Terrorism in our own backyards: Calling for justice in deaths in custody

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By Rachel B. Haubi

September 30, 2019 — Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal — No one ever wishes to witness a 17-year-old boy impaled on an iron fence – a Christic figure against the Waterloo skyscrapers. “A freak accident,” the coroner declared, exempting NSW police who denied chasing the teenager. But civilians had seen the back of the bicycle being clipped by the police paddy. Against all protocols, the officers had even removed the body from the spikes and sent the rescue vehicle away.

It’s the morning of Valentine’s Day 2004. A bicycle rides down Cope Street. The rider is Thomas James Hickey, alias TJ Hickey, a 17-year-old Kamilaroi boy returning from his mother’s. His girlfriend April is timing his return, but the 14-year-old Aboriginal girl will never stop the timer. Earlier that morning, a bag was snatched in Redfern station, sending out four police cars all over “The Block” to locate a suspect whose bulky and mature features contrast TJ’s boyish stature. A police car patrolling the area spots the juvenile. The radio crackles as a new order is sent out.

As Thomas notices a police wagon coming up Cope Street, he crosses the adjacent car park and enters Renwick Street. When the menacing car reappears, it becomes clear that he is being followed.

When you are born Aboriginal in a land ruled by white supremacy, you learn to fear the coppers. How many friends and relatives has your mob lost to the hands of officers? Facts teach you that if you’re caught you might never come back. Justice won’t care. So you may as well run. And that’s exactly what TJ Hickey did.

TJ Hickey died on the following day at Royal Prince Alfred Hospital. Constable Hollingsworth, the vehicle’s driver, gave three conflicting versions of the incident. The officer was later excused from giving evidence at the coronial inquiry on the grounds he could incriminate himself. The bicycle disappeared and the scene was hosed down before any investigation was undertaken. “Deaths in custody are not treated as crime scenes,” explains Raul Bassi, activist and secretary for the Indigenous Social Justice Association (ISJA).

The evidence is washed away, the blood drained down the Sydney gutters, hushed by the abusive stream of power. A case closed for some while wounds remain open for others. Justice waits.

Over 15 years after the incident, the now 72-year-old Raul still recalls the Redfern riots that followed the Kamilaroi boy’s tragic death. “There was fire everywhere, no one was expecting that, especially not the police. That’s when I met Ray Jackson,” an Aboriginal activist part of the Stolen Generations, regarded by many as the father of the Deaths in Custody campaign. The Wiradjuri elder founded the Indigenous Social Justice Association to pursue the work of the Deaths in Custody Watch Committee after it being cut by the Howard government in 1997. Jackson and ISJA were awarded a Human Rights medal by the French government in 2013, two years before he passed away in his Waterloo flat. 

“My involvement against Deaths in Custody began with TJ Hickey and has never ended since,” Raul explains as we arrive at a memorial dedicated by the Head On Festival. A black wall rises before us with a patchwork of pinned photographs. As I glance at it, it becomes clear that I am being stared back at. Countless faces of fathers, brothers, daughters smile. A handsome man’s eyes twinkle as his new-born child rests in his arms. “Tane Chatfield,” Raul explains, “he died at 22 the day before his release in 2017, the police called it a ‘suicide’... The parents are still waiting for answers.” It seems that many are still waiting, I think as I stare at TJ Hickey’s and David Dungay’s portraits. Many have witnessed the CCTV footage of the Dunghutti man choking out “I can’t breathe” 12 times while prison guards restrain him in an asphyxiating position. Rebecca Maher, Eric Whittaker and Patrick Fischer are also present, immortalized. “This is Ms Dhu,” Raul points to the photo of a 22-year-old woman, “she called the police for domestic violence and was arrested for unpaid fines. Her ribs were broken; the officers said she was ‘faking it’ and dragged her on the floor...” A darker-skinned Aboriginal man in a cowboy hat is observing us under the Western Australian sun. “Mr Ward,” Raul begins, “they put him in the back of a van for 300km with temperatures of 43 degrees and no air-conditioning… He was dead before he reached the prison”. The list goes on, some cases dating back only weeks ago: “Cherdeena Wynne, April 2019”, I read under the portrait of a 26-year-old female. “Eight officers came into her home calling her by another name and held her to the ground without checking her ID – they had the wrong person! She lost consciousness and died in hospital five days later, 20 years after her father died in custody at the same age...” The truth might be inconvenient, but it is clear. TJ Hickey’s incident is not an isolated case, but part of a far greater pattern.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples represent nearly 3% of the Australian population, yet they are found in 28% of the country’s prison population. This stark overrepresentation of Indigenous Australians’ incarceration has long been reported by the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody who issued 339 recommendations in 1991. “Only a handful have been implemented,” declares Raul. During the 30 years that followed the Royal Commission’s findings, over 400 Indigenous peoples have died in police custody. First Nations peoples are not only 10 times more likely to end up in jail than non-Indigenous peoples but they are also the most incarcerated population in the world, with higher rates than African-Americans.

“Only a fraction of the time are they guilty for what they go to jail for,” Stewart  Levitt, a lawyer regarded by many as a ‘human rights champion’, announces at a Head On discussion in Paddington. A recent investigation from The Guardian reveals that over half of the Indigenous Australians who died in custody since 2008 had not been found guilty. “We need to stop jailing people unless they have committed a violent crime,” Raul asserts underlining the unequal majority of Aboriginal individuals detained without proof of their guilt. “80% of Aboriginal defendants are refused bail and sent to remand custody while 80% of non-Aboriginal defendants are released on bail… If we stop remand, we stop many deaths.”

Tane Chatfield had been on remand for two years at Tamworth Correctional Centre when he asked his mother to bring him his red shirt for his final court appearance. “Ma’, I’m coming home!” he told her. His lawyer too was confident that the young father would be released. Less than 24 hours after providing evidence proving his innocence, the Gumbaynggirr and Gomeroi man was found unresponsive in his cell.

“I walked into ICU to find my 22-year-old boy completely naked with only a pair of hospital socks on,” Nioka Chatfield trembles referring to the blood found on her son’s chest and the skin under his fingernails. 

Ice containers encircled the young man’s body while the fan was running. No social workers consulted the distressed parents who were pressured in giving their son’s organs up.

An unsuspicious death according to the NSW Corrective Services who deem the 22-year-old took his own life. “Then why didn’t he have his clothes on?” His family’s questions remain unanswered two years after their loss. Even his death certificate has a question mark on it. Justice waits.

 “This is typical of the unequal treatment towards Aboriginal people for which the legal services are extremely complicit,” explains Levitt who accentuates that we should investigate medical practitioners’ training in Australia. “To a large extent they are collusive with the police and take the medical history from them and not the patient… It’s a breech of their medical oath.”

“No one ever called me to tell me that my son was deceased,” Leetona Dungay, mother of the late David Dungay, discloses on the Head On platform. Her gaze is distant, worn. David died of asphyxiation in 2015 after being restrained face down by five correctional officers, weeks before his release. The 26-year-old diabetic had been caught eating a packet of biscuits. The coronial inquest reveals that, while the IAT had been pressuring the nurses to raid David’s cell, they had never received their consent. “This should be treated and investigated as a crime,” affirms Paddy Gibson, a senior researcher at the Jumbunna Institute for Indigenous Research and Education. David, who suffered from schizophrenia, wrote the following lines in Long Bail Jail – lines evermore poignant when acknowledging his fate.

Just a Breath Away

Written by David Dungay in Long Bay Jail

These day’z I spend wandering

Amongst the shadow’z

In a body that is not mine

Lost in the darkness of memorie’s

That ceased to exit long ago

Suffocating slowly, inside a dream

That’s just another war.

Silent on the edge of silent escape

Watching a wounded reflection

Paralysed in an illusion of fear

Until the cruelty of rage

Dissipate’s under my skin

With a fragile heart that keep’s slipping away.

Our two tribe world’s collide

Like a starburst exploding into a million piece’s.

While each day is a stillbirth of hope

And a nightmare just a breath away,

The pain of doubt

Linger’s in the shattered moment’s of reality

And spiral into a vertigo of desperation.

With the struggle abandoned to inexistence

And trust scared beyond the circle of fire

I emerged like a butterfly

From a coma of comfortability

And gradually fell from my dream

Still Breathing

Still Wondering

Waiting, for it to END.

“Our children run because of the intergenerational trauma that is being passed down,” Nioka Chatfield affirms as she tightens her husband’s hand. Her voice raises, trembles, but never breaks. “They messed with the wrong woman’s boy.”

Deaths in Custody are but the tip of the iceberg. “There is a terrible inequality within the justice system,” Levitt explains, “Aboriginal people are not protected properly and prosecuted unduly. This systemic racism has effects that permeate all the way down…” The truth is that when talking about Deaths in Custody, we are talking about the symptoms not the causes.

Despite Raul battling these systemic injustices for over 15 years, he makes it clear that we cannot wait to change the system. “First we have to stop Deaths in Custody – the first thing is to keep the people alive,” the 72-year-old explains with an Argentinian accent and teenage eyes that always smile.

To prevent Deaths in Custody, ISJA has submitted a Declaration to Parliament. Amongst other demands, it calls to abolish the Suspect Target Management Plan which racially targets First Nations peoples 18 times more than non-Indigenous peoples and 33 times more for the under 15 years. They demand that police and prison officers be held accountable by the same laws as the rest of society and that any Death in Custody be treated as a crime scene. Since many lawyers encourage innocent Aboriginal defendants to accept a lower charge by pleading guilty, ISJA requests a review of all current prisoners and that remand for non-violent crimes be stopped. “We’ll find a way to get independent investigations for all Deaths in Custody.”

An Aboriginal flag flutters in the autumn breeze as fists are clenched and raised beneath Queen Victoria’s Building. Faith, ISJA’s Indigenous spokesperson, guides the procession across George Street, breaking the silence with her clapsticks. Banners and posters are raised reading: “Parliamentary Enquiry Now: Justice for TJ Hickey”, “Police Self-Investigation + Corrupt Coronial Enquiry = 14 years of Injustice”, “Stop Killer Cops”. Sunlight reflects on the photographs of David Dungay, Tane Chatfield, Rebecca Maher, Eric Whittaker, Ms Dhu, TJ Hickey… Members of their families are present.

The Sunday crowd is divided between furtive smirks and the intrigued stares of those who stop. I notice spectators picking up placards and joining the Silent March, brandishing the faces and names of those whose voices were stolen.

“It’s just terrible isn’t it; such atrocities still happening in our country”, a woman whispers while listening to Mr Chatfield’s speech. It is. And it must be acknowledged. These families not only suffer a terrible loss, but are shunned from the grieving process. “We have to help heal,” Tane’s mother shared at the Head On talk. We can only heal together. Raul once said: “to change the country we need the rest of the country.”

Perhaps should we all feel and recognize the violence lived by First Nations peoples in this country that has seen the world’s longest continuous living culture thrive for over 60’000 years. That is surely Australia’s greatest wealth. In the 200 years since the First Fleet set foot on this treatiless land, we have witnessed mass mammal extinction, deforestation and severe droughts. When we kill off the cultures that know, feel, and are one with the land – be it by removing their children or targeting them for jails where they die in the shadow of power, we’re killing ourselves off. As Raul Bassi says in a Nelson Mandela way: “We will never be free until all Aboriginal peoples are free.”

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The Head on Festival Memorial, May 2019

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The Silent March, May 2019

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Faith leads the way with her clapsticks, May 2019

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Tane Chatfield’s father speaks.

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Families of the victims and ISJA activists standing together.

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TJ Hickey’s memorial plaque in Waterloo.