Justice for Elijah

There is red ochre spread on the windows of the Supreme Court. There are protests in Melbourne and Sydney and Canberra and Kalgoorlie and Adelaide and Brisbane.

The signs read “Justice for Elijah” and “Black lives matter” and “Sorry means you don’t do it again”. A woman says: “This is blood on the Commonwealth.”

Meyne Wyatt, a relative of Elijah Doughty, says: “You’re treating us like we’re animals. We’re not animals. We’re people. You’re killing us.”

Elijah Doughty was 14. The man who killed him was white. A white jury found that his death was not manslaughter. It was a lesser charge: dangerous driving causing death. The man who killed him was sentenced to three years’ jail. He will likely be released early, perhaps next year.

The judge described the need for “a penalty which properly reflects the value which our community places upon the sanctity of human life”. He said the man’s “unblemished record is clearly a mitigating factor which I do take into account and to which I give full weight”.

The man who killed Elijah Doughty drove to a reserve looking for him. When he died, Doughty was riding a motorcycle stolen from the man’s property. The man had chased him in a car. In the pursuit down a dirt track, he ran over the boy and killed him.

The man attempted to resuscitate Elijah, but he was already dead. Later, he told police: “I just wanted my kids’ motorbike. It was in a locked container in our yard with two dogs with it … We came here for a good future. We didn’t come here for this. We didn’t come here to have motorbikes stolen, padlocks broken.”

In the months before Elijah’s death, vigilantes in Kalgoorlie-Boulder were calling for violent retribution against Indigenous people suspected of stealing. It is not clear if the man who killed Elijah knew of this.

One post, a day after Elijah’s death, read: “I’m sorry, but fuck that Elijah kid. He had a criminal history, should have been in juvenile correction but because of his skin tone and family background he wasn’t. He chose to steal the bike. He chose the repercussions. The guy charged with manslaughter had no intention of killing the stupid cunt but it fucking happened.”

The death of Elijah Doughty is a signal moment. In pondering the value of a human life, the judge asked the community to do the same. He asked unintentional questions, too: Is a black life worth less than a white one? Does this country grieve the same now as if a white boy were run down on a city street?

The answers to these questions are grim. They involve a national culpability. This moment is the moment that we ask the truest nature of the relationship between white and black Australia. There is a test here for this country: Are we better than our history?

“It’s white people killing us,” the playwright Nakkiah Lui wrote this week. “Only white people can stop it. Aboriginal people don’t have an ‘issue’ with white people. We aren’t killing you. White people have an issue with us. White people have an issue with perpetrating homicide. White people have a problem with their culture being built and sustained on structural murder … Your culture is murdering. Your culture is killing. It’s not in the past, because it’s still happening, and as long as it continues to happen, you are all responsible for it. How about you all start taking responsibility for your white violence because you all benefit from it. Every single one of you.”

One man was on trial for the death of Elijah Doughty. But it is the whole country, rightly, that is now in the dock. The charge sheet is long and unhappy and if we are to heal as a nation, it must be reckoned with.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 29, 2017 as "Justice for Elijah".

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