“Workers must speak with one voice and strike with one fist”

A Conversation with Ray Jackson from the Aboriginal Deaths in Custody Watch Committee

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“Nearly 80% of the Aboriginal people lost their lives to the soldiers’ and squatters’ guns and poison; to starvation and disease; and from the acute anguish arising from the loss of land and kin.” This is how a 1988 poster, Tall Ships, Tall Stories, dispelled the Aussie national hype in the bicentennial celebration of British takeover. As long as Aboriginal people are dispossessed, the genocide won’t stop – and it’s still being carried out inside the police and prison cells throughout the country.

The death of John Pat in the custody of police in Roeburne, Western Australia made headlines throughout Australia in 1983. The cops who were involved got off. Every September, crowds around the country protest Pat’s death and the atrocities against his Black brothers and sisters. In November 1993, Daniel Yock died while in detention in Brisbane – the police claiming a rare heart condition as the cause. But again, national demonstrations voiced disbelief and outrage. In 1987, the families of those killed in New South Wales founded the NSW Aboriginal Deaths in Custody Watch Committee. They demanded a royal commission inquiry into the deaths. The commission opened the following year and in 1990 delivered 339 recommendations for sweeping changes to the judicial, police and penal systems. Today, the recommendations are just faded window dressing. From June 1st 1989, 23 more Aboriginal people have died in NSW, at least 70 nationally.

In April, Freedom Socialist Bulletin spoke to Ray Jackson, a Waradjuri, longtime unionist and currently the treasurer, public officer and management committee coordinator for the NSW Aboriginal Death in Custody Watch Committee. Ray is a survivor of the dirty war against his people: “I was taken from my mother when I was very young, put into a home and then given out to a white family at the age of three. The authorities said I was starving to death.” He has never met his family.

Not many left to keep dying. “If the recommendations were implemented and utilised on a daily basis,” says Ray, “the deaths would decrease. Instead, they’ve increased well over 100%.” He described how the inquiry’s findings are flouted every day, despite the cooperation, which he says the Watch Committee gets from the top strata of the police and prisons:

“The opposition comes from the middle to lower ranks – from the jail governors or police commanders down. The problem is their attitude (though not all) that ‘this is my territory: who are you to tell me how to do my job’ – plus outright racism. They’ve had 220-odd years of power, which is now being questioned and they don’t like it. A lot of them don’t like their job, but it pays the rent. They just want to get through it as quickly and easily as possible. Dealing with them is like banging up against brick walls. A classic example is a young man who was supposed to go to the John Hunter Hospital [a specialist hospital in Newcastle] on Friday for a monthly test. Even though they knew this, they shipped him out today to Tamworth [nearly 300 kms from Newcastle]. It can now take him six months or more to get another appointment. When we asked the deputy governor why, he shrugged his shoulders and claimed he didn’t know. It’s that attitude again. It’s also harassment – the man is a prison activist. With our help and help from other organisations, he’s made them back down quite a few times. So every chance they get to screw him up, they do it. We took the matter to Ron Woodham [Assistant Commissioner, Department of Corrective Services-Operations] and we got him to the hospital for his appointment.

“The real problem, though, rests with the state government and the top echelons of the police and prisons services. They won’t pull rank, and they won’t get rid of the racist troublemakers, even though they know who they are. They’re scared of industrial action. This comes more from the cops than the screws. If industrial action is the price for saving lives, so what? In the critical area of the implementation of the recommendations on a day-to-day basis, the cooperation from the top has brought very little change. They see it as a long, slow process. We tell them we don’t have that many people left to keep dying.”

Fighting for justice on the inside and out. “The Watch Committee deals with Aboriginal families and also with individuals, not only in custodial issues but also in social justice matters. We take up cases of racism in the schools – because no one else will. For instance, in Dubbo a 12-year-old girl was sexually assaulted by other students. The school didn’t do anything about it, except to transfer the girl to another school, where it happened again. When they wanted to transfer her again, we kicked up bloody hell on behalf of her family. There’s now a big inquiry, which is what should have happened at the start. After the second assault, the girl stayed away from school for four months and eventually moved to another school. She went through this trauma with no help from anywhere else – no counselling, no nothing. The school principal tried to bury it, the teachers went silent, the teachers’ union didn’t want to know about it. They were blaming her. It was just an Aboriginal girl, so it was obviously her fault!”

Funding with compromise. “The Watch Committee started up in 1987, and until last September we had no funding. We’re now funded by ATSIC [Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission]. We have two full-time workers and one casual. We want funding for another six full-time workers: some to cover rural NSW and all the juvenile justice centres, a journalist so we can get a newsletter out and a paid coordinator to take over my work. We’re also trying to get money from [Federal Minister for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs] Ticker to obtain all the transcripts of the 38 deaths in custody cases for NSW since January 1980. We want to set up a fully equipped library so that people can use it as a research centre. And we need cars – for now, our 2½ workers and volunteers are running around on public transport and taxis. As long as the problem exists (I can’t see the cops and jails going away for a long time), we’ll be here, and we’ll keep building on our work.

“The Watch Committee wants to re-open the case of Eddie Murray [killed in custody in 1981]. We applied to ATSIC to fund the legal investigation, which would determine whether the case can be re-opened. Our application is presently before the Government Response Monitoring Unit, which says Yes or No to the funding. I believe there’s not one Black face among them. I personally think these top white bureaucrats realise that if they approve the investigation, they’ll be opening the floodgate. All 38 families in NSW want their cases re-opened, because they don’t believe the royal commission findings. Anyone reading the cases would know that the verdicts were coverups to varying degrees. We’re organising a meeting of the families in July. This will be the first gathering of families since the counting of deaths started in 1980 – and there will be 100% representation. The call will be for justice, counselling and compensation. What the families want more than anything is justice – they want the murderers in those police lock-up and prisons put away. There’s a lot of political pressure from certain quarters not to fund us.

“Our first lot of ATSIC funding was given to us as a gesture. It was for 20 weeks to see if we’d come up to scratch. We then got the next six months. We’re now going for 12 months. The regional councillors have backed us 100%. Now that we’re going to be working throughout NSW, we have to go to ATSIC state office as well – and we seem to be getting support from the councillors there. The councillors, who want us to get out there and do things on behalf of our people, are behind us. But there’s a struggle within ATSIC between the councillors and the bureaucrats, who are the ones resisting and delaying. ATSIC held up our funding for five months. I think the bureaucrats wanted to drop us, so they stalled as long as possible. We nearly went out of existence during those five months: we were hocked up to the eyeballs, waiting for that cheque to come through.

“The Watch Committee has been able to move through this funding minefield without compromising ourselves. That’s because we jealously guard our autonomy as a grassroots organisation. The only people we’re answerable to are our communities. Tickner and the other tops come second. We made it clear to ATSIC, before we got one cent out of them, that they can give us the money and we’ll account for it – but we’ll decide how to spend it. They haven’t yet tried to restrain us from getting involved in something, holding a rally or being active in that way. Once that kind of pressure starts, we’ll blow the whistle. Every Koori in this state and across the country will answer. And we’ll get non-Aboriginal support. The longer we exist as we are and grow, the harder it will be to knock us off.

“Autonomy is imperative. It’s bad enough being oppressed, and it’s bad enough being used and abused for over 200 years. If you don’t keep that autonomy, you’ve lost. It’s no use being funded, only to be dictated to and told you can’t be political. The Watch Committee is political. Our struggle is political. The forces we’re taking on – government, cops, prisons, the whole Establishment, the money – are political. It’s no use going out in a nonpolitical mode, trying to appease these animals – they’d just stamp on us. Our autonomy is our power. Without it, our work would become a charade.”

Aboriginal women on the bottom and in the lead. “The representative of Aboriginal women in NSW prisons is proportionately much higher than men. The women’s prisons are the worst. There are three in NSW: Mulawa, Norma Parker and Emu Plains. Women are treated like third- or fourth-class citizens – and if you’re Black, you’re right at the bottom of the ladder. We’ve tried to shake them out for some time. We’re in a paper war with Mulawa at the moment, because we dared to question the attitude of the custodial officers. These prisons are an almighty battlefield, but we’ll wear them down.

“Women are well represented in the Watch Committee. The president and secretary are women, and women make up the majority of the management committee. The women are more active and political than men. I believe they are the main core of our people. They’re our strength.

“Without our mothers and grandmothers, we couldn’t have survived this long; without the women, there would be nothing left. They are coming out more and more into the public field, and the Watch Committee is very fortunate to have such good and strong women. You only have to look at Leila Murray: she’s been going since the death of her son, Eddie, in 1981. She’s driving around NSW right now with Arthur, talking to the other 37 families and organising for the July meeting.”

Unity is the key. “The Watch Committee is part of the Aboriginal struggle. This relationship comes down to the issue of unity within the Aboriginal movement. We’d be a lot better if we could work closer with some of the other Aboriginal groups. For instance, the Aboriginal Legal Service won’t come near us. To me, that detracts from the work they do and the work we do. Together, we’d be invincible, and we could put a hell of a lot more heat on the custodial system. We’ll work with anybody, because to us, the end goal is the betterment of people.

As long as capitalism exists, the Aboriginal struggle will continue and there will be a need for the Watch Committee. Capitalism has to go. There will never be freedom for the Aboriginal people under this system which survives by exploiting resources, both human and material.”

Asked how much support the Watch Committee gets from the trade unions, Ray said: “Zero. Since 1987, we’ve had a sporadic support from some unions. But over the last two years, it has fallen off. We used to have 10-12 unions affiliated to the committee. Now we have none. Coming out of the trade union movement myself, I’m sick and tired of knocking on doors and getting the smiles and pats on the back, then never hearing from them again. Unions are busy fighting for their survival, but their bureaucrats are also afraid that we’ll take on their friends in government.”

Always look to the ranks. To Ray, the principles that govern the Watch Committee – autonomy of the members and accountability to the communities – should underlie the rules of the unions: “You’re always answerable to your membership, no matter who that membership is.”

Ray’s union activism started on the waterfront when he was 19. He was later a member of the Federated Engine Drivers Firemen’s Association (NSW branch) as an oil industry worker. In the early 1980s, he became an organiser for the union. “What I liked about FEDFA was that it was then a true rank-and-file union. Membership meetings were held regularly, and decisions were made by the rank-and-file. The executive always had to listen to the state secretary telling me that his job was to work himself out of the job – to hand power over to the shop floor.”

When I worked at the Shell Refinery at Clyde [in Sydney] the refinery delegates used to run their own court cases and negotiate their agreements with the company. Any union official who came around uninvited wouldn’t be allowed through the gate. We used to fly down to Melbourne for common negotiations with the oil industry – and we were the only trade union and the only refinery that had rank-and-file delegates there. Kelty [now ACTU Secretary] initially didn’t like it. The FEDFA delegates wouldn’t agree to anything without first going back to the members. Talks had to be delayed until they went back to put matters to stopwork meetings. But those days are gone. The Right took over through corporatisation and amalgamations, and Kelty now runs the show.”

Struggles bound together. “The liberation and rights of Aboriginal people are tied up with the rights of the working class, because we have a common enemy, a common master – the capitalist system. All of us who are abused by the Establishment – unionist, Aboriginal people, national minorities and all working people – have to eradicate what divides us, like racism and sexism. We have to speak with one voice and strike with one fist.”

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