Ray Jackson, a long time Sydney activist who drove campaigns against Aboriginal deaths in custody and racialised policing, died at home last week. On Friday 1 May, the Redfern Community Centre overflowed with Ray’s family, friends, allies and admirers. Ray, that ‘proud man’, was a father, ‘pop’, great-grandfather, as well as a friend, confidante and moral guide to his six children, their children and their children’s children. One of his young granddaughters, whose head barely reached above the podium, spoke with a quaver but resolute courage about the confidence Ray had expected from and instilled in her, and which impelled her to address the crowd.
Ray. A ‘crusty ol’ fella’, a ‘companero’, a ‘marshmallow’ – there was softness and sweetness beneath a gruff manner. In a recent article, Ray told the story of his early life. Born to a Wiradjuri mother, he was taken away at the age of two after his father was killed fighting in Papua New Guinea in 1943. Ray said, ‘He was killed on the Kokoda Track and instead of giving his wife a war widow’s pension, the bloody government came and took his children away.’
Adopted into a white family, he did not learn about his Aboriginality until he was in his 30s. By then Ray had embarked on a working life as a wharfie, where he was politicised through union involvement. Ray did not seek out his family, a decision about which he expressed ambivalence, nor did he seek, to my knowledge, to reconnect with land-based Aboriginal cultural traditions. Instead he located himself as an Aboriginal man dedicated to Aboriginal political causes, seeing these within broader issues of state violence.
The ‘family side’ and the ‘political side’ came together on Friday. Familiar images of Ray in his badge-covered hat speaking at protests in Redfern-Waterloo, in front of the NSW Coroner’s Court, and at numerous other events were shown. There were also images new to many. Ray was pictured reading to his kids on the couch, with his arm proudly looped around family members – his daughters sporting amazing 1980s hairstyles. There was Ray with baby after baby. Ray’s family members were thanked for sharing him, an acknowledgment of the cost on family life of having such an absorbed, committed and passionate advocate as a father. These costs will resonate with many who are committed to a cause greater than themselves.
It was clear that the two sides of Ray’s life worked together: family members described him as an educator, and his political work involved arguing for the primacy of strong family relations. He offered steadfast support to Aboriginal families faced with the loss of a relative in police custody, in prison, or at the hands of police violence. Gail Hickey, whose son TJ was fatally impaled on a fence in Waterloo after a police pursuit in 2004, gathered her daughters around her to express how much they will all miss Ray. In 2014, on the tenth anniversary of TJ’s death, anger and distress surged through a protest where he died. Ray’s measured, calm voice regularly intervened, stitching disparate elements together, pulling the focus back towards the day’s significance. He gave space for the expression of grief and frustration. As it was put at Friday’s memorial, Ray ‘glued’ things together.
More broadly, Ray drew the links between Aboriginal incarceration rates, which continue to rise at a staggering rate in NSW, and racialised state violence. He was involved in supporting asylum seekers held in detention, and drew attention to the case of Brazilian student Robert Curti, who died after being tasered by police. He spoke on Oxford Street in 2013 at a protest against the police brutality towards that year’s Mardi Gras revelers.
I make no claim of being close to Ray. I saw him buoyant at an Aboriginal passport ceremony, where he welcomed migrants and refugees to live on Aboriginal country. Soon after I facilitated a symposium in which the question of borders, mobility and passports were discussed. I saw Ray deflated and exhausted at a small event late last year where he sought to find a legal avenue of redress for deaths in custody families. Shaun Harris spoke at this event about his niece, Julieka Dhu, who died in police custody in Port Hedland after being detained for unpaid fines. Harris posted to the Facebook page for Ray’s memorial event: ‘May Your Fighting Spirit now Roam Free and May You Also ‘Rest In Total Peace’ Our Dear Friend.’
Ray moved his work to his home in 1997. This was after a decade’s work for the Aboriginal Deaths in Custody Watch Committee. I visited him there once, finding a bookish, cosy flat, crammed with Ray’s folders. Indeed, his voluminous collection of ephemera and neatly organised files would be an invaluable resource if bequeathed to a public library and digitised. My impression of his flat is at odds with the stigma attached to Waterloo’s social housing towers. From a dizzying height, Ray looked down on his world: the Aboriginal inner city. He seemed both incensed and darkly amused by the widely publicised DeiCorp Construction advertisement that read, ‘The aboriginals [sic] have already moved out, now Redfern as [sic] the last virgin suburb close to city, it will have great potential for the capital growth in the near future.’ He believed Aboriginal people should be housed in Redfern, and would have been excited by the size of Friday’s rallies against the forced closure of remote communities in Western Australia.
Ray’s health deteriorated over recent years. Raul Bassi spoke about an agreement with his close friend: as Ray’s body failed, Raul would become his legs, his arms; as his sight weakened, Raul would become his eyes. But Bassi could not imagine what it would take to be Ray’s ‘brain’, he told us, and he could ‘never be’ Ray’s heart. That mind, that heart, were irreplaceable.
I’ll miss Ray’s emails, which arrived intermittently.
Subject line: a day of great shame posts.
Subject line: cowardly criminal assaults x2.
Subject line: mea culpas and more re. mr norris.
Ray posted items of interest or offence with sometimes sardonic, sometimes impassioned commentary. Earlier this year he detailed his extensive argument with the police about the annual marches he organised to mark TJ Hickey’s death. He was a dogged, humble and inspired fighter.
Farewell, Ray. You reached into so many lives, I’m grateful mine was one of them.