STORY AND PHOTOS BY JACOB HIGGINS
“I think of my niece, and the pain she endured
Them nights in the cells when her voice wasn’t heard
The cruel, sick mistreatment at the hands of the law
Must surely be exposed in a criminal court” – Dion Harris – Ms Dhu’s Uncle
Shaun Harris is also the uncle of Ms Dhu who died on August 4, 2014, in the South Hedland police lockup.
He introduces himself to the crowd of some 200 people who have gathered at Perth’s Stirling Gardens to protest Ms Dhu’s death, and the deaths in custody of the other 354 Indigenous Australians in the 25 years since the exhaustive Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody released its final report.
“My name is Shaun Harris. I’m a Nanda-Wajarri Yamitji from Midwest Western Australia and [Ms] Dhu’s uncle,” Harris says.
“Institutional and systemic racism killed [Ms Dhu] … as with hundreds of other black deaths in custody, not just in WA but nationwide.
“Nothing has changed in 25 years – all 228 years for that matter, since Invasion Day. Our people are still being murdered in custody, with still no accountability for bloodstained hands.”
Shaun Harris stands in sunny Stirling Gardens, on the bustling St George’s Terrace – near the WA Supreme Court, supported by Aunty Carol Roe, Ms Dhu’s grandmother, and her granddaughter, Ms Dhu’s younger sister, Yolonda.
It is April 15, 2016, 25 years to the day since the 1991 release of the final report of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody.
The Royal Commission was proposed as the blueprint to end avoidable deaths in custody – and yet 1673 people people have died in custody since its final report.
We have marched as people of many races and cultures, as political entities, as volunteer groups and as citizens to honour these 355 Indigenous Australians to die in custody since April 15, 1991.
Banners and placards, some calling for the government to be held accountable and others telling Ms Dhu’s story, are still held high as we listen to Shaun’s words, confidently soft-spoken, the voice of a man who has fought and known loss.
We cheer and clap when Shaun grows passionate, and nod along solemnly when he hits close to home.
There are people among us who marched in honour of those who died in custody in the years before the Royal Commission – and I can see them shaking their heads at having to be here more than 25 years later.
Shaun marched in Geraldton in 1988 to honour Eddie Cameron, who passed away in custody, and to show “that the First Nations people [had] had enough”.
“I marched in that street for deaths in custody when I was 11. I’m 39 now,” he says.
“Yet here we still are, [still] marching in that street, for [Ms Dhu].
“That speaks volumes for the genocidal system.”
Though generations of people have marched for change, there is an air of hope in the Gardens.
These people have suffered much, and will likely suffer more, but spirits, on this day at least, remain high.
“But for WA Police it’s a grain in the ocean
‘Cause they mistreat their “Blacks” with love & devotion
Their record on its own could stand a mountain high
‘Cause we all know how many of our family have died” – Dion Harris
Of the 355 Indigenous Australian deaths in custody, many have occurred in prison and in other custodial authorities’ hands, though many in recent memory have been in police lockups as well.
People listen attentively as Shaun continues, subject to the surveillance of many cameras and recorders as media and the crowd alike strive to remember his words.
“Twenty-five years since the Royal Commission. Twenty-five years of continual, needless, shocking and preventable deaths in police and Commonwealth custody, because a national genocidal system will not implement life-saving recommendations, recommendations which were recommended to help save black lives, because black lives matter.”
“Our lives matter. Every death in custody victim, and families’, and friends’ lives matter. [Ms Dhu’s] life still matters.”
The Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody was commissioned to investigate 99 Indigenous Australian deaths in custody between 1980 and 1989.
As an average, that’s 11 Aboriginal people a year.
In contrast, between 1991 and 2016, 355 Aboriginal people died in custody – approximately 14 people a year.
All in all, there has been a 150 per cent increase in Indigenous Australian deaths in custody since April 1991.
Many people listening to Shaun have experienced the loss of a loved one in custody, often in preventable ways.
This is, as Harris says, indicative of the country’s action on the Royal Commission’s recommendations, which above all recommended the decriminalisation of minor offences and the starting of a process of reconciliation with Aboriginal peoples.
Though every state claims to act on the recommendations (In 2009, WA claimed to have acted on 50 per cent of the 339 recommendations). Aboriginal people continue to die for offences as minor as offensive language. Ms Dhu died for being unable to pay fines adding up to near $3000.
The Australian Human Rights Commission’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner Mick Gooda has travelled all the way from Queensland to stand with Ms Dhu’s family today. He calls out the senseless deaths.
“Did Ms Dhu deserve to die for unpaid fines?” he asks.
“No,” answers the crowd.
“Did Mr Ward deserve to die, for being charged with drink driving? He wasn’t even convicted!”
“Did Mr Doomadgee in Palm Island deserve to die for being drunk on the street?”
“They say that there is more than one way to skin a cat
And I think Australian governments have often showed us that
For they’ve killed us and maimed us in so many different ways
And we’ve suffered from birth to the end of our days” – Dion Harris
Shaun Harris continues the death roll.
“Mr Hill in Sydney, the night before New Years Eve, was restrained by five police officers and given a sedative, and now he’s dead.”
“Young Mr Bennell, still a kid like [Ms Dhu], he’s not here as well …
“Black prison rates here are now known as and referred to as hyper-incarceration rates.
“It’s not known as that for nothing.”
We have performed the largest action in the country on this significant day.
This is suitable, for the state with the highest rate of Indigenous Australian incarceration: 43 per cent of prisoners in Western Australia are Aboriginal people, though the Northern Territory holds the record at 83 per cent.
This is despite the fact WA’s Indigenous Australian population makes up less than 5 per cent of the total population, compared to the Northern Territory where Indigenous people are 31 per cent of the population.
Mervyn Eades, founder of Ngalla Maya, a group helping Indigenous prisoners find employment after release, is especially grieved by the incarceration rate for Indigenous Australian children.
“Our children – look at the rate of incarceration of our children. Out of every 100 children in juvenile detention, 85 of them are black,” says Eades, who has experienced both the injustice of the prison system and the loss of his 18-year-old brother in prison.
“Our children are the highest incarcerated children in the world.
“How’s deaths in custody going to stop when our children are the highest incarcerated?”
Indigenous Australian adults are 16 times more likely to go to prison than any other adult – but children with Indigenous heritage are 52 times more likely to be imprisoned than any other child.
In 1992, the year after the Royal Commission recommended reducing Indigenous imprisonment rates to reduce deaths in custody, one in seven people held in prison was an Indigenous Australian. By 2012, this number had increased to one in four and, in the space of two years, that number had risen to one in three.
Such a fundamentally large increase indicates that something is very wrong, but this is something Indigenous Australians have known for generations – well before the Royal Commission.
A few days before we gathered at Stirling Gardens, Dr Mick Dodson, advocate and counsel who advised the Royal Commission, said most deaths in custody came down to a failure to implement at least one of the recommendations.
“Almost every death that occurred in custody after the Royal Commission recommendations invoked the non-implementation of at least one recommendation,” he said.
“The recommendations of the Royal Commission are still relevant.
“But this type of murder it really was callous
So nasty it would make South Africa jealous
They murdered my niece there’s no other way to say it
She could’ve been saved with antibiotics instead of delaying it” – Dion Harris
Shaun broadens his scope to the other victims and other families who have gone through what he has, and we shout: “Hear! Hear!”
“We want justice, and not just for our lost, murdered loved ones, but for all deaths in custody victims,” he says.
“They deserve it … and they need it to rest in at least some degree of peace, for the poor deprived souls, who were taken, and are still being taken, by the soulless system.”
In 1996, every state claimed to have implemented the Royal Commission’s 161st recommendation, ‘Police and prison officers should seek medical attention immediately if any doubt arises as to a detainee’s condition’.
Ms Dhu died after the hospital gave her the all clear despite her continued complaints of pain.
New South Wales and WA both legislated and mention in their prison personnel guidelines that people held in custody must receive medical attention where necessary.
However, the ACT, Victoria, Queensland, WA and NSW only enforce the implementation to the exact wording of the Royal Commission – ‘if the officers have any doubt’ – in police guidelines.
Constable Callan George, the officer in charge of Ms Dhu’s arrest, told the inquest into her death that he had received no training as the custodial officer, and was simply told to “learn as you go”.
Eades expresses his frustration that these recommendations are still to be implemented effectively, while Australia claims to be doing so.
“We’ve had more deaths in custody since the Royal Commission than before the Royal Commission,” he says.
“That’s tokenism to say, ‘We’re doing something at a government level’. Bullshit.
“They don’t care about our people, our lives don’t matter to them.”
It’s a point that hits home with many in the crowd, as passionate cheers and cries of “Warra!”, the Noongar word for ‘No good!’, ring out.
History itself teaches us that this apathy was true in the past, and it’s a truth never far from discussions about the obstacles facing Indigenous Australians today.
In 2001, 10 years after the Royal Commission reported, Dodson looked back and saw the same thing Eades sees now.
“The administration of the criminal justice and corrections systems have gone on their merry way as if the RCIADIC did not happen and there had been no report,” he wrote.
“As if there had been no recommendations.
“The wheel, in the form of the recommendations, is there before us to carry us where we should be going. Why is it that we cannot or refuse to see it?”
Mick Gooda brings it home as to why high incarceration rates contribute to an increased amount of lives lost in custody.
“Now the whole thing around deaths in custody was that our people die in custody more than anyone, because our people are in custody more than anyone,” he declares.
“Twenty-five years later, [there are] twice as many people in custody today as there was when that report was handed down.
“I say to those people out there who say, ‘You do the crime; you do the time’: ‘Our people are doing more time than anyone else in this country’.”
“So gather your ears our international friends far and wide
Because you know it was legal murder the way my beautiful niece died
My brother’s led the fight to try and get our family justice
Please support us in our fight against this island full of racists.” – Dion Harris
Carolyn Lewis, member of the Deaths in Custody Watch Committee (WA) Inc, and veteran campaigner, recognises the human cost of not only the loss of loved ones in preventable ways, but of the continual action for change in the face of 25 years of worsening conditions.
“For me to see these women that have had to get up and march and come down here, they deserve a gold medal,” she says.
“For me, just seeing that as a family, our parents, our brothers and sisters, it’s been hard, when people go, the effects of what’s left behind, and families left behind.
“We’re not faking it, and we will continue to die in this system – it scares me to think that this isn’t the end … I have a grandson, and it scares me.”
She turns her attention to the youth in the crowd.
“To those young people, it was so good to see so many young people here today, because it’s you young people that will come up against this, and I hope we’re not here in 25 years. Things have to change.”
It’s both a sobering thought and one that beggars belief – we couldn’t really be here, in the same position, in a quarter of a century, could we?
If what we’ve seen and heard over the last quarter century is anything to go by, we just might be.
Shaun Harris has campaigned for justice for his niece’s death since August 4, 2014, yet the formal coronial inquest into her death only started in November 2015, and concluded in March this year.
It will take many more months for the coroner to hand down her findings from the inquest, and the Deaths in Custody Watch Committee hopes she will make recommendations from these findings to prevent another death like Ms Dhu’s.
The same coroner ruled against releasing the CCTV footage of Ms Dhu’s incarceration to the public, despite repeated requests from her family.
In spite of all this tragedy, Harris and his family still stands in solidarity with other families and friends who have lost a loved one to incarceration and death.
“We will strongly endeavour to keep up the fight for justice for all, the fight to build communities, not prisons and, yes, to release [Ms Dhu’s] CCTV to prove to the world what truly and factually did and still does happen to us people on this land, on our sovereign land, stolen land,” he says.
“From the bottom of our hearts, and all the hearts of all the people who have been affected by that horrible ripple effect, being deaths in custody, thank you.”