Into the belly of the beast

On 26 September 2016 at 3.50 in the morning, Wayne Fella Morrison, a Wiradjuri, Kookatha and Wirangu man, died in the Royal Adelaide Hospital.

I could very well start this article by telling you that Wayne was a father, a fisherman, a much-loved brother, nephew, and son. I could tell you what I know about his life before he was killed in prison. I could tell you that he was an artist and that he played the guitar. That he had a great smile, you know the kind? One that reached his eyes. I could tell you he hadn’t ever been to prison before. That he was on remand – that is, not yet convicted of any crime. But I don’t think I should have to lay out for you how loved, adored and cherished he was. I shouldn’t need to declare his innocence or justify his life pre-arrest. It shouldn’t be necessary for me to demonstrate his humanity for you to care – for you to believe that his Blak life mattered – because as Ruth Wilson Gilmore says: ‘where life is precious, life is precious.’

Wayne Fella Morrison was killed in custody. He did not simply die. His life was literally snuffed out as he was restrained (also known as tortured) by being placed in a spit hood and shackled. His wrists and ankles were bound in cuffs, and he was held down (with force) by not one, but four correctional service officers. All of this happened in the back of a van while he was being transported from one part of the prison to the other. The inquest into his death was held here on Kaurna land in April this year, some five years after his death.

This article has been a little while coming, and I’m sorry for that. I’m sorry because I made a commitment to a friend, and I couldn’t keep it. I couldn’t keep it because the neatly packaged bundles of trauma that rest at the very dark recesses of my mind wouldn’t settle. They jigged about so viciously that the gaffer tape holding them shut to avoid me ever having to deal with them kept lifting. The bony fingers of pain and fear tickled at the periphery of my brain, silently and gently, but persistently and unrelentingly. Those skeletal demons rendered me useless, and I didn’t write for over a month. Instead, I relived every bit of carceral assault and trauma I endured while in prison and while captive in the community. I relived the memories over and over: in the wakeful time, and in the midnight hours, I remembered. I remembered with such clarity that I could smell fear on my tongue every time I drew breath.

And I didn’t write this piece, because I didn’t want to centre myself or my feelings or my visceral pain in the article. I wanted to step aside, step outside myself, and speak to the grief of a friend, of my family. I wanted to centre the people whose life had been affected in a far more profound way than mine was, and to honour the man who had his life stolen by the same system that haunts me every second of every day. I wanted to put the system on notice. I wanted to seethe, and I wanted to rage. I wanted to contribute in a helpful way by lending my lived experience voice to the family’s campaign. But I was paralysed and, in that paralysis, I was impotent. There was nothing left of me to offer them.

But as I lay in my bed last week, catching my breath after another violent nightmare, my partner stroking my forehead and whispering soothing words of comfort, I realised that I had let the system silence me once again. I had fallen back into acquiescence like the good little submissive that they demand.

I reasoned that fear, like the carceral system, is a beast and all beasts must be fed in order to survive. And I was feeding it. Ooh, I was feeding it good. I was fattening up that beast and delivered myself unto it like a pig laid on a platter – apple in the mouth and all. I was giving the system even more power as I knelt before it, hands in my lap, eyes downcast and mouth shut. I mean silence and yielding are natural reactions, right? A survival strategy. Because we sure as hell know that this system punishes with impunity.

In my capitulation, I had to ask myself, ‘Did I fight to survive this far, just to lay down and die now?’ My answer was a loud, fuck no! And I realised that Latoya’s story, as well as Wayne’s story, is all of our stories. It is the story of every Blak person trying to survive another day in this colony. And maybe sharing my grief, my fear and my story was exactly what the ancestors intended of me. Maybe that was the only contribution I could make.

So, here it is, my offering. And I ask of you forgiveness, this is not what I wanted to give, but is all that I have to offer.

It was a warm Thursday that I caught the bus into the city. Crazy, really. I half expected hell on Earth to freeze over before my eyes, because two years ago, I swore I would never step foot into a court room ever again. But the day I met Latoya to bear witness to the coronial inquest into their brother’s death, the sun was shining. In fact, I think the skies were a cornflower blue … but who knows, really, I was nervous. I was so nervous that I got completely frazzled and went into two different court houses and four wrong court rooms. However, three text messages to a friend later, I found the right one. I proceeded through the same airport-like security that I had during my trial and waited in the same lobby I had all those years ago. This time I wore a dress with little white birds all over it. I told myself it was to remind me that despite what that place had done to me, I was free – kind of. I mean, my criminal record has forever altered my dialogical relationship with the state. But my mind was free, at least.

Before I entered the courthouse, while I was waiting at the pedestrian lights, criss-crossing Victoria Square, I was remembering what the women inside used to say every time we cried for our family, from loneliness or despair. They would say: ‘they can’t keep us here forever.’ Somehow, back then, those words meant something to me. They reminded me that a jail sentence didn’t go on forever. It couldn’t. The prison was legally required to release us, one day. It brought me some solace in those days. So much so that I would repeat it to myself like a mantra, as I lay alone in my bed in my cold, dark cell. I’d say it over and over and over again: ‘they can’t keep me here forever.’ I would whisper it as I placed my bare hand against my cell wall, to touch my fingers to the shadow of my hand, just so I could feel something. I would say it to my then six-year-old daughter as she cried down the phone, ‘come home mama.’ But that day, that warm sunny Thursday of Wayne’s inquest, I realised those women were wrong.

I was wrong. 

So fucking wrong.

They could keep us.

In fact, they do keep us.

Wayne is gone. And more than 470 of our people are gone, and countless before them. Gone. They are all gone. Disappeared into the belly of the beast. Killed to feed a system that must perpetuate its own existence. And what better fodder than the disposable? And who is the disposable in this country? Us. Blak fullas. Colonisation renders us surplus to the nation. In fact, our existence threatens the maintenance of the colony, so to survive, the colony must abuse Blak bodies, Blak lands and Blak waters – it must feed on us.

Since invasion, the Australian legal system has operated as a mechanism to order, control, regulate and dispose of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander lives and bodies. The prison system, therefore, is just another weapon in the arsenal of the colonial war machine. And the people who wear the uniforms, the ones with the lock and key, they are the foot soldiers of this colony’s army. And apparently the rules don’t apply to them. The rules we are governed by and told we must comply with, to be good citizens. The rules, which form the basis of law, the very same law, they argue makes our law redundant – a relic of times past.

As I sat in that courtroom, a place we had come to for answers, truth and maybe a little justice, I heard the words, ‘I can’t remember’ more times than I can remember. I heard evasion and circumvention. I heard a thick blue band of collusion. I heard a deafening silence, and even though I knew there could be no justice in an unjust colony, I felt ill. I felt ill for Latoya, for their mum, and for every Blak body in this country. I felt despair for the Blak bodies sitting in cages, and I felt sad for myself, because I was still tethered to a system which enables grown men and women to witness a man’s last breath, and not ‘remember’ any of the details. I mean how disposable are we when you can watch a man draw his last breath and not have that image and moment imprinted on your mind, let alone your conscience, forever? It was only 125 seconds they had to remember.

125 seconds.

About 125 heart beats.

It’s all they had to remember.

But the officers questioned couldn’t (wouldn’t) recall the events and so the answers never came. And now, those answers rest. They rest in the belly of the beast. Protected in the white fortress of privilege and coloniality. Like myself, and every one of my Blak brothers and sisters in this country, truth can never be free. It remains shackled and sequestered, exiled from light and life. And over time, will likely wither and die.

And so, the torment continues.

The torment of silence.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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Tabitha Lean is a Gunditjmara woman, born and raised on Kaurna yerta. A story teller, poet, artist and abolition activist, she is blessed to have her mother's stories and the blood of all the women before her coursing through her veins. It is in their honour, that she centres their unique knowledges, and privileges their voice in all her work. You can find her writings at The Revolution Ware. Twitter: @haveachattabs.

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  1. Never silence your voice. It is too important in the quest for bringing truth to the world. Shine on divine soul.

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