Tag Archives: Deaths in custody

Year of activism #23

Been thinking about the late Elliott Johnston who was a Supreme Court judge in SA and who on leaving the bench at 70 was appointed to the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody. He died when he was 93. I never met him. He was public about his membership of the Communist Party.  It didn’t get in the way of his abilities to pass judgements and make recommendations, just as other judges like Dame Roma Mitchell was very public about her Catholicism or others their capitalism.  I have been thinking about Justice Elliott in relation to these times, he always behaved as far as I can tell from his actions that black lives mattered.  He is an example of how leaders can hold roles in the public domain and not compromise their values.

The relationship between public and private is an acknowledgement that the personal is political and in the frame of this year’s blog theme, activism is an everyday practice to be applied in all parts of your life.  As the statues of racists tumble in town squares the blind spots and unconscious bias of past town planners comes down too. Past curators of museums around the world will be turning in their graves as their blind spots and pillaging of first nations and colonial conquests are overturned causing property and memories to be repatriated. These are just the beginning of the decolonisation movement which is spreading throughout the globe.

While we all know the name of George Floyd the litany of the names of Aboriginal deaths in custody are not on everyone’s lips in Australia.  I read through the list of 99 deaths chronicled by the Royal Commission. The Inquiry made 339 recommendations. The report recommended that imprisonment only be a last resort. The report also included recommendations for the calling of medical assistance if the condition of detainee deteriorates; greater collaboration with Indigenous communities; improved access Indigenous incarceration is one gap that needs closing. It is possibly the gap that is actively and systemically addressed will be the one to enable other gaps to close as well.

Going back to the Royal Commission, the recommendations and the way evidence was gathered provide plenty of clues about what actions to take.  There is plenty to do, that remains incomplete eg around child removal, medical support, community and family connection, institutional changes around education, health, employment, primacy of self-determination, poverty, land rights, provision of informed, independent advice, inclusion of Aboriginal people in government roles, public discourse and engagement of public policy and its rollout.

Anyone wanting to exercise some activism in Australia could look at the Royal Commission and choose any one of the recommendations and see how they could contribute to implementing it in their own life.  If you are a teacher, you could consider how you bring images, stories, language into your classroom; if you are a health professional consider the social determinants and how they are showing up in your work or perhaps make a contribution to a scholarship or learning opportunity for an Aboriginal health worker; if you are a parent bring in books and language and images into the home for your children to see (for example, my kids grew up with posters of bush tucker in the kitchen, Condom Man in the boys bedroom, wooden goannas from the APY lands as toys and Tiddas, Kev Carmody and Archie Roach on rotation), if you are a facilitator you can start your sessions acknowledging country and maybe saying a few words in language of the place where you are; if you love fashion how about buying clothes designed by Indigenous artists,  or cosmetics and medicine from Aboriginal healers, or if you are an engineer look to Supply Nation to get your workforce … there is no end of things each and every one of can do to help close the gaps.  At the least you can put a sign on your door to show respect to the traditional owners of where you live, or perhaps work on Australia Day and take a holiday on Mabo Day.  Taking the streets isn’t for everyone, nor is writing to your local MP so these ideas are offered as actions we can all do from our familiar roles and responsibilities in our everyday lives.

As we come into NAIDOC Week my activism ask is to make a choice about one thing you can do in your every day life to help implement the recommendations of the Royal Commission into Deaths in Custody which has at its heart, reconciliation and recognition that Australia always was and always will be Aboriginal land – which is fitting as that is this year’s NAIDOC theme.

 

 

 

Year of activism #21

Blowing off steam, having a rant, debriefing … what ever you want to call it … sometimes you need to make space to let excess energy and anger, disappointment, fear, anxiety take shape and be expressed. I’ve noticed over the years these moments in the life of an individual activist can leave them depleted, and in the life of a movement can take people into dangerous even explosive situations. They are often the moments where self-destruction seems only a breath away. Finding ways to do this safely and constructively requires discipline. For an individual it requires having quality friends and places where this can be done out of harm’s way.  It is necessary, and with its intensity can bring new insights and invitations.

This week I have watched at a distance the horror of the death of black man killed by a police officer on the streets in the Minneapolis. The rising up of outrage all over the world is too little too late for the man killed. The canaries in the coalmine of racism and inequity are now writ large on the consciousness of a nation.  In my own country institutionalised colonialism results in the deaths of Aboriginal people every day and the the life expectancy gap between Indigenous males and Indigenous females is 4 years (compared with 3.2 years for Non-Indigenous males and females) The life expectancy gap between Indigenous males and non-Indigenous males is 8.6 years (compared with 7.8 years for females). And then there is the 1987 Royal Commission into Deaths in Custody with around 300 recommendations, most of which are yet to be implemented. How we mourn, act in solidarity, educate, mobilise and how we don’t, causes our pain to seep out and take expression.

Very rarely in Australia are the non-white community so moved by injustice that they take to the streets.  This year is the 20th anniversary of walking across the bridges as part of National Reconciliation Week and I wonder how we might bring more of these actions into the public psyche by embedding them into our national calendar.  National Reconciliation Week ends with Mabo Day (June 3) and Bonita Mabo first called for making Mabo Day a public holiday after the death of her husband Eddie who took the action to the High Court that extinguished the falsehood of colonisation that Australia was uninhabited and with no laws over land and sea. Making public something that is invisible to many is one of the powerful ways we discover what is going on. The video footage of a man being murdered becomes grounds for a charge of murder, yet the institution and cultural context that breeds and fosters the behaviour of the individual or small group may not be held accountable or changed.  In Australia, no police officer or correctional services person has been charged over a death in custody.  There have been 400 deaths since the end of the Royal Commission in 1991. We are not descending into civil war on the streets, however the war of occupation continues and manifests itself in the diabetes clinics, in the lack of access to health and education, telecommunications, food supply chains, number of arrests and incarcerations.

I have always struggled with the flag. Seeing the Australian flag with the Union Jack in the corner is a constant reminder to me of our colonial story. I am living in a neighbourhood now that seems to have an abundance of flag poles and flags appear from time to time. I have a small Aboriginal flag in my office, which I have had for decades and it sits behind me, and has usually been up high to remind me I live and work under the sovereignty of a nation that has not had a treaty, on land that has never been ceded.  It’s National Reconciliation Week and I have been trying to figure out a way to pay my respects in a more public way. I have signed up for A Sign of Respect and  my sign arrived and I will organise to get it onto the front of my house.  It arrived with some guidance and gratitude. It also had a disclaimer on it about the social enterprise not being responsible for any damage that might happen to property where the sign was put up.  That stopped me in my tracks. It was a window into the meaning of solidarity.  It’s a small sign of respect and I live in a small street in a small seaside community.

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ps I also want to reprise and remember the Deliberative Poll we did in Canberra in 2001 which brought together almost 300 randomly selected Australians to consider reconciliation and black and white relations in Australia. It was an emotionally charged extraordinary process that took the team to remote, regional and urban places. It culminated in a two day event at Old Parliament House. You can see the 3 minute trailer here. It changed lives forever. I had the privilege of being the lead facilitator, supporting recruitment and training the team of volunteer facilitators for the two-day piece of the process. co-designing and supporting Dr Pam Ryan with the initiative. I am forever grateful for the opportunity.