We still fight for justice within a system determined to deny it

15 Apr 2021

In our communities, we all know someone that has been impacted by the criminal justice system in a harmful (often devastating) way.

#StopBlackDeathsinCustody is something that should be obvious. The same way #BlackLivesMatter should be, and yet, we continue to scream these phrases into a cacophony of “but” from the mainstream laying the consequences of colonial violence at our feet. When I hear the speeches that were made over the weekend as people mobilised to call for justice, there is no question that there is fire within those speaking, but there is pain too and I wonder when that will matter.

I wonder when the pain of endless racism, colonial violence and systemic oppression will penetrate the apathy of the privileged.

I don’t mean that in the wealth sense as so many misunderstand, I mean it in the sense of the people who don’t interact with us, those who don’t fear the same systems as us, those who look to blue for protection while we work to quell the nausea that accompanies anxiety, those who view us in the abstract while we deal with the graphic reality of our existence.

In our communities, we all know someone that has been impacted by the criminal justice system in a harmful (often devastating) way. In a lot of our families and communities, there is active engagement with the system to call for justice for the death of a loved one. This system has damaged and destroyed and has faced no meaningful consequences.

Despite this, we have staunch families refusing to rest. They continue to fight for justice in the name of their loved ones and for change in spite of all that is stacked against them. Imagine trying to channel your pain into the fight, and that fight is ignored.

Recently families who have been fighting for justice called upon the government to meet with them. These calls were rejected outright. This is one of those moments where that saying pops into our heads: “When people show you who they are, believe them.” Contrary to the rhetoric we hear at key moments such as the handing down of the Closing the Gap report where all of a sudden we are expected to believe our lives, wellbeing and futures are important to the government, we need to remember all of these moments where they showed us who they are.

The work involved in organising campaigns for justice, rallies and marches and written submissions, legal arguments and impact statements is extensive and emotionally fraught, and to be perpetually met with deafening silence by the government and public at large is utterly soul destroying. This devastation is felt most pronounced by the families seeking justice, but it is also felt by the justice campaigners and lawyers and the community at large. The countless hours spent by lawyers, campaigners and organisers such as the incredible people at Jumbunna, the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services (Natsils) mob and community organisations that are constantly working to bring some semblance of justice for the families hurting can never be put into words on what this contribution means to our families and communities.

When I was young and teetering, frustrated at the state of things, I was told to look at the people working for change. I was told that they know all too well the system they are trying to disrupt and yet they persist. Look at the people who find the strength to fight against the mighty, because for all that they are against, they are not defeated.

So when I look to the people campaigning for justice, I look to them with that in mind, and although I see the struggle, the perpetual abrasion against systemic racism and wrongs – I also see the most inspiring strength and resolve. That is what we have in our corner for the continued resistance in the colony.

When considering the campaigns for justice I have worked on and supported over the years, I wonder what we were doing that was different to, say, the Dolly’s law campaign or the campaign to outlaw coward punches. Those campaigns were terribly important and received an instant groundswell of support. They received an audience with parliament to push forward laws which meant that the campaigners were able to channel their pain into change that benefited the community at large.

By comparison I see decades of justice campaigning for some families, and yet, they do not have the support from the community at large and have had meetings with politicians rejected. Is it perhaps because our campaigns for justice shine a light on the racism that underpins the violence that gave rise to our calls for justice? Would our campaigns require Australia to contend with its truth? Is it perhaps because the justice we often seek is against the system itself?

When we call for justice, the very people who are supposed to hear our calls are institutionally conflicted as they are investigating themselves. They are determining their own guilt as an institution, and there is no independence to investigations contrary to what we are told about coronial process.

So as we mark the anniversary of the royal commission into Aboriginal deaths in custody, we do so in mourning, for the violence continues. We still bury our people too soon and we still fight for justice within the system determined to deny it.

Australia has no justice when the victim is Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander. No justice, just us.

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