In late July, a Four Corners investigative report, titled Australia’s Shame, exposed the brutal abuse of Aboriginal youth in the Don Dale Juvenile Detention Centre in Darwin. Kids were routinely held in isolation for weeks at a time in cells with no running water and little natural light. Graphic CCTV footage showed six teens being doused with ten bursts of noxious tear gas in less than two minutes. One of them, Dylan Voller, was just 13 years old. The restraint chairs and spit hoods, used to restrain children, were reminiscent of Guantanamo Bay.
The response to the program was immediate. Politicians claimed no prior knowledge, and within less than 24 hours, Prime Minister Turnbull announced a Royal Commission to investigate.
Old news. Those who were surprised have not been paying attention! The facts had all been reported earlier. But faced with shocking images on national TV, pragmatic politicians knew they had to be seen to act. But for Aboriginal Australia and all those campaigning to stop Aboriginal deaths in custody, the story was all too familiar.
Every night in Australia, there are 900 kids locked up in the juvenile justice system. Of these, 54% are First Nations youth, despite Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people being just three percent of the population. In the Northern Territory (NT), 97% of all kids who are incarcerated are Indigenous.
The NT is pursuing a racist law-and-order agenda. This jurisdiction allows paperless arrests: police can hold people for four hours without charge or legal representation. The Alcohol Mandatory Treatment Act allows police to lock people up for three months. The program, which is widely opposed by the medical and legal professions, is punitive and discriminatory. Referrals for this alleged health intervention cannot be made by healthcare workers. Use of the restraint chair and cable ties on youth detainees were legislated by the NT parliament. And the recently ousted Chief Minister Adam Giles said he’d “love to be the corrections minister.” He bragged that he would put criminals in “a big hole” and be prepared to “break every United Nation’s convention on the rights of the prisoner.”
Racist intervention. It’s impossible to understand why so many Indigenous youngsters are incarcerated without an appreciation of the NT Intervention, which controls every aspect of Aboriginal people’s lives, including how they spend their money. In 2007 the federal government abrogated the Racial Discrimination Act and sent the military into Aboriginal communities on the pretext of protecting children. Since the Intervention was introduced, incarceration rates have continued to climb.
While governments spend big on locking kids up and introducing wasteful measures such as income management, Indigenous poverty and disadvantage continue to skyrocket. Despite mountains of evidence that Aboriginal self-determination and control of their own affairs produces positive outcome for communities, they are being stripped of decision-making as governments pursue forced assimilation and culturally appropriate services are wound back.
Bilingual education, a program that operated in the NT for 34 years, has been gutted. With 65% of Aboriginal people speaking a language other than English, this change makes school an alien place for many kids.
Child removals are also at epidemic proportions with far more kids removed today than during the Stolen Generations of the 20th century—a third of all children in care are Aboriginal. In the NT, Indigenous children are 395% more likely to be put in care than non-Indigenous children. But once in the “care” of the racist State, these kids are frequently abused or, as we saw in Don Dale, even tortured.
Governments lay blame on Aboriginal communities and culture for their own oppression, while stripping the resources they need to run their own affairs. The Coalition slashed $500 million in the last budget, including legal aid. Strong communities need both resources and the ability to control how they are used. When communities break down, this is a direct result of colonisation and forced assimilation.
Aboriginal communities know what’s needed in order for Indigenous youth to have a very different future: sovereignty! As Ray Jackson, veteran campaigner to stop deaths in custody, explained, “We must have our lands, with full control of all resources. We need sovereignty, treaties with each Indigenous nation, and social justice. We demand that our cultural rights be restored in full. Then—and only then—will the terrible legacy of invasion and genocide cease and all the misery arising from that history be truly reconciled.”
Letting off steam! In contrast, the Royal Commission was established to provide the appearance of addressing the issues as governments went into damage control. The NT government is responsible for running Don Dale, and it shares responsibility with the federal government for the Royal Commission—making another blatant case of the institution causing the problem investigating itself!
The terms of reference for the Royal Commission are limited to the NT, despite clear evidence of abuse in every jurisdiction over the last five years.
More footage emerged within weeks, this time of kids being abused in the Cleveland Youth Justice Centre in Townsville. A teenager who refused to have a shower was held face down by five adults, ankle and handcuffed, stripped naked and left in isolation for more than an hour. More footage exposed a young girl in a swimming pool being threatened by security guards with a vicious unmuzzled dog. In the Malmsbury Youth Justice Centre in Victoria, a teenager was held in isolation for days, another received a fractured limb while being restrained, and rolling lockdowns are routine.
The Royal Commission will not investigate the broader systemic issues driving Indigenous incarceration in the NT, and it will not look at the national crisis in youth detention. Nor will it ask why 25 years after the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody (RCIADIC), its recommendations have still not been implemented.
Teens remembered. The death in custody of 16-year-old, John Pat, in Roebourne, Western Australia (WA) in 1983 was instrumental in sparking the movement that led to the calling of RCIADIC. After years of investigating, it made 339 recommendations, including imprisonment as the last resort. Instead, racist over-policing continued, incarceration rates grew and the deaths in custody continued—many of them involving teenagers.
In 1993, 18-year-old, Daniel Yock—a talented young dancer—died in custody after being detained by police near Musgrave Park in Brisbane. News of his death sparked a snap protest with hundreds of members of the community marching to the police station. Cops hurled racist taunts at them before breaking up the rally, causing a number of injuries.
TJ Hickey was just 17 when he died in 2004 as a direct result of a police chase. Is it any wonder an innocent Indigenous teenager riding his bike home would have a deeply ingrained fear of the police? Youth in Redfern took to the streets to protest this death—a legitimate protest branded a riot.
Three hundred people from the Kalgoorlie community in WA protested a white man, who allegedly killed 14-year-old Elijah Doughty in August this year, being charged with manslaughter and not murder. This, too, was labeled a riot.
The Aboriginal community knows these racist double standards all too well. The first commissioner appointed by the government to head its hastily convened Royal Commission was Brian Martin, former Chief Justice of the NT Supreme Court. He was forced to stand down, due to widespread claims of bias. He presided over a deeply divisive manslaughter case in Alice Springs. Five white men were given minimal sentences after pleading guilty to attacking an Aboriginal man and leaving him to die.
Action, not enquiries! While the federal and NT governments aim to quell protest with soothing calls to let the Royal Commission do its job, First Nations activists and veteran campaigners against deaths in custody know their history and can’t be conned. Periodic calls from well-meaning folks for a “new” Royal Commission into Aboriginal deaths in custody have been met with patient explanation: when the movement calls for the implementation of all the 1991 RCIADIC recommendations, it does so to expose the inability of a capitalist society—built on the foundation of dispossession—to deliver.
While governments urged faith in the system, huge Indigenous-led rallies across the country refused to be placated. If the recommendations of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody had been implemented in full—especially the demand that imprisonment be the last resort—the children in Don Dale would not have been incarcerated, let alone tortured!
In Melbourne, an emergency protest called by Warriors of the Aboriginal Resistance (WAR), attracted more than 3,000 people. Demands were to sack the NT government and guards and lay charges; stop stealing children; build communities, not prisons and self-determination now! A major city intersection was blockaded well into the night as four young Aboriginal women staged a symbolic action, locking themselves in a cage.
When Nigel Scullion, Minister for Indigenous Affairs, visited the remote NT Borroloola community, he faced angry protests from relatives of one of the children tear-gassed in Don Dale. Angered by his claim that he was unaware of what was happening, they demanded his immediate sacking.
Other family members and community elders throughout the territory launched Black Arm Band Tuesday, asking supporters to call or email Scullion, Turnbull and NT politicians every Tuesday. On 9 August they staged a sit-in at the Alice Spring Office of Adam Giles. They are demanding that those responsible be sacked and charged. They want the Royal Commission extended nationwide and to lay criminal charges, not make more recommendations. They want Don Dale shut down, anonymity and protection for whistleblowers who are still incarcerated. They also call for an end to the NT Intervention.
A strategy to win. The immediate outpouring of protest provided a temporary boost to the movement. But we’ve seen huge pop-up protests before, which ultimately go nowhere. Just as the call for a Royal Commission provides the illusion of action for those with faith in the system, a one-off angry protest, with loud chants and some direct action, can do the same for those wanting to vent their rage but nothing beyond this.
To build a movement, where First Nations activists and others who have no stake in this system work together, takes sensitivity. It’s destructive when non-Indigenous people fail to recognise Aboriginal leadership or to understand that these leaders they seek to build a relationship with are a sovereign people. It is understandable that First Nations people get fed up with such lack of understanding and respect, but the answer is not to turn inwards. A callout by Warriors of the Aboriginal Resistance in Brisbane to Socialist Alternative and Socialist Alliance to stay away from the mass protest rallies was also destructive. Engaging in anti-socialist red-baiting weakens the movement.
The oppressions of First Nations people and the multi-racial working class are not identical, and those socialists who homogenise the experience are making a grave mistake. There is a common enemy: the capitalist system that enriches itself by stealing surplus value from the working class and land from First Nations. Efforts to end racist over-policing and abuse by tinkering with the system can’t begin to address the root cause of the problem. To stop deaths in custody and to prevent a repeat of the Don Dale atrocity means building an ongoing fight for a new society—one that is possible only when there is justice for First Nations people.
The aim of the ruling class is to fully assimilate First Nations people into capitalism. It wants to snuff out the connection to the land, and therefore Aboriginal sovereignty. It needs to eradicate every vestige of the pre-capitalist egalitarian ways of First Nations people, because these align with socialist values, which all who are oppressed are attracted to.
The Melbourne WAR rally featured many inspiring speakers who made it clear we must change the system, because the State is designed to serve the class in power. Gooniyandi woman, Viv Malo, nailed capitalism as the problem, and it has to go. Lynette Austin highlighted the leadership of Indigenous women. SOS Black Australia organiser, Les Thomas, stressed the importance of maintaining momentum. Larry Walsh, from the Taungurung people, got a great response for his call to unions to mobilise strike action and unite workers, First Nations people, refugees and immigrants.
Time’s up! No more enquiries, no more generations lost. Let’s continue organising to forge a stronger, broader and more united movement. Hold authorities accountable now, while creating a new society in harmony with ancient First Nations values.
Alison has campaigned to stop Aboriginal deaths in custody since the mid 80s. She is a founding member of the Indigenous Social Justice Association – Melbourne. Contact her at email@example.com