On June 6, a massive Stop Black Deaths in Custody — Black Lives Matter protest took over the centre of Warrang-Sydney.
The 50,000-strong gathering was so huge that at 4.33pm, as people knelt to mark the 433 Aboriginal custody deaths since 1991, the whole of Belmore Park was so crammed, thousands who could not enter knelt down on the streets outside.
The protest was sparked by the Minneapolis police killing of African American man George Floyd on May 25. White police officer Derek Chauvin knelt down on the neck of the black man — who lay handcuffed face down on the road – for eight minutes, four of which he was unconscious.
The markedly solemn occasion on Gadigal land was also about calling for a change to the policing and criminal justice systems in this country. This is because they have failed: First Nations people are not only persecuted by police, their lives are being taken.
Just as Floyd called out “I can’t breathe” numerous times as he was being killed, so too did the young Dunghutti man David Dungay Junior as five prison guards held him down as he struggled for life in Long Bay jail in December 2015.
After the majority of people had dispersed, a group of NSW police officers moved in on around 200 activists at Central Station’s lower concourse and started pepper spraying and arresting them. It was a reminder of their power.
'In our own backyard'
“We are here doing a march for Black Lives Matters and for David Dungay Junior,” said rally organiser Paul Francis from Sydney's Town Hall steps.
Francis is Dungay's nephew.
“As you can hear in the background, they're shouting: 'I can't breathe'. David Dungay Junior — here in our own backyard — tragically yelled that in 2015, the same way George Floyd did in the US.”
Dungay, a diabetic, was eating a biscuit in a cell in the hospital ward at Long Bay jail that day. He refused to heed a nurse who told him to stop eating it. This resulted in six prison guards storming the cell, dragging him into another one and then wrestling him onto a bed.
As five of the guards pressed down on the man’s back, holding him in the prone position, Dungay called out repeatedly: “I can’t breathe”. Not long before, the Dunghutti man took his final breath, one guard was heard to say: “If you can talk, you can breathe.”
“We are uprising here in Sydney,” Francis told Green Left. “We are focusing on the injustice for our people.”
Founded on prejudice
The racial prejudice in the Australian criminal justice system is stark. Custody figures for March show that 29% of the adult prisoner population is made up of First Nations people. Yet, they are less than 3% of the total population.
Then there’s the shocking statistics of Aboriginal deaths in custody. According to the tally by The Guardian, as at June 1 there were 432 such deaths since 1991. However, on June 5, another death in custody was reported — a 40-year-old Aboriginal man died in custody at West Australia’s Acacia Prison.
The exact numbers of First Nations' people's deaths before 1991 are uncounted.
There has not been a single conviction of a police officer or a prison guard in relation to any of the known custody deaths.
Melbourne Law School senior fellow Amanda Porter explained that Australia's police force was “founded on violence: racist violence, imperial violence and settler colonial violence”. And British colonisers established them as First Nations people were being forcibly dispossessed from their land.
The Brinja Yuin descendant said that the early police forces charged with broadening colonial boundaries were not modelled on community policing methods applied in Britain. Rather, they were a “paramilitary police model which oversaw the 19th century oppression of Ireland”.
Today, the NSW Police Force is one of the largest law enforcement bodies in the English-speaking world. Established in 1862, it is a direct descendent of the Border Police, the Mounted Police and the Native Police — key institutions of the colony of NSW that were charged with quelling the Aboriginal resistance.
Long list of 'accidents'
Fighting in Solidarity Towards Treaties (FISTT) spokesperson Gwenda Stanley said in the days leading up to the June 6 rally that many are still “in denial” about “the murders and the war crimes” that continue.
With a renewed global focus on police brutality towards people of colour, it is an opportunity to remember the First Nations' casualties.
“Let’s remember Eddie Murray and John Pat. Let’s remember Doomadgee on Palm Island,” the Gomeroi activist said. “Let’s remember what happened to TJ [Hickey]. Let’s remember what happened in Redfern – right on the streets in Redfern.”
Eddie Murray was found hanging in a police cell at Wee Waa on June 12, 1981. Despite the incident being ruled a suicide, a later examination by a forensic pathologist determined a ruptured sternum — a blow to the chest — had occurred right before the 21-year-old Gamilaraay man’s death.
Yindjibarndi teen John Pat died in a cell at Roebourne police station in September 1983, after being brutalised by police. The 16 year old had moved in to help another young Aboriginal man, Ashley James, who’d been set upon by five officers, who subsequently turned on Pat.
Mulrunji Doomadgee was killed in custody at Palm Island police station on November 19, 2004. Arresting police officer Chris Hurley claimed that the man’s injuries – likened to that of a plane crash victim – were due to a fall. Hurley was acquitted of manslaughter, and went on to receive a promotion.
TJ Hickey died in suspicious circumstances on February 14, 2004. The 17-year-old Gamilaraay boy was impaled on a fence, after having been thrown from his push bike while being pursued by two police vans in Redfern, New South Wales.
The NSW Coroner allowed the driver of the main vehicle involved, NSW police constable Michael Hollingsworth, not to testify during the inquest on the basis that he might incriminate himself.
“Since the day I was born in 1973, coppers have been killing and bashing my people,” Stanley made clear. “From the day I was born, I came into a world of fighting, where police were killing my people.”
Stop Black Deaths in Custody rallies were held across the country on June 6. They were a coming together of people from all racial backgrounds standing in solidarity with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people calling for an end to police violence against them.
However, the machine doesn’t listen. Rather than heed the call to stop police brutality and make the police accountable, NSW police minister David Elliot is now pushing to ban protests during the pandemic. It is yet another move to silence First Nations voices.
But they are not so easily silenced, and they have an energised and angry younger generation of multi-racial Australians demanding answers. “The wealth of Australia was made from the blood of my ancestors,” Stanley said. “The police brutality in this country is continuous. Black deaths in custody have been here since the day they arrived.”