On February 15, 2004 an Aboriginal teenager was chased by police through the streets of Sydney’s inner city suburb of Redfern. The police in their high-speed cars were in hot pursuit of their 17-year-old “suspect” on his bicycle. He died when impaled on the metal fence bordering a park used by his neighbours: residents of the nearby public housing flats. Eyewitnesses say the police drove into his bike and with great force hurled him onto the fence. But a coronial inquiry ruled that the police were not responsible for his death.
The killing became national news with images of young Aboriginal people battling police in riot gear. To set the public straight, Prime Minister John Howard and Labor Opposition Leader Mark Latham promptly hailed the police as heroes and denounced the young man’s family, especially his mother, as responsible for his death. Latham went as far as accusing the Black community of bad parenting!
Greetings from a war zone. Redfern is a ticking time bomb. For the large Aboriginal community, this killing was not a new or one-off event but the latest of so many tragedies, all caused by a legal system that is racist to its core. Black Redfern is an occupied territory, with a new multi-storey police complex looking down on its streets and cops continuing to patrol the railway station. Go into the area and you feel you’re in a community under siege. The coronial finding was no surprise to the community or its supporters. Instead of burying this death in custody, it increased the outrage and sparked the demand for a new inquiry aimed at exposing the truth, not clearing the police.
A petition, initiated by the Indigenous Social Justice Association (ISJA), calls for a new coronial inquest that hears the evidence censored in the original inquiry, including the damning testimonies of two Aboriginal police community liaison officers. It also demands that Gail Hickey, the young man’s mother, be granted the right to choose her own legal team and the costs be paid by the New South Wales government.
Ray Jackson, president of ISJA, describes a police-imposed reign of terror designed to cover up the facts behind the killing and the “riots” that followed: “The eyewitnesses are young people who are very fearful of the police. Cops are making gestures of firing guns and saying to them: ‘You’re next.’”
Jackson explains that a few days after the riot, Senior Constable Michael Hollingsworth (recently promoted) “bragged to a woman friend about ramming the back wheel of the young man’s bicycle. The woman then passed the information to Aboriginal Police Liaison Officer (APLO) Paul Wilkinson. Hollingsworth knew this. A member of the police force then visited Wilkinson, made threats against his life, his wife and 11-month-old son. Wilkinson’s car was later firebombed and his house burnt down. Available witnesses have yet to be interviewed by the police.” The Coroner did not allow Wilkinson, or another Aboriginal liaison officer, Derek Wilson, to give evidence. Police were free to tell lies, and the court blamed the Hickey family, and Gail in particular, for the riot. Says Jackson, “This was despicable and offensive in the extreme.”
Wilkinson and Wilson have been victimised by police with serious slurs and threats. Both are on stress leave, and Wilkinson is in hiding. Jackson explains why they were prepared to give evidence, despite the consequences: “The police expect Aboriginal liaison officers to be their spies in the community. But the APLOs see their role as protecting the community from the excesses of the police. They work with the youth of the area to get them away from the crime and the drugs. They work with the community and the elders for their benefit, not the benefit of the police. Paul and Derek have worked in the community for many years and were, to some extent, trusted.”
Investment in dispossession and genocide. Jackson paints an even bigger, more sordid picture. “There are three things hanging off this tree. First, the police know that there were eyewitnesses. They used this opportunity to create the so-called riot to take attention away from how the young man really died. Second, the situation in Redfern has been tense for a while, and the ‘riot’ gave them an excuse for a more modern police station, with its own riot squad, and for bringing in more police and more weapons such as mace cannons. For the NSW Government, the events aided their long-term plan to remove the Aboriginal inhabitants from The Block, where they’ve lived for 30 years. Our rightful place, apparently, is on the fringes of Sydney, not in the heartland. Inner Sydney is for those who can spend a million dollars on a yuppy unit. Premier Carr has always said that he sees this area as a natural extension of the Sydney business district. On the other side of the railway line we have the new technology park, which Carr and his business friends are building into some capitalist Disneyland.”
Police and government gang up on justice. Jackson explains that many in the local community believe the elaborate whitewash of the facts behind the young man’s death goes well beyond the Coroner — at least as high as the Premier’s office. “The relationship between Capital, power and the police is historically known. The police are there to protect the Establishment: they are its frontline forces. It is the police who attack the people and the unions; it is the police who evict us from our houses and our workplaces. In Redfern, the cops are clearing the area for profitable development. The payoff is a new police station with all the new toys and riot personnel to deploy them.”
No justice, no peace! On November 19, an Aboriginal man was killed in a jail on Palm Island, Queensland. A coronial inquiry ignored his several fatal injuries and found the police officer innocent. On November 26, the community burned down the police station, barracks and courthouse. From this same community, Aboriginal workers have conducted the Stolen Wages Campaign for the restitution of wages intercepted by the Queensland Government and never paid to the workers. The campaign has reached into every Australian state and territory and internationally. Says Jackson, “Palm Island ups the ante. It reminds us that the perversion of justice is not just a Redfern issue. The whole country is seething with rage from centuries of injustice.”
Jackson argues that the first step toward reversing the injustice is to establish a civilian review board, elected from among Aboriginal and other communities targeted by police, with the power to investigate and punish police wrongdoings. Says Jackson, “The police must be under community control, not the other way around. ISJA has argued since the early ’90s that the power of police to investigate themselves must be taken away. What must be put in its place is an independent investigative team involving Aboriginal people or other minorities. There must be attached to this a civilian police review panel to make sure that the police role is absolutely transparent and that there is no chance of a cover-up. As long as police have these powers, we’ll never get to the truth about the deaths and other wrongs that happen in police custody— Aboriginal, Islander, Asian or white.
“The tenacious battle for wage justice by our sisters and brothers of Palm Island have exposed the historically systemic theft throughout Australia. We need to follow their example and bust these deaths in custody cases open, expose the systemic impunity to kill and the forces behind it.”