Police Violence in Australia

Oil painting style image of a group of protesters in front of New South Wales Court. Two of them stand on seats and wear the Aboriginal flag. The title reads, "Police violence in Australia"

It is still Reconciliation Week, and Australia is undergoing two major court cases where police have shot dead young Aboriginal people. Yet non-Indigenous people remain wilfully oblivious. We are collectively spending more energy in feeling morally superior to other countries, rather than acting towards national change. Specifically, Australian media lead with stories of “violent unrest,” “violent protests,” and “mayhem” in the USA, instead of focusing on police violence against Black victims and protesters, and providing insightful analysis on similarities to Aboriginal deaths in custody in the Australian context.

Australian social media and public commentary are preoccupied with either dismissing current events as unique to other societies (“only in America”), or posting aghast (rightfully) over police brutality overseas. We do this despite not engaging with long-running campaigns led by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. It’s not that we should disengage from world events; #BlackLivesMatter is an important movement that resonates globally and deserves attention. The issue is the disproportionate focus on the USA by Australians. This maintains our perception that police brutality is an American quirk and allows non-Indigenous Australians to ignore local racial justice movements led by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

This post will illustrate how non-Indigenous Australians other national racism, as if it is the abhorrent opposite of our national culture. This is easier than taking the steps we need to address police brutality and racial injustice right here and now.

Aboriginal Deaths in Custody: then and now

The Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody was completed in 1991, reviewing 99 deaths from 1980-1989, as well as the absence of any disciplinary action against all police officers involved. A subsequent report examined a further 96 deaths in custody from 1989-1996. The original report made 339 recommendations. Only two-thirds have been implemented, and most of these poorly monitored.

Over 400 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have died in custody since the first report was delivered.

One of these recent cases is 29 year-old Yamatji woman Joyce Clarke, who was murdered by police in September 2019. The officer was not charged until February 2020, five months after the murder. It has taken a further three months for the court to decide that the police officer should stand trial. He’s the first police officer to be charged with murder while in the line of duty in Western Australia in 93 years, even though 51 Aboriginal people have died in custody in that state since 2008. The police officer had pleaded not guilty, despite evidence he used lethal force. He is free on bail. The Western Australia Police Union is supporting the officer.

The officer will not front the court until August 2020; almost 12 months after Clarke’s murder. His identity is being protected by the law. Clarke’s family is fighting to keep the murder trial in Perth, so that their Aboriginal community is not misrepresented.

In a similar case, 19 year-old Warlpiri man Kumanjayi Walker was shot dead by police on 9 November 2019. The police officer’s counsel tried to move the court case from Alice Springs to Darwin (where family and community would have trouble attending; the petition was denied). Court was postponed due to Coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic (fair enough) but also due to “the sheer size of the brief of evidence.” The same excuse has been given for delayed justice for Clarke family, with Western Australian Police Commissioner Chris Dawson similarly saying the delay is due to the high volume of evidence: “I’m not contesting that there have been a number of months since September last year but this has not been done slowly, it has been done thoroughly.” When Aboriginal people are detained by police, there is rarely such care, and weight of evidence does not delay incarceration and court appearances.

Western Australia Police Commissioner also defended the perpetrator, and simultaneously suggested that police are suffering as much as Clarke’s family and the Aboriginal community. Speaking of his visit to the police officer who’s been charged with murder, the Commissioner lamented:

“I opened my conversation and said we will not talk about this particular incident. My main duty of care, I’m his employer, is to ensure that he had proper welfare and counselling support. My research tells me it has been 93 years since a West Australian Police officer was charged with murder while in the line of duty. This is a very sad and difficult day for everyone.”

Police Commissioner Chris Dawson. Source: ABC News

Institutional racism

In contrast to protection given to police who kill Aboriginal people, Aboriginal women are mostly sent to jail for non-violent crimes such as unpaid driving fines, and will be held on remand, without court hearing, for months. They are given maximum penalties for low-level offences. Aboriginal people are more likely to enter the prison system at a younger age due to over-policing. Rates of Aboriginal women in prison has risen by 14%, as they spend longer time in jail on remand than they would have if their case was heard in a timely fashion. They don’t make bail because they can’t afford to pay the fees and the criminal justice system discriminates against them.

The police union and Commissioner, for example, don’t go out on a limb to support them. Police don’t take months to investigate while perpetrators are free, as Clarke’s killer has done. Aboriginal defendants can’t sit comfortably at home until entering a plea, as police officers do.

Lack of justice

The last time Western Australian police were charged over a death in custody was in 1983, but the five officers were acquitted of the unlawful killing of 16-year-old Yindjibarndi boy, John Pat, in Roebourne, Western Australia. Multiple eyewitness accounts saw four drunken off-duty police officers utter racist threats without cause, kicking Pat in the head and violently arresting him and three other Aboriginal people. Pat died while the others were hospitalised.

Australia has recently seen two coronial inquests into deaths of Aboriginal women: Yorta Yorta woman Tanya Day died of head injuries in a Victorian jail in 2017, and Naomi Williams, a pregnant 27-year-old Wiradjuri woman, died of sepsis in hospital in regional New South Wales in 2016. The inquest into Day’s death was the first to focus on the prevalence of racism and bias in policing.

Like Day, Williams and Ms Dhu (who also died in police custody after being denied medical care), Clarke had a mental illness. Clarke had been incarcerated throughout her life, rather than receiving proper medical care.

Some Aboriginal women, like Clarke and Ms Dhu, are especially vulnerable to police brutality, as they have a higher rate of intergenerational trauma, mental illness and domestic and family violence, all of which are tied to ongoing history of Stolen Generations and colonialisation.

Aboriginal-led movements

Aboriginal people protest and fight for justice on the streets and through the courts every week.

The Aboriginal community in Redfern protested the police killing of 17 year-old Thomas Hickey in 2004, and his family await an apology to this day. They have held vigils and marches every 14 February since, and speak at many Aboriginal protests in Sydney to this day.

The Palm Island community has waited 16 years to finally be paid their $30 million class action after police killed Cameron Doomadgee, and then unlawfully charged activist Lex Wotton with inciting a “riot.” The pathologist assigned to the case likened Doomadgee’s injuries to “those of plane crash victims.” Wotton and 447 co-claimants were found to have suffered racial discrimination at the hands of Queensland police. Police and the media maintain a racist stance against the community.

Aboriginal families and activists raise awareness and funds to pursue justice and so that other families won’t have to go through the same. For example, thirty years on, the Aboriginal community in Bowraville, New South Wales, still protest for justice over the 1991 murder of three Aboriginal children from the same family: Colleen Walker, Evelyn Greenup and Clinton Speedy-Duroux. Their murder is not attributed to police, but careless policing is thought to have contributed to the lack of conviction.

More broadly, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people lead strong justice campaigns on many issues. There are countless examples, such as the 1938 National Day of Mourning to present-day Invasion Day rallies; as well as the 1966 Wave Hill walk-off, where 200 Gurindji, Mudburra and Warlpiri workers escaped a century of indentured servitude on a remote Northern Territory cattle station. Grandmothers Against Removals fight to stop forced removals of Aboriginal children, which is one type of state-sanctioned violence. Aboriginal families fight to reverse inconsequential penalties given to murderers, such as in the case of Elijah Doughty, a 14 year-old child who was pursued in a truck by a White man, who purposely ran him over, and received only three years prison backdated to time served.

In this country, anti-violence and racial justice campaigns by First Nations are as old as colonialism. We do not acknowledge this when we compare the terrible deeds of other nations.

Lack of evidence or social organisation is not the problem. There was CCTV image of Doughty’s plight, as well as Ms Dhu, David Dungay Junior, and other cases. Aboriginal journalists and advocates have committed to insightful reporting on deaths in custody, such as the case of Rebecca Maher, and the wrongful incarceration of Aboriginal people such as Kevin Henry. There is a multiple inquests and inquiries, body cam and other video footage, taped confessions, hundreds of eyewitness accounts, and irrefutable physical evidence showing that police brutality is a daily experience for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Despite decades of First Nations-led social protests and community organisation, the rest of Australia does not join Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in solidarity.

Non-Indigenous complicity

Australians are currently more preoccupied with injustices in the USA, which would be more meaningful if, as a nation, we paid the same attention to racial injustices at home. Non-Indigenous Australians think racism in Australia has “gotten better,” and that we are better off than other places, especially in comparison to the USA. Evidence shows otherwise, with Aboriginal people experiencing 2.5 times the rate of racism as non-Indigenous Australians. Subjective and incorrect assumptions that Australia is “less racist” than other countries allows non-Indigenous people to rewrite history and escape the need to create change in the present.

Darumbal/South Sea woman, journalist and PhD Student, Amy McQuire, writes:

“In the absence of video footage, the public – so accustomed to viewing the police as protectors and Aboriginal people as the demonised other – demand more evidence in order to believe black accounts of violence. This burden of evidence is never one applied to the police… They are not ‘outraged’ because they are not ‘shocked’. There is nothing shocking about racist violence perpetrated by police because it is normalised. It is seen as legitimate violence. It is this legitimate violence that was not only used to steal the country and assert white dominance but also maintain it through the oppression of Aboriginal people.”

Amy McQuire

In the same way as non-Indigenous Australians generally ignore deaths in custody and violence against Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, my fellow Latin people (and other migrants) living in Western nations are expressing disbelief at police brutality overseas. Even for migrants who fled their homelands due to political persecution, civil unrest and state violence, as a whole, we do not speak up about the police violence that targets Indigenous people where we are, or where we’ve been (not to mention Indigenous people and Afro-Latins in our families’ country of origin or in our local communities). Wherever we live, settlers have a responsibility to be educated and act on racial injustice.

Let’s act

Reconciliation Week is a prime time for non-Indigenous Australians to act. Rather than rebuffing institutional racism here with hopeless and erroneous comparisons to other nations, let’s all take responsibility for the violence we allow every day. Take at least one action. For example:

  1. Donate to FreeHer: 100% of funds are used to free Aboriginal women from prison. Remember that most of these women are jailed for not paying fines they cannot afford due to poverty. Most of these women are also mothers, so their incarceration affects multiple people and their communities.
  2. Donate to David Dungay Junior campaign: led by his mother, to appeal to the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP), against the NSW Coroner finding that Corrective Services officers were not responsible for her son’s death. There is video evidence showing that officers ignored Dungay’s cries for medical help.
  3. Join the Grandmothers Against Removals: they often announce snap protests via their Facebook page. NSW law now allows Aboriginal children to be forcibly adopted after two years in the foster care system. Aboriginal children are nine times more likely to be in care than non-Indigenous children and they’re seldom placed with Aboriginal foster parents. The system routinely denies appeals by extended family to acts as fosters, or for parents to regain custody. Social distancing rules still apply, but protesting is not against the law if we follow the rules (keep 1.5 metre distance from others, and so on). If you can’t physically join (I can’t at the moment), share their posts, and support them by talking to your family and write to your local representatives about this unjust law.
  4. Take proactive steps towards Reconciliation: protest Rio Tinto’s destruction of sacred land, join online events, reflect, and share Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander stories, and learn about the traditional custodians of the land where you live. I am on Gadigal land.

Learn More


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