It’s been said multiple times, but the message isn’t getting through | Opinion

By Shepparton News

Don’t kill us!


These were the shocking works spoken recently by Nakkiah Lui on ABC’s Q&A program - The Hard Truth.

It was confronting.

Why are we hearing these words in 2020?

In Australia. In a country that many of us believe is fair, equitable and just.

If this is the case, why are Aboriginal and Torres Strait people the most incarcerated people on the planet?

The Uluru Statement from the Heart described this so tellingly:

“Proportionally we are the most incarcerated people on the planet. We are not an innately criminal people. Our children are aliened from their families at unprecedented rates. This cannot be because we have no love for them. And our youth languish in detention in obscene numbers. They should be our hope for the future

These dimensions of our crisis tell plainly the structural nature of our problem. This is the torment of our powerlessness”.

At all levels of society, our systems discriminate against the First Peoples of this country.

We see it in the over-representation of Aboriginal people in police custody and prison.

In the locking up of Aboriginal people for non-payment of fines.

We see it in the unconscious bias shown towards Aboriginal people in shops as they wait to be served last despite going to the counter first.

Or in more overt racism when they are being ignored when trying to hail a cab once the driver looks at their face. In being followed around a shop or being asked to open their bag.

In the recent violent response of police when dealing with a young Aboriginal boy in Sydney or the Aboriginal man beaten when he was stopped riding a bike without a helmet.

But this described powerlessness is not from want of trying.

As Lui pointed out: “We’ve told you what we want you to do”.

Over generations, Aboriginal leaders have called for equity, equality and a say in matters that affect them.

Since 1924 when the Australian Aborigines Progressive Association (AAPA) was formed, there have been calls by Aboriginal people to control the administration and direction of their own affairs.

The AAPA criticised what they saw as the harmful actions of the Aborigines Protection Board, in particular their role in the removal of children from their families.

Again in 1938, on the inaugural Day of Mourning held on the 150th anniversary of the landing of the First Fleet, there were calls for equity.

“WE, representing THE ABORIGINES OF AUSTRALIA, assembled in conference at the Australian Hall, Sydney, on the 26th day of January, 1938, this being the 150th Anniversary of the Whiteman's seizure of our country, HEREBY MAKE PROTEST against the callous treatment of our people by the whitemen during the past 150 years, AND WE APPEAL to the Australian nation of today to make new laws for the education and care of Aborigines, we ask for a new policy which will raise our people TO FULL CITIZEN STATUS and EQUALITY WITHIN THE COMMUNITY.”

At every turn, after every attempt to show the way forward, there has been overall inaction.

The 1963 Yirrkala Bark Petitions, written in both Yolgnu Matha and English, protested the excision of land from the reserve where the members of the clan groups of Yirrkala lived, where they hunted and where their sites of significance were situated.

They protested that Bauxite mining leases were granted and land excised without any consultation.

Again in 1988, the Jawoyn community in Barunga, Northern Territory, invited people from across Australia and the world to their annual Barunga Sport and Cultural Festival.

Former Prime Minister Bob Hawke, along with Galarrwuy Yunupingu AM and Wenten Rubuntja AM, chairs of the Northern and Central Land Councils, accepted their invitation.

At the festival, the land council chairs presented Hawke with a painted declaration (the Barunga Statement) that detailed aspirations of ‘the Indigenous owners and occupiers of Australia” and a request to the Australian Government and people to ‘recognise our rights’.

Even though this statement was the result of extensive engagement between Aboriginal leaders in the Northern Territory and the Australian Government, nothing came of it.

In March 1987, the now-defunct National Committee to Defend Black Rights began counting Aboriginal deaths in custody as part of a national campaign.

The results were sobering. It found one indigenous person died while incarcerated every 11 days.

This led to the establishment in 1987 of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, which examined 99 deaths between 1980 and 1989.

It had to consider how and why each person died, including underlying social factors.

The total included 63 people who had died in police custody and 33 in prison - including three in juvenile detention - 88 males and 11 females, with an age range of 14 to 62 years.

Half of these people had been removed in childhood from their families by child protection agencies.

The commission investigated each life and the circumstances of each death.

It described previous police and coronial inquiries into the deaths as “perfunctory” and “narrow” in focus.

Its final report, tabled on 15 April, 1991, found indigenous people were more likely to die in custody because they were more likely to be in custody.

Their over-representation in police custody and prison was described as “grossly disproportionate”.

Thalia Anthony, from the University of Technology Sydney, wrote in 2016 on the 25th anniversary of the handing down of the report, “the majority of its recommendations remain unimplemented. Its report called for a holistic and systemic approach, but there have only been ad-hoc and provisional piecemeal changes. Unsurprisingly, they’ve had negligible overall effect on reducing deaths in custody.”

Fast forward to 2020.

What has changed?

Since the Royal Commission there have been 437 recorded Indigenous deaths in custody – a truly shocking figure.

How long do Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have to continue calling for change only to have it fall on deaf ears?

But the answer has been here all along.

They are in the recommendations of the 1991 Royal Commission.

Failure to implement them has been a massive failure of commitment and political will at all levels of government.

Aboriginal people have been fighting for their lives since 1788.

In 2020 this has to stop!

We all have a role and a responsibility in this – speak up! Don’t stay silent!

After all, staying silent is perpetrating this violence.

Complacency is being complicit.

As actor Meyne Wyatt, so powerfully put it recently on Q&A, “...seeing us as animals not people – that shit needs to stop. Black deaths in custody – that shit needs to stop. Be crazy, take a risk, be different, offend your family, call them (racists) out.”

We can and must do better.

Join us for a silent vigil as we say it is time to draw a line in the sand – the deaths must stop.

Saturday, June 27, at Lake Victoria, Wyndham St Shepparton. Arrive at 11 am. From 12 pm to 12.30 pm, we will be standing silently, two metres apart.