A 55-minute television documentary, Special Treatment: Locking Up Aboriginal Children, had a special premiere screening at the AFI Cinema in Sydney on December 4. The film, produced and directed by Margaret Anne Smith, was reviewed in discussion by two long-time Aboriginal survivors, Arthur and Leila Murray.
Arthur and Leila Murray's son Eddie was killed by a person or persons unknown (according to the coronial inquiry) in the Wee Waa police lock-up on June 12, 1981. Arthur is the chairperson of the Aboriginal Deaths in Custody Watch Committee, and is now on bail awaiting his appeal against convictions for riotous assembly and assaulting police at a disturbance in Brewarrina, which occurred in August 1987 after police in riot gear attacked Aboriginals in a park mourning the death in custody of Lloyd Boney.
Arthur: It was a very good film. It showed mainly Aboriginal girls and boys, ages ranging from 17 downwards. They are the ones that parents have got to look after. On the film most of these Aboriginal children talked about being harassed by police. Some spoke of life in institutions and jail. It is about time people made a documentary like this. It should have been done years ago, so that people can find out how young Aboriginals are put in institutions.
Leila: I think they get worse in institutions. They've got no freedom when they get out, so they are back and forth many times. Things should be worked out at home instead of just putting young Aboriginals away in institutions.
Arthur: A lot of comments were made saying it would be better for young Aboriginal offenders not to go to institutions. If they could be helped, things might improve. Of course, some kids will listen and others won't, but young people should be given a chance to prove themselves.
It's not only young Aboriginals who are being harassed. New Australians are picked on because of their colour. The film also showed that Aboriginal kids are getting unfair treatment at school. From the time the white man started school for Aboriginal kids, there has been discrimination, and it's almost impossible to stop. It might never go away until we get Aboriginal schools with black teachers.
Leila: They say discrimination doesn't go on, but it does, and teachers are often there to back the white kids up. There needs to be an investigation of how Aboriginals are treated at school. Unfortunately, not many teachers are sticking up for young Aboriginal kids. Complaints about unfair treatment are not being dealt with properly.
Arthur: There were comments about Aboriginal kids being expelled for nothing at all, while white kids who abuse Aboriginals get let off. I don't think it's right for kids of any colour to be expelled. School is there for the kids' benefit and education.
Leila: The film has made a start in giving young Aboriginal kids a voice to speak publicly. We have got to try to bring more of this out in the open and get them to talk more. A lot of kids are shy and have a lot of stuff built up inside them.
Arthur: It is parents who should be exercising control over children, not police. Police don't have the right to harass any child, or blame them for something going wrong. Many young Aboriginals talk about being picked up and taken to the police station for something they didn't do.
There should always be a thorough investigation before charges are laid, but the film shows kids being charged first just because they are on the street. I've had the experience myself of going down to a police station early in the morning to help young Aboriginal people who've been picked up. But you can't be there all the time.
What happens after the parent or older friend leaves the station? Police might encourage young Aboriginals who can't read or write to sign a statement confessing to something they didn't do. The film shows some young Aboriginal kids don't know their rights. One young fella said after the cops had picked him up for something he didn't do, he got so sick and tired of the police harassment that he felt he might as well have done it anyway.
Leila: Aboriginal kids from Moree were interviewed saying that they or their friends could be charged and locked up even without their parents knowing. That just shouldn't happen. It is important for young people to be taught by field officers not to give in to police. This film could help teach young Aboriginal people about their rights.
Arthur: The film shows the role of police and white fellas since Captain Cook in handling Aboriginal people just through locks and chains. We still have to struggle to survive today. It's good that someone has shown this clearly so that very young Aboriginal kids can look at it and see what's in store for them when they leave school, unless things really start to change. I've got 27 grandchildren, and I would like to show this film to them.
Leila: It is also important for this film to be shown so that white Australians start to get informed about the situation of Aboriginal kids. It might open some eyes, though what's shown is nothing compared to what's been going on for years. There might have been some stories from a lot of older Aboriginal people who have suffered a great deal at the hands of the police.
Arthur: As well as showing how far too many Aboriginal kids are being put in institutions, it shows that this can lead to deaths in custody. Young Aboriginals are still in a dangerous situation. This is evident from comments made by two senior police officers, one in Dubbo saying everything is fine, and the other in Redfern attempting to justify the TRG raid on many peaceful Aboriginal homes. Perhaps there should have been more questions of police and others in the white community about the overpolicing which Aboriginals routinely have to put up with.
Near the end there was an interview with an Aboriginal superintendent at Mt Penang institution and it is good to know first hand from Aboriginal kids that this officer always looked after their concerns as well as those of white kids.
Leila: It's good to get those sorts of people to help the kids inside. But sometimes the only way young Aboriginals get proper ment is by being inside. One kid in an institution said that having training programs is important. Yet they haven't got these programs for kids when they are outside.
Arthur: It would be helpful if governments would develop programs for Aboriginal art to get Aboriginal kids involved in their culture. They don't need a white teacher to help them dance, just some resources and support. This would not only help Aboriginal kids; white kids also have a right to start learning Aboriginal culture and should be encouraged to do so.
All this still falls back to the government. Governments must be responsible for the affect that institutions are having on young Aboriginal people.
This film is just the start of creating a feeling of concern for the future of young Aboriginals. The kids themselves are powerless, so they cannot make changes alone. Those in authority should be asked how things can be improved.
Of course, you can't expect one film to show everything. The maker of the film should be congratulated for this effort but it doesn't stop there. I would like to mention the last comment made by human rights commissioner Irene Moss when introducing this premiere screening. She said there have been enough inquiries, and it is now time for governments to act decisively to improve the situation.
[Special Treatment will be screened on ABC TV on January 2 at 9.30 p.m. The maker of the film, Margaret Smith, said it was very sad that some of the Aboriginal kids she interviewed from Redfern are now in institutions again. Since the lock-up time is 8.30 p.m., these kids won't be able to see the film.
[The Watch Committee, which meets regularly in Glebe (ph 281 7604), urgently needs support in the new year from committed activists for justice. It is planning a campaign year to raise public awareness about racism and wrongful imprisonment. Donations of both time and money are needed. Contact: Aboriginal Deaths in Custody Watch Committee, PO Box 65, Broadway NSW 2007.]