Who killed Eddie Murray? A police officer did. Who killed John Pat? A police officer did. Who killed Mulrunji Doomadgee? A police officer did. How did they get away with it? Racism got in the way.
These three young people, among others, did not just die in custody – they were killed in custody – their deaths should have been classified as homicides.
If we do not say it as it is and write it as it is we shall remain among the throng of reductionists who cheapen human life and who just plain betray their fellow person. Without truth there are no right ways to the common good, to an equal and just society. Without truth there is a scarcity of foundations in universal principles and tenets to enable equality. Without truth the majority of people are marginalised; with the majority of the majority strewn as utterly powerless underclasses.
For every unnatural death in custody there are many more near deaths, scores of maltreatments and abuses.
There are injustices so wrong on this vast continent that they burn deep, they continue, they become more, they divide humanity, fracture humanity. The belief that we have to compromise, reduce what needs be said so as to carry people to common ground never achieves universality, never carries all sides, all the people, to for instance equality, justice, to the good end. The carrying of people arrives on the back of the truth. Truth does not seek to victimise and accuse, it does not seek to make hostages of all those who are wrong. Truth seeks the freeing of everyone. In this tenet we must be solid-in-our-thinking.
We must not fear that the truth will offend the perpetrators or the institutions they represent or are protected by. We must fear only our own silence. We must not fear any level of persecution, we must not fear what those who do wrong or what those others who insist on silence about wrongs will do to us. We must be fearless.
Because far too many have believed in compromising the truth hence for far too many everything has become worse – catastrophic.
This narrative is borne of mistaken beliefs in the lie of incrementalism but in truth these mistaken beliefs are borne of fear and silence, borne of the self before everyone and borne by those too who have sold out the lot of others altogether.
Our tenet should be that there is no greater legacy than in the improving the lot of others to the point we change lives, to the point we save lives.
Instead the narrative is one of a humanitarian crisis – of catastrophe – of decimation and ruination. Today, this narrative of human suffering, misery and premature deaths includes the moral abomination of at least one in 20 of Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islanders dying by suicide, of racialised third-world-akin poverty filling the jails of this otherwise affluent nation. Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islanders are being jailed at the world’s highest rates.
What is being done about all this? Cheap rhetoric and on occasion coupled with the now normalised assault of filthy piecemeal responses.
In this last year while lobbying and negotiating with federal and state governments for the introduction of the check and balance life-saving Custody Notification Service for Western Australia – and for the Northern Territory – I often reflected on the killing fields that for too long were our custodial systems. I reflected on the fact that without fail the killers got away with murder – hence rogue behaviours and racism continue.
Murray, Pat, Mulrunji and many others were murdered. They were not just deaths in custody but murders. If we do not state the truth, then this hate of the truth will ensure wrongs, whether rogue or otherwise, remains pernicious. The moral caveat must be to not lie or to withhold truth.
My two Masters and PhD research included studies of custodial systems and deaths in custody and whether racialisation and racism were significant factors. There is a culture of racism in this nation so extreme, odious in its stench, the likes I have not known elsewhere in my many travels outside this continent. Of all the middle and high income nations with relatively recent colonial oppressor histories Australia has the widest divide of all measurable indicators between the descendants of its First Peoples and the rest of the population. The racism in Australia burns so deep that it not only threatens life, it takes lives – racialised mass poverty, mass incarceration and the world’s highest suicide rates. There continues an attack on the First Peoples of this continent that has been uninterrupted since colonial oppression. The same cesspool of ingredients, origins-of-thinking, that led to apartheid and segregation that sought to beat the Black out of children, that forbade the speaking of mother tongues, that demonised cultural content and that penned the White Australia Policy continues its malevolent hate.
Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islanders – the First Peoples of this continent – are maltreated by some police while other police sit idly by in cowardly or collegial quiet. Those police who damn themselves with silence with what they witnessed do indeed bleed sin. They have bloodied palms. This indictment of silence is not limited to police but to everyone in any institution, public or private, that is bound to the public interest. They include corrective services and the criminal justice system. Society produces and in turn is the product of its institutions. Australian society is mired in the stench of racism, daily washing through society – hence we have this horrific racialised narrative – one where First Peoples endure the most deplorable extreme poverty, so racialised that the denial of the racialisation is purely an obscene hostile denial and simply clear evidence of this nation’s racism. That there is third-world poverty in this so-called first-world nation is racism, that we have the highest arrest rates of peoples in this nation – of only the First Peoples – is racism – the highest jailing rates, and the highest suicide rates.
The jailing of Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islanders at among the highest rates in the world is racism. Western Australia and the Northern Territory are the mother of all jailers of First Peoples. The depth of the racism is Alabama and Georgia deep. That cruellest of all nations, the United States of America, the nation with the highest jailing rate overall is challenged by Western Australia and the Northern Territory when it comes to their jailing of Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islanders. One in thirteen of Aboriginal adult males in Western Australia are in prison. From a racialised lens this deplorable statistic – a narrative of human misery and suffering – is the world’s highest jailing rate.
Nearly fifteen per cent of the population of the United States of America is comprised of people with African heritage but they make up 40 per cent of the American prison population. Australia’s First Peoples comprise less than 3 per cent of the national population but they comprise thereabouts 30 per cent of the Australian prison population. In Western Australia, the First Peoples comprise less than 3 per cent of the state’s population but are more than 40 per cent of the state’s prison population. In the Northern Territory where the First Peoples comprise nearly 30 per cent of the territory population they comprise nearly 90 per cent of the prison population and nearly 100 per cent of the juvenile prisons.
This racialised narrative is racism – it is a moral abomination. It indicts the Australian nation. It indicts the colonial oppressor as an ongoing abomination; the oppressor who penned the White Australia Policy and the world’s most racialised and racist Constitution.
Having delved deeply into custodial deaths to a point as if I had been there at the time when for instance 21 year old Eddie Murray was murdered, when 16 year old John Pat was murdered, when 36 year old Mulrunji Doomadgee was murdered, I saw the flaming racism.
They were murders in custody. Killed, murdered. Who killed Eddie Murray does matter. Who killed John Pat does matter. Who killed Mulrunji Doomadgee does matter.
How and why they were killed and why their killers have got away with their slaughter matters deeply. While killers roam free then brutal rogue behaviours by police officers shall continue – whether of deprivations to a detainee, whether of extreme violence to a detainee, whether of fabricating charges against a detainee. We have CCTV evidence of Northern Territory police officers swinging a detainee in a police watch house, his head cracked against a wall. Instead of calling for immediate medical assistance the near unconscious detainee is dragged to a police cell while another officer is more concerned with wiping the blood off the wall – all this caught on CCTV. But no justice sought. Or that a detainee on his knees in a Western Australian police watch house begs police officers to stop tasering him but they continue. This too caught on CCTV. But no justice delivered. The litany of rogue behaviours and abuses is long. For every death in custody there are many abuses that go unreported in the public domain but are nevertheless known around the traps. These abuses thread as a form of lore, of wide divides between people – of right and wrong.
There has never been a successful prosecution of anyone with an unnatural hand in any death in custody. John Pat’s killer and four other police officers who bashed into Yindjibarndi youth were acquitted by a White jury. This speaks for itself, that no Black was seconded to that jury. Justice was cindered before a word was uttered in that Karratha Court. John Pat was forgotten. The coppers walked. Distrust of the justice system was sharpened razor like.
The bashing murder of Mulrunji Doomadgee was clear as any light of day, for all to see but after years of chasing the justice it all went nowhere fast. All that remains is the remembrance of a circus and a charade for us to indict the Australian justice system.
This article is not about hate – it is not about White verse Black and cataclysmic divides, it is about injustice – it is about truth. The truth matters. All lives matter. If we do not call the bullshit then we are continuing to go nowhere fast.
We were not put on this earth to betray one another – but we do, and in this betrayal the moral abominations of narratives of human misery, suffering and racism are borne.
To get rid of racist cops, of racist juries, of racist judges, of racist politicians, of racist legislators, of racist journalism, or of racist culminations, we have to do in racism.
One in twenty of Australia’s Aboriginal and/Torres Strait Islanders will die by suicide – this is a humanitarian crisis. My research estimates that the suicide rate is much higher, thereabouts one in ten die by suicide – there are underreporting issues – from a racialised lens these are the world’s highest suicide rates.
The racism burns. When John Pat was killed, for a time Roebourne became to Western Australia what Birmingham and Montgomery had been to Alabama. When his killer and four other unethical police officers were cleared by a White jury, Western Australia stood tall as Australia’s racist backwater.
Eddie Murray is dead, John Pat is dead. Mulrunji Doomadgee is dead. Mr Ward is dead. Ms Dhu is dead. So too many others where an unnatural hand culminated in death and nothing was done, except the extensive use of the legal system to protect the killers and others involved in their deaths.
On 28 September 1983 a young life came to an end that sent a community into tears, rage and outrage but which the passing of time dulled into anguish and sorrow – and into a litany of broken lives. The tears of 28 September 1983 filled Roebourne, with hearts broken among Yindjibarndi people. A mother lost her eldest son, 16 years young. John Pat’s death contributed to the call for an inquiry into Aboriginal deaths in custody.
The Yindjibarndi of Roebourne continue to live predominately impoverished despite the mining boom around them reaping it in for the robber barons, for the multinationals, for the state. This too is racialised and therefore this too is racism.
The racism is ugly, enforced, very White Australia. We see it all around us; in the Homeland communities degraded by one government after another – denied services and social health, denied infrastructure equivalent to that of non-Aboriginal towns and communities.
I have met on several occasions John Pat’s mother – Mavis.
Mavis Pat remembers her son “every hour of every day”. A mother suffers in the knowledge that her son was bashed to death and that her son’s life did not matter to the majority of Western Australians as does a White life.
All lives matter.
If we do not speak up then our days on this earth under this sun, however few or many, are misspent.
The murders of our brothers, Murray, Pat and Mulrunji haunt us.
Their killers should be brought to account – even if they do not see the inside of a jail cell. They should speak up for both their own sake – redemption – and for society’s sake – harmony. Those complicit in these murders – the silent – should break their deplorable silence and come clean – for all our sakes.
John Pat had gone to the aide of his mate, Ashley James, whom a copper a little earlier had said to, “I’ll get you, you Black cunt”. Pat had tried to pull his mate out of a brawl where five inebriated coppers launched into Yindjibarndi youth.
To see out racism with silence is to keep up the racism. Generations of despicable stereotypes continue to be validated by the silence. Racist bullshit continues to be shoved down the throats of one generation after another – sometimes this racism goes beyond daily vilifications.
John Pat lives on, in our memories, but as an injustice swirling in the abomination of racism.
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.”
Dr Jonas continued, “The number of Indigenous deaths in custody in the decade since the Royal Commission has been 150% the rate in the decade prior to the Royal Commission. To September 1999 there have been 147 Indigenous deaths in custody, compared to 99 in the decade before the Royal Commission. From October 1999 to 30 May 2000, there were a further eight Aboriginal deaths in custody in Western Australia alone. From 1988 to 1998, the Indigenous prisoner population (across all age groups) more than doubled. It has grown faster than non-Indigenous prisoner rates in all jurisdictions. 17.2% of all prison deaths in the 1990s have been Indigenous people, compared to 12.1% in the 1980s. The Royal Commission found that the reason Aboriginal people die in custody at such an alarming rate is because of the sheer numbers in custody. States and territories must redouble their efforts to reduce the rate of incarceration of Aboriginal people in the criminal justice process. It is at times like these – when Australia is a proud nation basking in international attention – that we should remember to refocus our efforts to protect the poor, the sick, the marginalised among us. And we should remember the toll that imprisonment for minor offences has taken on our Indigenous people.”
The incredible number of Aboriginal people incarcerated is driven by racialised poverty and a racist society – for too many languish in acute poverty of a nature third-world-akin. I reinforce that this occurs in the world’s 12th largest economy, one of the world’s wealthiest nations per capita and with Western Australia and the Northern Territory enjoying the world’s highest median wages. According to the United Nations Human Development Index, Australia ranks number two in the world, behind Norway, for the quality of its public health but when I disaggregated Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islanders standalone, they have an equivalent rank of 132nd.
This is a moral abomination, it is racism – we have betrayed people.
During the evening of what would be John Pat’s last day of life, the four off-duty police officers and the police aide walked into Roebourne’s Victoria Hotel after a stretch 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 her world would cave in, her family would forever suffer, 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. 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. She bore her son to a witness of the world which innocence could not imagine, a tale it could not tell, and her son came into it without warning. In the fullness of a life too brief young John Pat learned of a world that saw him cold, and with the shrill of sheer chill, weeding fears and an austere dominion of thorny meaninglessness.
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 23 years since the 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 have been as high most years since the decade of custodial deaths that brought about the royal commission. In terms of imprisonment rates these have shot through the roof, with today Aboriginal peoples comprising nearly one in three prisoners compared to one in seven prisoners at the time of the royal commission. Deaths in custody is a deep problem for Australia, and for the national moral compass, for Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal peoples. It is the tip of the iceberg that is racism. 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 had a worse record than England, Wales and Scotland.
A decade ago during Masters research, I was stunned when I began formulating comparative data globally. I found Australia had 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. 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, the world’s twelfth largest economy, and with the highest median incomes per capita, is a society harsh on its poorest, harsh on the downtrodden and this is evidenced by our incarceration rates. Once again we have the world’s highest rates of incarceration of Aboriginal peoples. To achieve this Australia doubled the prison population from 15,000 to 30,000 from 1991 to 2011 in order that 8,000 Aboriginal persons shall be incarcerated at any one time, despite Aboriginal peoples making up only 2.8 per cent of the Australian population. In 2015, the prison population stands at 32,000 with more than 10,000 comprised by Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islanders. It is fair to argue that racism drives the criminal justice system – it is fair to argue that legislators are driven in their judgments by the inter-generational stereotypes shoved down people’s throats by the simple assumptions of those past and present, but with origins-of-thinking in racism. Many of our parliamentarians, of our legislators, are only ordinary folk and who struggle to disassociate with origins-of-thinking that are generations old. How else do you explain the mass incarceration of the descendants of the First Peoples of this continent? How else do you explain that 28% of the Australian prison population is comprised of Aboriginal peoples? Western Australia must be more racist than other states, challenged only by the Northern Territory – because WA imprisons Aboriginal adults and youth at rates higher than the rest of the nation. Western Australia has 14 adult jails, and 42 per cent of its prison population is comprised of Aboriginal peoples. Looking closer at this let us understand that more than 5,000 prisoners are hulked into these 14 prisons however more than 2,000 of them are Aboriginal. Let us consider that the total Aboriginal population of Western Australia is almost 80,000. Therefore one in 40 of all Aboriginal people in Western Australia will spend tonight in a cold dank prison cell. One in 13 of all Western Australian Aboriginal adult males will spend tonight in a prison cell, and for Aboriginal youth the rates are much worse. Nearly 80 per cent of WA’s juveniles are detainees. Are West Australian Aboriginal peoples this bad or is it that Western Australia is harsh, very harsh on its Aboriginal peoples? Is Western Australia the hostile racist environment that lived wild on September 28, 1983, when John Pat went to the aid of a friend, whom a police officer called a ‘little black cunt’ and swore he’d get? Or does Western Australia and its institutions continue to languish in origins-of-thinking generations old that it has not confronted, understood and packed away?
How can any reasonably minded person explain without reference to racism why Western Australia incarcerates the Aboriginal peoples of its state at nine times the rate of apartheid South Africa, while Australia incarcerates Aboriginal peoples at a national rate of six times the apartheid South African rate? Something is clearly wrong.
A couple of years ago, 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 families that came before and have come since.. I was reminded of pain as if past and present collapse in time, and Roebourne and the earth we stood on that day was 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.” More than 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 brought on needlessly however with the highest cost, that of a human life and with a hurt 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 the police van.
WA’s current shadow attorney-general, John Quigley, was the police lawyer who defended the four police officers and the police aide who were brought to trial over John Pat’s death. A couple of years ago, in a major newspaper John Quigley was quoted, “In lieu of all the public concern and the media about John Pat’s death at the time it was a great victory to win the case.” I typed a text on my mobile phone and sent it to John Quigley, whom I know, “John, your insensitive statement will go down like a lead balloon with Aboriginal peoples and communities and it will hurt deeply the families long devastated.” The outrage from John Pat’s death contributed to the call for the royal commission, and so 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 Wotton 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, and the culture of favour dispensation and nepotism indemnifying those uniformed in the ‘blue’, 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 but which no cowardice can undo, they carry with them the fact they slaughtered the life out of a young man and little, not even the courts that protected them, 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.”
In July, 2010, Western Australian Fremantle’s federal parliamentary representative, Melissa Parke called for a royal commission into the maltreatment of Aboriginal peoples before the criminal justice system. This call came in light of the death of Warburton Elder, Mr Ward, in the back of a prisoner transport vehicle when he was burnt to death in the hot metal heat he was trapped in on a 43 degree day on a 360 kilometre journey of death from Laverton to Kalgoorlie. His cries of anguish were ignored by the drivers. Ms Parke said the state coroner had found that “Mr Ward had suffered a terrible death while in custody which was wholly unnecessary and avoidable.” So too was the death of John Pat, and of Mulrunji Doomadjee and of 14 year old T.J. Hickey, and of 28 year old Terrance Briscoe in an Alice Springs police cell and of so many others. But WA’s Director of Public Prosecutions Joe McGrath publically announced criminal charges would not be laid over Mr Ward’s death.
Ms Parke said, “The circumstances of Mr Ward’s death, just 18 days before the National Apology to Indigenous Australians, demand both justice and accountability. Accountability not simply on the part of the two G4S drivers involved, who, apart from any legal liability, showed an abysmal lack of human decency, but also on the part of the police, Corrective Services, the Department of the Attorney-General and the multinational company G4S.”
Most importantly, and indicative of a system underwritten by prejudices, biases, racism, of obscene social engineering, and which the origins-of-the thinking that prevailed this dominion continue inter-generationally to this day, Ms Parke said, “In 1901 the WA member of Parliament for Kalgoorlie, Hugh Mahon moved a motion calling for a royal commission into the conditions of Aboriginal people in WA and the administration of justice in the lower courts of the state.” It was not heeded. Ms Parke said, “110 years later after that tabling of that motion we are here again with calls for inquiries into deaths in custody.”
A few years ago, Emma Purdy in her widely published article “A sick prison still claiming lives” wrote of the death of Mr Winmar in the SERCO managed prison of Acacia, on the outskirts of Perth, “Public anger was fuelled even further when (the custodial death of Dion Woods) was followed less than a week later by that of 39-year-old father of five Grantley Winmar in Sir Charles Gardiner Hospital, also in Perth, on 22 March 2010. Although Winmar had previously suffered two strokes and been diagnosed with meningitis, when he became ill in WA’s Acacia Prison he was treated only with aspirin, shortly after which he passed into a coma from which he never recovered. Winmar had served all but three weeks of a six-month sentence for driving without a licence.”
“His brother, Richard Winmar, told The West Australian the day after his death that the family were told by doctors there had been bleeding on his brain for six to seven days while he was in jail. He said Winmar had called his mother from prison and said his head felt like it was ‘about to explode’, but that prison officers had simply given him aspirin and told him to return to his cell.”
Ms Purdy reported that WA’s DCS assistant commissioner, Graeme Doyle, said: “I have received a full rundown of Mr Winmar’s medical treatment over the past several weeks and I am satisfied he was treated promptly and appropriately.” The DCS declined to comment further to Ms Purdy.
What Ms Purdy describes is thematic of what occurs in Australia’s prison and police custodial jurisdictions, and I have long come to the conclusion that our prisons, as they are, are failed systems.
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 time to come will continue to not be news. Only a few years ago the Corruption Crimes Commission of Western Australia (CCCWA) had found that police officers at the East Perth police watch house as recent as 2009 had fabricated charges against multiple taser victim Kevin Spratt, and yet these police officers continue in their roles despite the CCCWA ordering the quashing of the charges. Two of these officers were charged but they pled their innocence.
My father who passed away last year in the 84th year of his mortal coil, a working class man who had less than one year of school education, taught me as a young child that in life “always do what is right, and when people ask of you to account for your actions and your words be prepared at all times to do so.”
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 more than 30 years after the death of young John Pat not to look into what we inherently know was a crime, was inhumane, was inexcusable violence, 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 barriers, 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”.
In many ways strikingly similar to John Pat’s death is the death of Cameron Mulrunji Doomadgee and once again strikingly similar is the racism preventing the political will for anyone to do anything significant about a Black man’s death at the hands of police officers.
On November 19, 2004 Mr Doomadgee was walking his dog on Palm Island, Queensland, and he was singing “Who let the dogs out?” Sergeant Craig Hurley took offence instead of walking on. Allegedly Mr Doomadgee swore at the officer despite others within vicinity testifying they did not hear anything however Mr Doomadgee is dead and we have only the officer’s testimony. Seargent Hurley took offence and arrested Mr Doomadgee. At the watch house, apparently after a ‘scuffle’ according to Sergeant Hurley he threw him into the police cell. The 201cm 115k officer admitted to throwing some punches at the 181cm 74k Mr Doomadgee.
An hour later, Mulrunji Doomadgee was dead.
Despite other police officers at the watch house, “none of them heard or saw anything.” Officer Hurley said he noticed Mr Doomadgee “motionless” and “cold” when touching him. He applied an “arousal technique” by “kicking him twice” but Mr Doomadgee remained motionless.
An ambulance was called however it took fifteen minutes to arrive but in that time not once did any police officer attempt to resuscitate Mr Doomadgee.
A few days later Palm Island people were filled with doubts and rage, and the watch house is burned down however this does not atone for a Black man dead in a police cell – the cries went out for justice however remain unheard as did Mr Doomadgee’s cries by everyone in the watch house in that climate of death.
The business of police investigating police ensures that Senior Sergeant Hurley is not charged and instead receives various confidential payouts from the Queensland State Government. I have long advocated for independent – demarcated – police and prison inspectorates to undertake such investigations and other complaints of maltreatment and various allegations of injustices.
Police told investigating pathologist Guy Lampe that Mr Doomadgee had swallowed bleach instead of that he had been punched to death.
After three months of paid leave, Sergeant Hurley is appointed as a duty officer on the Gold Coast however in September 2006 Coroner Christine Clements found that Mr Doomadgee died of punches inflicted by Sergeant Hurley.
Coroner Clements accused the police of failing to adequately investigate the death of Mr Doomadgee. Most importantly Coroner Clements stated that Mr Doomadgee should never have been arrested, just as Mr Ward should not have, just as Mr Briscoe should not have, just as most certainly Ms Dhu should not have been, just as so many should not have been arrested.
Patrick Bramwell who was in the police cells at the time Mr Doomadgee died testified he remembered hearing him cry out “Help, help, please help me…” Mr Bramwell testified that Sergeant Hurley said to Mr Doomadgee, “Do you want more?”
A Queensland Crimes and Misconduct Commission inquiry into Mr Doomadgee’s death found that no charges can be laid against the police officer. However on this occasion as with the public outcries after John Pat’s death, public outcries and sustained news media coverage led to justice Sir Laurence Street appointed to review the death of Mr Doomadgee on the Palm Island police watch house cell floor.
On January 4, 2007 the review commenced however the key witness, Patrick Bramwell was found hanged on Palm Island on January 16. A family member alleged that Mr Bramwell had earlier said to relatives he had been threatened by a police officer in the event he testified. However on January 26, the review overturned the DPP’s decision not to lay charges and instead recommended that Sergeant Hurley should be charged with manslaughter. Like the five police officers accused of killing John Pat and brought before trial, so too was Sergeant Hurley in June 2007 – before an all-White jury in Townsville.
Sergeant Hurley was acquitted.
On October 24, 2008 Palm Island Elder and former councillor Lex Wotton received 7 years in response to the Palm Island riots following Mr Doomadgee’s death.
On July 19, 2010 Mr Wotton was released however the Queensland Government controversially placed an order upon him as a condition of release that he cannot publicly speak about Mulrunji Doomadgee.
Broken lives haunt and Mr Doomadgee’s only son, 18 year old son Eric was found hanged in Palm Island bushland on July 19, 2010 – it was said this occurred after earlier being taken for a drive by police.
On May 14 2010 another coronial Inquiry found that police had colluded to protect Senior Sergeant Hurley and shortly after a Queensland Crimes and Misconduct Commission report leaked to the media stated that up to seven police officers should be charged, but none have ever been charged. The Commission’s chairperson Martin Moynihan clashed with the Anna Bligh Government in that there is a “culture of self-protection” for police. Ms Bligh dismissed calls for a Royal Commission and instead accepted the April 2011 410 page report by Queensland Deputy Police Commissioner Kathy Rynders that no police officer needed to be disciplined in relation to the death of Mr Doomadgee. She recommended ‘managerial guidance’ for one of the officers. So it goes that it continues to appear to Aboriginal peoples that it is not a crime for police officers to kill someone Black.
Every September 28, John Pat is remembered at a memorial event in the grounds of the museum-like Fremantle Prison. At one of these remembrances, 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 of them the face of John, from the images I have seen. 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 knowing 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 insecurity in the system and at 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 13 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 17 of all Aboriginal children 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. In research titled “The Aboriginal Clock”, I concluded the Blacker one’s skin the more liability they carry, the more their burden, they prevail among the worst of the statistical narratives.
If more than 10,000 First Peoples are in Australian adult prisons, then the shocking statistic that must be confronted is that one in 65 Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islanders are in prison today. My research estimates that one in 25 Aboriginal and/or Torres Islanders have been to prison – from a racialised lens most likely the highest rate in the world.
The cinders and embers of this racism have damaged our psyches and damaged the Australian national identity. If you want to know the identity of a nation, if you want to know its heart and soul, its mind, then day and night look into its prisons and you will know its heart, its soul and its mind. Rosemary Roe said, “My children suffer and I give everything of what I have to help them and it is hard when those, whether they are police or courts don’t know how to help them and only to hurt them.” Rosemary is a first cousin of Rex Bellotti Snr whose son’s story has been highlighted by the through care journalism of The National Indigenous Times and The Stringer. Rosemary said, “Far too many of us are affected, and there are no barriers to gender or age. I was part of the first Death in Custody meeting in WA, in 1988 at Bunbury and here we are 33 years later after that meeting, and that meeting had been brought about by the death of John Pat. In 1997, we had the suicide of an 11 year old Aboriginal child, the youngest ever in the country. This was my first cousin’s child. This tore us up and now he is no longer the youngest suicide. When will it get better?”
At one of those remembrances for John Pat, a former chairperson of the Western Australia Deaths in Custody Watch Committee, 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.”
Eddie Murray died while in police custody in 1981 and last year some of his sisters called for a new inquiry into their brother’s death claiming missing clothes and a coroner’s report which proved he suffered a broken sternum while in custody were proof that their brother was murdered.
It is 33 years since the police custodial death of 21 year old champion rugby league Eddie Murray in the north western New South Wales town, of Wee Waa. His father and mother, the late Arthur and the late Leila Murray campaigned to the end of their lives for public inquiries and proper investigation of their son’s death in the belief the Wee Waa police murdered Mr Murray.
They went to their graves in no doubt police at the Wee Waa station murdered their son. The Murrays raised 12 children, ten who remain and within whom the death of their brother and the anguish and racism their parents endured in chasing down the justice burns ferociously. They will not give up on bringing the police whom they believe responsible for their brother’s death to justice.
Anne Murray was the last member of the family to see Mr Murray alive. Ms Murray has been passed the baton in chasing down the justice for her brother. She said her brother was bashed to death by the police, his body washed down, his clothes changed, and that there has never been a better time – in less racist times than then – for a public inquiry but one independent from police involvement.
“I was the last member of my family to see my brother alive. I was on the corner of George Street (in Wee Waa) opposite the Imperial Hotel, with my baby in the pram.”
“He was fine, happy as always.”
“Next thing we get a call that he committed suicide in a police cell.”
“It is not true, he was murdered, and everyone in Wee Waa knows it, we know it, the police who killed him know it and it is time Australia should know it. It is time after 33 years, with so much pain and anguish for my mother and father who have now gone, that the first (successful) prosecution of murderous and lying police officers takes place – and we can get it. Times have changed where now there may be some hope for true justice in the Courts or for a full and proper investigation or some genuine independent public inquiry, with the evidence presented that in more racist times the evidence was glossed over.”
“If my family give up, which we will never do, then that first (successful) prosecution of coppers will keep on waiting and there will be more deaths in custody. We get that first justice and the black deaths in custody will stop,” said Ms Murray.
“When I next saw my brother, he was at the Coroner’s. He was not wearing his clothes. He was bare from the waist up and I could see marks around his neck and bruises on his chest. The pants the coppers dressed him in were too big and too long, hanging over his feet, he had no shoes or socks.”
“I asked for his clothes, where are his clothes? They would not respond. In 33 years they have not responded. What happened to his clothes? What happened to his personal effects? His wallet has never been returned to us. Why?”
“The clothes were the most vital forensic evidence, they could have determined what happened, they would have been covered in blood and proved that he did not suicide. Eddie would never take his life, that’s a dirty lie by them. He was liked and loved, a champion rugby league player. Obviously the clothes were hidden and then destroyed, we want to know by whom, it’s not hard as they weren’t many officers on duty. We get this investigated and we have the murderers.”
Mr Murray had been visiting his hometown – he lived and worked in Sydney and was playing rugby league for the Redfern All Blacks. He had come to the small cotton town to visit family and friends.
The Murray family were famous in Wee Waa, with Mr Murray’s father, Arthur Murray, leading the fight for award wages and conditions for the Aboriginal cotton workers and for an end to spraying cotton with poisons while workers were in the field. The Murrays had also been involved in the fight for Aboriginal housing in town so they did not have to continue camping on reserves five kilometres away.
Mr Murray’s parents had often spoken of the racist harassment, including from police that the whole family faced. Mr Murray had been arrested seven times for allegedly being disorderly and convicted of offensive behaviour twice, but in a stark comparison, he had never been arrested by police while living in Sydney.
“When I saw him outside the Imperial Hotel he was wearing creamy pants, his red and white shirt with the writing across it, Walgett Leagues,” said Ms Murray.
Ms Murray said that the next day the family and on this occasion in the company of Lyall Munro Snr viewed Mr Murray’s body. They went to the police station. The police showed them the blanket they claimed Mr Murray tore strips from to hang himself.
“The cop pulled out the grey blanket he claimed Eddie hung himself with.”
“I tried to tear at it, and I turned around to the cop and said how did Eddie tear this when I can’t tear it, it needs scissors to cut through it? And I said to him that we can see by the nature of the broken threads that it has been cut by scissors.”
“My brother did not hang himself.”
The Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody had suggested an inquiry into Mr Murray’s death but they were not able to achieve it. The Newcastle Legal Centre called for this but it did not happen, the Police Integrity Commission did not want to know about it, and a NSW parliamentarian called for it but to no avail.
The Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody failed to achieve what could have made a real difference. It failed to secure independent investigations into several deaths in custody that should have been without question. If this had been achieved it may have saved the life of Mulrunji Doomadgee and of others.
Mr Murray was murdered, call it manslaughter or grievous bodily harm leading to death, whatever, he died exactly as Roebourne’s John Pat did two years later, and as Mulrunji Doomadgee and Kwementaye Briscoe more than two decades later died – at the hands of police officers, and that perpetrated violence should be accounted for. Till the police are brought to justice for these deaths then Ms Murray is right that there is no likelihood of a reduction of police deaths in custody and just as importantly the maltreatment of people because of the colour of their skin and because of how they look.
Wee Waa is a small town, less than 1,700, 41 kilometres northwest of Narrabri on Kamilaroi Country. About 350 of the population are First Nations people. The Kamilaroi words Wee Waa mean “fire for roasting”. Like most of the rest of the nation, the town has a history of racial tensions.
The death of Mr Murray was one of the custodial deaths that led to the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody.
On February 25, 2004, former NSW Senator, now federal parliamentarians, Lee Rhiannon, chased down the call for a parliamentary inquiry into the death of Mr Murray but to no avail.
“(The police) detained (Mr Murray) for being drunk and disorderly. The police could have taken him home but instead kept him in custody. He was heard to cry out from his cell, ‘Why do you always pick on me? Why don’t you pick on the White people?’ Less than one hour later, he was dead.”
“Before a police photographer arrived to take pictures of Eddie, his body had been removed from the cell in which he died. The next day his clothes were missing. When the coroner looked into the matter, he found instances of unreliability in the evidence offered by police to the Court.”
The coroner’s open verdict included that there existed the possibility of “death at the hand of person or persons unknown.”
But it happened in a police cell.
In 1997, Mr Murray’s body was exhumed and it was found he had suffered a smashed sternum – caused by blows to the chest. In August 2000, the NSW Minister for Police, Paul Whelan referred to the case to the NSW Police Integrity Commission (PIC) but the PIC “declined the case”.
We have to be who we need to be 24/7 and if enough of us do so then we will bottleneck our way to change, bring on the cultural shifts, exact change, remove the racism and where needed remove the racists from power. When enough of us are who we should be, when enough of us rise, change happens.
We have a long way to go before we have gone far enough for us not to be able to turn back from the triumphant march to every equality and justice. Only when this racist nation is without the racism that humiliates us all, haunts its victims, litters the landscape with filthy injustices and inequalities, perpetrates the worst of acts, only then can we move forward. If we do not right wrongs then the wrongs continue.
They were not just deaths in custody, they were murders.
Declaration of interest – The writer of this article, Gerry Georgatos, is a long-time researcher, with PhD research and two Masters, in racism, deaths in custody, unnatural deaths. He is also a prison reform and restorative justice advocate.