We need justice to #ChangeTheNation

24 Jan 2020

In the absence of government leadership, our grieving families and communities are leading the way to change the nation.

My spirit is sore. On the eve of this new decade a Yorta Yorta woman, Veronica Nelson Walker, was arrested for shoplifting, denied bail and died shortly after. Reports say she was overhead by other imprisoned people screaming and crying out for help.

We are still reeling from two violent police shootings at the end of 2019. Tragically, 29-year-old Yamatji woman, Ms Clarke, was shot by police in Geraldton, WA, and died in hospital in September. The community called for answers about the police response and use of the gun. A month later, Kumanjayi Walker, a 19-year-old Warlpiri man from NT’s Yuendumu community, was shot by police after he attended a community funeral. There are concerns he wasn’t provided adequate medical assistance. It is reported that, while he died in the police station  family and Elders were outside, refused access to be with him.

Tears rolled down my face as I comforted my close friend and family member of Kumanjayi Walker. I saw the deep pain in her and her sister’s eyes, the same pain I had heard earlier in the voices of Yuendumu community Elders. Police violence is killing our people, but where is the justice? In 2019, there were at least eight black deaths in custody.

In the absence of government leadership, our grieving families and communities are leading the way to change the nation. Thanks to years of campaigning from Ms Dhu’s family, advocates and Sister’s Inside Free Her campaign, the WA Government reformed imprisonment for unpaid fines. We saw this same leadership in November, when communities held rallies around the country for Kumanjayi Walker. At the rallies, mob held up their ochre covered hands to represent blood spilt. If it wasn’t for grassroots mob organising protests, this barely would have hit the news.

The police officer has been charged with murder. But for most of our loved ones lost, there is little or no accountability. No police officer has ever been found guilty of any offence for an Aboriginal death in custody.

We all remember that Sergeant Hurley was promoted in the police force after the death of Mulrunji Doomadgee on Palm Island. Similarly, Government Ministers, public servants and private companies are mostly not held to their duty of care.

Last year, Aunty Tanya Day’s family led a movement for change. Tanya, a 55-year-old Yorta Yorta woman, fell asleep on a V-line train to Melbourne. She was arrested for public drunkenness, taken into the Castlemaine police watchhouse, where she repeatedly fell and sustained fatal head injuries. She became unconscious and never made it home.

Tanya Day’s family collected thousands of signatures for a petition calling for the offence of public drunkenness to be abolished. There was a groundswell of community support, with protests and smoking ceremonies at the coronial hearing. This will be the first death in custody inquest to consider systemic racism. The staunch advocacy of Belinda, Apryl, Warren and Kimberley led to the Victorian Government committing to abolish the offence and replacing it with Aboriginal-led, public health alternatives.

On the final day of the inquest, Tanya’s family’s statement said:

“This process has been painful, gruelling and extremely traumatic for our family and our community… It is clear to us that the investigation into our mum’s death has been flawed and inadequate. This is because police should not be investigating police. We have had a coronial investigation – but what we now want is a criminal investigation.”

Coronial inquests retraumatise families years after the deaths of their loved ones. Last year we heard devastating evidence coming out of coronial inquiries for David Dungay Jr, Rebecca Maher and Wayne Fella Morrisson. And after all that trauma, governments often ignore Coroners’ recommendations.

Wayne, a 29-year-old Wiradjuri, Kookatha and Wirangu man, was in prison on remand. Footage shows he was held down by up to 12 guards and cuffed, hooded, and put face down in a prison van. Three-and-a-half minutes of CCTV footage are missing from the van. He died in hospital three days later.

Wayne’s family have also led the way for change, holding vigils, rallies and calling for systemic change. The prison guards continue to delay proceedings, applying to avoid giving evidence and to have the coroner removed in November. Wayne’s sibling, Latoya Aroha Hohepa, said:

“They didn’t even want to afford us the benefit of seeing their faces and being accountable to what happened in the final moments of Wayne’s life under their care…. what really does the Australian justice system provide us if Aboriginal people’s lives continue to be subjugated within it? Who is accountable for our deaths?”

Next year is 30 years since the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody. This set out clear solutions, like Custody Notification Services run by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services, that save lives. Instead of implementing all the recommendations, governments have allowed over 424 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to die or to be killed in custody.

These are our Elders, parents, siblings and cousins dying due to systemic racism. They will never again be held by someone who loves them. We need justice.

Share their stories, speak their names. With your voices, let’s support our heartbroken families and communities leading the way. Only together will we change the nation and make this issue one that our political leaders cannot ignore.

Back to Stories
Related posts

Businesses like Woolworths don’t base decisions on morals

As we’ve seen with recent media drama around Woolworths and Coles being accused of price gouging, Nat Cromb reminds us we shouldn’t pat companies on the back for doing the bare minimum (especially when they make business decisions instead of moral ones).

He never had a chance – honouring the memory of Joshua Kerr

Meriki Onus honours the life and death of a proud Gunnai, Gunditjmara, and Yorta Yorta man, Joshua Kerr who tragically died in custody in 2022. Meriki has been present at Josh's inquest and offers her insights and reflections into systemic oppression and historical injustices.

Two apology days and no action

On May 26, 1997 the final report of the National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from Their Families, called the…

Enquire now

If you are interested in our services or have any specific questions, please send us an enquiry.