In 1981, Eddie Murray was found dead in a police cell in Wee Waa, a New South Wales country town. A noose encircled his neck, and his feet were touching the floor. On June 12, Eddie had been arrested for drunkenness, a law regularly used against the Aboriginal population as a means of oppression and control. Within an hour of his detention, he was dead. The Dubbo cops allege suicide by hanging, even though the Coroner’s Court subsequently found that Eddie was too drunk and that the position of his body wasn’t consistent with a self-inflicted hanging. It ruled that Eddie had died at the hands of “a person or persons unknown.”
In 1987, two cops bashed Eddie’s sister, Anna, with their batons in a street of Dubbo NSW. In the police station, they put a noose around her neck, tied it to the cell window bars and threatened her with the same fate as her brother. This was not the first time Anna had been beaten by cops.
Rather than being intimidated and silenced, Anna charged these two cops with assault and conspiracy to murder. The cops retaliated by charging Anna with sixteen assault-related charges. More than two years later (February, 1990), her charges against the cops were to be heard in a Dubbo court. Given the wrong date, Anna missed the hearing by two days. In her absence, the court dismissed her charges against the cops and issued a warrant for her arrest for her failure to appear. She was then jailed for two weeks until a Sydney barrister could get her out on bail. It was only on her release that Anna was told by the cops that they had dropped their assault charges against her. They actually had no case: too many witnesses saw them beat her. The cops have tried to make a deal with Anna, that she not re-open her charges against them. But Anna is determined to pursue these charges: “I’m suffering the pain, not them,” she said.
Meanwhile, Eddie’s death has been the subject of the Royal Commission of Inquiry into Black Deaths in Custody, presided over by Justice Muirhead. The Commission and the broader legal system threw a blanket of legal intricacies over the case, as if to smother a live grenade. A lot can be detailed about the glaringly contradictory evidence concerning Eddie’s death. But what jumps out at the most casual observer is the determined failure of all interested authorities – hospital, cops, courts and Royal Commission – to investigate very suspicious details.
Critical evidence has been destroyed or concealed. Eddie’s clothing, crucial to forensic investigations, was immediately destroyed. The hospital withheld information about a lump on Eddie’s forehead. His body had been removed from the cell before any investigation could be done, and no doctor had been present in the cell. The police wouldn’t allow his parents, Leila and Arthur Murray, into the cells, pushing them outside the cop station to wait on the steps. Leila and Arthur particularly point to a “missing” 35 minutes, which are still unaccounted for. At the Royal Commission hearing, a witness testified that Wee Waa cops had shown her how Eddie was killed. Yet the Muirhead Commission did not pursue these details, nor a pile of conflicting testimonies by cops. In his hearings, Muirhead did not allow a particular cop, whose role was singularly suspicious, to be questioned because of his health.
The treatment of Leila and Arthur highlights the barefaced bias of the Royal Commission. At no time had it examined the background or violent behaviour of certain cops. Instead, all questioning focussed on the personal backgrounds of the Aboriginal victims. The victims, rather than the cops, were put under the microscope, as though responsible for their own killings.
So, what is our system of “justice” trying to hide and why? Eddie’s murder and Anna’s persecution have a history, and they typify what happens to Aboriginal people regularly. The source, of course, is the invasion by the English, their seizure of Aboriginal land, the imposition of their private property laws and the systematic policy of genocide (in varied forms), sanctioned and carried out by these laws, which are racist to their roots.
The more immediate background is the resistance of the family of Anna and Eddie, the Murrays, to the oppression of Aboriginal people and the exploitation of their labour. In the early 1960s, the Murrays moved to Wee Waa. Here, big cotton producers were operating their multi-million-dollar industry on working conditions resembling those of the Southern USA, in slave times. Itinerant Aboriginal workers slaved from 6 am to 6 pm for $10 a day, doing seasonal work in cotton chipping. Arthur Murray took up this work, and the family became “fringe dwellers” on Wee Waa’s outskirts at Tulladunna Reserve. Two old army tents were their home for ten years, until they moved into a Housing Commission house in Wee Waa. Arthur organised the Aboriginal cotton workers in a bitter and successful union struggle for better wages and conditions.
Leila Murray recollects, “Arthur was elected manager of the Aboriginal Advancement Association, worked within the Aboriginal Service, and also helped to stop aerial spraying of the cotton fields which was ruining our health, so we began to get harassed by some of the whites.” Leila, Anna and Arthur speak of the entrenched racism, which characterises country towns. It has seeped into and contaminated the social fibre of country town life, and the beneficiaries are the big cotton producers, who prosper from this deep division within the working class communities.
Altogether, this militant Aboriginal family was clearly perceived as “dangerous” fighters and leaders. Cotton producers, racists, the cops and courts of Wee Waa are united in this perception. The Murrays became targets because of their political activism; they had to be bludgeoned into submission or removed. They threatened the social underpinning of racism, and so the racists wanted them broken. They mustered their forces: thugs in and out of uniform and the thugs with the white woollen wigs. The persecution of the Murray family for their militancy is an effort to break them and Aboriginal fighters like them.
Leila, Anna and Arthur know that Eddie’s death was a payback, as is Anna’s persecution. Prior to Eddie’s death in the cells, another son had been almost fatally assaulted with a multi-pronged hook. Rather than organising prompt medical attention, a police detective let him lie in the street for hours until an ambulance arrived from a distant town. This same detective, who generally “mishandled” the assault case, was involved in the case of Eddie’s death a few months later. The bashing and permanent injury of another son, Rodney – now serving two years’ jail for, wait for it…assault – is another legal retaliation. Charges of conspiracy to murder against Arthur and more charges of assault against Anna for the so-called Brewarrina “Riots” (see the note at the end of this article) are yet others. Innumerable other family members have also been targeted. Leila elaborates: “They try to get us at all angles to crack us. But we’ve stood up to them… Everything was set up all along the line. They just wanted the Murray family out of the town… No other family has suffered the way the Murray family has.”
Rather than being broken, Anna and the Murrays are fighting back. Besides Anna’s charges against the two Dubbo cops, the Murrays are taking out a private prosecution against Muirhead, the Royal Commission and the Wee Waa cops. In his findings, Commissioner Muirhead condemned the cops, but failed to charge them. The Murrays, like the wider Aboriginal community, were stunned by Muirhead’s recommendations. From the beginning, they expected nothing from the Royal Commission, but to get nothing is still shattering.
Taking on the legal system requires many thousands of dollars (around $150,000). Arthur explains: “We need the money to make a breakthrough to show people that Aboriginal people and different nationality people are not going to tolerate what happens in prison and police custody.”
These legal actions are big time: significant not only to the Aboriginal people who have, for 200 years, stood on the front line but to the whole working class, which has also been in the cross-hairs. Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people die in detention. Tim Anderson and Kerry Browning are fighting serious frame-ups aimed to crack mass movements. David Gundy, an Aboriginal man, was fatally shot in a Tactical Response Group (TRG) raid on his home in NSW last year. A year later, the same TRG broke into the home of Darren Brennan, a non-Aboriginal man, shooting him in the face. Gundy is dead, Brennan faces three years of reconstructive surgery, and all of us know that no working class home is safe.
The Aboriginal community of the inner Sydney suburb of Redfern has endured an escalation of cop raids. The Victorian police have targeted the Builders Labourers Federation (BLF), raiding their offices and jailing their organisers. Cops on horses have recently charged building workers and bludgeoned them at the Leighton site on St. Kilda Road in Melbourne. The Department of Social Security sends aptly nicknamed “SS” squads into the homes of benefits recipients. Many, mainly women, are arrested, charged and jailed.
Courts imprison women for charging men for rape. Courts jail women for drug use. Courts jail women for being economically unable to care for their children. Courts put young women “in protective custody” for being “in moral danger.” Cops continue to arrest and courts continue to jail women for prostitution. Cops entrap and bash gay men. Courts fail lesbian and gay activists. Why? Because we endanger capitalist production and morality. Capitalism needs compliant labour and reproducers of that labour.
The working class has everything to win by supporting the Murrays. The stakes are high, and a victory would be groundbreaking. The ultimate victory, however, will be the overthrow and dismantling of capitalism, the economic and social system that the law and its enforcers work so hard to protect and preserve by manacling and beating us. The working class will win that final victory outside the parliamentary and judicial systems. Meanwhile, we must join in struggles, like the Murrays’, and so destabilise capitalism’s props.
Lilla Watson, Aboriginal educator and activist, defines this solidarity: “If you’ve come to help me, you’re wasting your time. But if you’ve come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”
Note on the Brewarrina “Riots”:
In 1987, Lloyd Boney died in police custody in Brewarrina, a northern NSW country town where racism is also rampant. Police were ready: they mustered in squads with the full riot regalia to confront Aboriginal mourners and protesters. In the police-provoked confrontation, Anna was charged with assault (of riot cops!). Arthur and two other Aboriginal men were singled out for the most serious charges of inciting a riot and conspiracy to murder (riot cops!). Their cases still await trial.