Nothing Changes if Nothing Changes
My heart stopped when I saw the footage of Ms Dhu being dragged by the legs and her head allowed to smash on the concrete cell floor. How could two human beings treat another human in such an inhumane way? The short answer is that the two police officers cannot possibly have seen Ms Dhu as ‘fully human’.
White privilege is insidious. Too often, our socialisation means that we are unconscious of the racist assumptions behind our behaviour. The implicit racism of the police was clearly seeping out in their attitude toward Ms Dhu – from her initial arrest (despite being a victim of domestic violence); to the decision to imprison her for outstanding fines for minor offences; to the heartless denial of her extreme pain for 3 days; to this, final, brutal act. Implicit racism was also evident in the WA Coroner’s decision not to hold authorities and individuals to account for their horrendous treatment of Ms Dhu.
The death of Ms Dhu in police custody was not an isolated incident. It is critical that we see it as part of a continuing pattern of genocide which began with the invasion of Australia. Aboriginal women and men continue to be traumatised and murdered by the hand of the state. Our systems and structures continue to force Australia’s First Peoples into a position of subordination and vulnerability.
For as long as we have prisons; for as long as Aboriginal women and men continue to be grossly over-represented in prison populations; for as long as their rates of criminalisation (particularly for Aboriginal women and girls) continue to grow; for as long as our First Peoples are over-policed and over-penalised for poverty and trauma-related ‘offences’ … the Coroner’s recommendations will simply join the litany of broken promises to close the gap in Indigenous disadvantage.
Structural racism is protected by a ‘white wall’ of privilege. Until we recognise structural racism as the fundamental issue underpinning black deaths in custody, we’ll continue to see death, after death, after death …
The only way to prevent the death of another Aboriginal woman in custody is to own and begin to redress the systemic racism and sexism which was fundamental to Ms Dhu’s death.
Debbie Kilroy is a former Prisoner, Psychotherapist, practicing lawyer, Australian Human Rights Medal, and CEO of Sisters Inside, a community organisation that advocates for the human rights of women in the Criminal Justice System. Debbie continues to be a strong activist, locally nationally and internationally, on issues relating to prison abolition. Debbie is the first former prisoner in Australia to be admitted to practise law.