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Black Lives Matter Redux: The Enduring Injustice of First Nations Deaths in Custody

For Black Lives to Matter in Australia, so much has to change. Alison Whittaker collaborates with Latoya Aroha Rule, Carly Stanley and Keenan Mundine, who are heartbreakingly close to the issue.

This article discusses themes of racism, trauma, violence, and death.

It was June 2020. It was the middle of a pandemic. People were marching. From Boorloo (Perth) to Meanjin (Brisbane), to Gadigal Country in Sydney, Kaurna Yerta in Adelaide, and the land of the Kulin Nation in Melbourne, crowds were gathering with masks, hand sanitiser, and registration codes along with the usual placards, shirts, and chants. The numbers were greater than many in recent memory. They were gathering in support of the Black Lives Matter movement — one whose uptake on this continent is founded on the long movement against First Nations deaths in custody.

 Just after the big June marches, six young Aboriginal men in a prison in Long Bay were working in a cloud of tear gas so billowing that it would later prompt warnings for residents in the Eastern Suburbs of Sydney to stay inside. News drones moved slowly overhead. They were doing something with spare shirts, bits of cloth, even the stuff off their own back. A drone finally caught it from a vantage point. They had spelled ‘BLM’.

For a subsequent rally — that ended when NSW Police tested a long-range acoustic device, surrounded a statue of Captain Cook, and issued a move-on order — people inside that Long Bay gaol had prepared a statement to be read. It said:

We prisoners passionately embrace the commitment of Black Lives Matter, other organisations and people to force change on the way authorities degrade, attack and kill us. The public saw them gas us at Long Bay Prison on Monday, June 8. That was standard treatment. […] We couldn’t report on how nothing has changed and the certainty that deaths in custody will continue through this brutal treatment. Please help us to have our voices heard in all these forums, rather than be dehumanised as though we are of no value and have no rights.

There had been fewer times where it was more difficult for people inside prison than during COVID-19. Those inside were denied visits, NSW Corrections for a time even flirted with banning mail, and programs were cancelled. Deadly Connections (whose piece you can find on p74) surveyed those inside, and found that every Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander person in prison had their mental health and wellbeing impacted by COVID-19 restrictions.

“There had been fewer times where it was more difficult for people inside prison than under COVID-19.”

Early reports indicated that some people inside weren’t being provided soap, or that some were being threatened with cleaning the cells of suspected COVID-19 cases as punishment. Anticipating the danger of a prison pandemic, where diseases spread quickly, and medical resources are poor, families who had lost loved ones inside urged the sending of soap to prisons, along with a plan to get mob out of prison, called #CleanOutPrisons. The soap was turned back.

Despite the exceptional year that was, as BLM roiled so too did the business as usual of coronial inquests, parliamentary inquiries, and court procedure. Police were charged in relation to two shooting deaths in custody, cases that are set down for this year. Others languished before prosecutors — the families of Aunty Tanya Day and David Dungay Jr both denied.

Some families have taken other steps to pursue justice and change — Aunty Tanya Day’s family initiating civil action, families of Nathan Reynolds and TJ Hickey speaking with NSW Parliamentary Inquiries, the family of Wayne Fella Morrison still enduring his inquest while working to meet with the Prime Minister in April 2021 (Latoya, Wayne’s sibling, writes more here).

New rallies responded to First Nations deaths in custody as they happened, including the death of Aunty Sherry Tilberoo in a Brisbane watchhouse. Warriors of the Aboriginal Resistance, who organised the rallies in Melbourne and in Brisbane, issued a five-point plan to ensure Black Lives Matter. At the centre of many of these actions were calls to abolish police and prisons, and imagine something more in their place — for justice and peace alike.

“For Black Lives to Matter in Australia, so much has to change — not least of which is the whole colony itself.”

In 2021, at least at the time of writing, some of the cloud that marked the mainstream community support for BLM has lifted. The new inattention, after so much support, stings. But First Nations agony continues, not just at the hands of police but at the hands of mining projects that violate Country, like those proposed Shenhua and Santos projects that stand to obliterate life on Gomeroi Country. As the agony continues, so will we. For Black Lives to Matter in Australia, so much has to change — not least of which is the whole colony itself.

Read Latoya Aroha Rule’s feature piece, We Need a National Ban on Spit Hoods.

Read Carly Stanley & Keenan Mundine’s collaborative feature piece, Transforming Justice.

Gomeroi woman Alison Whittaker is a Senior Researcher at the Jumbunna Institute.