John Pat’s death in custody was remembered in Perth and Sydney on September 26 and 27, 37 years after the 16-year-old died of head injuries in a police cell in Roebourne in 1983.
John Pat’s death sparked a groundswell of activism to address the Black deaths in custody emergency. It shone a light on the racism behind Black deaths in custody, and eventually led to the 1991 Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody.
That commission established that John Pat had been assaulted by police in the police yard, following his arrest. It also found that he had been placed in an unconscious or semi-comatose state in a cell and left there until he was found dead during a cell check.
The commission’s recommendations have been ignored. More than 441 First Nations people have died in custody since then and no police or security officers have been brought to justice.
Since June, five First Nations people died in custody. Sherry Fisher-Tilberoo was found dead in a cell in the Brisbane watch-house on September 10. She was on remand; she had not been convicted of committing a crime.