Baltimore reveals Australia’s indifference to deaths in custody

By Isabella Royce | 18 May 15
Fibonacci Blue/Flickr.

What sparks a riot?

The mistreatment of a civilian? The death of an innocent? Neglect of a community?

With these criteria one would think that Australia has all the makings of a Baltimore-style riot, except we’re missing one key ingredient: outrage.

The recent Baltimore Riots that erupted after the funeral of Freddie Gray – a 25-year old African American man who died after sustaining a spinal cord injury in police custody – have received worldwide attention and follow a wave of race-related protests in the United States. Images of a city on fire, of thousands of National Guard soldiers armed with riot gear, and of students throwing rocks and bottles flooded our news and social media.

The death of Eric Garner in New York at the hands of a police officer chokehold, the Ferguson protests and now Baltimore have thrust the issue of race and law enforcement into public scrutiny. Seeing impassioned communities gather in solidarity against social injustice, against police brutality and against futile deaths reveals a near state of excitement around these issues – a people’s desire to be a part of a greater picture of reform.

But deaths in police custody are not isolated to the United States. It is no secret that Aboriginal deaths in police custody are a serious issue that occurs far too often in our justice system. Despite a 1987 Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody that made 339 recommendations for reform (most of which have not been implemented), there continues to be an increase in the number of Indigenous deaths in custody.

Of the roughly 30,000 Australians in prison Indigenous inmates account for a quarter of this figure, even though they comprise just two percent of our general population. There are a confounding number of Indigenous deaths in custody: between 1980 and 1989 when the Royal Commission findings were published, 99 Aboriginal people died in custody. More recently in 2010 and 2011 alone, there were 21 Indigenous deaths.

While a large proportion of these were due to natural causes such as cirrhosis of the liver or heart attack, the deaths in custody for unexplained reasons continue to occur at unacceptable levels. The issue was critical enough for the Aboriginal Legal Services in Australia to bring a joint side event to the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues in New York, 2011.

Tammy Solonec, a Public Interest Solicitor from the Aboriginal Legal Service of Western Australia spoke at the UN of the unanswered questions that arise every time an Aboriginal person dies in custody. Speaking four years ago, Solonec condemned the “unnecessary deaths in a wealthy nation such as Australia” and urged all governments of Australia to “get serious” about deaths in custody.

Yet 26 years after the Royal Commission and four years after the issue was broached at the UN, the crisis remains largely in the shadows in Australia.

Of course, Australians are not apathetic to Indigenous affairs. The protests against the closure of up to 150 remote communities in Western Australia, which drew crowds of thousands of people across the country, demonstrate this.

But when 22 year old Julieka Dhu, an Aboriginal woman from Western Australia, died in police custody in August last year, her death went largely unnoticed. Ms Dhu was put into police custody for unpaid fines. She complained of feeling unwell while being held at the South Hedland Police Station in Western Australia and eventually died on her third visit to the South Hedland Health Campus.

Her family is awaiting an inquest into her death and beg for questions to be answered, such as why she was imprisoned for such a minor offence (Royal Commission Recommendation 87 reserves imprisonment as a sanction of last resort) and why she was returned twice to incarceration despite reportedly complaining of pain, vomiting, fever and paralysis.

Compare Australia’s muted reaction to Julieka Dhu to the blazing streets of Baltimore in the aftermath of Freddie Gray’s death, and the contrast is striking.

When no one stands up and makes a noise it is easy to ignore the quiet humming of the real issues. Complacency and acceptance of neglect allow custodial authorities to go unchecked and violations to continue. Andrew Bolt’s response to the protests against the closure of Aboriginal communities is evidence of the opinion that Indigenous issues are non-deserving of attention:

The protesters could meet in a park, on a pavement or on an oval to make their point. If they really had to block a road they could choose some quieter one, and some time that wasn’t peak hour.

Bolt, seemingly missing the point of a protest to raise awareness, is not a lone warrior in the plight to shift Aboriginal issues to a “quiet side street.”

This “out of sight, out of mind” mentality has characterised the attitudes of successive Australian governments since European settlement. The unanswered questions of deaths in custody are tolerated because of this mindset.

Commentators on the US protests have been asking “Why now? Why Baltimore? Why Freddie Gray?”

Maybe we should be asking “Why not now? And what will it take?”