Silent March for Deaths in Custody

Protestors met to mourn the Indigenous deaths that have occurred in custody and called for action

Protestors stand along the Sydney Town Hall steps, with images of deceased Indigenous people's faces.

WARNING: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers are warned that the following article contains the names and images of deceased persons, and descriptions of their deaths.

A group of 40 activists marched at Town Hall to memorialise Indigenous people murdered as the result of police violence.

The proceedings were intentionally silent to acknowledge the ongoing persecution of Indigenous families at the hands of a colonial-state regime and the fact that these injustices remain “systematically unheard.”

340 Indigenous deaths have occurred in custody since the 1991 Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody. None of the accused police officers, prison officers or health officers have been convicted.

The Indigenous names remembered included David Dungay, Rebecca Maher, Wayne Fella Morrison, Eric Whittaker, Tane Chatfield, Patrick Fisher, Nathan Reynolds, and others. Several speakers noted that these names are but only a snapshot of the violence befalling Indigenous communities.

Participants began next to St. Andrews Cathedral, moving through George Street and the interior of QVB. The families of the victims and supporting activists marched without the usual noise associated with rallying, opting instead to engage in public discourse about the injustice which the Indigenous Social Justice Association (ISJA) labels as “conveniently forgotten since the day of their death.”

Activists at the rally felt they had mixed success in reaching out. Many claimed they were surprised at the numbers of people engaging with the march. Participant and USyd student James Monaro said he “saw lots of people reading the informational pamphlets mindfully and attentively.” However, the conversations were not free from racial epithets. A Caucasian middle-aged man approached Monaro and claimed  the deaths could be blamed on notions of Indigenous criminality.

Another activist who participated in Indigenous struggles told Honi that a large amount of the typically upper-class white members of the public at the Queen Victoria Building distanced themselves from the largely multi-racial and Indigenous ensemble.

Several explanations were given for the patterns of police treatment.

The first was the absence of an obligation on responsible officers to testify unless legally obliged at an inquest. Judges rarely enforce this legal right. This has been the case in the ongoing investigation of TJ Hickey’s death, who was knocked off his bike onto a spiked fence by a police van. The cause of this incident was attributed to  arbitrary racial profiling, with police harassment of Indigenous children being an endemic problem to the streets of Waterloo and Redfern.

Moreover, it was noted that the police’s post-accident recounts are often laced with police collusion.  Moreover, Indigenous people are more likely to die as the result of police deaths, especially in comparison with their non-Indigenous counterparts.

For the families and activists who engaged in the march, many found it to be cathartic and symbolically powerful. Rather than an end in itself, the silent march was part of an ongoing struggle against police violence.

Senior activists told Honi that the silent march was a prelude to the supporting rally for the upcoming Coronial Inquest into the murder of David Dungay Jr. in Sydney’s Long Bay Jail. The 26-year-old man died in 2015 during an attempted cell transfer in the mental health ward. He allegedly refused to stop eating a packet of biscuits, although there is video of him saying he “could not breathe” 12 times while he was restrained face down and injected with sedatives.

The community struggle lives on, with senior ISJA members noting “these people never got to say a word, so we’re not going to say anything until justice is reached.”