Remembering TJ Hickey: Twenty years and still no justice

President of the Black People’s Union, Keiran Stewart-Assheton, got a rousing response. Photo by Klaus Kaulfuss.
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The Indigenous Social Justice Association – Melbourne hosted a speak-out on 17 February 2024 to mark the 20th anniversary of the death in police custody of Redfern teenager, TJ Hickey. It was organised with the support of TJ’s mum, Gail Hickey.

About 200 people turned out at the State Library to honour the memory of TJ and show their solidarity with the many deaths in custody families.

The crowd heard from:

  • Keiran Stewart-Assheton, President of the Black People’s Union;
  • Sarah Schwartz, Principal Lawyer of the Wirraway, Police and Prison Accountability Practice, who spoke on behalf of the Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service;
  • Ilo Diaz, Advocacy Coordinator for the Police Accountability Project;
  • Veteran First Nations freedom fighter, Robbie Thorpe.

Cheryl Kaulfus and Alison Thorne, both founding members of Indigenous Social Justice Association – Melbourne, also spoke.

Speakers addressed deaths in custody as part of the systemic, brutal and racist mistreatment of First Nations people at the hands of the settler state that is capitalist Australia.

The event also focused on solutions, with the speak-out calling for:

  • Justice for TJ Hickey and all who have died in police and prison custody;
  • Ending the practice of police investigating police — establish mechanism with real powers to control the police by making them accountable to the community;
  • Immediate implementation of all 339 recommendations of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal deaths in custody.

Below is the speech addressing the rally demands, presented by Alison Thorne on behalf of the Indigenous Social Justice Association – Melbourne. Alison is also the Managing editor of the Freedom Socialist Organiser.

• • •

Alison Thorne addresses the crowd. Photo by Maudie Osborne.

On this 20th anniversary of the death of TJ Hickey, the Indigenous Social Justice Association – Melbourne stands in solidarity with Gail Hickey and with all deaths in custody families. Grief runs deep — Gail and every other person who has lost a loved one in custody bravely and tenaciously continue the fight for justice. They are the backbone of the movement, and we salute you!

As you have heard, one of the things that Gail Hickey is campaigning for is to publicly display a truthful plaque to honour the memory of TJ. Gail refuses to change the wording on the plaque and erase the truth of how TJ died — his death cannot be described as “an accident.” If TJ had not been racially profiled and chased by the Redfern Police, and if he had not spent much of his young life being subjected to police harassment, TJ may still have been with us today.

ISJA Melbourne formed in the lead-up to the first anniversary of TJ’s death in response to an appeal from Gail Hickey and the late Ray Jackson, a remarkable Wiradjuri warrior and campaigner fighting to permanently end deaths in custody.

Ray knew what we were up against and what it would take to achieve this goal. He wrote, “The relationship between Capital, power and the police is historically known. The police are there to protect the Establishment: they are its frontline forces.” And indeed they are!

ISJA Melbourne understands that the police force — an institution, which uses racism and colonialism as brutal tools — is there to protect the interests of the ruling class. What it will take to stop deaths in custody for good is to dismantle this system, which is based on exploitation and the dispossession of First Nations, root and branch.

But deaths in custody continue to happen, so while we fight to get rid of this whole rotten system, we also need to fight for immediate demands as well.

In just two months, it will be 33 years since the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody made its recommendations. Amongst them is recommendations 87 and 92, which would make imprisonment a last resort. Incarceration statistics highlight why these recommendations are so crucial. Thirty-three percent of those in prison are Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, whilst First Nations people comprise only three percent of the overall population.

But instead of looking at ways to avoid locking people up, governments all around the country respond to incidents by going on law-and-order rampages. This is how we got Victoria’s tough bail laws with their presumption against bail. Recently the Queensland state government has gone so far as to suspend human rights protection for some children. There’s one justice for the rich and powerful and another for Black, Indigenous, people of colour and the poor.

This month Senator Lidia Thorpe asked the government when will it finally remove hanging points from prison cells — things like protruding shower heads and curtain fixtures. This is crucial, because most people who die by suicide in prison die by hanging. Even many of the simplest recommendations like this one — things that would save lives — have still not been implemented after more than three decades.

We demand the implementation of all 339 recommendations now! The failure to do so after 33 years shows the brutal indifference of the capitalist state, and it’s a racist disgrace. Shame!

The second immediate demand we raise is for community control of the police. We support the call for bodies with real powers that are elected by and directly accountable to the community.

I’d again like to quote Ray Jackson. Writing in the Freedom Socialist Bulletin he said, “The police must be under community control, not the other way around. ISJA has argued since the early ’90s that the power of police to investigate themselves must be taken away. What must be put in its place is an independent investigative team involving Aboriginal people or other minorities. There must be attached to this a civilian police review panel to make sure that the police role is absolutely transparent and that there is no chance of a cover-up. As long as police have these powers, we’ll never get to the truth about the deaths and other wrongs that happen in police custody — Aboriginal, Islander, Asian or white.” Wise words indeed from Ray Jackson.

As is the case with so many deaths in custody, after TJ’s death, police investigators spectacularly failed to collect vital evidence. Police investigators are not interested in finding the truth — their role is to protect their mates. Shame!

Charges are rarely laid and when they are, the cops walk free. The fact that Senior Sergeant Chris Hurley — killer of Mulrunji Doomadgee and serial thug — served 29 years in the Queensland Police force before finally getting caught out for assaulting a motorist on the Gold Coast is ample proof of this!

Five police officers were acquitted of the manslaughter of John Pat, a 16-year-old Aboriginal boy whose death in a Roebourne police cell in 1983 was instrumental in sparking the Royal Commission. These coppers were drunk and off duty when they assaulted the teen. The WA police officer who shot and killed JC, a 29-year-old Yamatji mother, in Geraldton was found not guilty by an all-white jury. While a cop, Zachary Rolfe, was also acquitted of the fatal shooting of 19-year-old Kumanjayi Walker in Yuendumu.

Walpari elder, Ned Hargraves, has called for the police to be disarmed and made accountable to the Yuendumu community. He argues it is wrong that “unarmed locals of tens of thousands of years are under the constant surveillance of settler officers with guns” and that this is happening on their own land!

Every example where police are involved in a death in custody is a stark reminder that we simply cannot rely on police to investigate themselves! We need to continue advocating for independent community-controlled bodies with real powers to hold police accountable.

I ask each of you here today to commit to fight for the full implementation of the recommendations of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Death in Custody and for an end to the cover-up that comes from the practice of police investigating police. Let’s also resolve to stand with Gail Hickey and the entire Hickey family as they pursue the fight to publicly display their plaque honouring the memory of TJ, stating explicitly that his death arose from a police pursuit.

The ongoing passage of years will not dampen our passion for justice, and we will not stop until we have answers, until all uniformed killers are held to account and until the genocidal deaths in custody stop. We will keep fighting for a world where no parent has to bury their child under such tragic circumstances in the way that so many First Nations parents currently have to do.

Let’s end with a chant that is raised each year at the commemoration in Redfern.

They say accident / we say murder!
Justice for TJ — we are not going away!

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