“Of the 339 recommendations of the royal commission into black deaths in custody handed down in 1991, the first people to receive funding were the police and prisons,” Murri community leader Sam Watson told an April 15 rally to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the commission.
“The big bucks went to the cops and the jails. Aboriginal legal services and other Indigenous organisations only got the crumbs. Instead of decreasing the rate of incarceration of Aboriginal people, that rate has increased over the past 20 years in Australia."
The rally and march attracted about 100 protesters.
Libby Connors from the Queensland Greens read out a statement from the federal Greens that supported an audit of the 99 Indigenous deaths in custody since 1991, and called for a plan to reinvest funds saved by reducing Aboriginal incarceration rates into improving health and education standards in the communities.
Kitty Carra from ANTAR Queensland urged support for “Project 10%”, aimed at cutting the rate of Indigenous jailing by 10% a year.
She said a key recommendation of the 1991 royal commission was for “arrest to be a last resort”. But this had not been implemented at all.
Ewan Saunders from the Socialist Alliance stressed that the criminal justice system had totally failed to carry out the recommendations of the 1991 commission. “We now have a higher rate of Black deaths in custody in Australia than South Africa did at the height of the apartheid system,” he said.
Reverend Alex Gator issued a call for a further protest in two weeks' time outside the Brisbane police headquarters, to demand the sacking of Queensland Police Commissioner Bob Atkinson and the charging of the six police officers accused of covering up the killing of Mulrunji Doomadgee by Senior Sergeant Chris Hurley on Palm Island in November 2004.
In Perth, Alex Bainbridge reported hundreds of supporters of Aboriginal rights carried white crosses — one for each of the Aboriginal people who has died in custody in the last 20 years — to the state parliament in Perth on April 15.
Sandy Billing, the cousin of an Aboriginal man who died in January while in police custody in Kalgoorlie, spoke at the rally and called for real action to stop Aboriginal deaths in custody.
Researcher Ted Wilkes got a big cheer when he told the rally: “We need treatment services and rehabilitation services, not bloody prisons.”
Other speakers included elder Ben Smith, Deaths in Custody Watch Committee Chairperson Marianne MacKay and the Aboriginal Legal Service’s Tammy Solonec.