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JustJustice LongRead: “The indignities that led to Ms Dhu’s death are the same indignities her family now face”

As part of the #JustJustice series, Amy McQuire, a journalist and Darumbul woman from central Queensland, reflects on the shocking death in custody of Ms Dhu and how the pain and indignity heaped upon her in her final days are now being borne by her family as they seek justice and to shine a light on racism in Australia.

McQuire is the former editor of the National Indigenous Times and Tracker magazine. She is currently a senior reporter with New Matilda and hosts a morning program on radio station 98.9fm, owned by the Brisbane Indigenous Media Association. She is on Twitter at @amymcquire.

With Martin Hodgson, McQuire also last week premiered This is Curtain – a podcast to “shine a light on the darkest parts of our justice system”. You can subscribe here and follow on Twitter at @CurtainPodcast


Amy McQuire writes:

On the first day of Parliament in 2015, I joined about 100 other people on the lawns of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy in Canberra – a world famous site of black resistance.

Among that 100 were several First Nations grandmothers, whose individual strength had coalesced into a growing movement against the racist child protection system, and a man – Shaun Harris – who had at that point been travelling the country to raise awareness over his niece’s death in custody.

Shaun had erected a tent to the side of the embassy, the area furthest from the rose gardens, which had only just started to bloom. At night, he would gather around the fire, talking about his niece with the others camped at the embassy, who had all sacrificed their time and, in some cases, pay packets, in solidarity.

The conversation swung like a pendulum between deaths in custody, policing, child removal and welfare, suspended between sorrow, and anger, and then brief interruptions of laughter.

During the day, I spent time drinking coffee and talking to other grandmothers, hearing their stories of how their grandchildren had been ripped from them. The majority of them could now talk legalese as if they had spent years in law school.

They knew how to rip apart affidavits, most of them full to the brim of inconsistencies, and were in the midst of designing strategies to lobby child protection departments in their own respective states.

They were all here, easily reachable, willing to talk, but they couldn’t get anyone to listen. All of the nation’s top journalists, the most awarded in the country, were immersed in their press gallery bubble, and no-one, except the Aboriginal media, bothered to walk the short distance to hear them out.

Stories of pain swatted away like flies

But that day, as the first rays hit the parliamentary year, the grandmothers, their supporters – including legends like Aunty Jenny Munro – and Shaun Harris, began their walk past the chalked pavement outside the tent embassy, winding around old Parliament House, and up the grassy expanse that separates it from the new building.

Coincidentally, it was a day of high political drama – when then Prime Minister Tony Abbott avoided a leadership spill but was given six months to get his act together by his caucus.

As usual, the morning television hosts were all lined up on the grass like bobble heads beside each other, using Parliament House as a backdrop.

Channel Ten’s Hugh Riminton, Kochie and Sam from Sunrise, and Today’s Karl Stefanovic and Lisa Wilkinson were all there, easily accessible, their cameras like a portal into millions of Australian lounge rooms.

Without skipping a beat, the protestors – with their flags and chants – marched straight behind those cameras and began protesting.

But despite the breadth of knowledge making up their rally, and the causes they were fighting for, they were greeted as if they were pesky flies – to be tolerated and ignored, if they couldn’t be swatted away.

There was no shock, no surprise from them at how they were treated – just a resignation that this was how things had always been – this was how white Australia and white media treats Aboriginal stories.

But that day, I was struck by one image – and that was a young girl, standing behind Stefanovic and Wilkinson, who were interviewing Clive Palmer.

She was only about 10 or 11. She stood in silence,  holding the strength of her ancestors within her tiny body. In her hands was the laminated image of Ms Dhu – Shaun’s niece, a Yamitji woman who had died in horrendous pain while being refused medical care in lock-up.

She stood there, separate from the crowd, daring the cameras to pick up the face of an Aboriginal woman who we knew had been let down by a racist justice system.

And it struck me then, that this was the first time Ms Dhu’s face had ever been on national commercial television.

It was there that I became keenly aware of the indignities Ms Dhu had faced in life, and the indignities her family continue to face in her death.

Deflecting blame and attention

There is an argument favoured by right wing shock jocks, and certain politicians like WA Premier Colin Barnett — and it goes like this:

“In respect to deaths in custody, avoidable Aboriginal deaths in custody are low and have continued on a downward trend since the 1991 Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody. The rate of avoidable deaths of Aboriginal people in prison in Western Australia is below the Australian average. There has also been a marked decline in the number of Aboriginal prison suicides. These may be the facts, but one death is one death too many.”

That was Colin Barnett in WA Parliament last year, responding to the death of Ms Dhu in a South Hedland watchhouse while being repeatedly refused medical attention and health care.

A comment like Barnett’s is designed to deflect blame and attention — to act as if this is purely a question of protocol when we know that the vicious cycle continues.

But a breach of procedure doesn’t describe the indignities Aboriginal people have to live with every day — and women in particular. They are the continual indignities of being black in this country, and they are the indignities that led to Ms Dhu losing her life in the most disturbing of circumstances.

The reason why we continue to campaign around black deaths in custody is because of this: What happened to Ms Dhu would never happen to a white prisoner. It is not a matter of procedure, it is in itself a symptom of the ongoing colonial project that continually dehumanises Aboriginal people, which leads us to the current day, where Aboriginal life is seen as disposable.

A catalogue of indignities

The indignities that led to Ms Dhu’s death — the mocking of her pain, the refusal to believe her over the testimony of the non-Indigenous protectors (the health professionals and police officers), the fact she was criminalised for her poverty despite being a family violence victim — are indignities that are present within the life experiences of our mob, behind and beyond bars. These indignities ensure that even if you aren’t confined by physical walls, sometimes the reality of being Aboriginal in this country can feel like a prison in itself.

And you need no further evidence of this than how Ms Dhu’s grieving family have been treated following her death. The indignities that led to Ms Dhu’s death are the same indignities her family now face.

First of all, they have faced the indignity of not being listened to. Like Ms Dhu, who’s pleas of pain fell on deaf ears, her family have had to campaign at their own expense, simply to force anyone to give a damn. They have travelled the length of this country, building contacts, speaking at rallies, simply to break the continual media blackout that engulfs Aboriginal deaths.

They shouldn’t have to do this, just like Ms Dhu, who should never have had to plead continually for attention while she was in the death throes of septic shock.

Second— the indignity of being mocked. Like Ms Dhu, who cried out in pain and was believed to have been ‘faking’ it, Ms Dhu’s family have been forced to deal with the daily eruptions of racism while campaigning for their daughter — from the outright casual racism to the more insidious forms. If you go on any online forum, you will see the ignorant comments from people – claiming ‘all she had to do is pay the fine like the rest of us do when we get done for speeding. If she did, she wouldn’t have had to go to jail.’ — somehow attempting to justify the denial of adequate medical care that could have saved her life.

Third, the indignity of exhaustion — like Ms Dhu, her family are exhausted because they continually have to justify their protest, and their grief. No other Australian would be required to explain why their loved one shouldn’t have been locked up for no crime, let alone why she shouldn’t have died there, with no consequence.

Constantly fighting to take small steps when there is still a mountain ahead, while also dealing with other traumas passed down through generations, is an exhaustion that few other Australians would understand.

Fourth, the indignity of waiting. Like Ms Dhu, who waited and waited for medical attention, only to be let down not once, not twice, but three times when seeking medical attention (she died shortly after making it to the South Hedland Health Campus on her third visit), Ms Dhu’s family have been forced to wait for a long drawn out coronial inquiry, which sadly is considered ‘sped-up’ by Western Australian standards.

For two years they have been grieving, lost in the traumatic experience of ‘not knowing’. Ms Dhu’s grandmother Aunty Carol Roe repeatedly tried to enquire about her granddaughter’s health while she was locked up — and was repeatedly told she was ‘fine’. We now know, after nearly two years of waiting, that Ms Dhu was not fine. How much longer will this family have to wait?

And fifth, the indignity of disempowerment. Like Ms Dhu, who lost her liberty and her life simply because she had failed to pay back over $3,000 in fines, Ms Dhu’s family have been continually disempowered at every turn — the latest of which has been Coroner Ros Fogliani’s refusal to release CCTV footage of Ms Dhu’s final hours.

The footage is supposed to be harrowing, and shows Ms Dhu being handcuffed, and thrown in the back of the police van like a carcass — those were her last moments.

Fogliani has the audacity to claim she doesn’t want to ‘re-traumatise’ the family — but even presuming to understand their pain and their trauma is disempowering,  and harks back to the days of the old protectors on the missions and reserves across this country. The thinking is not that much different — ‘we know what is good for you’.

I think there is another indignity here as well — the fact that this CCTV footage is even required in order to wake up a complacent Australia. We shouldn’t need to see the footage of the last hours of a dying young woman in order to care. We shouldn’t have to be forced to care. But the Don Dale footage on Four Corners has shown us that Australians are blissfully apathetic unless Aboriginal pain is put straight in front of their noses.

Ms Dhu spent three horrendous days in pain, deprived of her freedom, and repeatedly mocked and ignored. And her pain continues as long as her family faces the same indignities.

It is not enough just to have a coronial inquiry that leads nowhere. There needs to be some sort of accountability, an acknowledgement that her pain was just as valid as the pain of a white woman, that her life was just as precious.

Because even in her death, Australia has shown time and time again that it is willing to tolerate the indignities of being black in this country. And unless there is accountability, unless there is some justice — probably in the form of convictions — these indignities will only continue.


Crowdfunding thanks

You can read more than 80 #JustJustice articles published to date here.

Croakey acknowledges and thanks all those who donated to support #JustJustice (see their names here). We also thank and acknowledge our premium sponsors, the Jesuit Social Services, and Frank Meany of One Vision.

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