On a bleak morning in Perth, as rain poured overhead, a friend sang one of Ms Dhu’s favourite songs, at once a blessing and a lament: May you stay forever young. Images of the vivacious 22-year-old flapped in the wind as court functionaries walked past without a sideways glance. But neither their indifference nor the chill rain could dampen the crowd’s outrage and their determined calls for release of CCTV footage that showed Ms Dhu’s last hours.
These efforts, led by Ms Dhu’s family, eventually succeeded. The footage, made public on the same day as the coronial findings, reveals the relentlessly brutal treatment of Ms Dhu at the hands of the state. It exposes the physical violence perpetrated through actions such as dragging, flinging, shoving and other forms of manhandling of her ill and wounded body, and at the same time lays bare an equally lacerating exercise of psychic violence in the persistent assumptions that Ms Dhu was ‘faking’ her symptoms and was malingering, addicted, manipulative and hysterical. These entrenched racist stereotypes underpin and licence the physical ill treatment of Ms Dhu; indeed, it is only this framework of racist preconceptions that makes intelligible the inability of medical and custodial staff to recognize that she was seriously ill and to treat her with due care and respect.
Despite the compelling testimony of the visual evidence, the coronial findings followed a pattern that is all too familiar: one in which Indigenous deaths in custody are the outcome of unfortunate chains of random circumstances. Indigenous bodies, it appears, are somehow prone to dying in custody in circumstances for which no one bears ultimate responsibility. While individual officers may receive mild censure, their actions never appear as other than minor factors in a narrative of inevitable demise.
The release of the footage has helped expose the gaping chasm between the law’s inability to see and what is all too painfully evident on the screen. What is made plain here is the failure of the law in W.A, once again, to deliver justice. Once again, when it comes to deaths in custody, W.A reveals itself to be a state of shame.
Suvendrini Perera is a John Curtin Distinguished Professor in the School of Media, Culture & Creative Arts at Curtin University and the lead investigator on the ARC funded project, “Deathscapes: Racialised Violence in Settler Societies”