Whose lives matter?

Today marks one year since Yamatji woman Ms Dhu died in a police lock-up in South Hedland Police Station in Western Australia. Sunday marked one year since she was locked up for the crime of owing $1000 in unpaid fines. A year on, there are more questions than answers about what happened during that time between her arrest on 2 August 2014 and her death two days later.

It’s known that the police took her to Hedland Health Campus on three occasions and that on the third trip, in the words of the regional medical director, she arrived in the back of a police wagon ‘unconscious, pulseless and not breathing’. While it’s difficult to believe, Ms Dhu’s family still haven’t been given access to her medical records or been shown the CCTV footage from those hospital trips, and no reason has been given for the delay in access.

To mark the one-year anniversary of Ms Dhu’s death, rallies are being held in major cities around the country as well as in the family’s home town of Geraldton. For the family, it has been a long fight for answers and justice that is far from over.

Ms Dhu’s uncle, Nhunda-Wadjarri Yamatji man Shaun Harris, has been crisscrossing the country raising support for their campaign for justice for Ms Dhu and all Indigenous deaths in custody. On the eve of the anniversary, he says the level of awareness that has been raised around Ms Dhu’s death around the country has given them strength to keep on going in their campaign for justice.

‘It’s been pretty hard, a short but long year. The support has been amazing. Death in custody is a difficult issue to get out in the spotlight. Too many people have a laid-back mentality; it’s thought of as an out of sight and mind issue. We have come far and everyone else as well, everyone else who is sick and tired with the way they been treated and the lack of accountability in the system.’

After tireless campaigning, only last month were the family given a date for a coronial inquiry into Ms Dhu’s death. It will be held in November this year.

Harris talks about the upcoming inquiry as a step in the fight for justice as well as an opportunity to find out what happened.

‘It needs to be brought out in the spotlight, the way they treated her while in custody and the severe deprivation of liberty that they inflicted upon her,’ he said. ‘From last year’s fight to where we are now, we’ve just been fighting for an inquest. We still need to fight a lot, not just for her but for custodial reform – to get attention to the issue Australia-wide as well. There’s never been one conviction [for an Indigenous death in custody]. Like every other family, we want accountability. It’s not just about closure but accountability – that’s convictions.’

It is that deprivation of liberty that is so fatal in many cases for Indigenous people in custody. Veteran paralegal Charandev Singh, who has been assisting families affected by deaths in custody since the early 1990s, refers to it as a ‘lethal indifference’.

While the phrase might be apt to describe the often fraught relationship between police and Indigenous Australians in custody around the country, it’s also worth considering how other non-Indigenous Australians play a role in this ‘lethal indifference’ as well.

While global solidarity for things the like the #BlackLivesMatter movement in the US is important, it is always interesting to see it trending in Australia, when there is so little interest in analysing our own institutionalised racial policing. Is it just another by-product of US cultural imperialism that we care more about America’s racist criminal justice system than our own? Or is it easier to ‘care’ and talk something when it happens all the way over there, across the Pacific?

Australians can have little effect on the issue of US police brutality. Our taxpayer dollars did not buy the bullets that shot Michael Brown, and they weren’t our courts that let George Zimmerman walk free after killing Trayvon Martin. But they were our taxpayer dollars that paid for the police wagon in which police officers chose to throw Ms Dhu’s body into rather than call an ambulance. It is the government we voted for that decided to cut funding to the Custody Notification Service in NSW – a system for mandatory police notification of a third-party legal representative every time an Indigenous person is taken into custody – rather than roll it out across the country. They are our two major parties that have continued to de-prioritise any meaningful reforms of the criminal justice system, and de-legitimised any claims that it has a racial bias in the first place.

And it is our short attention span that means we only read about it all on days like today, while we pretend it’s not an issue every other day of the year.


Image: David Jackmanson / Flickr

Jarni Blakkarly

Jarni Blakkarly is a Melbourne based journalist who has written for Al Jazeera English, ABC Religion and Ethics, Griffith Review, Agence France Presse and Crikey among others. You can follow him on Twitter @JarniBlakkarly.

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