what happened comes a view of a world filled with distrust; a mistrust of public institutions, of the police, of the criminal justice system, of our parliaments, a loss of faith in our parliamentarians. With this stress on the aspirations of social cohesion there is a separation of peoples, the induction of class and race warfare, poverty and a hardening of souls that for some can lead to violence and other crime. When we examine this view we understand what many mean by “tokenism”.

Every September 28, John Pat is remembered at a memorial event in the grounds of the museum-like Fremantle Prison. I cannot forget John’s brother, Glen Lee at one of the memorials, carrying his grief that time has not let rest. It was an emotional one full of tears however for some amidst the wash of tears there was the glimmer of hope and of sunshine myriad bright. The Western Australian Deaths in Custody Watch Committee coordinated the event which brought together some 100 gatherers and mourners. Mother Mavis Pat laid a wreath by her son’s memorial and 28 years later a mother’s harrowing pain still languishing evident as she could not move from the memorial for many minutes, and for those there these minutes remain solid in time, in the slopes and valleys of our minds, in the landscape of our soul, wandering in our consciousness. Mother Mavis, her body wretched over her son’s memorial site, his spirit briefly alive in our awareness of him, her tears trickled and then streamed, and us who watched welled with tears, some holding them back and others could not, and the chill of her stifled cries cut a chill through this sunny day.

I paid my respects to mother Mavis and to brother Glen and I could see in both the face of John, from the images I have seen of him. Mother Mavis said, “My son did not have to die, no one has to die, I never forget him.” John Pat was the eldest of three children to Mavis Pat. His youngest brother, Glen Lee, was 8 years old when 16 year old John Pat was killed. Glenn said, “I was young but I remember, we always remember, we always know. My sister and I, my mother, we cannot forget.” The remembrance was opened by the highly respected Noongar Elder, Reverend Sealin Garlett who said, “Tears that filled Roebourne then, are the tears that have brought us here today.” The Reverend has known the pain of family, friends and community, many times over, who have lost their loved ones in the dank confines of a prison or police cell, and every time I hear him speak, year in year out he hurts more than the year gone, for it is the abyss of despair we look into to know that nothing has changed and that his people die for no good reason. He said, “I believe that our young fellas will make the changes… They are our voice. We cannot be silent, we need to stand up and when we do this our voices will change the destiny of our direction by this so-called liberated government. If we do not do this, if we do not stand up then we will continue to live under the shadows and clouds of their dominion.”

Many of the people who attended this gathering of mourning and remembrance were families thumped with harrowing anguish such as that owned by mother Mavis and John’s brother Glen. Some families have lost three and four of their loved ones to police- or prison-related deaths in custody. Let us remind ourselves that for every death in custody there are many near deaths in custody and scores of people maltreated.

When John Pat died Harvey Coyne was a young man in prison, at Fremantle Prison, now a museum, and where the memorial for John Pat is held every year. Harvey said, “I was inside here in this prison when news of the death of John Pat came. Our heads went down – we all felt an insecurity in the system and by the forces demanding cultural assimilation. What happened to John we knew more of it would come and it has. I have seen in many, many people around me, in prison and outside prison the mental collapse of my brothers and sisters and how we are punished for this by the very system that makes this happen. 40 years later I would have hoped things would change however they have not, the fear is still there that the system is still letting us down and shutting heavy metal doors on us.”

Alison Fuller said, “I think we have to remember we are a strong people and that we have survived and that we will continue to survive. Blacks will lead the way for Blacks. We are not beggars, let us remember that, and that this is our land. Our wealth is counted in love and not in money.” Rosemary Roe said that her children are suffering at the hands of the criminal justice system and the narrow mindedness of a dull cold set of judgments. Let us remind ourselves that Australia’s prison population, which had doubled in the last two decades, that 28 per cent of it is Aboriginal peoples, yet Aboriginal peoples are less than 3 per cent of the total Australian population. Let us remind ourselves that in the hotbed of Australia’s racism, Western Australia, that 42 per cent of its prison population are Aboriginal peoples. There are 80,000 Aboriginal peoples in Western Australia however 2,000 of them are in Western Australia’s 14 prisons. Once again let us remind ourselves, and let it never leave our thinking, that one in 40 Western Australian Aboriginals will spend the night in a cold prison cell, and one in 14 Western Australian Aboriginal males will spend the night in a cold prison. And as sad it is to read let us understand the fact, as I culminate one research effort after another, that the blacker one is in skin colour the higher the rate of prison incarceration, the higher the arrest rates, the higher the deaths in custody rates, and also the higher the homelessness and suicide rates. More than 2,000 Aboriginal children have been removed from their families in Western Australia – that is one in every 40 Aboriginal people in Western Australia are in the care of the State – therefore have the Stolen Generations ended? The blacker one is the more likely they or the communities they come from are being neglected by our Governments and the more likely they have been inter-generationally neglected into the languish of third-world conditions. I am concluding research I’ve titled “The Aboriginal Clock”, and more of this will come for the light of day to challenge.

If more than 8,000 Aboriginal persons are in Australian adult prisons, then the shocking statistic that must be confronted is that one in 70 Aboriginal Australians are in prison today.

Western Australia Deaths in Custody Watch Committee former chairperson, Marianne Mackay said, “I know that we are sick of it all, it comes with being Aboriginal however we have to stand up so we make the big changes for our people. The Pat family, this is a family that has not got justice, none of our families have ever got it. There is not enough support out there for us to get lawyers and protection.” Marianne lost the father of her eldest son as a death in custody.

The Reverend Sealin Garlett read the ode to John Pat by the late Elder Dr Jack Davis and the gathering sat silent, taking in every word – Mother Mavis with head bowed, brother Glen with shoulders lowered, both staring to the earth – “Write of life, the pious said. Forget the past, the past is dead. But all I see, in front of me, is a concrete floor, a cell door, and John Pat. Agh! Tear out the page, forget his age. Thin skull they cried, that’s why he died! But I can’t forget the silhouette of a concrete floor, a cell door, and John Pat. The end product of Guddia (white man’s) Law is a viaduct, for fang and claw. And a place to dwell, like Roebourne’s hell, of a concrete floor, a cell door, and John Pat.” The Reverend’s crackling voice rose more, and resonated John Pat alive with all of us, “He’s there – Where? There in their minds now, deep within. There to prance, a long sidelong glance, a silly grin, to remind them all, of a Guddia wall, a concrete floor, a cell door, and John Pat.”