I would like to first acknowledge the family of Aunty Tanya Day, who have staunchly advocated on her behalf. Despite their own trauma, they amplified Aunty Tanya Day’s experience by seeking the release of her CCTV footage during her inquest. It is a powerful message of solidarity to the broader First Nations community that they are seeking to protect us all by pushing hard for justice.
Barely a week from the inquest into the death of Aunty Tanya Day, a Yamatji woman has been shot dead by West Australian Police in Geraldton. Soon, we will also be marking the anniversary of the death in custody of John Pat. The trauma continues and is compounded for First Nations people.
We often speak of “history” but, to those living Blak in this country, there has been no end to the violence bestowed upon black bodies — it continues. In this country we speak of statistics an awful lot too: First Nations people are are more likely to be stopped and searched, more likely to be arrested, more likely to be on remand and receive custodial sentences. While statistics are important, they cannot and should not be the only source of information when telling our stories. They are removed from the human element. For any meaningful reform to occur in the criminal justice system, these people’s experiences need to be fully known.
As Aunty Tanya Day’s family sat in the courtroom throughout the inquest, they had to endure evidence given by members of V/Line, the Victoria Police and Ambulance services. The evidence painted a picture of a woman, intoxicated, treated with contempt instead of care. She was locked up, without adequate communication as to why, and she suffered fatal injuries from a fall. Victoria Police have not conceded any wrongdoing on their part, and Ambulance Victoria apologised for “disrespectful care“. Meanwhile, an officer stated that “drunks don’t usually get blankets and mattresses … We treated her with as much dignity and respect as we could.”
Shortly, a new investigation will start over the death of the Yamatji woman. But it will be an investigation conducted by the police. Is this supposed to bring comfort? How can the family and community feel that justice will actually be reached? As new traumas seep into the collective psychology of First Nations communities, we continue to remember the wounds.
September 28 marks 36 years since John Pat died in custody. In 1983 he was “found” dead in a police station lock-up in Roebourne. He died of head injuries sustained during an altercation with off-duty police officers outside the local Victoria Hotel. According to witnesses, John Pat was struck in the face by a policeman and fell backward, striking his head on the roadway. Another police officer then approached and kicked him in the head. He was then dragged to a waiting police van, kicked in the face and thrown in the back of the paddy wagon.
Along with three other Aboriginal people, he was driven to the Roebourne police station and observers across the street from the station recounted — at trial — how they saw the prisoners systematically beaten as they were taken from the paddy wagon to the station.
One after another, the prisoners were dragged from the van and dropped on the cement pathway. Each was picked up, punched to the ground, and kicked. The observers recounted that none of the prisoners fought back or resisted. A short while later, John Pat was found dead.
Although initially charged with manslaughter, all officers were acquitted.
These people are more than statistics. Their deaths need to be more than a footnote in another royal commission because our power structures and those that protect and implement them have not learned from the last one. We must acknowledge that institutional racism in not only the police force, but also the legal system and departments that consistently fail to act in line with recommendations from royal commissions and inquests.
First Nations people are not numbers; we are people with families and our experiences with racism needs to be respected, listened to and it needs to inform policies, protocols and systemic reform.
For Aunty Tanya Day, for Ms Dhu, for Tane, for David Dungay Jr, for John Pat, for LV and for the many others who have died in custody or are at risk because of their interactions with the criminal justice system — for all of them — we must create change.
It’s time for non-Indigenous Australia to be outraged and apply pressure for reform. Show that you neither stand for nor condone this violence by standing against it. Call out your own. Call out your governing structures and systems of justice and demand better. Demand that First Nations people are afforded the justice we’ve been denied for the last 230 years.