Dusk in Atherton Gardens in Fitzroy. Four hundred and eleven candles flicker as a solemn vigil takes place at the Stolen Generations Monument. The date, 15 April 2019, was the 28th anniversary of the release of the 339 recommendations of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody (RCIADC). Each of the candles represents the death of an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander person in custody in the years since the enquiry.
These deaths were preventable: the key finding that First Nations people die at a greater rate in custody, because they are over-incarcerated, has still not been addressed. The racial profiling continues, and almost half of the recommendations, designed to keep people out of jail by making imprisonment the last resort, are just words on a page. How many families would not be grieving if diversionary programs were in place, culturally sensitive healthcare provided and the sovereign rights of First Peoples respected?
One woman who would almost certainly still be with us today is Tanya Day. The 55-year-old Yorta Yorta grandmother died in December 2017 after being woken up, removed from a train at Castlemaine and taken into police custody for public drunkenness. Her children — Apryl, Belinda, Kimberley and Warren — are running the Justice for Tanya Day: Remember her name campaign, which hosted the vigil.
Reflecting on her Mum and all those who have died in custody, vigil organiser Apryl Watson said, “it is important to come together and remember those people and to offer love and pay respect to the families.” The vigil also heard from Ray Thomas, whose son Ray died in custody. The families of Mark Mason and Wayne Fella Morrison sent moving statements which were read to the multi-racial crowd.
Backbone of the movement. Stop deaths in custody campaigners from the Indigenous Social Justice Association – Melbourne (ISJA) carried large tribute placards with the faces, names, ages and circumstances surrounding the death of some of these 411 people. These include David Dungay, Veronica Baxter, TJ Hickey, Mr Ward, Ms Dhu, John Pat, Eddie Murray, Rebecca Maher, Mulrunji Doomadgee, Mr Briscoe and Peter Clarke. Behind each of these faces of loved ones lost stands a family fighting for justice, who collaborated to help build the movement. These families know what caused their loss: a racist system, based on land theft and exploitation that acts with impunity and perpetrates brutality.
The day after the vigil, National Indigenous TV reported the death in custody of 26-year-old Cherdeena Wynne. The mother of three died five days after an encounter with police. She complained she could not breath, then lost consciousness while handcuffed. Tragically, she had lost her own father to a death in custody when he was the same age. The family are speaking out, and they say Cherdeena’s death was caused by racial profiling and mistaken identify.
The persistence of families coming forward, demanding answers and insisting that those responsible be held accountable for their action, or inaction, is crucial to the movement building the strength and momentum needed to make gains.
The Andrews government must act! Tanya Day’s family is fighting for change that will make a difference. They know that the injury their Mum sustained while in police custody, which cost her life, can be traced directly to the failure to implement the recommendations of the Royal Commission. They want the offence of public drunkenness abolished in Victoria and genuine community health alternatives to incarceration put in place.
The RCIADC investigated 99 deaths in custody. Of these, 27 people were locked up for the sole offence of public drunkenness and another eight jailed for being intoxicated in a jurisdiction where this was not even an offence! All three Victorian deaths investigated were of people who died while in custody for no reason other than being drunk in a public pace.
Faced with this very clear evidence, the Commissioners issued recommendation 79: That in a jurisdiction where drunkenness has not been decriminalised, governments should legislate to abolish the offence of public drunkenness.
The Victorian government has had 28 years to do this, but it has failed to act. Laws criminalising public drunkenness remain. Additionally, some councils — such as the City of Yarra — have local laws that make it an offence to drink alcohol in a public place. The Royal Commission recognised that scrapping laws which criminalise public drunkenness would only be part of the solution. It also suggested close monitoring of the effects of dry area declarations: recommendation 82. Making sure people are not jailed for non-payment of fines for by-laws breaches would also be crucial.
Laws regulating drinking in public intersect with race and class. Ruth Barson, the director of legal advocacy at the Human Rights Law Centre, remarked, “People don’t die in custody coming home from the Melbourne Cup, or from a hens’ night.” Critics campaigning against the introduction of Local Law 8 in Yarra a decade ago observed that many public spaces had become privatised with the establishment of sidewalk cafes, where those with money could drink.
Tanya Day’s family demands change and is gaining massive public support. They are speaking out in the media and at rallies. Apryl Watson and Belinda Stevens addressed huge crowds at the Invasion Day rally and on International Women’s Day. They’ve launched an online petition hosted by The Action Network, which already has more than seven thousand signatures. Aimed at Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews, it demands an end to the offence of public drunkenness. There is also a paper petition for Victorian residents to sign, which will be presented later this year to State Parliament. The Human Rights Law Centre is representing the family in the Coroner’s Court, arguing that systemic racism played a role in Tanya Day’s death.
We stand with Belinda Stevens, who on the opening day of the Coroner’s hearing into her mother’s death said, “we will bring to light the continued failures of the Victorian justice system for Aboriginal people. If we can change the system that continues to victimise Victorian Aboriginal people, her death will not be in vain. We demand immediate action to implement the recommendations into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody. Failure to do so will continue to put Aboriginal people at risk of suffering the same fate as our Mum. Tanya Day – remember her name. She is not just another statistic. We carry with us her passion, her convictions, her pride. We will not rest until we get justice.”
To work with us on this campaign, get involved in the Indigenous Social Justice Association – Melbourne. ISJA meets on the first Thursday of every month, 6:30 pm at Solidarity Salon, 580 Sydney Road, Brunswick.
Sign the online petition: End Aboriginal Deaths in Custody – Abolish the offence of public drunkenness