"Thirty Years But Still No Justice!" was the theme of an Aboriginal deaths in custody forum held in Redfern on July 27. Speakers addressed issues of deaths in custody, victims of police brutality and other social justice concerns. The forum was also the Sydney launch of the National Deaths in Custody Coalition (NDCC), established in February this year to organise for a national day of action on Saturday, September 28 to mark 30 years since the death at police hands of WA Aboriginal youth John Pat in 1983. The meeting was sponsored by the Indigenous Social Justice Association.
Black deaths in custody
Shock facts on Aboriginal people and Australian prisons: * The proportion of Indigenous prisoners has almost doubled in the 20 years since the Royal Commission. * In 2011, Aboriginal people made up 2.5% of the Australian population. They accounted for 46.2% of all youth in juvenile custody and 26.1% of total adult prison population. * In the NT, Aboriginal people made up 30.3% of the total population, 96.9% of the juvenile detention population and 82.3 % of the adult prison population.
For nine long years Gail Hickey and her family have indefatigably campaigned for justice over the death of their son, TJ Hickey, an Aboriginal man who was 17 years old. He died as a consequence of a pursuit by Redfern police that ended with his death the following day. For nine long years Gail, the family and their supporters have been telling and re-telling the history. His bike was rammed by a police car, he was thrown in the air with great force, and landed on a spiked fence line with great force.
Aboriginal rights protesters gathered outside the Northern Territory tourism bureau in Sydney on March 21 to protest the death in custody of 28-year-old Aboriginal man Terrence Briscoe, and to condemn the “Stronger Futures” bill that will extend the NT intervention. Deaths in custody campaigner Ray Jackson told the rally: “When Terrence died in a police cell, the family were first told it was a heart attack. Then it was respiratory. Then it was asphyxiation. How do you asphyxiate? When police jump all over you, forcing your breath out.
Mulrunji Doomadgee died in police custody on Palm Island in November 2004. Despite reviewing findings highly critical of police by coroner Brian Hine at the third Coronial Inquest in May, on November 23 the Queensland Criminal Justice Commission (CMC) found there was insufficient evidence to prosecute the officers involved.
Twenty people attended a September 28 Indigenous Social Justice Association (ISJA) meeting to hear Bruce Campbell, from the WA Deaths in Custody Watch Committe, discuss the campaign for justice for Mr Ward. On Invasion Day (January 26) 2008, Mr Ward, a respected Aboriginal elder, was arrested and died of heat stroke in the back of a prison van the next day while being taken 360km in 42°C heat.
On September 22, 20 people protested outside the Western Australian parliamentary hearing into the transportation of detained persons to call for an end to private companies transporting prisoners. The protest was organised by the Western Australian Deaths in Custody Watch Committee (DICWC). The inquiry was held in light of the death of Aboriginal elder Mr Ward, who was cooked to death in the back of a private security company van in January 2008. Members of DICWC and Daisy Ward, cousin of Mr Ward, gave evidence at the hearing and called for justice for Mr Ward and his family.
A rally outside Queensland state parliament on September 14 demanded the charging of police who break the law, a full royal commission into the state’s police force and real accountability. After the rally, a delegation from the Aboriginal community met police minister Neil Roberts and discussed issues arising from the deaths in custody crisis. Below is an excerpt from the speech Murri leader and Socialist Alliance member Sam Watson gave at the rally. * * *
I am a committee member of the Human Rights Alliance and a trustee of the Deaths in Custody Watch Committee WA. Through my role in both during the past couple of years, I have been stunned by the fact that Australia has one of the world's worst deaths in custody records. There are more non-Aboriginal deaths in custody than Aboriginal deaths. But the rate of Aboriginal deaths in custody is higher than in South Africa during the peak of apartheid.
“The major parties, Labor and Liberal, have failed to highlight Indigenous issues, and have largely ignored problems important to my community in this election”, Sam Watson, Aboriginal activist and Socialist Alliance Senate candidate for Queensland, said at a rally to launch his campaign for the Queensland Senate on July 31.
In November 2008, Palm Island man Lex Wotton was convicted of "incitement to riot” and sentenced to six years' jail. His charge followed the Aboriginal community uprising and protest after the death in police custody of Mulrunji Doomadgee in November 2004.
On July 9, 60 people took to the streets to condemn the death of Aboriginal trans woman Veronnica Baxter. She was found dead in the Silverwater Metropolitan Reception and Remand Centre — a prison for men — six days after her arrest by Redfern police on minor drugs charges. The protesters were in Wollongong for Queer Collaborations, a yearly student activist conference supporting lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, intersex and gender diverse rights. The July 5-9 conference had 180 participants and the theme “Fighting Queers Need Fighting Unions”.
The Queensland Crime and Misconduct Commission (CMC) recently released a report highly critical of the police investigation into the case of Palm Island Aboriginal man Mulrunji Doomadgee, who died in police custody in November 2004. The CMC gave police commissioner Bob Atkinson 14 days to take disciplinary action against six officers involved. Atkinson was due to make his decision by July 2, but an injunction filed on behalf of the officers extended the deadline until July 6
On July 2, 100 people rallied at St Georges Terrace in response to the Western Australian Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP)’s decision not to lay criminal charges against the two guards involved in the death of Mr Ward. The emergency action was called by the Deaths in Custody Watch Committee and was addressed by Marianne Mackay and Marc Newhouse from DICWC. Some wore T-shirts that read: “What Eddie Mabo was to Native Title, let Mr Ward be to the justice system.”
A press conference was held on June 23 behind NSW Parliament House calling for an inquiry into 34-year-old Veronica Baxter’s death in custody. Activists presented 500 signatures to NSW Greens MP Sylvia Hale who undertook to present them to the New South Wales Parliament. On March 10, 2009, three days after Mardi Gras,Veronica Baxter was arrested by Redfern police and held on remand at the all-male NSW Silverwater Metropolitan Reception and Remand Centre. Six days later, after a 14-hour break between checking her cell, she was found dead, hanging in her single cell.
After seven years, the police officers responsible for the killing of Palm Island Aboriginal man Mulrunji Domadgee — and the cover-up that followed — may face new charges as a result of a Crimes and Misconduct Commission (CMC) report. In November 2004, Mulrunji was found dead in a Palm Island police cell within an hour of his arrest by senior sergeant Chris Hurley. Mulrunji’s liver had been nearly cleaved in two by an extreme force and there were signs of bruising to his face.