For Joyce Clarke and her sisters

Take on the Australian State’s deadly sexism and racism

27 September, 2019 — The Indigenous Social Justice Association - Melbourne marked the 36th anniversary of the death in custody of John Pat. The action also remembered Joyce Clarke, shot by police ten days earlier. Photo by Susannah Augustine.
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A determined and rhythmic chant, “What do we want? Justice for Joyce! When do we want it? Now!” rings out through the streets of Geraldton. Hundreds marched through the Western Australian town. A prominent banner summed up the mood: No justice, no peace! Placards demand police should not investigate police. The snap protest was called by Charmaine Green, a local Wajarri and Bardimaya poet, artist and activist in response to the shooting death by police of Yamatji woman, Joyce Clarke. 

Systemic indifference. Clarke — a young mother — was just 29 years old. Inadequate social supports for those in need have progressively deteriorated and, when compounded by toxic racism and sexism, Joyce was let down badly. She was taken from her mother when she was just 5 years old and spent an extended period in state “care” before being placed with a loving Aboriginal family. Her health was likely impacted by Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder. In early September, she was just a few days out of prison, broke and with no health supports when she began behaving erratically. Her worried family called for help — eight cops arrived, and one fatally shot Joyce in the stomach. 

While the police must be held to account, the entire capitalist system failed Joyce and continues to fail others in need. There are few mental health services, let alone culturally appropriate ones, available in Geraldton, which has a population of 53,000. The only option for a person in crisis is to sedate and then fly them more than 400 kilometres to Perth. The sobering-up shelter was closed at the end of 2017 after the state government withdrew funding. Then last year, faced with spiralling operating costs, the volunteer-run crisis accommodation shut down. Having provided shelter to vulnerable people in need for 34 years, this left a yawning gap. 

Women from deaths in custody families are the determined backbone of the movement. Amongst those protesting is adoptive mum, Anne Jones, who has taken on the care of Joyce’s 7-year-old orphaned son. 

Radical Women at the 2016 Invasion Day March. Photo by Alison Thorne.

Also marching was Carol Roe, the grandmother of Ms Dhu, who died in custody in Port Hedland in 2014 from undiagnosed septicaemia. The 22-year-old Yamatji woman, suffering injuries from her partner’s violence, was jailed for unpaid fines. Prison officers callously ignored her desperate pleas for help, dismissing her as exaggerating.

Western Australia is a dangerous place to be Aboriginal and female. Keennan Dickie knew this all too well when she spent a terrifying September night in jail. Dickie was robbed and bashed, and she sustained a broken rib. But when she went to the police station she was arrested for unpaid fines of $750 and taken to Melaleuca women’s prison. The 34-year-old Noongar woman, who had never been arrested before, was released when the Free The People campaign, initiated by advocacy group Sisters Inside, paid her fine. Once freed, Dickie told NITV News, “I was in so much pain, because I had never been hit by anyone before. My ribs were hurting. I was so scared, and I couldn’t help but think of the case of Ms Dhu, because they were so similar.”

Despite official spin that the police are there to protect the whole community, their role is to protect the interests of the class in power. The institution is saturated with racism and sexism. For Aboriginal women, any dealing with the police can rapidly become life-threatening. 

Last April, Cherdeena Wynne, who lived with a mental illness, was at home with her family. The house was dark when eight police burst in during the night. This was a shocking case of racial profiling. Her family say there was no checking of her identify before she was held on the ground, restrained, put in handcuffs and arrested. She fell unconscious shortly after being detained and died five days later. Cherdeena, a Yamatji/Noongar woman, had three children. Intergenerational trauma is far too common. Like their mother, these children will grow up having lost a parent to a death in custody. Cherdeena’s own father died in police custody 20 years earlier. He was the exact same age as Cherdeena — just 26.

In 2012, another Aboriginal sister lost her life in custody. Maureen Mandijarra was an artist from Balgo, a community on the edge of the Tanamai Desert. She was 44 when she died in a prison cell in Broome. She had been drinking with friends in a park when police arrested her for erratic behaviour and locked her up to “sleep it off.” The coroner heard that police were “too busy” to carry out welfare checks — six hours later, she was found dead. Police told the coroner that one factor in their decision to detain Mandijarra was her history of being domestically abused, and they wanted to keep her safe! Amongst the Coroner’s recommendations was that police be stripped of their powers to arrest and detain individuals found drinking in public.

Deadly delays. The movement campaign to stop deaths in custody, which shone the spotlight on the factors leading directly to death of Ms Mandijarra, finally prompted the Western Australian government to change laws criminalising public drunkenness. Then in September, the long overdue bills to end the routine practice of jailing people with fines were tabled in parliament. The state’s Attorney General acknowledges that the death of Ms Dhu was the catalyst for this reform. 

On 22 August, the eve of the Coroner’s enquiry into the 2017 death in custody of 55-year-old Yorta Yorta grandmother, Tanya Day, the Victorian government announced that it too would move to a health-based response to public drunkenness. A massive public campaign, led by her children, demanded this change. After being woken and removed from a train, Day was jailed in Castlemaine for public drunkenness. 

The timing of the announcement by the Victorian Attorney General was a cynical attempt to deflect some of the public criticism it knew it would cop once the circumstances behind Tanya Day’s death came to light.  

Earlier this year, Day’s family held a vigil on the 28th anniversary of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody’s (RCIADIC) release of its recommendations. The moving event remembered the lives of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people cut short by a death in police or prison custody. The vigil called for all 339 recommendations to be implemented. 

Governments, police and custodial authorities cannot claim not to know what is needed to stop deaths in custody. The Royal Commission’s findings are clear. Central is the over-representation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island people in custody and the need to make imprisonment the last resort. Almost three decades later, these remain the issues. But, despite platitudes, the promises are empty and governments fail to act until forced by a mobilised movement to do so. 

Recommendation 79 made in 1991 reads: “That in jurisdictions where drunkenness has not been decriminalised, government should legislate to abolish the offence of public drunkenness.” That the Victorian government is only working on this now and the Queensland government still allows police to arrest people for nothing more than being drunk in public is a disgrace. 

The Royal Commission highlighted that imprisonment is regularly used as a response to both poverty and health issues. Each year, this situation worsens.  

Aboriginal women are inspiring community leaders. “Because of her we can” was the theme of NAIDOC 2018, which was embraced by these girls marching in Melbourne. Photo by Alison Thorne.

Australia’s prison population is soaring with women, Indigenous people and prisoners held on remand, who have not been convicted. Over the last decade, women’s imprisonment has increased by 77%. Study after study reveals that the lack of services is a key contributor, with more than half of all women in custody having a history of mental illness, abuse as a child or both. The overwhelming majority of women in prison — between 70 and 90% — are victims of domestic violence. Aboriginal women comprise just 3 percent of the population, but are 30% of women behind bars — making them the fastest growing segment of the prison population. Aboriginal women are more likely to be jailed for minor issues and have a high rate of bail refusal.

The complete indifference towards those with social, health and housing needs is brought into sharp relief by the experience of Rosie Anne Fulton. This young woman from the Northern Territory was arrested for a minor driving offence while visiting Kalgoorlie. Born with foetal alcohol spectrum disorder, she was found unfit to plea. She was then kept in jail without charge for two years, because no treatment facilities or housing options could be found for someone with her disability. A 2014 campaign got her released. But without ongoing support, she is now living in Alice Springs, where she shifts in and out of jail. 

Interlinked oppression demands radical solutions. Since the RCIADIC there’s been a string of reports looking at these issues. Each finds the same problems and makes concrete recommendations. We don’t need more reports that get ignored!

Indigenous incarceration mushrooms as governments — federal, state and territory — pour funds into increased policing, building more prisons and increasingly harsh law-and-order campaigns. These same governments also slash funding for social support programs, education, training, health and housing. They keep those living on income support in poverty and impose punitive social controls. 

Key demands, which would help have long been raised by the movement. 

Urgently needed is that all 339 recommendations of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody be implemented in full. Accountability is crucial. Even where recommendations have been “implemented,” police and prison authorities regularly fail to follow their own procedures. Putting an end to internal investigation processes is essential. The establishment of well-resourced and empowered civilian review boards, directly elected by and accountable to impacted communities, is needed.

Scrap the racist Community Employment Development Program, increase the Newstart Allowance and provide a living wage for all. 

Neoliberalism is making life harder for the majority as the gap widens between rich and poor. Oxfam’s latest analysis of global inequality, Public Good or Private Wealth, features the staggering statistic that in 2018 the world’s billionaires increased their wealth by $3.5 billion a day! The poorest half of the world population are going backwards, with women and girls most severely impacted. The same report highlights that Australia’s richest 1% controls 22% of the wealth, more than the poorest 70% combined. On top of this, one in three corporations paid no tax in the last four years, and the resulting tax gap is more than double what the federal government committed to spend on the health of First Nations. 

The money is there to provide what is needed, not only for Aboriginal people but for all. Tax the corporations, which have grown rich off the stolen lands of First Nations and the stolen labour of all working people. 

For First Peoples, money, while vital, is only part of the answer. It is crucial to put Aboriginal people in charge their own affairs — self-determination for sovereign nations is at the heart of the solution. Provide billions for community-controlled programs to deliver comprehensive healthcare, women’s services, education, housing, social and cultural programs and caring for country. 

Despite the terrible legacy of invasion, dispossession, and centuries of genocidal policies and practices, there’s incredible strength, resilience and leadership in Aboriginal communities — much of it coming from women. Things would have been very different for Joyce Clarke if she had the healthcare and secure housing she needed and if she hadn’t been jailed. In this future world, if she began to experience an acute mental health episode, her family could get real help from culturally appropriate Aboriginal health workers deeply embedded in the local community. To achieve this future will take more than redistributing wealth from the corporate plunders. It will require putting sovereign First Nations in charge. This fundamental principle is essential to heal communities and stop the intergenerational trauma that is exacerbated daily. Joyce Clarke’s son and Cherdeena Wynne’s three young children have both lost their mother to deaths in custody. We cannot let another generation experience this. 

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