Aboriginal teenager, John Pat, was just 16 years old when he died in custody on 28 September 1983 at the Roebourne police station in Western Australia (WA). His mother, Mavis Pat, is still grieving his death.
What might John Pat have done with his life if he had not been assaulted by police and sustained injuries that led to his death? Would he have followed in his mother’s footsteps and become a leader in the battle for justice? He would celebrate his 46th birthday this year and would be entitled to the status of elder amongst the Yindjibarndi people.
Mavis Pat, herself a highly respected elder, is a director of the Yindjibarndi Aboriginal Corporation (YAC). The group is leading a fight against mining magnate, Andrew Forrest, and the Fortescue Metals Group (FMG), which wants to develop an iron ore mine that would cover more than half of their traditional lands. The elders from YAC believe FMG is trying to rip off the Yindjibarndi people and undermine their connection to and control of their traditional lands. Would the adult John Pat be campaigning alongside his mother to win this fight?
Like many family members who have lost a loved one in custody, Mavis Pat is strong and tenacious, continuing the battle for justice for her son. Last September, she again travelled to Fremantle to attend an anniversary ceremony at the site of his memorial. Inscribed with the moving words of poet, Jack Davis, the memorial urges us not to forget “the silhouette of a concrete floor, a cell door and John Pat.”
Speaking on the 29th anniversary of John Pat’s death, Mavis gave her full support to a proposal for a National Day of Remembrance for her son and for the marches to take place across the nation this year to mark the 30th anniversary of that night in Roebourne.
She explained, “My son has never left me. I remember him every day. There forever remains a hole in my heart. I had hoped much would change with the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody (RCIADIC) but sadly it appears little has changed.” She calls for an apology from the WA government for her son’s death and an ex-gratia payment as compensation. Mavis also demands that the police officers involved be brought to account and advocates a re-opening of the coronial inquiry.
A long time ago in Roebourne. John Pat had only ever experienced the police as racist harassers who target Indigenous youth. The night of his death was no exception.
When he saw a friend being assaulted and racially abused by off-duty police officers outside the Victoria Hotel, he intervened. Witnesses saw a police officer strike John Pat in the face and shove him backwards. He fell and struck his head on the pavement. While lying defenceless on the ground, another police officer kicked him in the head. John Pat and three of his friends were then dragged to a police van. Witnesses saw John Pat being kicked in the face by yet another police officer before being thrown into the van.
While some of his friends spent a week in hospital recovering from their injuries, John Pat died an hour after he was locked up. The autopsy showed a fractured skull, haemorrhaging and swelling as well as bruising and tearing of the brain. These injuries were sustained from multiple massive blows to the head.
This brutality shocked the public. But many still had illusions in the system, accepting the soothing words from politicians that those responsible would be held accountable. The investigation took nearly three years and the result was a wake-up call. The trial had an all-white jury, which found all five accused police officers not guilty, and accepted claims they were acting in self-defence! While no police were ever punished, several Aboriginal people involved in the Roebourne incident were prosecuted and fined for assault, resisting arrest or hindering police.
The blatant racist double standards evident in John Pat’s death and the lack of accountability of those responsible made it impossible for moderates in the movement to argue that the State is neutral in these matters or that the system works. The State isn’t neutral and doesn’t provide justice! The capitalist State has a purpose: to uphold the interests of the ruling class and it uses racism as one of its primary tools.
The acquittal of John Pat’s killers—coupled with an epidemic of deaths in custody—sparked a campaign in the 1980s, spearheaded by the National Committee to Defend Black Rights. That’s when, as a representative of the Freedom Socialist Party, I got involved in the fight to stop Aboriginal deaths in custody by helping organise the Victorian leg of a speaking tour by relatives who had lost a loved one in custody.
This campaign was massive and simply could not be ignored. In response, the Hawke government established RCIADIC to investigate deaths in custody between 1980 and 1989.
The result is now well-known. Not a single police or prison officer was charged. The commissioners found that the immediate reason why Aboriginal people died in custody at a disproportionate rate was the over-representation of Aboriginal people in jail. They made 339 recommendations, half of which were aimed at keeping Aborigines out of jail, with the emphasis being on prison as a last resort.
The racist State in the 21st century. Rather than using prison as a last resort, the State has continued to over-police and lock up Aboriginal people at a staggering rate—many in privatised facilities. While in custody, Aboriginal people are treated with callous indifference and racist brutality. There’s been a nationwide shift toward tougher law-and-order policies, such as mandatory sentencing, which make a mockery of claims by governments that they are implementing RCIADIC’s recommendations.
At the time RCIADIC made its report in 1991, Indigenous people were eight times more likely to be imprisoned than non-Indigenous people. Today they are 14 times more likely to be in jail! Aboriginal people are less than 3% of the population but comprise 26% of the national prison population. Australia’s first nations people are imprisoned at a higher rate than Native Americans or African Americans. And the rate of Aboriginal deaths in custody is higher than Black deaths in custody in South Africa during the peak of apartheid!
Mobilise now to stop deaths in custody. John Pat’s death and the blatant failure of the police and State to take responsibility sparked an outpouring of anger and fuelled a multiracial national movement demanding action. What’s needed today is to rebuild that movement with a dual focus on both reducing Indigenous imprisonment and fighting for mechanisms for communities to investigate and prosecute police.
Plans have already been announced for rallies to be held as part of a National Day of Action on 28 September 2013 in Adelaide, Brisbane, Melbourne, Perth and Sydney.
The Indigenous Social Justice Association – Melbourne (ISJA – Melb) proposes that the main slogan be “Thirty Years But Still No Justice: National Day of Action to Stop Aboriginal deaths in custody! Remember John Pat and the hundreds who have died in custody since! Support the demands made by John Pat’s mother, Mavis Pat.”
ISJA – Melb is also advocating the following demands.
• Stop Aboriginal deaths in custody—implement all 339 recommendations of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody
• End privatisation of custodial services—cancel all contracts with G4S, SERCO and other profiteers from incarceration
• Hold the police to account—end the practice of police investigating police. Establish elected community-based review boards with full legal and legislative powers to investigate, discipline and charge police, prison and custodial health officers found to be involved in a death in custody, negligence or lack of duty of care
• End the harassment of deaths in custody families—provide funding for families who have lost a loved one in custody to meet, and to allow their collective demands to be formulated, including suitable and adequate compensation.
• Self-defence is no offence—for the right of Aboriginal people to defend themselves against racist violence without fear of prosecution.
Thirty years is indeed too long. The best way to honour the memory of John Pat, and all who have died since, is to declare that time is up to wait for redress from the State—we need to fight to get justice!
Alison has been active in the campaign to stop Aboriginal deaths in custody since the early 80s. She is a founding member of the Indigenous Social Justice Association – Melbourne. To work with the Freedom Socialist Party on this campaign contact firstname.lastname@example.org
For more information about the Indigenous Social Justice Association Melbourne see: www.isja-msg.com