Paperless Arrest Leads To Undignified Passing Of Warlpiri Artist

18 Sep 2015

Kumanjayi Langdon was a proud Warlpiri man from Yuendumu. He was an artist who contributed to his community and culture. He wrote and illustrated children’s books and posters, and had worked at Yurrampi Crafts as a designer. His public mural of the local footy team, the Yuendumu Magpies, is in the middle of town. One of his paintings hangs in the National Gallery of Victoria.

‘I wonder how quickly change would have happened if these abuses were mostly happening to white kids – not that it should be happening to any child at all’ Photograph: Roxanne Moore

Kumanjayi Langdon was a proud Warlpiri man from Yuendumu.

He was an artist who contributed to his community and culture. He wrote and illustrated children’s books and posters, and had worked at Yurrampi Crafts as a designer. His public mural of the local footy team, the Yuendumu Magpies, is in the middle of town. One of his paintings hangs in the National Gallery of Victoria.

He was a great storyteller. He made people laugh. Over the last few years, he sat under a tree in Yuendumu and shared stories with young and old people. The mob called it the “tree of knowledge”.

Kumanjayi should not have died in a police cell.

Like many other middle aged Aboriginal men, he suffered from chronic health issues,
including several heart conditions. In May, he went to Darwin for a medical appointment and while he was there, he was catching up with family members and friends. Kumanjayi was drinking in a park with his family and friends when he was arrested and detained by a police officer.

This offence usually carries a $114 fine with no further consequences. Kumanjayi was polite and cooperative before and during his arrest. He was not causing any “social disorder” or trouble. Yet, because of the Northern Territory’s new paperless arrest laws, the police chose to handcuff him in front of his family and friends, put him in an iron cage on a police van, take him to the watch house counter, still handcuffed, search him, strip him of his property, and hold him in a cell.

Less than three hours later he was dead.

This proud, respected man died without dignity. Not as a free man (as he should have been), but in a cell for criminals.

Kumanjayi repeatedly asked to see a doctor, but his requests were denied and he didn’t get the medical help that he needed. The nurse was alerted that he had previously been sent to the hospital by the station a few days earlier, and even after looking up his records and conducting a brief assessment of him, she did not uncover his serious health conditions.

This oversight could have been picked up by the officer on duty, but he failed to complete his sign off of the health questionnaire due to time constraints. They were under time pressure because of the influx of new prisoners being admitted under the new laws.

Despite all of this, ultimately NT Coroner Greg Cavanagh found that Kumanjayi had died of natural causes relating to his heart condition.

But these findings will be of little comfort to a family and a community who have lost a
husband, a father, an artist and a leader, who should never have been in custody in the first place.

In my view, these laws are being used to target Indigenous people, which is racist, unjust and unacceptable.

In his damning assessment of the laws, Coroner Cavanagh found that it is “no coincidence” that the first person to die in custody under the laws was Aboriginal. He found that the introduction of the paperless arrest scheme late last year came with the implicit message from the Northern Territory Government and senior police command that Aboriginal people drinking in certain areas should be taken off the streets and detained in police custody for up to four hours or longer, to sober up. He found that Kumanjayi “had done nothing to bring himself to the attention of police, beyond being with other Aboriginal people in a park in the Darwin CBD.” Just one street away, non-Indigenous people were also drinking in public places, “in pubs and taverns using sections of the public footpath that have been fenced off for outdoor drinking”, but without being arrested.

The Northern Territory has the second highest rate of Indigenous incarceration in the country. Of the 1800 times these paperless arrest powers have been used since December last year, between 70 and 80 per cent of those taken into custody have been Indigenous.

The Coroner said that in his view, “laws that impact so disproportionately on one sector of our community are manifestly unfair”.

It is impossible for me to write about Indigenous deaths in custody without a heavy heart. Too many of our mob have been dying in prison, for all the wrong reasons, for far too long.

It is now nearly 25 years since the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody (RCIADIC) handed down its damning report, calling for Australian Governments to take action to prevent further Indigenous deaths in custody. This included recommendations that police only use arrest as a last resort, and that police ensure that that people are not being held in police cells when they should have been held in other places of care.

Coroner Cavanagh has called for the repeal of these paperless arrest laws, finding that, until this happens, more disadvantaged Aboriginal people will be arrested and will be at risk of dying in custody. Amnesty International has echoed these calls, highlighting that the laws are contrary to international law and the RCIADIC recommendations. Under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, everyone has a right to liberty and these laws allow for the arbitrary detention of individuals. Detention should only ever be a measure of last resort.

Attorney-General John Elferink has rejected the recommendation to repeal the laws. The Northern Australian Aboriginal Justice Agency (NAAJA), with the assistance of Human Rights Law Centre and pro bono lawyers, is now challenging the laws in the High Court.

These laws are just one small glimpse of the much bigger crisis of over incarceration of Indigenous people in Australia. This is particularly worrying for young Indigenous people, who make up only 6 per cent of the population of 10-17 year olds in Australia but nearly 60 per cent of the youth prison population.

We know why this is the case. The paperless arrest laws are a clear example of how the laws of the justice system disproportionately affect Indigenous people. This is also the case for bail and mandatory sentencing laws. When it comes to practice, we need to ask why police are not cautioning Indigenous kids as often as non-Indigenous kids, and why Indigenous kids are more likely to receive a sentence of detention from the courts.

A lot of the underlying causes of imprisonment are related to the entrenched disadvantage that Indigenous people face, a result of years of colonisation, racism and discrimination.

Indigenous communities know what they need to overcome these social, health and
economic problems, but their voices are ignored while they are subject to top-down
government policies which fail time and time again.

Indigenous people have a right to participate in and have control over decisions made about their lives. When they do, research like the Harvard Project and Australia’s Nation Building Project has shown that their lives improve. Amnesty International has released two reports recently recommending that governments support Indigenous-led, community-controlled alternatives to youth incarceration.

In the NSW town of Bourke, the Bourke Tribal Council has spent years talking as a
community about how they can heal their young people and break the cycle of
imprisonment. Now, they are breaking new ground with a unique Indigenous-led version of an approach known as Justice Reinvestment. Justice Reinvestment tackles the causes of why people commit crime in the first place, redirecting the millions of dollars spent on locking up people into initiatives addressing the underlying causal factors such as health, housing, substance abuse, self-harm, education, employment and family harmony.

A scoping project is underway to consider taking Bourke’s model to other communities on a national scale. The NSW town of Cowra also has a Justice Reinvestment exploratory project underway. Recently, the South Australian Government committed to funding Justice Reinvestment in two locations.

In Western Australia, communities are working to keep their kids out of prison by taking them back to country to connect with land, Elders, traditional knowledge and culture. A young Aboriginal woman who came through the Yiriman project in the Kimberley told Amnesty International: “I got out of it a sense of belonging… women’s programs kept me away from trouble.”

In the words of Eugene Eades, who runs a similar cultural program in Nowanup in WA: “The land can heal our young people.” Indigenous kids come out of that program happier, healthier and with a sense of connection.

We will not break the cycle until we are supporting Indigenous communities to help their children in ways that are supported by communities; ways that they know will work, that are culturally relevant and are meaningful to those kids. Let’s invest in Indigenous children’s lives and address the intergenerational trauma, disadvantage, racism and discrimination that is the real cause of their overrepresentation in the justice system.

At the same time, we must get rid of draconian laws that disproportionately affect Indigenous people – like these paperless arrest laws – before any more Indigenous people die unjustly, unnecessarily, and without dignity, on the cold hard floor of a police cell.

Roxanne Moore is a Noongar human rights lawyer and Indigenous Rights Campaigner at Amnesty International (@RoxyAmnestyOz). Take action to stop the NT’s paperless arrest laws from claiming more Indigenous lives.

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