The grief was palpable as family members of Kumanjayi Walker stood on the steps of the Northern Territory Supreme Court in Darwin on 10 March 2022. Zachary Rolfe, the police officer charged with murder, manslaughter and engaging in violent acts causing death, had just been cleared of all charges relating to the shooting death of their loved one. Kumanjayi was described by his cousin, Samaara Fernandesz Brown, as “a traditional young fella who loved hunting and being out on country. A joyful young man who was generous. A young man who was taken far too soon, and a young man who is deeply missed by everyone.”
A tearful Fernandesz Brown said “we are all in so much pain.” She characterised the court’s treatment of the memory of Kumanjayi as in effect putting him on trial for his own death. She read a family statement declaring, “Kumanjayi was only 19 when he died in the Yuendumu police station after being shot three times by Zachary Rolfe. This is a fact. He died without the support of his family, though we stood outside begging for answers.”
“Racism kills.” Valerie Napaljarri Martin, a family elder, condemned the outcome, excoriating the racism of the police and courts. “Do not silence us! Listen to us!” she demanded passionately. “The court has not recognised the needs of Warlpari people. There has been no respect for our customary law.”
Martin contrasted the treatment of Rolfe with that of her own people under the kardiya (non-Indigenous) legal system. “The system traps our young people” she said, pointing to examples of youth incarcerated for very minor things. The likes of Rolfe avoid accountability because “kardiya justice is really dishonest. Rolfe was bailed for two years, on full pay from the NT police and was treated like a hero — it’s disgusting.”
Stop deaths in custody activist, Freya Strom, sat in court and provided eye-witness reports to the movement. Reflecting at the end of the trial, she commented: “Rolfe and his support team were perfectly practiced, elegantly dressed and comfortable in their surroundings. Rolfe was financially supported by the police association and his wealthy family along with some high profile supporters.” Rolfe, a former soldier, was mentored by Ben Roberts-Smith, who is facing allegations of war crimes.
“While [Rolfe] travelled in comfort, stayed in luxury accommodation, ate well — all his needs covered since the time since the shooting — many of Kumanjayi Walker’s supporters never made it to Darwin. The family and community had wanted the trial to take place [at the nearest court] in Alice Springs, 300kms from Yuendumu. Just one of the many fights that Rolfe’s defence team won. The balance was always in his favour,” Strom says those who did travel the 1,800 km to Darwin were treated with little respect. There were no Warlpiri interpreters provided, making much of the evidence and reports given by experts hard to understand.
A recurring pattern. The outcome, while a devastating blow, was not a surprise. First Nations people and the movement that backs them, know all too well the bitter reality of a system that fails to deliver justice. Fernandesz Brown observed, “we had a trial, just not a fair one!”
In Australia, which is built on the combination of stolen land and stolen labour, the role of the police and courts — dating right back to 1788 — has been to uphold the status quo, paving the way for mining companies and big corporates to profit. But police brutality knows no borders. In all capitalist societies, wherever there are police there is police brutality. This is because racism is one of the cornerstones of capitalism and a tool used by the armed state to do their main job, guarding the “haves” from the “have-nots.” All who dissent are a threat, including any First Nations peoples who maintain traditional laws and uphold strong communal values.
There are far too many examples of police acting with impunity. Few face court. When they do, the system fails to hold them to account. The off-duty police responsible for the death of John Pat in Roebourne in 1983 were found not guilty of manslaughter. Chris Hurley, the Queensland police officer responsible for the death of Palm Island man Mulrunji Doomadgee, faced court but was also acquitted. Last October, the police officer who shot and killed Ms Clarke (JC) in Geraldton, just two months before Rolfe shot Walker, was also acquitted — and the cop’s identity remains protected by suppression orders.
Warlpari elder Ned Hargraves argues that “the only reason Rolfe was charged with murder is because our people stood up and demanded justice.” It is rare that those responsible for a First Nations death in custody are charged — getting them in front of a court is itself a victory for the movement. And when police who kill are invariably acquitted, this exposes the role of the police and courts in upholding the capitalist status quo.
The trials of those who killed John Pat, Mulrunji Doomadgee and JC all have something in common. In every instance, the juries were not reflective of the community — they were all white. The Rolfe jury was not multicultural and included no First Nations people. One of the jurors also had a sister who is a serving NT Police Officer.
Rolfe’s acquittal is history repeating itself, says Hargraves: “This country is built on the murder of our people. Since invasion, our people have been killed, our land has been stolen and our rights have been taken away. In 1928, hundreds of people were massacred by a policeman from Alice Springs, George Murray. He was also a returned soldier from World War 1. His trial was sent to Port Augusta and he was acquitted.” These events, known as the Coniston Massacre, are deeply in-printed in Warlpiri memory.
Gag lifted. With the trial over, in a win for the Yuendumu community, Rolfe’s legal team lost the argument for suppression orders to remain permanently in place. Evidence that the court did not get to hear is starting to come out.
Rolfe’s former fiancee said that he would frequently comment about how he could take a “paid holiday” if he shot someone while on duty. He also bragged to her that he’d be the first to get his gun out on a job and that he would turn his body camera off as he did not want others to know what he was doing.
Damaging text messages sent by Rolfe to an army buddy are now in the public domain. About working in Alice Springs he said, “the good thing is it’s like the Wild West.” In another text he talks about his role with the Immediate Response Team, “it’s a sweet gig, just get to do cowboy stuff with no rules.”
Like former Queensland cop, Chris Hurley, who was promoted before spending another decade in the police force, followed by a trail of ongoing complaints about his violence and thuggery, it turns out that Rolfe also has form. He was involved in a violent arrest just six months before shooting Kumanjayi Walker. In this instance, an NT judge found that Rolfe likely “deliberately banged” an Aboriginal man’s head, knocking him out, and then lied in his evidence in court.
Rolfe’s acquittal in part relied on his state of mind, as he argued he had been in fear. The suppressed evidence, which the jury did not get to hear, tells a different story about his state of mind! No wonder Rolfe sat comfortably in court, knowing that, protected by suppression orders, evidence of his violent tendencies would not come out until after the verdict.
The Yuendumu community can now speak freely. Fernandesz Brown explained that for more than two years, “we had suppression orders in place to stop us from saying what we wanted to say, to stop our truth.” The community was even banned from using certain phrases such as Black Lives Matter! Hargraves adds, “now it is time for us to speak up and tell our junga — our truth. We need to tell our side of the story.”
“We protested when Kumanjayi’s life was stolen by Rolfe. What did thousands of protesters say? Black Lives Matter. In our language we say Yapakurlangu Warnkuaru Matter. There have been over 500 yapa deaths in custody since the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody and still no justice. We see what is happening with Black people being killed by police all over the world, and we are part of a global fight for change. We see Black Lives Matter as a kurdiji, a shield, it holds us.”
Listen to us! The community is speaking loud and proud, raising clear demands. Central amongst them is disarming the police in remote communities such as Yuendumu. On the steps of the court in Darwin, Hargreaves called for a ceasefire: “No more guns in remote communities. Enough is enough!”
He also called for an end to the Northern Territory Emergency Response, or Intervention, imposed by the Howard Government and maintained by every government since. “Since the NT Intervention in 2007, the police have been getting more weapons, more power and more racist towards us. We are proud people, strong in our language, culture and law. But the police and government rule over us and treat us as enemies on our own land. We want our rights back to control what happens in our community and on our lands. They have built a big police station to terrorise and control us. Instead of funding more police, redirect that money to yapa community services like our night patrol. We know what we need!”
The Yuendumu community needs respect, it needs community control over the police, and it needs yapa control of yapa affairs. Back these demands!
The coronial inquest into the shooting commences in Alice Springs on 5 September and is scheduled to run for several weeks. It will examine issues such as why Kumanjayi got no medical treatment after the shooting. As Fernandesz Brown, reading the family statement the day of the acquittal vowed, “This is not the end of his story. This is not the end of our fight.” The family is now turning their attention to this inquest, where they hope their truth will be heard. They are fighting so that “no other family will go through what we have endured over the last two years.”
Amplify the powerful voices of both the family and the Yuendumu community and support the bold solutions they advocate!
This article uses Warlpari language.
Yapakurlangu Warnkuaru Matter = Black Lives Matter
Kardiya = non-Indigenous
Yapa = First Nations people
Junga = truth
Kurdiji = shield