Another Preventable Death: Ms Dhu Vs WA Police And Australia-At-Large

The ongoing inquest into the death of Ms Dhu is welcome. But a broader inquiry into national behaviour is long overdue, writes Alister McKeich.

by Alister McKeich

In 2014, 22-year-old Ms Dhu died in police custody in South Hedland, Western Australia. The autopsy found Ms Dhu passed away from pneumonia, septicaemia and complications from a previous rib fracture.

A recent coronial inquest found that the police officers charged with her care thought she was faking the illnesses, told her to ‘shut up’, and laughed at her as she choked on her own vomit.

Ms Dhu was carried ‘like a dead kangaroo’ into a paddy wagon, and taken to the health clinic for the third time, where she passed away from cardiac arrest.

Ms Dhu was in police custody for unpaid fines of $3,622.

At this point, it’s almost needless to state that Ms Dhu was an Aboriginal woman. When reporting deaths in custody, sadly, Aboriginality is almost a given. Despite an extensive (and expensive ? around $40m) Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody in 1990, Aboriginal Australians still die in custody on a regular basis.

The Royal Commission included 339 recommendations in its conclusion; however, the issue boiled down to one very simple fact: ‘the conclusions are clear… Aboriginal people in custody are more likely to die than others in custody because the Aboriginal population is grossly over-represented in custody.’

The short (and seemingly obvious) answer is, then: if there were less Aboriginal people in jail, there would be less deaths in custody. However, since the Royal Commission released its report in 1990, we have failed Aboriginal people even at this first juncture.

In 2014, the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) found that Aboriginal inmates made up 86 per cent of the total prison population in the Northern Territory.

Nationally, in 2012, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people were 15 times more likely to be incarcerated than non-Aboriginal people.

Most recently, a Productivity Commission report cited a 57 per cent rise overall in Aboriginal incarceration in the previous 15 years. This is consistent with current evidence that also demonstrates Aboriginal deaths in custody growing steadily in the last 20 years alongside the soaring rates of Aboriginal incarceration.

That Ms Dhu was jailed for to court-ordered unpaid fines, and died as a result, is simply unacceptable under the recommendations of the Royal Commission, which aim to keep Aboriginal Australians out of jail.

Yet in Western Australia, people with unpaid fines can opt to spend a day in jail for every $250 worth of fines ? a law which clearly targets the poor, has resulted in increased numbers of Aboriginal people in custody, and sadly, entrenches jail time as a social norm within Aboriginal communities.

Upon her incarceration, numerous internal factors led to Ms Dhu’s death: police mistreatment, medical staff indifference, institutional racism, poor systems management and lack of familial consultation ? Ms Dhu’s grandmother Carol Roe reportedly phoned the station twice but police refused to let her speak with her granddaughter.

The Deaths in Custody Watch Committee has called for national action, which includes regular and culturally competent communication from police to families, no imprisonment for non-payment of fines, and an independent inquiry into systemic racism in the justice system.

The Committee have also reiterated recommendations from the Royal Commission, including 24-hour legal advice and custody notification line, 24-hour medical coverage and on-call medical assistance at watch houses and lock-ups.

Currently, 24-hour custody notification services are only operational in Victoria, ACT and New South Wales. The New South Wales Aboriginal Legal Service states that, ‘significantly, there have been no Aboriginal deaths in police cell custody since the CNS [Custody Notification Services] began’ in 2000.

At the cost of detaining two juvenile offenders per year, the NSW ALS states that its Custody Notification Service assists over 15,000 Aboriginal people per year.

It is clear that had culturally appropriate legal and medical services been notified of Ms Dhu’s incarceration and condition, her death could have been prevented. Similarly, culturally competent family consultation should have also been conducted ? instead, her family were refused contact.

The key here is cultural competency: Ms Dhu’s treatment at the hands of police and medical staff could not be described as anything but indifferent, racist and cruel. It is clear that a national movement to highlight police treatment of Aboriginal people is required.

Yet there are also systemic societal failures that lead to Aboriginal incarceration in the first instance. The Royal Commission acknowledged this, stating, “it is important that we understand the legacy of Australia’s history, as it helps to explain the deep sense of injustice felt by Aboriginal people [and]their disadvantaged status today.”

The Royal Commission report also concluded that “Aboriginal people remember this history and it is burned into their consciousness”, reflecting the deep trauma colonisation has had on Aboriginal communities.

Inter-generational trauma is the inherited collective trauma experienced by a group over a period of time, reflected in a range of physical, psychological and social indicators. It is evident that in both historic and current contexts, Aboriginal communities have been subject to both collective and individual traumas, resulting in the ‘cascading’ effects of inter-generational trauma.

Essentially, just as wealth, education and power are inherited amongst the privileged, equally so is poverty, poor health, fractured families and substance abuse among the disenfranchised.

It is clear that such historical trauma played a part in Ms Dhu’s initial incarceration: poverty, poor health, substance abuse and a physically abusive relationship were all factors that were reported and must all be taken into consideration.

This is the legacy of colonisation, a manifestation of an indifferent, racist society.

If the recent conduct of the Australian public towards Adam Goodes is anything to go by, or that a Pitjantjatjara woman was told to ‘speak English’ on Invasion Day, Australia as a nation must address its attitudes towards Aboriginal people in order to rectify the traumas that have been wrought upon Aboriginal communities.

While calls for a national movement against police mistreatment against Aboriginal people are both vital and necessary, calls for a national movement against systemic societal mistreatment of Aboriginal people must be voiced as well.

An approach that centres on incarceration prevention as well as custody care on this issue is vital to preventing further Aboriginal deaths in custody.

While the inquest will continue with police inquiries in March 2016, perhaps this should also be the year where Australia holds an inquest into its ongoing colonisation.


John Pilger on the Indigenous struggle: 'There is no alternative now'

by John Pilger

Why are we here? Why are we doing this every 26th January - year after year? Of course, we know why - Indigenous people are saying to Australia: 'Look, we are still here. We have survived the massacres and the cynicism. We have survived.'

But is that enough, I wonder? Is survival without action ever enough?

The sources of power in Australia - especially political and media power -- draw both comfort and delusion from the very idea of Survival Day.

Yes, yes, they say, we understand. We have a place for you on the great Australian facade, next to Qantas and Anzac and Fair Go. Their delusion is that as long as Indigenous people have a token role in the theatre of Australia Day, then all is well. As long as there's a bit of dancing and a smoking ceremony down by the Harbour Bridge, then all is well.

Societies like Australia - with dark secrets and dishonest politics - feed off image and tokenism. They admire their own image of gormless, unthinking patriotism, while secretly admiring their capacity to silence and divert dissent and to control and co-opt people and never to change. It's a clever system of divisiveness. How does it work?

Take the idea of 'reconciliation'. It sounds good, but what does it mean? What is there to reconcile between oppression and suffering, poverty and privilege? Does it include 'justice'? Of course not. Reconciliation is to make the majority feel good with symbolic gestures and symbolic speeches. Nothing more.

Is this acceptable to us, here today?

Is this acceptable to those of us who know that Australia is a version of apartheid South Africa? Ask a black South African who has looked behind the facades.

Is the idea of Survival Day enough for the young Indigenous men who die before they reach the age of 40?

Is it enough for those who succumb to terrible sadness and violence in prison and police custody?

Is it enough for a 22-year-old Indigenous woman from Western Australia - her name was Ms. Dhu - who died in custody and who was laughed at by police officers as she lay in her own vomit?

Is it enough for the children who go deaf and blind from diseases of poverty?

Is it enough for the hundreds of families who are raided in the early morning and their children stolen from them?

The Australia Day banners out there in George Street, Sydney, tell us to: Chill. Enjoy. Reflect. I would add another banner, blood-red in colour, on which is printed the following: 'No country since apartheid South Africa has been more condemned by the UN for its racism than Australia.' It's time to tear down the facades. The image is a lie. No other settler nation has done so little to come to terms with its indigenous people. No other settler nation has done so little to discharge the colonial mentality that imprisons all of us in the past.

What I find especially tragic is the unspoken fear instilled into the tiny Indigenous educated class. This fear says that that, unless they wave the flag, however defensively, they'll be dropped off the bus of white privilege. For until a moral and legal treaty is signed with the first nations of this country, there'll be only pockets of privilege, and no justice whatsoever.

By treaty, I mean an historic series of laws that return to Indigenous people power over their own lives and communities, and a rightful share of the vast wealth of Australia... a treaty that carries the legal obligation of education and housing and health care.

And this will happen only if every day is not just survival day, but a day of action. Direct action. The kind of direct action that horrifies the media that guards a system of divide and rule.

Above all, you must not be afraid. Direct action is the only reason we have certain freedoms in Australia. Read the high court judgement of Lionel Murphy, the great reformer and jurist, who in 1982 said that Aboriginal people had every right to fight back. Murphy quoted Oscar Wilde that without what he called "agitation" - direct action - "there would be no advance towards civilisation." It's up to you how you take action. But you must do it. There is no alternative now.

One thing is absolutely certain: no matter how many flags are waved today, until Indigenous Australia can take back its nationhood, the rest of us can never claim our own.


Australia's Day for Secrets, Flags and Cowards

by John Pilger

On 26 January, one of the saddest days in human history will be celebrated in Australia. It will be "a day for families", say the newspapers owned by Rupert Murdoch. Flags will be dispensed at street corners and displayed on funny hats. People will say incessantly how proud they are.

For many, there is relief and gratitude. In my lifetime, non-indigenous Australia has changed from an Anglo-Irish society to one of the most ethnically diverse on earth. Those we used to call "New Australians" often choose 26 January, "Australia Day", to be sworn in as citizens. The ceremonies can be touching. Watch the faces from the Middle East and understand why they clench their new flag.

It was sunrise on 26 January so many years ago when I stood with Indigenous and non Indigenous Australians and threw wreaths into Sydney Harbour. We had climbed down to one of the perfect sandy coves where others had stood as silhouettes, watching as the ships of Britain's "First Fleet" dropped anchor on 26 January, 1788. This was the moment the only island continent on earth was taken from its inhabitants; the euphemism was "settled". It was, wrote Henry Reynolds, one of few honest Australian historians, one of the greatest land grabs in world history. He described the slaughter that followed as "a whispering in our hearts".

The original Australians are the oldest human presence. To the European invaders, they did not exist because their continent had been declared terra nullius: empty land. To justify this fiction, mass murder was ordained. In 1838, the Sydney Monitor reported: "It was resolved to exterminate the whole race of blacks in that quarter." This referred to the Darug people who lived along the great Hawkesbury River not far from Sydney. With remarkable ingenuity and without guns, they fought an epic resistance that remains almost a national secret. In a land littered with cenotaphs honouring Australia's settler dead in mostly imperial wars, not one stands for those warriors who fought and fell defending Australia.

This truth has no place in the Australian consciousness. Among settler nations with indigenous populations, apart from a facile "apology" in 2008, only Australia has refused to come to terms with the shame of its colonial past. A Hollywood film, Soldier Blue, in 1970 famously inverted racial stereotypes and gave Americans a glimpse of the genocide in their own mythical "settlement". Almost half a century later, it is fair to say an equivalent film would never be made in Australia.

In 2014, when my own film, Utopia, which told the story of the Australian genocide, sought a local distributor, I was advised by a luminary in the business: "No way I could distribute this. The audiences wouldn't accept it."

He was wrong - up to a point. When Utopia opened in Sydney a few days before 26 January, under the stars on vacant land in an Indigenous inner-city area known as The Block, more than 4,000 people came, the majority non-Indigenous. Many had travelled from right across the continent. Indigenous leaders who had appeared in the film stood in front of the screen and spoke in "language": their own. Nothing like it had happened before. Yet, there was no press. For the wider community, it did not happen. Australia is a murdochracy, dominated by the ethos of a man who swapped his nationality for the Fox Network in the US.

The star Indigenous AFL footballer Adam Goodes wrote movingly to the Sydney Morning Herald demanding that "the silence is broken". "Imagine," he wrote, "watching a film that tells the truth about the terrible injustices committed against your people, a film that reveals how Europeans, and the governments that have run our country, have raped, killed and stolen from your people for their own benefit.

"Now imagine how it feels when the people who benefited most from those rapes, those killings and that theft - the people in whose name the oppression was done - turn away in disgust when someone seeks to expose it."

Goodes himself had already broken a silence when he stood against racist abuse thrown at him and other Indigenous sportspeople. This courageous, talented man retired from football last year as if under a cloud - with, wrote one commentator, "the sporting nation divided about him". In Australia, it is respectable to be "divided" on opposing racism.

On Australia Day 2016 - Indigenous people prefer Invasion Day or Survival Day - there will be no acknowledgement that Australia's uniqueness is its first people, along with an ingrained colonial mentality that ought to be an abiding embarrassment in an independent nation. This mentality is expressed in a variety of ways, from unrelenting political grovelling at the knee of a rapacious United States to an almost casual contempt for Indigenous Australians, an echo of "kaffir" - abusing South Africans.

Apartheid runs through Australian society. Within a short flight from Sydney, Indigenous people live the shortest of lives. Men are often dead before they reach 45. They die from Dickensian diseases, such as rheumatic heart disease. Children go blind from trachoma, and deaf from otitis media, diseases of poverty. A doctor told me, "I wanted to give a patient an anti-inflammatory for an infection that would have been preventable if living conditions were better, but I couldn't treat her because she didn't have enough food to eat and couldn't ingest the tablets. I feel sometimes as if I'm dealing with similar conditions as the English working class of the beginning of the industrial revolution."

The racism that allows this in one of the most privileged societies on earth runs deep. In the 1920s, a "Protector of Aborigines" oversaw the theft of mixed race children with the justification of "breeding out the colour". Today, record numbers of Indigenous children are removed from their homes and many never see their families again. On 11 February, an inspiring group called Grandmothers Against Removals will lead a march on Federal Parliament in Canberra, demanding the return of the stolen children.

Australia is the envy of European governments now fencing in their once-open borders while beckoning fascism, as in Hungary. Refugees who dare set sail for Australia in overcrowded boats have long been treated as criminals, along with the "smugglers" whose hyped notoriety is used by the Australian media to distract from the immorality and criminality of their own government. The refugees are confined behind barbed wire on average for well over a year, some indefinitely, in barbaric conditions that have led to self-harm, murder, suicide and mental illness. Children have not been spared. An Australian Gulag run by sinister private security firms includes concentration camps on the remote Pacific islands of Manus and Nauru. People often have no idea when they might be freed, if at all.

The Australian military - whose derring-do is the subject of uncritical tomes that fill the shelves of airport bookstalls - has played an important part in "turning back the boats" of refugees fleeing wars, such as in Iraq, launched and prolonged by the Americans and their Australian mercenaries. No irony, let alone responsibility, is acknowledged in this cowardly role.

On this Australia Day, the "pride of the services" will be on display. This pride extends to the Australian Immigration Department, which commits people to its Gulag for "offshore processing", often arbitrarily, leaving them to grieve and despair and rot. Last week it was announced that Immigration officials had spent $400,000 on medals which they will award their heroic selves. Put out more flags.

Follow John Pilger on Twitter @johnpilger & on Facebook at www.facebook.com/pilgerwebsite

- On January 26, Indigenous Australians and their supporters will march from The Block in Redfern, Sydney, to the Sydney Town Hall. The march will begin at 10am.

- On Thursday February 11, Grandmothers Against Removals will address a rally in Canberra. This will start at 12 noon at the Aboriginal Tent Embassy, then march to Parliament House.