Facing the truth

The end of John Pat’s life was not captured on film. There was only the testimony of the horrified witnesses, which contrasted so starkly with the pleas of self-defence made by the police who beat the 16-year-old to death.

But description of the officers’ brutality catalysed growing unrest about Indigenous deaths in custody into a national movement.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people spoke the truth: that John Pat’s life was valuable and the state had no right to take it.

They led the call for a response, to the teenager’s death and to the deaths of so many others in cells, in watch houses, and in reckless police chases.

Pressure built and, eventually, in October 1987, the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody was called by the Hawke government. Over the next four years, the commission, initially convened to examine 44 deaths in custody, expanded its investigations to 99. Four additional commissioners were added to shoulder the workload.

The commissioners saw their remit as understanding “not only how people died, but why they died”. The questions they asked looked to the systemic failures of our prison system, and of our country: “Why do Aboriginal people, who form about 1.5 per cent of the Australian population, have 20 times the risk of dying in police custody and 10 times the risk of dying in prisons?

“Why are so many arrested and put in cells and prisons? Are they treated fairly by law? Why are so many Aboriginals unemployed, poorly housed, poorly educated?

“Why is their health poor? Why is their life expectancy shorter than other Australians?”

The search for answers filled records that stretched more than 200 metres, filed side by side. The commission’s report made 339 recommendations, which many believed would serve as a blueprint for reform.

“I had hoped much would change with the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody,” John Pat’s mother, Mavis, told the National Indigenous Times in 2012, “but sadly it appears little has changed.”

On the 30th anniversary of the commission’s final report this week, the facts bear out Mavis Pat’s lament: the over-representation of Indigenous people incarcerated is now worse than it was then.

At least 474 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have died in custody in the intervening years.

The prison system does not create inequalities that don’t exist in the outside world. It only serves to amplify them.

And so Indigenous people remain the most mistreated by police and judges and in prisons because Australia remains, at its core, a country built on the degradation and erasure of Indigenous lives.

This has not changed in the past three decades, nor since this country was founded.

Dr Gary Foley, professor of history at Victoria University, reflecting on this week’s anniversary, said: “How is it that we’ve got a situation that was worse than back then? It has to do with the deeply embedded and deeply entrenched white supremacist racism that has pervaded this country since it became a country, Australia.

“Australia became Australia in order to be a last bastion of white supremacy. Hence, the first act of the first parliament of Australia was the White Australia Policy designed to keep non-white people out.”

Self-determination, the overhaul of bail laws, raising the age of criminal responsibility are all important steps.

But until the fundamental truth of this country is grappled with – by our leaders, but most importantly by white Australians – we are merely tinkering with a structure bound, by design, to slip back into form.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on April 17, 2021 as "Facing the truth".

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