As Shaun Harris and Simone Davison approached the Students’ Representative Council (SRC) stall during OWeek, they asked us if we could take a photograph with a sign that read “Justice for Julieka Dhu.”
I’d read about Ms Dhu’s story before – an Aboriginal death in custody. A 22-year-old woman, similar in age to many of us, who was incarcerated for failing to pay fines, only to die of staphylococcal septicaemia and pneumonia three days later. “Her only crime was being poor,” Shaun – her uncle – put it later.
Shaun walked in and out of my life that morning, as the issues of Indigenous Australians often do. I was overcome by the story he’d told, but it would soon slip to the back of my mind, like a Guardian article on my Twitter feed, or an eloquently phrased Facebook post.
That afternoon, an activist – Rachel Evans – brought Shaun to the SRC for an impromptu interview. I ushered them inside and to the office bearer room. Simone is a fellow Black Activist, who is a member of the Redfern Aboriginal Tent Embassy. She was showing Shaun, who’s from Western Australia, around.
As our conversation progressed, the surrounding banners and drums grew inconsequential in comparison to the struggle that Shaun had been forced to know.
Ms Dhu’s fate was not an unfortunate failure of the system, it was a product of the system.
“The CCTV footage is something I’ll never forget in my life,” he said. “It was unbelievable, the way they treated her. They all say that she was faking it, and feigning…you can hear her, and see her limping and begging and moaning.”
Shaun weaved together the complicity of government policies and state-sanctioned institutions so seamlessly. His words painted a picture of a world structured to disenfranchise Indigenous people, perverse in its cohesion.
“They kick us off our homelands, our communities, and the crime rates are going to go up — it’s already happened in Western Australia from Colin Barnett’s forced community closures. They’re leaving their communities and going into rural centres to live on the streets, homeless. They have to steal for food, for medication…they’re going to end up being incarcerated. More deaths in custody,” he explained.
Since Ms Dhu’s death, Shaun has been a central figure in the movement to bring her justice. One inquest on, there have been no real answers. “There was a lot of cover-up and shifting of blame and that was mainly from the health system. We heard from the nurses and doctors trying to make up excuses and give reasons why they did not take my niece’s temperature, or other basic stats,” he says. The second part of the inquest is due to take place on March 14.
Shaun never shies away from Ms. Dhu’s story as one in a series. The names of Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Sandra Bland and others are stamped into the brains of Australian progressives, but few of us look to our own Black lives, that should also matter.
When asked for the names we should remember, Shaun reminds me of Cameron Doomadgee and TJ Hickey, two of only 339 victims Australia’s racist police state has produced in the last few decades.
“We’re only 2%, roughly, of the Australian population, which is much less than the black population in the US or South Africa”, Shaun explains.
“That’s part of our problem, as well, we’re such a minority, and especially on our own lands, dispossessed lands — there’s no treaty — and that all brings it back to the fact there’s no jurisdiction, as well.”
Despite, and perhaps due to the indictment Ms Dhu’s death delivers to the “fair go” we want to believe, the mainstream media have only reported on it in pockets of the news cycle.
“The mainstream media, they did not want to get on board — but we knew that if the story got too big they’d have to, or lose ratings, and that’s happened.” I wondered what it felt like to be told that fifteen minutes was all the “fame” your murdered niece deserved.
With media often diametrically opposed to the interests of Indigenous people and instead controlled by corporate interests, Shaun had to craft his own platform through social media. As a result, his Facebook profile is a political anthology, as dense as that you’d find in a library.
He carefully documents rallies and events, tagging most of his posts with hashtags like #NoPrideInGenocide and #BuildCommunitiesNotPrisons; he runs his own Facebook pages and has organised multiple events and rallies. It’s an avenue that makes him hopeful. “With my niece we’ve tapped into that global support to a certain extent, which has a lot more effect than we’ve been able to in the past.”
Despite the overwhelming force that Shaun wakes to battle against each day, he maintains a sense of optimism, an optimism I felt I didn’t deserve from him.
“We can’t get to the top of that hill unless we’re standing together as one. It’s the only way we can enforce systemic reforms and custodial reforms for our entire country — and not just for black people; we’re a united nation and we have to stick together,” he assures me.
I delve cautiously and uncomfortably into his personal life, I want to know how he has sustained this fight for so long.
In the most harrowing point of the conversation, he shares his personal motivations.
“Ms Dhu passed away on the 10th anniversary of my son’s death… that in itself is a big factor… I clearly remember the day that happened, and I’ll never forget that. My daughter also lives in the same town where all this happened to my niece. She’s not a trouble-maker or anything like that, she’s sensible, but that doesn’t matter when you’re black. If she gets in trouble with the police, she’s still got the same perpetrators of my niece’s murder in her space, and if she gets sick and has to go to hospital she’s still got the same medical perpetrators in those wards as well.”
As centuries of government policy have attempted to eradicate Indigenous Australians, activists like Shaun have fought the system at every step.
As I led Shaun and his friends out of the SRC, I felt a mixture of gratitude and undeserved privilege. He asked, smiling, that we keep at least ten copies for him if we published the article in print.
We kept in contact and Shaun gave me the opportunity to talk to Aunty Carol – Ms Dhu’s grandmother. In her voice she carried the deadening weight of every meaningless inquiry and uncharged policeman. As she spoke with strength and conviction, I started to cry and Aunty Carol apologised for making me upset.
After their land, their culture and their children have been stolen by Australia’s racism and the colonial project, Aunty Carol and Shaun still have the energy to share their story. They even have the empathy to console the tears of wide-eyed non-Indigenous people who are part of the system, yet crumble at being reminded of that.
With their continuing labour comes our obligation. I asked Shaun what non-Indigenous people could do. “Little things like sharing posts, or when there are events up —say you’re going, regardless of whether you are because at least it shows your support”, was his unspeakably modest request.