In the early 1980’s, Aboriginal communities of West Australia were rocked by the death of 16 year old John Pat in Roebourne following a violent assault by five off duty white police officers. Whilst initially charged with ‘unlawful killing’ an all white jury subsequently acquitted the officers who were reinstated to duty with no further recrimination. Unsurprisingly, the flow of deaths of Aboriginal people in police lockups and prisons continued in WA and across the country leading to nationwide protests and the establishment of a Royal Commission.
More than 25 years after the conclusion of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody and its numerous recommendations, little has changed for Aboriginal people at the hands of the justice system. While the Royal Commission did not address issues facing Aboriginal women, the gendered dimensions of state violence are evidenced by Ms Dhu’s death, captured on CCTV. The Coroner’s findings, that effectively excuses all those who played such a significant part in Ms Dhu’s death, highlight the ongoing nature of colonization.
The police could not see Ms Dhu as a victim who was deserving of protection and assistance - her Aboriginality denied her this status. The abysmal failure of the medical professionals involved to provide medical assistance to Ms Dhu showed the continued practice of ‘race-based medicine’ and its fatal consequences. That no persons involved in Ms Dhu’s death were referred to any regulatory body for their actions, found ‘inhumane’, ‘unprofessional’ by the Coroner, proves that justice remains elusive and outside the reach of Aboriginal women.
Aboriginal women of West Australia now comprise more than half the population of Bandyup, the state’s sole high security prison and Aboriginal children more than half of all children forcibly removed from their mothers to the ‘care’ of the state. These figures rise steadily while Aboriginal mothers in West Australia are subjected to family violence at staggering levels and are estimated to be 17.5 times more likely to be a victim of homicide.
Ms Dhu’s death, and all the shocking aftermath, has broken our hearts. In a beautiful song made in memory of Ms Dhu, Aboriginal girls of the Pilbara sing ‘Did Ms Dhu die for nothing? No she didn’t!’
Today we stand together in solidarity with Ms Dhu’s family, in memory always.
Dr. Hannah McGlade is the Senior Indigenous Research Fellow at Curtin University. A human rights lawyer and academic, Dr. McGlade is the chairperson of Aboriginal Family Law Service which supports Aboriginal victims of family violence in WA.