Out of Tragedy comes the Truth – Black Deaths in Custody
On the morning of August 25th 2005 the category 5 Hurricane named Katrina made landfall in Florida, it would go on to cause carnage and destruction across Southern States, cause $100billion worth of damage, leave tens of thousands homeless and claim the lives of nearly 2000 people. As this tragedy unfolded and America’s eyes were forced once again to view its deep-seated racism on prime time TV, this time by the disproportionate number of Black people killed, injured and struggling post Katrina, some truth began to emerge. Despite the horrendous loss of life, the struggles to survive of those left behind and the apocalyptic damage caused to many towns and cities, the American media largely focussed on a handful of people (some black) who were shop lifting and stealing. At the obligatory benefit concert a week later, with lives still being lost and others battling to find food and shelter, Kanye West made the following statements.
“George Bush doesn’t care about Black people”. Driven by frustration at the lack of Government response and action, driven by the demonising of an entire community struggling against a once in a generation storm, Kanye West (Not known for his eloquent political prose) said some real shit, George Bush and by inference the US Government and power structures neither care for nor like very much Black folk. Of course as time went by, Kanye West apologised, Bush wrote in his memoirs that West’s comments were a “low point” and told a National TV audience that “it was one of the most disgusting moments of my Presidency”. To which the interviewer, NBC’s high respected Matt Lauer, simply nodded along. Yes, that’s right, to the President behind the Iraq and Afghan Wars, Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo Bay, Systematic torture, the US Attorneys crisis, The GFC and yes the disgraceful response to Hurricane Katrina… the problem was not any of these tings, they were not low points nor disgusting. That said the 43rd President of the United States of America were the comments made by a rapper.
And so out of the tragic death of 22 year old Indigenous woman, Julieka Dhu, let me say, Australia doesn’t care about Black people. Let me correct that, around the same time as Ms Dhu was slowly and agonisingly dying in a West Australian jail cell, Michael Brown a young Black man was shot to death by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. Rightly, a large number of Australian’s were outraged by what had happened to this young man, it was intensely followed on social media, broadcast on national TV and discussed at length in the weekend papers. But you could count on one hand the number of journalists who even know Ms Dhu’s name, nor politicians who have made statements about her death, nor protests and complaints from the Non-Indigenous community.
Ms Dhu was in jail in the Pilbara (Western Australia) for $1000 in unpaid fines, she had been attempting to see a doctor for a leg infection when arrested but “despite days of vomiting, worsening pain and complaints of fever and paralysis — first in her lower body and then her face — authorities deemed her medically fit to be kept in custody after two visits to the nearby hospital, although she reportedly wasn’t seen by a doctor.” Her partner Dion Ruffin was held in the cell nearest cell to Ms Dhu’s “We had to beg for hours to get them to send her to the hospital, she was in so much pain and was vomiting, it got worse and worse until she couldn’t move her legs and was slurring.”
“She was begging for help until her last breath.’’
Australia doesn’t care about it’s own Black People.
And then there is this…. “there is also medical evidence of a head injury, possibly sustained while being held in the South Hedland Police Station watch-house”. Mr Ruffin described what he could hear “I couldn’t see into her cell, she said she was on the floor and when the cops finally agreed to take her to hospital the last time they were laughing and saying she was acting. They opened the cell, and I heard one of them say get up, but she couldn’t and she was begging for help to get up and I heard a big thud, and then silence. I saw her being dragged out of the cell by her arms, her chin was on her chest and I cried out to her, but she was staring down, blank.’’
Is that thud the blow that ended Ms Dhu’s life after days of agony and suffering? We may never know, the case of course has been handed to an internal affairs unit, that will then report to the state’s coroner and….. forgive me if we have been down this road before.
It was in the Pilbara 30 years ago where 16 year old John Pat died from severe head injuries while being held in police custody that help spark the Royal Commission into Black (Aboriginal) Deaths in Custody. Of course nothing changed, Black men and women continue to die in gruesome fashion in custody around the nation. Again in WA, an Elder died in 2008 when he was literally cooked to death in the back of a transport van. Mr Ward was driven for 4 hours in the back of the van, in 50 degree heat without air-conditioning and died of heatstroke and burns just as the journey ended.
Of course often “negligence” is the alleged problem, a lack of staff or the appropriate training, investigations are had and promises of never again. Largely there is silence from the broader community, maybe Black deaths in Australia aren’t as “sexy” as those in the US like the tragically departed Trayvon Martin or Michael Brown. Maybe talking about Black Deaths here wont get you as many likes, retweets or favourites, maybe it’s the media’s fault for not telling you it had happened, maybe there is so much wrong in this world that what happens next to you is drowned out by what happens a world away. Or maybe you live in a country, Australia, that doesn’t care about it’s own Black people.
My comments are not disturbing, nor are they a low point and for them I will not apologise. The needless death of Black people, young and old, male and female in the custody of the state in this nation is what is disgusting, it is a low point and from the cells all that can be heard is your silence. But as there was in the death of Mr Pat or the death of Mulrunji whose liver was split in half on Palm Island, or 22 year old Ms Dhu there was a sound, her partner heard it and it was a “thud”. And if you watch this video of another of the 100’s of Black deaths in custody since the Royal Commission was held that was meant to put an end to all this, you too can hear the thud too. In the space of being in police custody for 2hrs, Mr Briscoe, another Black man in Australia was dead. You will hear the thud, you will see where it comes from and then once your eyes have closed, and if you remain silent, there will be another and another and another….