Content Warning: suicide, death
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers are warned that the following article contains the names of deceased persons, and descriptions of their deaths.
On Wednesday afternoon, hundreds of demonstrators gathered at Town Hall in a state-wide protest for Black Lives Matter. The rally demanded justice for First Nations deaths in custody and ongoing police brutality. Protesters marched down George St in Sydney’s CBD and stopped for speeches in front of the NSW Supreme Court, as well as the NSW Parliament.
Leading the rally, Gumbayngirr activist Gavin Stanbrook addressed the crowd in a speech at the steps of the Supreme Court.
“These people inside, the arbiters of choice and decision, they’re the ones who send our people to jail,” Stanbrook said. “They’re the ones who lock us up. They’re the ones who condemn us to a life of oppression and exploitation.”
Present at the protest were thirteen First Nations families still seeking justice for the deaths of their family members. A clear pattern of inaction, indifference and systemic oversight by the NSW Police Force and judiciary emerged as families told the stories of their loved ones.
Their names, as we should remember them:
Colleen Walker-Craig, 16
Jaylen Close-Armstrong, 16
Lewis Kelly Jnr, 16
David Dungay Jnr, 26
Mark Haines, 17
Theresa Binge, 43
Rayshaun Carr, 17
Kamahl Bamblett, 14 months
Tane Chatfield, 22
Clinton Speedy-Duroux, 16
Evelyn Greenup, 4
Stephen Smith, 17
TJ Hickey, 17
In 2017, Gumbaynggirr and Gomeroi man Tane Chatfield was found unresponsive in his cell while on remand at Tamworth correctional centre. He died in hospital two days later. Corrective Services stated that his death had been a suicide and that there were no suspicious circumstances. Yet at the rally, his parents Colin and Nioka believed he had “everything to live for” and was expecting to be acquitted only weeks after his death. Almost two years later they still seek answers.
The family and supporters of Lewis “Buddy” Kelly Jnr. attended the rally wearing matching blue shirts with his portrait. The 16-year-old’s body was found on New Year’s Eve 1983 across train tracks in Kempsey. In 1988, under similarly highly suspicious circumstances, 17-year-old Mark Haines was found on train tracks outside Tamworth. In 1995, Stephen Smith was also found on tracks outside the Quirindi in the state’s north-west.
The Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody (RCIADIC), an investigation over 10 years, profiled 96 deaths between May 1989 and May 1996, including 15 juvenile deaths. The final report, released in 1991, made 339 recommendations relating not only to policing, criminal justice and incarceration, but also education, health, reconciliation and self-determination. The report also concluded that although First Nations people do not die at a higher rate than non-First Nations people while in custody, they are over-represented in all forms of custody.
Since then, a 2018 Deloitte Access Economics report found that of the Royal Commission’s recommendations: 78 per cent had been fully, or mostly, implemented, 16 per cent were partially implemented and 6 per cent had not been implemented.
In her book Carceral Capitalism, Jackie Wang asks “What is prison? Immobility, yes, but also the manipulation of time as a form of psychic torture. The regimentation of time. The phenomenology of waiting. The agony of judicial limbo.” It is important to not simply see First Nations lives, and deaths, as mere numbers and statistics on various timelines. To do this would perpetuate the aims of the colonial project that has always sought to dehumanise and denigrate, to justify the procedural disposability of Black lives. That these families have been denied justice and closure speaks to the systemic racism deeply embedded in this country.