"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.
- Jail police who kill blackfellas.
- Aboriginal people should not be tried by non-aboriginal juries or judges.
- Aboriginal people should not be forced or cajoled into pleading guilty to crimes they did not commit.
- The aboriginal community and elders should have full control of murri courts.
- There should be no condition of pleading guilty to get into murri court.
- Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Service (ATSILs) should be placed under the control of aboriginal community and elders.
- 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!