Black Lives Matter in Australia. As attention has been paid to Black women who have lost their lives while in police custody and in encounters with law enforcement in the United States — women such as Sandra Bland, Miriam Carey, Rekia Boyd and Korryn Gaines — there is another name to add to the list, halfway around the world.
This month marked the second anniversary of the death of Julieka Dhu, 22, an Indigenous Yamatji woman who was arrested on Aug. 2, 2014 for failure to pay A$3,600 (US$2,742) in fines. She is referred to as Ms. Dhu, out of cultural respect for Aboriginal people’s avoidance of referring to the name of a dead person. Ms. Dhu was taken into custody in Port Hedland in Western Australia. On Aug. 4, she was dead in a jail, in a case that bears similarities to Sandra Bland in Texas. Two years later, there is no justice, as the family seeks the results of an official investigation into her death, and demands the release of the video footage of her final moments alive — so that Australia may come face-to-face with its racism against Black people.
And Ms. Dhu had no business being in jail, much less dying.
“What stood out for me was she was a family violence victim. She had a broken rib, and she was in horrendous pain,” Amy McQuire, an Aboriginal journalist with 98.9FM in Brisbane, told Atlanta Black Star. “She shouldn’t have been there in the first place. She should’ve been protected.”
As NITV reported, an inquest found that the cause of death was septicaemia and pneumonia due to an infection from broken ribs and blood-filled lungs. Police ignored her cries for help and her vomiting, with police sergeant Rick Bond reportedly telling her she was a “f—— junkie, you will sit this out,” and that she was “faking” her pain, was “full of s—” and disrupting the “smooth running” of the police station.
Ms. Dhu was even dismissed as a mental case. One policewoman reportedly said, “I am not going to hurt my back for her.” She was taken to the hospital twice in the back of a police van, given a quick lookover and returned to jail, as Al Jazeera reported. The third time, her condition ever worsening, the sergeant reportedly told Ms. Dhu, “This is the last f—— time you’re going to hospital,” according to the inquest. They dragged her from her cell “like a dead kangaroo” an hour before she was pronounced dead.
“They didn’t seem to understand her pain. They thought she was trying to get out and they didn’t take her seriously,” McQuire said. “If it wasn’t for the family, we wouldn’t have heard about it,” she added.
The coroner, who is a white woman, has said she does not want to release the closed-circuit video footage of Ms. Dhu’s death because it would “traumatize” the family — which suggests that the family is not already traumatized, and that white folks know what is best for Black people.
Shaun Harris, Ms. Dhu’s uncle and Family Spokesperson for the “Justice For Julieka Dhu” Black Death In Custody Campaign, has seen the footage of her death and demands its release, arguing that this vital evidence disproves and contradicts testimony given in the investigation.
“This footage also, and very clearly depicts amongst other seriously liberty depriving actions, a very young and very vulnerable and ‘dying’ if not ‘dead’ or ‘very very close to death’ Ms Dhu being dragged out of her cell ‘like a dead carcass’ as the public has already been informed via the Coronial Inquest and being ‘roughly placed’ in the locked back of a police 4WD ‘in handcuffs,’” said Mr. Harris in a statement he provided to Atlanta Black Star. “They very ‘roughly’ dragged her out of the back of the ‘paddywagon’ and blatantly continued to place this poor dear neglected girl in a wheelchair with absolutely no compassion, her head rolls back in a very lifeless motion. The police proceed to seemingly “casually” wheel this seemingly already lifeless body hastily into Hedland Emergency for the 3rd time,” he added.
As McQuire noted, Black women in Australia are most likely to be locked up for unpaid fines.
“In Western Australia, Aboriginal women and women in general are incarcerated for failure to pay fines,” she said. “Why would a young Aboriginal woman call the police if she knows it will happen to them? It’s almost as if they can get away with killing Aboriginal women.”
Meanwhile, the media have not paid much attention to Ms. Dhu, or to Aboriginal people in general.
“The media haven’t covered it much, but they haven’t put it in prominence. You compare it to how they treat white victims. The conversation on domestic violence is primarily focused on white victims,” McQuire said.
And according to The Guardian, Black Australian women are 45 times more likely to suffer from domestic violence than are their white counterparts.
(Amy McQuire radio interview with Shaun Harris on 98.9FM in Brisbane, Australia, Aug. 4, 2016)
Australia is a racist country that is not addressing or coming to terms with itself. And despite the years of genocide, enslavement, the stealing of Black children and the continuing atrocities, white Australians look at the Black Lives Matters movement in the U.S. and breathe a sigh of relief that they do not have a racism problem. Rather than confront its injustices, Australia blames Black people for their own problems. And as McQuire noted, Australia’s prison-industrial complex and draconian laws are targeting Aboriginal people, because it is easier to warehouse people than deal with the underlying issues.
Meanwhile, she added that Indigenous Black people are experiencing “unresolved and intergenerational trauma,” with an “attempt to assimilate into a white way of thinking, and continual racism.”
That racism was on display on Aug. 21, when Eddie Betts, an Aboriginal player for the Adelaide Crows of the Australian Football League, was a victim of game-time racism. A white woman threw a banana at Betts during the game, according to Yahoo 7 News, reflecting a decades-long tradition of white spectators terrorizing Black athletes and calling them apes and monkeys. Earlier this year, memes were posted on social media comparing retired AFL star Adam Goodes to Harambe, the gorilla at the Cincinnati Zoo who was put down after a Black 4-year old child fell into the animal’s enclosure in May.
And recently in The Australian, a newspaper owned by Rupert Murdoch, a racially offensive cartoon was published which depicted an alcohol-drinking Aboriginal father who could not remember his son’s name. Such offensive and harmful media images reflect “the way white people see Aboriginal people as a whole,” and “they are so used to getting away with it,” said McQuire.
These events come at a time when the Northern Territory is embroiled in a scandal over the torture of Black children in the Don Dale juvenile detention facility. Footage shows prison staff spraying teargas at teenage boys who were attempting to escape and youth stripped and held down by guards. Another video shows a boy shackled in a restraint chair with a hood placed over his head for two hours, in an image reminiscent of Guantánamo Bay or Abu Ghraib. The Northern Territory government recently approved use of the torture chair. According to The Guardian, 97 percent of the children in juvenile detention in the Northern Territory are Black. In addition, suicide is the biggest cause of death for Aboriginal people under the age of 35.
Meanwhile, the case of Julieka Dhu is not an aberration. In Western Australia, a comatose Indigenous man named Nathan Khan was shackled to a bed after collapsing during a court appearance for a driving offense, and “tied down like a dog” according to The Guardian. And Australian Lawyers for Human Rights urged the New South Wales government to investigate the death of Rebecca Maher, 36, a Wiradjuri woman who was kept in a holding cell for alleged intoxication, and died within five to six hours, as Lawyers Weekly reported.
“Indigenous Australians are among the most highly incarcerated peoples in the world, being 15 times more likely than other Australians to be imprisoned. The vulnerability of Aboriginal Australians to death whilst in police custody has been well documented,” the organization said in a statement.
Aboriginal people are nearly 30 percent of people in prison, although they are merely 2 percent of the Australian population, according to the Australian version of the open letter created by Letters for Black Lives, an ongoing project for communities in solidarity with #BlackLivesMatter. The letter added that according to studies of the Victorian police, young African people were targeted at a much higher rate than others, “and statistics of Aboriginal people who have died in police custody, often as a result of over-incarceration, neglect and outright abuse, are also shockingly high.”
According to Al Jazeera, about 1,400 Australians have died in police custody since 1980, with Aboriginal people making up a disproportionate number. Ms. Dhu was born a year after the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, a 1991 inquest into 99 Australian Aboriginal deaths in custody between 1980 and 1989, with 339 recommendations designed to reduce the incarceration of Indigenous people. These recommendations were largely ignored, including ending the practice of jailing Aboriginal people for unpaid fines. Although the report focused mainly on Aboriginal men who died in custody, there were a number of women, including Nita Blankett, whose 1982 death mirrored that of Julieka Dhu.
Blankett, the mother of five, died of a chronic asthma attack while serving a six-month sentence. The corrections staff knew she was a chronic asthmatic, yet failed to act, and acted only when it was too late.
“Although the deceased had complained that she was ill, appeared distressed and asked for a doctor and an ambulance, those responsible failed to understand, or they underestimated, the severity of her asthma attack. When a decision to take the deceased for medical treatment was finally acted upon there was still a delay in the order of 30 minutes before the prison van conveyed her from the prison,” according to the report, noting a further 10-minute delay due to a defective wheelchair. “Having regard to the deceased’s condition the consequent delay was unreasonable. Medical opinion before the Commission indicated that if the delay had not occurred it is likely that, with proper resuscitation, the deceased would have survived.”
Since that report, things have worsened, and about 340 Indigenous people have died in prison and police custody.
“Australia is apparently ‘meant to be’ an apparent ‘world class’ health system, and yet it’s the still thriving and still very deeply ingrained institutional and systemic racism in today’s apparently civilized Australia that ensured that my happy and bubbly niece Ms Julieka Dhu was denied proper medical treatment and ‘denied’ living a full life,” Harris said, adding that “bad people with very bad hearts and souls, will always continue to inflict bad things when they are in supposedly ‘good positions of power’, aka power positions to help to stop and prevent public ‘IN-Justice’ and to ‘right the wrongs.’”
“We’ve never had any police officer or prison guard held accountable for the death of an Aboriginal person,” McQuire lamented. “Australia is such a racist country, and I don’t know what’s going to happen next.”
Ms. Dhu was treated like a dead kangaroo carcass. And her family needs white Australia to see the video of what the police did to her. Because in a white-dominated society, they refuse to believe Black cries of suffering unless you can produce the video, and even then they’re not so sure.