Social justice workers and local First Nations community members spoke out about the dire need for action in the Yamatji region, at a media conference in Geraldton, Western Australia, on October 2.
The conference was held just weeks after Joyce Clarke was shot dead by a WA police officer when her family called for assistance to get her to hospital on September 18.
The tragic murder has caused great distress and uproar in the local First Nations community. A street march and protest outside Geraldton police station were held the next day, where community members demanded an independent and transparent investigation into Clarke’s murder.
Clarke’s killing is just the latest in a long list of recent injustices in the region, including deaths in custody, state removal of First Nation children and youth suicide.
Yamatji people have said they will not let this latest incident die quietly; it will not be like past times, when protests were organised, people had their say and then everything went quiet until the next injustice.
The conference was chaired by local community advocate and Geraldton Regional Aboriginal Medical Service board chairperson Sandy Davis. Speakers included: National Justice Project principle solicitor George Newhouse, Aboriginal Legal Service of WA chief executive Dennis Eggington, and National Suicide Prevention and Trauma Recovery Project director and coordinator Megan Krakouer and Gerry Georgatos, respectively.
Newhouse spoke about the need to reform police training and protocols.
Police officers are currently not equipped or trained to deal with negotiations or de-escalations in the event of a mental health emergency. Instead, they maintain a militaristic approach and continue to discriminate against vulnerable sectors, such as First Nations communities.
History has shown that police officers discriminate against and use their powers to oppress First Nations people. This was evident in Clarke’s murder. If health workers had been at the scene instead of police, Clarke would still be alive today.
Health professionals should be the first responders to mental health emergencies.
Krakouer and Georgatos outlined some local statistics on mental health, suicide and poverty, and spoke of the need for immediate systemic change because the region is at crisis point. Georgatos, like Krakouer, has researched and dealt with suicide and mental health cases, and he spoke about the high rate of success of de-escalations and negotiations when dealing with mental health emergencies. In many cases, he said, these emergencies could have otherwise ended in another death statistic.
Local researcher and social justice activist Charmaine Green spoke at the end of conference, saying the Yamatji region has been neglected for too long. The long-time community advocate pleaded for the panel to not go back home and forget about what is happening here.
We are not just statistics, she said. We are a region of people who are desperate and shouting out for help, adding that it is currently one of the worst times to be a Yamatji, especially a poverty-stricken Yamatji.
The panel raised various important issues, including the need to continue highlighting First Nations' social issues and police reform, and offered alternative proposals. They also called for an end to police oppression and misuse of powers when dealing with First Nations people.
As a local Yamatji woman, I am thankful the press conference took place today on Yamatji land. We need to continue to highlight these issues and make sure the anger at Clarke’s murder does not dwindle, as has occurred with past injustices and cries for justice.
[Deborah Green is a Yamatji woman and writer.]