Two hundred and twenty years but still not free

"Write of life / the pious said
forget the past / the past is dead.
But all I see / in front of me
is a concrete floor / a cell door / and John Pat"
- by Jack Davis              

Yesterday (15 April 2011) was the 20th anniversary of the royal commission into black deaths in custody in 1991. Since that time there have been 397 black deaths in custody. Why?

At the beginning of the rally held in Brisbane on the anniversary of the Royal Commission, as I was unloading the PA gear from my car, when an aboriginal woman said that she hoped we did not get arrested today. For her, the possibility of arrest was real. For me it was no longer probable. That got me thinking…

From 1977, when Bjelke-Petersen banned street marches, till 1985, when he sacked 1002 SEQEB linesmen, some Queenslanders found out what living under severe political repression was like. We were arrested at political demonstrations and street marches, thrown into paddy wagons and put in the watchouse. Women were stripped searched in view of male police in the watchouse (e.g. on 12 September 1977). Workers were hauled up before magistrates in their thousands. Some had their houses raided. Many who put up posters against uranium mining & export or about the right to organise were pulled over in their cars and sometimes detained or their cars were deemed unroadworthy.

Many street marchers were denied right to employment in Qld government jobs. Others, like the Electrical trades union members, lost the jobs that they had. A number of workers and trade unionists even went to prison under this assault on democratic rights.

Finally after 20 years in power Bjelke-Petersen was thrown out by his own party.

Democratic Rights movement
The democratic rights movement was lucky; we had not lost a single life in custody. Some workers did commit suicide in despair, or their lives were ruined but we had no deaths in custody. I did witness a man have a heart attack in Albert Street during a street march – the ‘valley of death’ we called it then. I do not think that he died – his heart attack was reported in the paper the following day but not his death. A meatworker was batoned by Snr Cnst John Watt at Hamilton wharf during a protest against the live export of sheep in 1978. An anti-uranium activist with a weak heart collapsed after we sat on the railroad track to stop the train carrying yellow cake onto Hamilton No 4 wharf in August 1977.

Free at last?
When the Bjelke-Petersen government fell, the arrests, political sackings and arbitrary incarceration came to a halt for people who stood up against his regime, against his police and against his magistrates. We were free to get jobs and to walk the streets again. Some even got their special branch files back.

During the 20 years of the Bjelke-Petersen regime, blackfellas were arbitrarily arrested, they filled Qld prisons and many died in custody. Of course this had happened since colonisation. Warriors like Dundali resisted British occupation. He was hung before a crowd of onlookers near the Brisbane Post office.

During the Bjelke-Petersen years some engaged in political activity and were jailed. For example Cheryl Buchanan, Lionel Fogarty and others had set up an aboriginal tent embassy in King George Square in Brisbane in 1977. In 1982 during the Commonwealth Games, aboriginal activists led protests for land rights.

Deaths in Custody
After Bjelke-Petersen was gone, the Labor Party, under pressure, started a royal commission into black deaths in custody. That Royal Commission handed down its recommendations on 15 April 1991. But arrests and high incarceration rates of aboriginal people continued.

Then, in 1993, Brisbane police killed a young aboriginal dancer, Daniel Yock, in Brereton Street, South Brisbane. The police involved were never brought to justice. Daniel Yock was one of many who were killed in custody during the intervening 20 years since the royal commission. In 1983 John Pat in Western Australia was beaten to death by 6 off-duty police. Those police were defended by the current WA Labor shadow attorney general, John Quigley, and got off.

On Invasion Day 2008, aboriginal elder, Mr Ward, “cooked to death” in the back of a prison van managed by a British-based private security contractor, Serco.

In 1994 Mulrunji was murdered by Snr Sgt Hurley in the Palm Island Watchouse. In 2010 Sheldon Currie was refused medical treatment and left to die by prison officers at the Arthur Gorrie Correctional centre in Brisbane. TJ Hickey was killed during a police chase in Redfern in Sydney in 2009. The list goes on. 397 deaths in custody in the 20 years since the Royal Commission. Why?

My history of arrest and detention
During the Bjelke-Petersen era I was arrested more times than I can remember for street marching and organising against the government. Each time I was arrested I was thrown in a paddy wagon or police car and taken to the watchouse. On two occasions I was beaten up by police and on one occasion I was knocked unconscious after being dragged from a police wagon by five police near the base of the old steps of King George Square (they are gone now).

I was unlawfully arrested inside King George Square on 30th October 1978 based on a warrant for non payment of a fine. This alleged that i did not attend court to defend a street a march charge. I always appeared and plead ‘not guilty’ to street march charges.

After the arrest  in KGSq I had a headache for a fortnight and could not feel the back of my left hand for three months. I was illegally detained in police headquarters and paraded in front of police then stripped by Alan Cameron Todd and a policemean known as ‘Blackie’ who had choked me unconsciousnes in Albert Street city in front of hundreds of people, including a special branch officer, Barry Krosch, and a journalist from the National Times, Dennis Rheinhardt.

No one intervened. Except that is, Cnst Michael Egan at police headquarters. I do not know what else awaited me. Fortuneately Cnst. Egan intervened on the basis that the warrant for my arrest required that I be taken to Boggo Road prison.   Michael Egan resigned from the police force soon after giving evidence against me. I had been put in prison under the pretext of non-payment of a fine on a warrant issued and signed by a magistrate, William Joseph Mackay.

In total, I was imprisoned on four occasions. I was involved in two hunger strikes in prison and was singled out by the chief warden of Stuart Creek prison in T’vlle. A police officer, Conrad Martens planted me with drugs. I was acquitted. I was never convicted of a criminal offence but was jailed for contempt of court. On appeal, jailing was found to be excessive. While in jail at Stuart Creek for contempt, I was threatened at rifle point by a prison warder. If he had fired I would probably be dead, another death in custody. I was acquitted after trial by jury on two occasions after a number of police lied in testimony. The police who lied on oath in court cases where I was the defendant were Barry Cornelius O’Brien, Pat Clancy, Gaven Radford, Conrad Martens, Robert Joseph Donnelly, Barry Maff, Michael Egan, Alan Cameron Todd, and many others whom I can’t recall. On arrest, I was routinely denied access to my solicitor.

The King is Dead, Long Live the King
However, after the Bjelke-Petersen regime fell, all this came to an end. I was no longer arrested, thrown in jail or verballed by police.

Murris do not enjoy the same luxury. My aboriginal contemporaries who had been jailed during the Bjelke-Petersen era kept on being jailed in the 20 years that have followed. Why?

Unlike me, many murris who went before non-aboriginal juries were found guilty. Lex Wotton is one example. I sat in on his trial and for weeks heard police parade before the judge and tell lies about what happened on Palm Island. Lex Wotton helped organise resistance on the island after Mulrunji was murdered by Snr Sgt Hurley on 19 November 2004.What happened on Palm  was not a riot, it was an organised defence of the community under armed siege by police. Lex Wotton was tasered, arrested, charged, found guilty and imprisoned. His kids were threatened at gun point by masked police. Repression sought division but brought unity.

“Comm’on people, we can’t accept this” – Lex Wotton, Palm Island, Nov 2004 after Sgt Hurley killed Mulrunji — No Justice for aboriginal people

After Lex Wotton’s trial I realised that jury trials can be a defence for people who have suffered police lies, but not for black people. Jury trials rarely work for aboriginal people. Many murris plead guilty seeing no point in contesting the evidence of police. The justice system fails aboriginal people. The rate of incarceration of black people is growing – aboriginal women are jailed at three times the rate that they were in 1991. Many police and judges are racist but the system does not protect aboriginal people.


There is a legitimate grievance held by aboriginal people against the justice system. Their land was stolen.

Aboriginal people have been robbed of their democratic rights by different political regimes – Liberal, National, and Labor. They have no representation in the Qld parliament.

The Royal Commission in Black Deaths in Custody has failed aboriginal people – more people are dying and more are being put in jail. Recommendations have been ignored by governments of all political colours for the past 20 years.

Yet Aboriginal people still stand up and we should stand beside them.

I have some recommendations of my own not considered by the Royal Commission.

  1. Jail police who kill blackfellas.
  2. Aboriginal people should not be tried by non-aboriginal juries or  judges.
  3. Aboriginal people should not be forced or cajoled into pleading guilty to crimes they did not commit.
  4. The aboriginal community and elders should have full control of murri courts.
  5. There should be no condition of pleading guilty to get into murri court.
  6. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Service  (ATSILs) should be placed under the control of aboriginal community and elders.
  7. Murri courts and ATSILs both should be independent  authorities with funding in the hands of the aboriginal community.

Non-aboriginal Australia has a lot to learn from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people about fairness and justice.

No More Deaths in Custody!

Ian Curr
April 2011


Why are deaths in custody rising?

4 thoughts on “Two hundred and twenty years but still not free

  1. Ray Jackson says:

    Pay the rent will be heard loud and clear across the land

    michael anderson has called for the 4th aboriginal new way summit to be held in canberra from 22nd to24th april inclusive. it is my understading that it will be held at the tent embassy opposite old parliament house.

    michael now believes that it is now time for action to be taken to raise funding to allow our very legitimate claims to our traditional lands and our legitimate calls for sovereinty, treaties and social justice for the crimes of the last 223 years.

    we are a patient people but now is the time to move things to a higher level. this summit must allow that to happen.

    as michael has stated, this summit is open to all those who wish to learn what we as the descendants of the traditional owners of the stolen lands.

    join us and hear our true views unfiltered by the racist media, especially that of the murdoch press. contact michael for further details.


    ray jackson
    indigenous social justice association

  2. Magistrate MacKay passed away says:

    Magistrate William Joseph MacKay died this week (Aug 2012).

    He is the magistrate who convicted Ciaron O’Reilly of assault after Det. Johnston assaulted Ciaron at a street march on 4th March 1978 banned by Bjelke-Petersen — Ciaron got done for what the copper did to him, just like the south African miners who have been accused of murder when it is the police who murdered their brothers.

    At least Ciaron only got assaulted – the poor miners lost their lives. Ciaron’s brother and dad both had their noses broken by coppers. Det Johnston ran some distance to assault Sean O’Reilly at a demonstration against the federal budget on 21 August 1978. This resulted in Sean having his nose broken. Only Ciaron’s homker remains intact in the O’Reilly clan of resisters.

    Bill McKay convicted me of disobey direction in 1977 after an anti-uranium street march. I was arrested by a police officer drunk enough to run his motorcycle into the back of the paddy wagon that took me and another person to the South Brisbane watchouse. I cross examined the police officer for 4 days showing him video footage demonstrating that I had obeyed each direction he gave me (there were many). Bill McKay would have nothing of it, he gave an extempore decision convicting me of Disobey Direction. I had tried every means to convince McKay otherwise, using objective evidence of video, sound and witnesses. McKay refused to consider my case, repeatedly threatened me with contempt of court. McKay, as a/clerk of the court, later issued a warrant for my arrest which resulted in my being arrested by 5 police on the steps of King George Square at a demonstration on 30th October 1978. During the arrest I was knocked unconscious in the street in front of thousands, handcuffed, I lost feeling in my hand for 3 months, was paraded before senior police in Herschel Street police HQ, stripped down to my under pants and finally taken to Boggo Road jail where I was stripped fully naked and forced to shower, my hair shorn and placed in a cell for 3 days with a can of shit. The screws placed me in a yard with a murderer and other hard crims.

    McKay joined the court of petty sessions in 1957 and served in the justice system for 49 years.

    Judge Irwin at his retirement in 2006 make the following speech:

    Distinguished Guests*, welcome to this special occasion to celebrate the
    birthday of Bill Mackay and his outstanding 49 years of service to the people of Queensland, including 27 years as a magistrate. And just as significantly to recognise the contribution of his wife, Carol who shares this important day with him.

    *The audience included:
    • the Attorney-General and Minister for Justice
    • the Chief Justice
    • the Chief Judge
    • other members of the judiciary, including current and retired magistrates,
    • the Director-General of the Department of Justice and Attorney-General
    • Commissioner of the Queensland Police Service.

    Apparently there was a big mounted police contingent at Bill MacKay’s funeral, to the victor the spoils. – I’ll write an article about it one day when my anger abates about all the people bill mackay sent to jail in circumstances like ciaron and mine down through the years … readers, i would not hold your breath.

    Ian Curr
    1 Sept 2012

  3. Big Bad Bill McKay gone uh? I was a skinny naieve 17 year old when I became roadkill on Bill’s career highway as a magistrate. I had been bashed by Det John Frederich Johnstone of the consorting squad in March 78 (my first week at uni) for objecting to the cowardly assault on John Roberts who was linked arms with me (so could not block the Defective’s punch in the guts!). I was also linked arms to Jim Dowling who I did not know at the time. Johnstone hit me in the face and in the gut and into the van I went.

    When I got to the watchhouse I was surprised to discover I had $300 bail on me while everyone else had 10 or 20 bucks. So in the watchhouse I stayed from Sat afternoon to Monday morning. 10 others stayed in with me Dan O’Neill and Bryan Law amongst them. 300 bucks was a lot at the time (it was to pale into insignificance when the F.B.I. put 50 grand bail on me in ’92!) I had a good lawyer (who is now a judge), several eyewitnesses, an independent photographer and Chanel 10 footage….Johnstone was huge, i was weedy, Bill McKay was housebroken, ignored the evidence, embraced the lies and I got convicted.

    I was very upset. You only get disappointed in life when you have expectations. I still had expectations of the magistrates court. I had yet to achieve the advice from the Irish sage Gary MacLennan in relation to expectation and the justice system “What do you expect form a pig, but a grunt?” In the months that followed I was in the best way “disillusioned” (shedding illusions is a good thang!).

    The next time I saw Det. Johnstone he was strangling my brother Sean at a street march in August 78 (English punk outfit “The Stranglers” who were gigging at U of Q that night were inspired to pen Nuclear Device.


    5 of us teenagers were bashed in the watchhouse that night.

    From memory, Det. Johnstone and Det Edwards were convicted shortly after of extortion and were sentenced to 3 years prison. Norm the Doorman, a major witness in that case… well no one’s found his body.

    Police Union spent a lot on the appeal process and got them out after 6 months. Edwards surfaced in the Fitzgerald Inquiry, Johnstone had gone to ground an interstate..

    So that’s just a small story on how Bill McKay screwed a privileged educated white boy. God knows what he got up to on the daily grind of processing the poor through the Queensland “justice system”. “Judge not, lest ye be judged Bill”

    See ya on the other side! Ciaron in London

    Ciaron O’Reilly

  4. Another testimony... says:

    [Editor’s note: Another testimony concerning well meaning police, magistrates and their pals back in the day…(when street marches were banned). Please feel free to add your own stories! Make them anonymous if you wish. It is not as if we ever expected them to behave any better! They always do the bidding of the most powerful, the elite. — Ian Curr, 4 Sept 2012.]

    Was walking back to the square from the corner of Albert and Adelaide Sts.(21 August 1978).
    Last thing I remember was walking passed a copper and the end of a line of a few police.
    Appears that he has come down hard on my nose with his elbow.
    I went to ground and the boots started flying in.
    Appears that Det. John Frederich Johnstone (of the consorting squad) ran from some distance to drag me to my feet and and putting a hold on a round my neck causing me to gasp for hair.
    Dragged me along to the paddy wagon and did not appreciate my wiping my blood on his suit.

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