CLIMATE of DEATH – Justice denied means more will die

by Gerry Georgatos
July 18th, 2013

Mother Mavis Pat at her son’s Fremantle Prison (museum) memorial, September 28, 2011 – Photo, Gerry Georgatos

Photo: Mother Mavis Pat at her son’s Fremantle Prison (museum) memorial, September 28, 2011 – Photo, Gerry Georgatos

“We have to get rid of racist cops. I don’t want to dwell on the past but I have grown up bitter,” said Whadjuk Noongar Elder Ben Taylor. Mr Taylor said of colonial and post-colonial Australia, “They have been killing our people for two hundred years.”
John Pat is dead. Cameron Mulrunji Doomadgee is dead. T.J.Hickey is dead. Dion Woods is dead. Grantley Winmar is dead. Elder Mr Ward is dead. Peter Clarke is dead. Terrance Briscoe is dead. There have been more than 300 Aboriginal deaths in custody since 1991 – the year of the 339 recommendations from the 1987-1991 Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody. Since 1980 and to 2012 there have been nearly 3,000 deaths in custody – Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal, one of the world’s worst death in custody rates.
On 28 September 1983 a young life came to an end that sent a community into tears before it became rage and outrage dulled into anguish and sorrow by the passing of time and a litany of broken lives. The tears of 28 September 1983 filled Roebourne, breaking the hearts of its Yindjibarndi peoples. A mother lost her eldest son, 16 years young. John Pat’s death contributed to the call for an inquiry into Aboriginal deaths.
This year, 30 years on, John Pat will be remembered in a national remembrance – Roebourne, Perth, Alice Springs, Darwin, Adelaide, Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane and Cairns. More than 100 mourners and stop deaths in custody advocates will be Roebourne-bound in a hired bus on September 25 for the Roebourne remembrance. John’s mother, Mavis, has given her blessing, and will be present at the Roebourne remembrance alongside her remaining children Glen and Maisie. The Yindjibarndi, the majority still impoverished despite the mining boom all around them, will swell the remembrance event.
Some things have changed however not enough has changed. John Pat’s mother Mavis remembers him every hour of every day – there is a hole in her heart that nothing can mend, such is a mother’s pain.
I have seen Mother Mavis cry for her son, John Pat, who is not lost to her, nor is he lost to his sister and brother however they are emotionally emaciated by the anguish of the pain that his life is one that has not been lived as it should have been. For John Pat was 16 years young when racism murdered him. Mavis, Glen and Maisie have gone on with their lives, in Roebourne, but the trauma of that day 30 years ago has left its haunting legacies.
Mother Mavis’s pain is shattering, often bringing her to her knees, her head buried in her arms or in her lap, and her cries often heard by others. Her son did not die in an accident, her son did not die of illness, he did not die by some means that in the least could make some sense – her son was stolen from life by the rapacious prejudices of racism – her son was a ‘black cunt’ bashed to death. The colour of his skin, his very identity, historical and contemporary, cultural and political were the liabilities that the ugliness of prejudice caught in its net. Racism is an ugly bastard, a divisive scum. It destroys the perpetrator and the victim, mangles the collective consciousness. Mother Mavis and her two remaining children, John’s younger sister and brother, live day in day out, slipping into every sleep with the rush of thoughts that John died not because of who he was in his mind’s slopes or in his heart’s valleys but rather for who he wasn’t – he was not born ‘white’ or at least non-Aboriginal. He was someone the Saturnalian brimstone of ill-kept racism, the taunting simmer of vicious hate made inferior in allowing others to consider themselves superior and with such assumption that they could believe that “a black cunt” like John Pat should not walk alongside them.
To remember the life lost, of young John Pat, with less passion and with fettered rationales is to misunderstand and misrepresent racism and the hate that it obliges – it is to allow for racism to steady a foothold. In order for perpetrator and victim to not be held hostage by racism they must understand racism so as to move forward. His death must be remembered with the same despair that the Roebourne community greeted the shocking news – when four off-duty police officers and an off-duty police aide, inebriated by the effects of alcohol and by the bitter tasting wash of their prejudices, and by generations of cruel and nescient stereotypes shoved down their throats, vilified the life out of this boy.
Last year, on September 28, once again 100 people coalesced to remember John Pat, his life, its meaning, the legacy, to honour his passing, to remember his spirit, and to honour the future, our unfolding human rights language – that John Pat lives on in our urges for a better world, one far removed from the vacuum of senseless inhumanity that in a mere fifteen minutes when police officers and young Aboriginal youth clashed young John Pat would leave this life. 100 mourners, Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal, from far and wide, remembered John Pat at the now historical museum-like Fremantle Prison where a memorial stands forever to young John, inscribed with the ode dedicated to John Pat by the late Dr Jack Davis. Every year we come to the Memorial to remember John Pat, and at times his mother too, from Roebourne afar. Mother Mavis, and her youngest son, Glen, have sat through the proceedings again and again, in a well of tears as if 29 or 28 or 27 years ago were yesterday. Glen was 8 years old when his brother twice his age was taken from him.
On September 28 2000 the Australian Human Rights Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner Dr Bill Jonas said, “His death, investigated by the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, became for Aboriginal people a symbol of injustice and oppression. But more than a decade after the Royal Commission, Aborigines are still dying in custody at alarming rates. And they continue to be imprisoned for minor offences despite the recommendations of the Royal Commission that jail should be a punishment of last resort.” Dr Jonas continued, “The over-representation of Indigenous people in the criminal justice system is a continuing crisis. All levels of government have failed to respond adequately to the recommendations of the Royal Commission and the draconian mandatory sentencing regimes of the NT and WA have ensured that Aboriginal people continue to be jailed for trivial matters. John Pat was almost 17 years old when he was found dead in a police station lock-up in Roebourne, on 28 September 1983. He died of head injuries sustained during the fight with off-duty police officers outside the local Victoria Hotel. Four officers and a police aide were later charged with his manslaughter but acquitted at trial.”
Dr Jonas continued, “The number of Indigenous deaths in custody in the decade since the Royal Commission has been 150% the rate in the decade prior to the Royal Commission. To September 1999 there have been 147 Indigenous deaths in custody, compared to 99 in the decade before the Royal Commission. From October 1999 to 30 May 2000, there were a further eight Aboriginal deaths in custody in Western Australia alone. From 1988 to 1998, the Indigenous prisoner population (across all age groups) more than doubled. It has grown faster than non-Indigenous prisoner rates in all jurisdictions. 17.2% of all prison deaths in the 1990s have been Indigenous people, compared to 12.1% in the 1980s. The Royal Commission found that the reason Aboriginal people die in custody at such an alarming rate is because of the sheer numbers in custody. States and territories must redouble their efforts to reduce the rate of incarceration of Aboriginal people in the criminal justice process. It is at times like these – when Australia is a proud nation basking in international attention – that we should remember to refocus our efforts to protect the poor, the sick, the marginalised among us. And we should remember the toll that imprisonment for minor offences has taken on our Indigenous people.”
During the evening of what would be John Pat’s last day of life, the four off-duty police officers and the police aide came to the Victoria Hotel after a night of revelry and drinking at the local golf club. What would come to pass in the minutes ahead would tear a hole so deep in mother Mavis Pat that a world would cave in within it and sink the hopes of a family and scar a community – for Roebourne, in the heart of Yindjibarndi, is known Australia-wide for the death of John Pat, and not for its red earth, its yellow sands, the vast landscapes, or for the warm seas nearby that wash its pebbles and rock. There are few people who bring on the mention of Roebourne without contemplating the vile racism that killed John Pat – Roebourne is to Western Australia what Birmingham is to Alabama.
John Pat was ‘found’ dead in a prison cell, his head having been smashed on the hard earth after falling backwards from the blows to his head thrashed from the subterfuge of a violent one-sided altercation with the off-duty police officers. How can mother Mavis Pat forget the loss of her son? She cannot. The pain has not eased in the 30 years since, and if anything it has crippled her. She bore her son to a witness of the world which innocence could not imagine, a tale it could not tell, and her son came into it without warning. In the fullness of a life too brief young John Pat learned of a world that saw him cold, and with the shrill of sheer chill, weeding fears and an austere dominion of thorny meaninglessness.
In the decade since the 1991 Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody recommendations, – 339 recommendations – Aboriginal deaths in custody went up by 150%. This trend continued during the last ten years. Indeed, it is 22 years since a royal commission into Aboriginal deaths in custody and yet little seems to have changed. Indeed, in terms of the Australian Institute of Criminology’s crude totals, the numbers are as bad as ever, human lives are still being lost. In terms of proportion to total deaths in custody, Aboriginal deaths are proportionately higher than they were three and two decades ago. In terms of imprisonment rates these have shot through the roof, with today Aboriginal peoples comprising more than one in four prisoners as compared to one in seven prisoners at the time of the royal commission. Deaths in custody is a horrific problem for Australia, and for the national moral compass, for Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal peoples. Australia has a worse death in custody record, in terms of rates, both prison-custodial related and police-custodial related than most other nations of our equivalent social wealth or thereabouts. Australia, in terms of proportion to population rates and proportion to prison population rates has a worse record than England, Wales and Scotland.
Half a dozen years ago during Masters research I was stunned when I began formulating comparative data globally. I found Australia has higher incarceration rates for our Aboriginal peoples than did South Africa of its Black peoples during the final years of apartheid. At the time I found that Australia incarcerated Aboriginal adult males at five times the rate than did apartheid South Africa of its Black adult males. And in Western Australia the rate was eight times. In 2013, the comparative data has the national incarceration rate of Aboriginal adult males at six times and in Western Australia at nine times. It just gets worse.
I also found that Australia incarcerates its Aboriginal adult males at a marginally higher rate than what does the United States of America of its African-American adult males. This is a disturbing statistic because the USA is the mother of all jailers, with nearly one per cent of its population imprisoned.
Australia, the world’s twelfth largest economy, and with the highest median incomes per capita, is a society harsh on its poorest, harsh on the downtrodden and this is evidenced by our prison incarceration rates. Once again we have the world’s highest rates of incarceration of Aboriginal peoples. To achieve this Australia doubled the prison population from 15,000 to 30,000 from 1991 to 2011 in order that 8,000 Aboriginal persons shall be incarcerated at any one time, despite Aboriginal peoples making up only 2.6 per cent of the Australian population. It is fair to argue that racism drives the criminal justice system – it is fair to argue that legislators are driven in their judgments by the inter-generational stereotypes shoved down people’s throats by the simple assumptions of those past and present, but with origins-of-thinking in racism. Rocket scientists are not parliamentarians but mostly ordinary folk, many who struggle to disassociate with origins-of-thinking that is generations old. How else do you explain the doubling of the prison population? How else do you explain that 28% of the Australian prison population is comprised of Aboriginal peoples? Western Australia must be more racist than other states, challenged only by the Northern Territory – because WA imprisons Aboriginal adults and youth at rates higher than the rest of the nation. Western Australia has 14 adult jails, and 42 per cent of its prison population is comprised of Aboriginal peoples. Looking closer at this let us understand that more than 5,000 prisoners are hulked into these 14 prisons however more than 2,000 of them are Aboriginal. Let us consider that the total Aboriginal population of Western Australia is almost 80,000. Therefore one in 40 of all Aboriginal people in Western Australia will spend tonight in a cold dank prison cell. One in 14 of all Western Australian Aboriginal adult males will spend tonight in a prison cell, and for Aboriginal youth the rates are much worse. 70 per cent of WA’s juveniles are detainees. Are West Australian Aboriginal peoples this bad or is it that Western Australia is harsh, very harsh on its Aboriginal peoples? Is Western Australia the hostile racist environment that lived wild on September 28, 1983, when John Pat went to the aid of a friend, whom a police officer called a ‘little black cunt’ and swore he’d get? Or does Western Australia and its institutions continue to languish in origins-of-thinking generations old that it has not confronted, understood and packed away?
How can any reasonably minded person explain why Western Australia incarcerates the Aboriginal peoples of its State at nine times the rate of apartheid South Africa, while Australia incarcerates Aboriginal peoples at a national rate of six times the apartheid South African rate? Something is clearly wrong. In terms of proportion to total prison population the world record is tragically held by the Northern Territory where 83 per cent of its prison population is Aboriginal despite Aboriginal peoples comprising 28 per cent of the total Territory population.
Last year, I spoke to mother Mavis and brother Glen at the end of the annual remembrance of a son and brother, and their pain was as deep as those that have come before. I was reminded of pain as if past and present collapse in time, and Roebourne and Fremantle are the same earth, as if John had walked before us. Mother Mavis expected the world to change when the royal commission was convened. Singed with grief, felled by a heap of racism, she said in a statement to the royal commission, “I don’t know what’s going to come out of the royal commission but I hope it makes everything better for Aboriginal people.” Near thirty years later mother Mavis knows all too well that little has changed. Alcohol numbs the pain when it grips her so tight that she can bear no more.
The off-duty police officers had continued their drinking at Roebourne’s Victoria Hotel before they unnecessarily brawled, and with great viciousness, with the local Aboriginal youth who had also been drinking. The fight never had to have happened, it was a choice, a decision, a conviction, it was brought on needlessly however with the highest cost, that of a human life and with a hurt through to so many that its pervasiveness is yet to yield. The off-duty police officers could have walked away, most certainly, or acted with a modicum of humanity, instead hate and spite urged them on. Prejudices with their origins-of-thinking generations old, and generations removed, fired their synapses, flushing morbidly their thinking. 1983 was not 1933 and the excuses of the police officers and the police aide run thin. John Pat died of head injuries, a torn aorta and his bruised and battered body finished up a thornbush of broken ribs. One witness was straightforward with testimony to the Supreme Court in 1984, of the unconscious and likely lifeless John Pat – that he was “thrown like a dead kangaroo” into the back of a police van.
WA’s current shadow attorney-general, John Quigley, was the police lawyer who defended the four police officers and the police aide who were brought to trial over John Pat’s death. Earlier last year, in a major newspaper John Quigley was quoted, “In lieu of all the public concern and the media about John Pat’s death at the time it was a great victory to win the case.” I typed a text on my mobile phone and sent it to John Quigley, whom I know, “John, your insensitive statement will go down like a lead balloon with Aboriginal peoples and communities and it will cut right through the bone with the families long torn and devastated.” The outrage from John Pat’s death contributed to the call for the royal commission, and flowered, for only a few short springs, a trickle of hope.
The late Dr Jack Davis wrote in his book, John Pat and other poems, “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.” In every visit I make to a prison, I see John Pat in everyone, young and older, and every prison cell I walk past I see the dank concrete floors and what little boys, and girls, with innocence born, will grow up to see day in day out, with heads lowered, concrete floors and John Pat. The pigment of their skin and the holes in their pockets telling them of a difference which was once unknown to them and in a better world would be unknown.
The Coronial Inquest which began on 31 October, 1983 during 21 days, heard from seventy-seven witnesses. On February 6, 1984, four police officers and a police aide were committed for trial on charges of manslaughter and they were brought before the Supreme Court in Karratha on 30 April 1984. An all-white jury of 12 men and three women acquitted them. There has never been a successful prosecution against any police or prison officer in that they contributed an unnatural hand in a police or prison custodial related incident. Let us remind ourselves that it took confrontational protests and the burning of the Palm Island Police Station to bring to the light of day the death in police custody of Cameron Mulrunji Doomadgee and yet justice has not been done, Officer Chris Hurley is yet to atone while Palm Island councillor Lex Wootton was sent to prison.
Roebourne’s name came to everyone’s lips with John Pat’s death. It all started when one local boy, Ashley James, was threatened by one of the off-duty police officers when he sought to make a purchase from the hotel’s bottle shop. The off duty police officer was heard to say, “We’ll get you, you black cunt.”
With racism fuelling the inebriated police officer, and the culture of favour dispensation and nepotism indemnifying those uniformed in the ‘blue’, he followed Ashley James. Verbal abuse was levelled at the youth and it was so loud that it alerted the other officers to the prospect of a melee. The cruelty of the policeman pursuant of his prey led to him knocking Ashley James to the ground. Let us ensure the context of the day is understood, in that it was not the fact the officers were inebriated that caused the violence. It may have compounded the situation, however it was their racism, and this should not be argued against. Ashley James fuelled with anger retaliated and hence a brawl ensued. Some of the other Aboriginal youth, including John Pat tried to intervene and break up the brawl, to rescue their mate however they found themselves either attacked by the other officers or drawn into the fight. Apparently, John Pat had tried to pull Ashley James away from the heart of the brawl. It was at this point that one of the off-duty policemen, with an obvious deep hate wandering in his heart, walked up to John Pat and punched him in the mouth. A number of blows to John Pat spiralled from the officer’s hateful heart. A witness would testify, “he fell back, and didn’t get up. I heard his head hit the road.” John Pat was not the victim of just one punch, however of many punches. His life may have ended just after his head hit the road however such mitigation is foolhardy – the punches that struck him in the head, after his body was battered, and with such a force that they sent him pummelling to the ground and with such force that his head was whipped back on its neck’s nape that it would hit the ground before the rest of his body. The punches that sent him spiralling back, head first, to the earth are what killed him. Don’t blame the hard earth, this is outrageous and gutless. An intention was behind the attack on John Pat. The involved police officers may have been acquitted however till the end of days they carry with them a wrong that lies and cowardice cannot undo, they carry with them the fact they slaughtered the life out of a young man and little can perceptually modify this – John Pat was a victim, and the police officers and others past and present, inter-generational prejudices were and are the perpetrators. Aboriginal Elder, the late Dr Jack Davis AO, BEM once said, “The beginning of the cause of deaths in custody does not occur within the confines of police and prison cells or in the minds of the victims. Initially, it starts in the minds of those who allow it to happen.”
In July, 2010, Western Australian Fremantle federal member of parliament Melissa Parke called for a royal commission into the maltreatment of Aboriginal peoples before the criminal justice system. This call came in light of the death of the Warburton Elder, Mr Ward, in the back of a prisoner transport vehicle when he was burnt to death in the hot metal heat he was trapped in on a 43 degree day on a 360 kilometre journey of death from Laverton to Kalgoorlie. His cries of anguish were ignored by the drivers. Ms Parke said the state coroner had found that “Mr Ward had suffered a terrible death while in custody which was wholly unnecessary and avoidable.” So too was the death of John Pat, and of Mulrunji Doomadjee and of T.J. Hickey, and last year of 28 year old Terrance Briscoe in an Alice Springs police cell and of so many others. The WA’s Director of Public Prosecutions Joe McGrath publically announced criminal charges would not be laid over Mr Ward’s death.
Ms Parke said, “The circumstances of Mr Ward’s death, just 18 days before the National Apology to Indigenous Australians, demand both justice and accountability. Accountability not simply on the part of the two G4S drivers involved, who, apart from any legal liability, showed an abysmal lack of human decency, but also on the part of the police, Corrective Services, the Department of the Attorney-General and the multinational company G4S.”
Most importantly, and indicative of a system underwritten by prejudices, biases, racism, and social engineering, and which the origins-of-the thinking that prevailed this dominion continue inter-generationally to this day, Ms Parke said, “In 1901 the WA member of Parliament for Kalgoorlie, Hugh Mahon moved a motion calling for a royal commission into the conditions of Aboriginal people in WA and the administration of justice in the lower courts of the state.” It was not heeded. Ms Parke said, “110 years later after that tabling of that motion we are here again with calls for inquiries into deaths in custody.”
A couple of years ago, Emma Purdy in her widely published article “A sick prison still claiming lives” wrote of the death of Mr Winmar in the SERCO managed prison of Acacia, on the outskirts of Perth, “Public anger was fuelled even further when (the custodial death of Dion Woods) was followed less than a week later by that of 39-year-old father of five Grantley Winmar in Sir Charles Gardiner Hospital, also in Perth, on 22 March 2010. Although Winmar had previously suffered two strokes and been diagnosed with meningitis, when he became ill in WA’s Acacia Prison he was treated only with aspirin, shortly after which he passed into a coma from which he never recovered. Winmar had served all but three weeks of a six-month sentence for driving without a licence.”
“His brother, Richard Winmar, told the West Australian the day after his death that the family were told by doctors there had been bleeding on his brain for six to seven days while he was in jail. He said Winmar had called his mother from prison and said his head felt like it was ‘about to explode’, but that prison officers had simply given him aspirin and told him to return to his cell.”
Ms Purdy reported that WA’s DCS assistant commissioner, Graeme Doyle, said: “I have received a full rundown of Mr Winmar’s medical treatment over the past several weeks and I am satisfied he was treated promptly and appropriately.” The DCS declined to comment further to Ms Purdy.
What Ms Purdy describes is thematic of what occurs in Australia’s prison and police custodial jurisdictions, and I have long come to the conclusion that our prisons, as they are, are failed systems.
The Roebourne brawl between the off-duty police officers and Aboriginal youth lasted less than fifteen minutes, and with on-duty police arriving as the remnants of the brawl lingered, as battered and bruised Aboriginal youth were trashed into submission. The testimonies of the event are disturbing and stir the conscience of the reader – there are those who state the lifeless-like body of John Pat was kicked by a policeman, and that another policeman lifted his head by the hair to view his state. Nearby residents testified that six other youths were beaten by the off-duty police officers and some were being beaten while John Pat lay unconscious and possibly dead.
The forensic pathologist, Dr John Hinton reported that John Pat died of multiple injuries, his head injuries caused swelling and a brain haemorrhage, and that indeed he was victim to at least ten blows to his head. There were half a dozen bruises above his right ear and therefore at one stage he had been degenerated into a punching bag. The bruises and injuries to the rest of his body were so horrific that his aorta was torn, and to one family member this is as if his heart had been broken by the violence of man in the same ways the heart of Aboriginal peoples had been broken by those who chose for far too long to treat them as lesser.
John Pat’s body was laid in a police cell, however after it was confirmed he was dead, police officers washed him prior to photographs of his body being taken. During the Coroner’s Inquest investigating police officer Detective Sergeant Scott when cross-examined commented that it appeared the Roebourne Police could have engaged in a perversion of the course of justice and that they may have falsified police statements and records. To Aboriginal peoples this is nothing new, it is not news to them and for to time to come will continue to not be news. Only a couple of years ago the Corruption Crimes Commission of Western Australia (CCCWA) had found that police officers at the East Perth police watch house as recent as 2009 had fabricated charges against multiple taser victim Kevin Spratt, and yet these police officers continue in their roles despite the CCCWA ordering the quashing of the charges. Two of these officers have recently been charged but they are both pleading their innocence. These police officers and their actions, and the relative inaction by the WA Police to bring them to account casts a dark pall of aspersions against the whole of the WA Police.
My father who now struggles with the 84th year of his life, a working class man who had less than one year of school education, taught me as a young child that in life “always do what is right, and when people ask of you to account for your actions and your words be prepared at all times to do so.”
I can write with depth analysing the police reports and court transcripts and I am well versed in them however I believe it is more important that nearly 30 years after the death of young John Pat not to look into what we inherently know was a crime, was inhumane, was unnecessarily violent, was a cover-up, was cowardly by the courts of the day to deflect and was the burning hot racism of Western Australia’s police and of all those who judge rather than stand alongside and get to know one another, that instead I write of the harrowing pain, the anguish that lingers in the affected, such as in mother Mavis, brother Glen, sister Maisie, of metastatic wounds, of pain that moves like the wind and hurts as if flesh on razor-wire, pain without borders, from people to people, Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal. With the understanding of what happened comes a view of a world filled with distrust; a mistrust of public institutions, of the police, of the criminal justice system, of our parliaments, a loss of faith in our parliamentarians. With this stress on the aspirations of social cohesion there is a separation of peoples, the induction of class and race warfare, poverty and a hardening of souls that for some can lead to violence and other crime. When we examine this view we understand what many mean by “tokenism”.
In many ways strikingly similar to John Pat’s death is the death of Cameron Mulrunji Doomadgee and once again strikingly similar is the racism preventing the political will for anyone to do anything significant about a black man’s death at the hands of police officers.
On November 19, 2004 Mr Doomadgee was walking his dog on Palm Island, Queensland, and he was singing “Who let the dogs out?” Sergeant Chris Hurley took offence instead of walking on. Allegedly Mr Doomadgee swore at the officer despite others within vicinity testifying they did not hear anything however Mr Doomadgee is dead and we have only the officer’s testimony. Seargent Hurley took offence and arrested Mr Doomadgee. At the watch house, apparently after a ‘scuffle’ according to Sergeant Hurley he threw him into the police cell. The 201cm 115k officer admitted to throwing some punches at the 181cm 74k Mr Doomadgee.
An hour later Mr Doomadgee was dead.
Despite other police officers at the watch house, “none of them heard or saw anything.” Officer Hurley said he noticed Mr Doomadgee “motionless” and “cold” when touching him. He applied an “arousal technique” by “kicking him twice” but Mr Doomadgee remained motionless.
An ambulance was called however it took fifteen minutes to arrive however in that time not once did any police officer attempt to resuscitate Mr Doomadgee.
A few days later Palm Island people were filled with doubts and rage, and the watch house is burned down however this does not atone for a black man dead in a police cell – the cries went out for justice however remain unheard as did Mr Doomadgee’s cries by everyone in the watch house in a climate of death.
The business of police investigating police ensures that Senior Sergeant Hurley is not charged and instead receives various confidential payouts from the Queensland State Government. I have long advocated for independent – demarcated – police and prison inspectorates to undertake such investigations and other complaints of maltreatment and various allegations of injustices.
Police told investigating pathologist Guy Lampe that Mr Doomadgee had swallowed bleach instead that he had been punched to death.
After three months of paid leave, Sergeant Hurley is appointed as a duty officer on the Gold Coast however in September 2006 Coroner Christine Clements found that Mr Doomadgee died of punches inflicted by Sergeant Hurley.
Coroner Clements accused the police of failing to adequately investigate the death of Mr Doomadgee. Most importantly Coroner Clements stated that Mr Doomadgee should never have been arrested, just as Mr Ward should not have, just as Mr Briscoe should not have, just as so many should not have been arrested.
Mr Patrick Bramwell who was in the police cells at the time Mr Doomadgee died testified he remembered hearing him cry out “Help, help, please help me…” Mr Bramwell testified that Sergeant Hurley said to Mr Doomadgee, “Do you want more?”
A Queensland Crimes and Misconduct Commission inquiry into Mr Doomadgee’s death found that no charges can be laid against the police officer. However on this occasion as with the public outcries after John Pat’s death, public outcries and sustained news media coverage led to justice Sir Laurence Street appointed to review the death of Mr Doomadgee on the Palm Island police watch house cell floor.
On January 4 2007 the review commenced however the key witness, Patrick Bramwell was found hanged on Palm Island on January 16. A family member alleged that Mr Bramwell had earlier said to relatives he had been threatened by a police officer in the event he testified. However on January 26, the review overturned the DPP’s decision not to lay charges and instead recommended that Sergeant Hurley should be charged with manslaughter. Like the five police officers accused of killing John Pat and brought before trial, so too was Sergeant Hurley in June 2007 – before an all-white jury in Townsville.
Sergeant Hurley was acquitted.
On October 24, 2008 Palm Island Elder and former councillor Lex Wotton received 7 years in response to the Palm Island riots following Mr Doomadgee’s death.
On July 19, 2010 Mr Wotton was released however the Queensland Government controversially placed an order upon him as a condition of release that he cannot publicly speak about Mr Doomadgee.
Broken lives haunt and Mr Doomadgee’s only son, 18 year old son Eric was found hanged in Palm Island bushland on July 19, 2010 – it was said this occurred after earlier being taken for a drive by police.
On May 14 2010 another Coronial Inquiry found that police had colluded to protect Senior Sergeant Hurley and shortly after a Queensland Crimes and Misconduct Commission report leaked to the media stated that up to seven police officers should be charged, but none have ever been charged. The Commission’s chairperson Martin Moynihan clashed with the Anna Bligh Government in that there is a “culture of self-protection” for police. Ms Bligh dismissed calls for a Royal Commission and instead accepted the April 2011 410 page report by Queensland Deputy Police Commissioner Kathy Rynders that no police officer needed to be disciplined in relation to the death of Mr Doomadgee. She recommended ‘managerial guidance’ for one of the officers. So it goes that it continues to appear to Aboriginal peoples that it is not a crime for police officers to kill someone black.
Every September 28, John Pat is remembered at a memorial event in the grounds of the museum-like Fremantle Prison. I cannot forget John’s brother, Glen Lee at one of the memorials, carrying his grief that time has not let rest. It was an emotional one full of tears however for some amidst the wash of tears there was the glimmer of hope and of sunshine myriad bright. The Western Australian Deaths in Custody Watch Committee coordinated the event which brought together some 100 gatherers and mourners. Mother Mavis Pat laid a wreath by her son’s memorial and 28 years later a mother’s harrowing pain still languishing evident as she could not move from the memorial for many minutes, and for those there these minutes remain solid in time, in the slopes and valleys of our minds, in the landscape of our soul, wandering in our consciousness. Mother Mavis, her body wretched over her son’s memorial site, his spirit briefly alive in our awareness of him, her tears trickled and then streamed, and us who watched welled with tears, some holding them back and others could not, and the chill of her stifled cries cut a chill through this sunny day.
I paid my respects to mother Mavis and to brother Glen and I could see in both the face of John, from the images I have seen of him. Mother Mavis said, “My son did not have to die, no one has to die, I never forget him.” John Pat was the eldest of three children to Mavis Pat. His youngest brother, Glen Lee, was 8 years old when 16 year old John Pat was killed. Glenn said, “I was young but I remember, we always remember, we always know. My sister and I, my mother, we cannot forget.” The remembrance was opened by the highly respected Noongar Elder, Reverend Sealin Garlett who said, “Tears that filled Roebourne then, are the tears that have brought us here today.” The Reverend has known the pain of family, friends and community, many times over, who have lost their loved ones in the dank confines of a prison or police cell, and every time I hear him speak, year in year out he hurts more than the year gone, for it is the abyss of despair we look into to know that nothing has changed and that his people die for no good reason. He said, “I believe that our young fellas will make the changes… They are our voice. We cannot be silent, we need to stand up and when we do this our voices will change the destiny of our direction by this so-called liberated government. If we do not do this, if we do not stand up then we will continue to live under the shadows and clouds of their dominion.”
Many of the people who attended this gathering of mourning and remembrance were families thumped with harrowing anguish such as that owned by mother Mavis and John’s brother Glen. Some families have lost three and four of their loved ones to police- or prison-related deaths in custody. Let us remind ourselves that for every death in custody there are many near deaths in custody and scores of people maltreated. Sylvia Mornoyarnda said, “This is still a penal colony and for Aboriginal people never has it been more so. I am appalled in the world we live in now in how this world treats Aboriginal people. Aboriginal people are the best at knowing how to live together, how to stand alongside each other. Aboriginal people understand that money does not mean more than love, that the profit of life is in love, in family. Mining exploitation is for the greed of the fancy-pancy. We need independence from racism.”
When John Pat died Harvey Coyne was a young man in prison, at Fremantle Prison, now a museum, and where the memorial for John Pat is held every year. Harvey said, “I was inside here in this prison when news of the death of John Pat came. Our heads went down – we all felt an insecurity in the system and by the forces demanding cultural assimilation. What happened to John we knew more of it would come and it has. I have seen in many, many people around me, in prison and outside prison the mental collapse of my brothers and sisters and how we are punished for this by the very system that makes this happen. 40 years later I would have hoped things would change however they have not, the fear is still there that the system is still letting us down and shutting heavy metal doors on us.”
Alison Fuller said, “I think we have to remember we are a strong people and that we have survived and that we will continue to survive. Blacks will lead the way for Blacks. We are not beggars, let us remember that, and that this is our land. Our wealth is counted in love and not in money.” Rosemary Roe said that her children are suffering at the hands of the criminal justice system and the narrow mindedness of a dull cold set of judgments. Let us remind ourselves that Australia’s prison population, which had doubled in the last two decades, that 28 per cent of it is Aboriginal peoples, yet Aboriginal peoples are less than 3 per cent of the total Australian population. Let us remind ourselves that in the hotbed of Australia’s racism, Western Australia, that 42 per cent of its prison population are Aboriginal peoples. There are 80,000 Aboriginal peoples in Western Australia however 2,000 of them are in Western Australia’s 14 prisons. Once again let us remind ourselves, and let it never leave our thinking, that one in 40 Western Australian Aboriginals will spend the night in a cold prison cell, and one in 14 Western Australian Aboriginal males will spend the night in a cold prison. And as sad it is to read let us understand the fact, as I culminate one research effort after another, that the blacker one is in skin colour the higher the rate of prison incarceration, the higher the arrest rates, the higher the deaths in custody rates, and also the higher the homelessness and suicide rates. More than 2,000 Aboriginal children have been removed from their families in Western Australia – that is one in every 40 Aboriginal people in Western Australia are in the care of the State – therefore have the Stolen Generations ended? The blacker one is the more likely they or the communities they come from are being neglected by our Governments and the more likely they have been inter-generationally neglected into the languish of third-world conditions. I am concluding research I’ve titled “The Aboriginal Clock”, and more of this will come for the light of day to challenge.
If more than 8,000 Aboriginal persons are in Australian adult prisons, then the shocking statistic that must be confronted is that one in 70 Aboriginal Australians are in prison today.
The cinders and embers of this racism have damaged our psyches and damaged the Australian national identity. If you want to know the identity of a nation, if you want to know its heart and soul, its mind, then day and night look into its prisons and you will know its heart, its soul and its mind. Rosemary Roe said, “My children suffer and I give everything of what I have to help them and it is hard when those, whether they are police or courts don’t know how to help them and only to hurt them.” Rosemary is a first cousin of Rex Bellotti Snr whose son’s story has been highlighted by the through care journalism of The National Indigenous Times. Rosemary said, “Far too many of us are affected, and there are no barriers to gender or age. I was part of the first Death in Custody meeting in WA, in 1988 at Bunbury and here we are 33 years later after that meeting, and that meeting had been brought about by the death of John Pat. In 1997, we had the suicide of an 11 year old Aboriginal child, the youngest ever in the country. This was my first cousin’s child. This tore us up and now he is no longer the youngest suicide. When will it get better?”
The 2011 remembrance was heavily attended by the Perth based Aboriginal group, HALO, who work to help Aboriginal youth from re-offending, and to date have achieved a 100% record of success. 30 of HALO’s youth and volunteers attended, with some of the HALO dancers performing spiritual dances in memory of John Pat. HALO coordinator, Leanne Smith said, “We are here for John Pat, for his family and for all those inside. People can be helped but most of the public puts it all in the too hard basket. They see only the statistics. Aboriginal people have the answers to their own issues and we only need to help and support them – HALO has proven this – and that we do it differently from the justice system.” Leanne said, “The travesty is not the high incarceration rates, the travesty is that they don’t need to happen.” Some of HALO’s youth are dancers and some of them danced in memory of John Pat – they performed a number of spirit dances, including the ‘Lost Boy’ and danced away the bad spirit dreams to make way for good spirit dreams.
Western Australia Deaths in Custody Watch Committee former chairperson, Marianne Mackay said, “I know that we are sick of it all, it comes with being Aboriginal however we have to stand up so we make the big changes for our people. The Pat family, this is a family that has not got justice, none of our families have ever got it. There is not enough support out there for us to get lawyers and protection.” Marianne lost the father of her eldest son as a death in custody.
The Reverend Sealin Garlett read the ode to John Pat by the late Elder Dr Jack Davis and the gathering sat silent, taking in every word – Mother Mavis with head bowed, brother Glen with shoulders lowered, both staring to the earth – “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. Agh! Tear out the page, forget his age. Thin skull they cried, that’s why he died! But I can’t forget the silhouette of a concrete floor, a cell door, and John Pat. The end product of Guddia (white man’s) Law is a viaduct, for fang and claw. And a place to dwell, like Roebourne’s hell, of a concrete floor, a cell door, and John Pat.” The Reverend’s crackling voice rose more, and resonated John Pat alive with all of us, “He’s there – Where? There in their minds now, deep within. There to prance, a long sidelong glance, a silly grin, to remind them all, of a Guddia wall, a concrete floor, a cell door, and John Pat.”

The writer of this article, Gerry Georgatos, declares an impartiality conflict of interest as a deaths in custody researcher. He is also an investigative journalist and writer with the National Indigenous Times, a journalist with the National Indigenous Radio Service and a PhD researcher in Australian Custodial Systems & Australian Deaths in Custody, and author of “Climate of Death”.

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