Wiradjuri man Ray Jackson, socialist, and indefatigable fighter for a better world has fallen. At 73, he died peacefully in the evening on April 23. He had been in hospital for pneumonia a week before his death.
Uncle Ray was stolen from his mother at the age of two, and placed with a white family when aged about three.
This experience resulted in Ray developing a firm commitment to justice for Aboriginal people, and opposition to all forms of oppression. As a teenager he became active in trade unions. He was a coordinator of the Aboriginal Deaths In Custody Watch Committee from 1991 to 1997.
In 1997 he became a founding member of the Indigenous Social Justice Association (ISJA).
The Watch Committee was funded through the Aboriginal Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC). He told me, "We were so well set we had a hotline any blackfella could call, anytime. If a copper so much as verballed a black kid, we'd get a call and be out at the police station, no matter where it was — at the latest — a day later, interrogating them."
When former prime minister John Howard destroyed ATSIC and the funding dried up, Ray was not defeated. He piled all the files of the cases, the audio and video evidence and a photocopier, into his small one bedroom housing commission flat and established ISJA.
He battled on for justice, tirelessly leading the Justice for TJ Hickey campaign. He sat through the sham of the three week case telling me: "it was a white-wash — the lawyers they gave the family were terrible. They didn’t ask the most basic questions to the officers. I passed the family and the lawyers some questions to ask the prosecutor, I almost got thrown out of court."
He organised rally after rally for TJ Hickey — chased to death by Redfern cops, a few blocks from Ray's house.
He organised with others against the racist NT intervention. He railed against the death in custody of Alice Springs man Kwementyaye Briscoe. He fought for an inquiry into the case of Sydney-based, transgender Aboriginal woman Veronica Baxter, when there was but a hushed whisper of her death in an all-male jail.
Ray fought for justice for Brazilian Roberto Curti, tasered to death by city police. Generous to a fault, he took the position of organising against all deaths in custody or any act of police brutality — "black, white or brindle", he used to say.
He rallied against the shooting of young Aboriginal people in Kings Cross, outside NSW Parliament. Recently he joined with long suffering Bowraville family members and took up their case, fighting hard for a Parliamentary Inquiry and new court case. He organised inspiring ceremonies around Aboriginal passports, uniting with refugees and distributing passports to at least 400 people.
Once, we tried to smuggle Aboriginal passports into Villawood Detention Centre to hand to refugees. Serco guards stopped us, but undeterred he gave an impassioned speech inside to more than 30 refugees, standing proudly as guards loomed nearby, saying: "As an Aboriginal man I welcome you to Australia and oppose what the government is doing. We never forget that you are locked up — never stop fighting for your freedom."
Iranian, Iraqi and Tamil refugees were so happy to hear this. Serco almost threw us out of Villawood that day for his speech.
He was a former Communist Party member, and a union militant in the oil industry where he learnt valuable organising skills. He argued and fought for left unity — unity in the movement and socialist organisations. He made sure committees were inclusive — places where black and white could work together. "We are all brothers and sisters", he would say when discussion got a bit heated.
He was impeccable at building alliances, patient with black and white people alike. He was excited to hear that Greece's left unity party, SYRIZA, was doing so well.
Uncle Ray was not deterred by the collapse of the Communist Party, he remained a staunch socialist and had previously been a member of the Freedom Socialist Party and the Socialist Alliance. He stood for Socialist Alliance for the NSW Senate in the 2004 federal elections and for activist ticket Housing Action for Sydney City Council elections in 2012.
ISJA and Ray would call actions outside NSW parliament, or the courts, even when his health was failing and when he knew there would only be a core of us there. Small actions, but important, and their political reverberations were felt in the soulless, racist offices of police stations, jails, courts and Parliaments.
His campaigning forced the state to respond to the grassroots Deaths in Custody Watch committee. He told me "Prison wardens would ring me at 3am in the morning — tell me there was another death in custody. So we'd go out to the scene of the crime, take all the evidence and mount a case against them.'
At a point in the campaign they snapped and banned Ray. "Later they wouldn't let me into Silverwater prison, or any other prison in NSW for that matter."
He did not stop as his health declined. He went to as many gatherings of the grassroots Aboriginal rights movement that he could get to. The 40th anniversary Tent Embassy protests, Michael Anderson's Sovereignty Conference in Canberra, the recent Freedom Summit in Alice Springs — he was tireless.
If he had not fought in such a determined manner it is safe to say, there would have been minimal response to TJ Hickey's murder, no inquiries for Veronica Baxter, little said in NSW Parliament about Aboriginal murders in custody, less anger about Brazilian students Curti’s death, no ISJA chapter in Melbourne, less clarity or unity within the Aboriginal rights movement, and weaker socialist movement.
While Australian institutions did not recognise Ray Jackson’s efforts, the French did. Uncle Ray and ISJA won the French Human Rights Award in 2013 and presented with the French Human Rights Medal and with prize money to fund two Aboriginal deaths in custody projects.
Uncle Ray was a comrade and a friend who taught us the meaning of courage and struggle. He taught us persistence and how to set aside differences and work with others. He was staunch to the end — present at the Redfern Tent Embassy a few days before his death. It was good that Ray lasted to see the rise of the Aboriginal rights movement — the Tent Embassies and the fight to stop the WA community closures.
Followers and comrades of Ray intend to keep his battles going. But while we can do many things that he did, we cannot replace him. There is no-one in this country that can replace Uncle Ray.
Ray Jackson changed the world. He was a thorn in the side of racist screws, coppers, judges and politicians. His work helped so many families brutalised by the racist capitalist state. His efforts leave an indelible mark on politics. His loss will be felt, but his example and legacy live on. A true inspiration, wonderful comrade and long term friend, he will be sorely missed.
[Raul Bassi is a long-term activist in the Indigenous Social Justice Association, and a member of the Socialist Alliance. Rachel Evans is a journalist with Green Left Weekly and a Sydney Socialist Alliance organiser.]