Indigenous deaths in custody: Why Australians are seizing on US protests

Anger over the death of George Floyd has spread to Australia, with Black Lives Matter protests being held across the country.

Protesters in Australia say there are many parallels to the US situation

But Australian demonstrators are not just expressing solidarity. Many are using the moment to vent fury about indigenous deaths in custody in Australia. So what is the situation?

How many indigenous Australians have died in custody?

Almost three decades on from a major inquiry into this issue, there is no easily accessible record.

In 1987, the Committee to Defend Black Rights found that one indigenous person was dying in custody every 11 days. It spurred a royal commission, completed in 1991, which investigated the incarceration of Aboriginal people and the circumstances of 99 deaths.

Protesters highlighting Aboriginal deaths at the Black Lives Matter protest in Sydney

The inquiry made more than 300 recommendations, but most were not implemented, and recent reviews have been criticised as inadequate or misleading.

Analysis by The Guardian found that at least 432 indigenous Australians have died in custody since the inquiry.

Are Aboriginal Australians disproportionately jailed?

Massively. Indigenous people comprise almost 30% of Australian inmates but less than 3% of the national population, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics.

This is about four times higher than the proportion of African-Americans jailed in the US.

There have been other stark reminders. A committee heard last year that every child in detention in the Northern Territory was indigenous.

According to one recent analysis, indigenous Australians are the most incarcerated people in the world – though its authors cautioned that much global data was not available.

When has anger escalated previously?

Some recent Aboriginal deaths in custody have sparked protests. High-profile cases include:

  • Kumanjayi Walker, 19 – shot dead last November after being arrested by officers at a house in a remote community;
  • Tanya Day, 55 – suffered a fatal injury in custody in 2017 after being arrested for being drunk and asleep on a train;
  • David Dungay, 26 – died after being restrained by five prison officers in a Sydney cell in 2015, despite crying out repeatedly “I can’t breathe”;
  • Ms Dhu, 22 – succumbed to septicaemia and pneumonia in 2014 while in police custody, in what a coroner later ruled had followed “inhumane” treatment by officers;

In 2004, there were riots in the Sydney suburb of Redfern after a 17-year-old boy, TJ Hickey, was killed in a police pursuit.

TJ Hickey’s mother, Gail, at a memorial protest in 2014

That same year, riots also broke out on Palm Island in Queensland after a man, Cameron Doomadgee, died in a cell from severe injuries, allegedly inflicted by a police officer.

What have been the consequences?

No police officer has ever been held criminally responsible for an Aboriginal death in custody in Australia – a fact often cited by campaigners.

A police officer is currently charged with murdering Kumanjayi Walker. A court has heard Constable Zachary Rolfe intends to plead not guilty. Another officer, who cannot be named for legal reasons, has denied murdering 29-year-old Aboriginal woman Joyce Clarke in Western Australia last September.

Some recent proceedings have identified systemic racism as an element in other deaths.

In April, a coroner’s inquest found that Tanya Day had been the victim of “unconscious bias” when a train conductor reported her to police.

In 2018, the Queensland government paid A$30m (£16.5m; $20m) in compensation to indigenous residents of Palm Island after a court found police had used excessive force on them during the 2004 riots.

What have political leaders said?

On Monday, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said although Australia had its faults, images of looting and burning in the US had made him grateful to live in such a “wonderful country”.

He added, however, that he did not “diminish” concerns about indigenous deaths in custody.

But his comments were derided by many Aboriginal activists and human rights groups who have long accused Australian leaders of failing to address the problem.

“The prime minister, like others before him, has chosen to ignore this country’s legacy of Aboriginal deaths in custody,” said Nerita Waight from the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services.

Such cases have also often failed to draw wide media attention or publicity. Critics argue that Mr Floyd’s death has been given considerably more prominence in Australia than deaths at home.

But they also say it has now fixed more attention on Australian policing. This week there was intense scrutiny of the controversial arrest of an Aboriginal boy in Sydney.

New South Wales Premier Gladys Berejiklian said: “I thought what most Australians thought, and that is – we still have a long way to go in our country.”

Z24 News

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