In the wake of George Floyd’s killing in the US, Australia can no longer ignore our brutal legacy of police violence against Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. By Amy McQuire.
‘There cannot be 432 victims and no perpetrators…’
It was nearly nine minutes. That was the length of time Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin kept his knee pressed on the neck of George Floyd, a 46-year-old African–American man, a father, even as he pleaded: “I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe.”
Chauvin refused to move, but those three words have in turn moved the world.
The footage, shot by bystanders who tried to advocate for Floyd as his eyes closed and his body went limp, has now been watched by millions of people.
Like those bystanders, we have all become witnesses to Floyd’s death.
The footage, powerful, confronting and undeniable, has backed the testimony of the black witness, who has known intimately the reality of police brutality, while awakening the white witness, who is more likely to be believed.
Protests continue across the United States, even in the face of mass arrests and the use of tear gas and rubber bullets, as big corporates make statements of support and media outlets place the story at the top of their news bulletins. The pressure has led to action: four police officers have since been charged, and Chauvin has had his charges upgraded to second-degree murder.
We have never seen this in Australia, where Aboriginal people continue to die on the floor of watchhouses, in the back of paddy wagons and in handcuffs locked to hospital beds.
When Aboriginal people die in custody, there is a national silence.
But it is not for lack of protest, or because there is no black resistance in this country.
When families hold rallies in capital cities, they are not well attended. The names of those lost are not repeated over and over so as to become ingrained in the national consciousness. And just as their names disappear in coronial reports, so do their stories, and their acts of resistance and agency, as well as their diverse histories and their relational ties to community and Country.
They are seen as “bodies” – “bodies” that are not worthy of grieving, even as their families and Aboriginal people across the country continue to grieve for them.
While Australians now engage in collective acts of witnessing for black deaths overseas, they remain apathetic to the black deaths in their own country.
If we saw the same kind of uproar for every black death in custody, for every recommendation from the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody that was not fulfilled, for every report that was ignored, would we have so many families still in mourning, still crying out for justice?
Over the past week, there has been an acknowledgement, largely forced by Aboriginal people, that any form of solidarity must begin at home.
There is a brutality evident in the statistics that show black jailing rates in parts of Australia are the highest in the world, and they have continued to grow.
This isn’t news to Aboriginal people; it shouldn’t be news to the rest of the country.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people make up 27 per cent of the national prison population, while only making up 3 per cent of Australia’s population.
In the decade from 2006 to 2016 alone, those rates jumped by 41 per cent.
While the focus has often been on Aboriginal men, Australia has been locking up Aboriginal women – most of them mothers, most of them victims of violence – at rates that beggar belief.
Aboriginal women now make up 34 per cent of the female prison population. At the latest census, First Nations women were being jailed at rates higher than those of both non-Indigenous women and non-Indigenous men.
Nearly three decades after the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody handed down its report, successive Australian governments have made no attempt to address its recommendations. With law-and-order policies electorally popular, they have only made things worse.
The black deaths have not slowed. Since 1991, 432 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have lost their lives in custody. They died while denied their liberty, away from their families and children and, in many cases, their Country.
In the stories of the royal commission, in the stories of the 99 Aboriginal deaths in custody it reviewed, there remains a devastating indictment of a system that does not care about black lives.
The statistics should elicit shock and outrage, but they also can flatten the complexity of this issue and overshadow the stories of the people who lost their lives.
Numbers conceal the full extent of the violence, just as official explanations for deaths – “natural causes” – have a way of rendering invisible the multiple forms of state-sanctioned violence that force Aboriginal people into jail in the first place.
There is not always video footage of this violence; it is not always easily understood or identified, because to identify it you must situate it within its historical context. But by reading the stories of these cases, by bearing witness to the deaths inside, we begin to see the full extent of police brutality in all of its forms.
There was no video footage released of Wiradjuri woman and mother of four Rebecca Maher’s final hours. News of her death was announced in a short police media statement that held few details.
She was 36 years old.
At the inquest into her death, a statement made on behalf of her mother, Debbie Small, was read out. It spoke of Ms Maher’s “love of her family and her determination to overcome the significant challenges that she faced”. She was loved deeply in return, and her death was a great loss to those who knew her.
Rebecca Maher was walking along a street in the Hunter Valley town of Cessnock, New South Wales, in 2016, just after midnight when she was approached by a police van in relation to a breach of bail.
She had not breached bail, but police officers detained her regardless, using powers under the Law Enforcement (Powers and Responsibilities) Act 2002, which allows police to detain an intoxicated person if there is no responsible person to take care of them.
A quarter-century after the royal commission had recommended the decriminalisation of public drunkenness, Ms Maher was detained in the Maitland watchhouse for supposedly being drunk in public. She had committed no crime.
By 6am the next morning, she was pronounced dead.
The media began to report on the case about a month after her death, with the disclaimer that hers was the first black death in a police cell in NSW in 16 years, the first since the Custody Notification Service (CNS) had been implemented.
Under NSW legislation, police were required to call the CNS, a 24-hour legal hotline staffed by the state’s Aboriginal Legal Service (ALS), if an Aboriginal person was in custody for an offence.
The ALS told the media they believed that if the CNS had been called, Ms Maher might still be alive.
The CNS narrative dominated the coverage of Ms Maher’s death, even before the inquest, despite the fact that, under the legislation, the police were never required to call, because she had not been locked up for any offence.
Yet the media had narrowed the focus of Ms Maher to a question of the CNS, and the story became focused on police procedure rather than justice.
At a protest two months after Ms Maher’s death, her mother acknowledged the importance of the CNS but raised concerns about the framing: “It is only a phone call and no matter what they say, we know it is often ignored.”
Instead, Small posed other questions, chief among them: “Why was Rebecca taken into custody? Having not been charged with any crime, why was she put into a police cell and left to die?”
In the same speech, Small spoke of her deep grief that her daughter was no longer with her.
Three years later, when an inquest was finally held for Ms Maher, it did not garner national attention. Media reporting again focused on the CNS after the NSW government implemented the coroner’s recommendation that police be required to ring the hotline when an Aboriginal person is detained for intoxication.
The state government’s response was well received even though it did not address the story’s central, shocking fact: NSW police were still locking up Aboriginal people who had committed no crime.
The CNS changes didn’t address this; they acted merely as window dressing.
It is important the service is there, and well funded, but surely the more critical issue is keeping Aboriginal people, particularly women, out of detention merely for appearing intoxicated.
A police watchhouse is one of the most dangerous places when you are sick, vulnerable and powerless.
The narrow focus on police procedure, on the CNS, also concealed the other forms of violence Ms Maher was subjected to while incarcerated for no crime.
During the inquest, it emerged police had not even attempted – as was required under the legislation – to find Ms Maher’s mother, a responsible person who could have taken care of her. The detention was supposed to be temporary while they continued looking for a safe place.
It would have been possible to contact Debbie Small, the coroner found, as she was in the database and was available at that time. The inquest also established that, based on Ms Maher’s state, police should have taken her to the hospital, not the watchhouse.
They had simply not been bothered.
This devastating lack of care was again shown in the fact the police at the station had failed to conduct proper checks on Ms Maher, which the coroner established was because of a lack of concern for her welfare.
The police had incorrectly believed Ms Maher was HIV positive – she was not – but this affected the way they dealt with her, including “the failure to search Rebecca for fear of contracting an infectious disease” and “the failure to note on the whiteboard the warnings about Rebecca’s risk of self-harm”.
Ms Maher was not drunk when she was picked up; instead she struggled with drug addiction.
And because the police did not search her, a pill bottle she had on her was not taken away.
She would die of mixed drug toxicity.
The police failed to do their due diligence, leaving her in the cell to “sleep it off”. In the coroner’s words, they saw their duty “to simply accommodate Rebecca and not to care for her”. They locked her up to contain her, to keep her out of sight.
Perhaps the most dehumanising aspect of the police accounts, which spoke to a callous disregard of Ms Maher’s life and her worth, was the conduct of one police officer who “mimicked Rebecca’s stumbling in the police station as the behaviour of a chimpanzee”. It was a highly racialised image, which seemed inconsistent with the officer’s claims they did not know Ms Maher was Aboriginal.
Rather than care for her, they mocked her. And the next morning, after she died, it took them six hours to inform her mother.
These are the indignities that Aboriginal people are subjected to, both in life and in death.
In focusing so narrowly on the CNS – a matter of procedure, a number the police were not legally required to ring – there was a masking of accountability.
And demanding accountability is key to not only remaining accountable as a country, but also to bearing witness.
There cannot be more than 400 black deaths and no justice. There cannot be 432 victims and no perpetrators.
As Gomeroi law scholar and poet Alison Whittaker so astutely said this week, writing for The Conversation: “All of this leaves our public discourse full of blak bodies but curiously empty of people who put them there.”
The layers upon layers of state-sanctioned violence that led to Ms Maher’s death are not as easily identifiable as the nine minutes that ended George Floyd’s life.
And yet the callous disregard shown by police towards Ms Maher, who was powerless and in need of help, is violence all the same.
The officers who picked her up had a responsibility to care for her, to keep her safe, to protect her. Instead, she died in a police cell, on their watch. This is police brutality. Ms Maher is not here. And the police officers responsible for that fact have not been held accountable.
There has never been a conviction over an Aboriginal death in custody in this country.
To claim the reason George Floyd’s death has created such an emotional response within our own country is because of the footage would be convenient.
We have seen video footage of the brutalisation of black bodies, and it has by and large failed to ignite outrage in wider Australia.
In 2012, Aboriginal man Kwementyaye Briscoe, 28, died in an Alice Springs watchhouse after being locked up for public drunkenness. Police said he was in “protective” custody. Just like Ms Maher, he had committed no crime, but unlike in her case, CCTV footage of Mr Briscoe in the watchhouse was released during the inquest into his death.
The footage shows two police officers dragging Mr Briscoe along the ground by his arms. After being placed on a nearby bench, he gets up, severely intoxicated. Another police officer grabs him by the arm and slams him into the front desk. Three of them pick Mr Briscoe up, and take him to the cell, where they throw him face down on a discarded foam mattress on the floor. In the reception area, there is a noticeable patch of blood on the floor.
While Mr Briscoe was in the cell, the police officer on duty failed to do a single welfare check. Instead, he surfed the internet and listened to his iPod. He ignored other prisoners who had tried to alert him as Mr Briscoe lost his life on the watchhouse floor. Just as there was no justice for Ms Maher, there was no justice for Mr Briscoe, and his case is not widely known.
Two years later, in 2014, Yamatji woman Ms Dhu was locked up for unpaid fines and placed in the South Hedland watchhouse in Western Australia.
She was in severe pain, which stemmed from an infection from a broken rib sustained in a family violence incident. Rather than help her though, both health professionals and police repeatedly mocked her pain, claimed she was faking it.
Over the course of three days, she slowly lost her life to sepsis and pneumonia.
Her grandmother Carol Roe rang the watchhouse repeatedly to inquire about Ms Dhu’s welfare but was told she was fine.
In the face of Australia’s apathy, and a recognition of the national silence that shrouds black deaths in custody, particularly the deaths of Aboriginal women, Ms Dhu’s family was forced to campaign across the country. They used their own resources to do this. The onus was on them to make Australia care.
During the inquest, the family successfully petitioned the coroner to release the footage of Ms Dhu’s final moments, knowing the degree of violence and brutality it depicted would lead to outrage.
The video, when released, showed Ms Dhu being dragged, limp, out of the watchhouse and thrown in the back of the police wagon. She was dying, and helpless, and still was afforded no dignity.
As the country entered Christmas holidays, the footage aired on mainstream television.
The images are enduring. They have mobilised Aboriginal people particularly, and did lead to greater awareness and a political push to change the laws on fine defaults.
By wider Australia, however, Ms Dhu’s death was largely ignored.
To bear witness, we must understand the reality of violence in this country, and how police have been the wielders of it – the weapons to “disperse”, to contain and to kill Aboriginal people.
Led by white officers, the Native Police, established in various forms in NSW in the 1830s and 1840s before transitioning to Queensland control in 1859, where it reported directly to the colonial secretary in Brisbane, operated “as a standing death squad for the next 50 years across the Queensland frontier”, in the words of University of Technology Sydney researcher Paddy Gibson.
Police were heavily involved in Aboriginal life under the protection acts in the states and territories. In NSW, they were legislated under the state act to issue, withhold and supply rations, determine whether a person should see a doctor, expel those deemed as troublemakers and remove Aboriginal children from their families, a practice that gave rise to the Stolen Generations.
The violence of the police is part of our national story. The distinction between whose life is seen to matter and whose is not, and in which space a death is able to be grieved and mourned, is a distinction between those who had everything stolen, and those who have profited from this theft.
Last year, Aboriginal Australia mourned the deaths of Joyce Clarke in Geraldton and Kumanjayi Walker in Yuendumu, both of whom had been shot by police. In each case, a police officer has been charged with murder. Neither story led national news bulletins, despite its obvious significance.
But there is a reason the violence inflicted upon black bodies in this country is not seen as “shocking”: it is normalised violence, the violence we have become accustomed to seeing. Its deep roots stretch back generations.
The violence inflicted by the state on black bodies is seen as inevitable. It has been legitimised, and part of this legitimising is the dehumanisation of Aboriginal people – the idea that because they are incarcerated, they are somehow responsible for their own deaths. This operates through the concealment of state-sanctioned violence throughout their entire lives, not only the events that lead to their deaths in custody.
In order to break this cycle, we must bear witness.
We must mourn.
We must take part in public displays of grieving. We must resist the disparaging images of Aboriginal people, which rely on hundreds of years of stereotypes designed to dehumanise, and we must assert our right to exist free of violence and brutality. We must understand how Australia has profited, and has continued to profit, from this violence.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 6, 2020 as "‘There cannot be 432 victims and no perpetrators…’".
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