By Chris Spindler and Angela Luvera
John Pat was found dead in a police cell in the west Pilbara town of Roebourne, WA on the night of September 28, 1983. Locked up after helping friends who were being attacked by off-duty police officers, he died of a brain haemorrhage after receiving no medical treatment.
Seven months later, an all-white jury acquitted the five police officers charged with his manslaughter. Fifty-seven witnesses described how the off-duty police provoked the fight, arrested the Aboriginal people and then systematically bashed them before locking them up.
The John Pat commemoration march and rally has become a symbol of the ongoing campaign against Aboriginal deaths in custody. Since the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, which ended in May 1989, deaths in custody have increased and Aboriginal suicides are up by 50%.
In Fremantle in WA, 100 people gathered at the old Fremantle jail on September 26 for a moving commemoration, and to continue the campaign against deaths in custody.
The gathering was welcomed onto Aboriginal land by Nyoongar elder Ben Taylor. One minute's silence was observed for all Aboriginal people who have perished in prison, and wreaths were laid at the John Pat memorial, which was erected in 1994.
Speakers described the devastating effect the privatisation of WA's prisons would have and the need to address the causes of crime in the Aboriginal community, rather than focusing on punishment.
Theo Kearing from the Pinjarra community said, "Aboriginal young people will continue to die in high speed chases while police value vehicles more than our lives. This government needs to spend more money keeping us out of jail rather than on locking us up."
More than 100 people attended the commemoration march and rally in Sydney on September 27. They marched from Town Hall to Redfern Park chanting "Justice now!" before listening to speakers, including Aboriginal activists Lyall Munro and Arthur Murray.
The Aboriginal Deaths in Custody Watch Committee in NSW is campaigning against the ill-treatment of Aboriginal prisoners and the horrific level of Aboriginal incarceration. For more information, telephone (02) 9264 9895.