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Low turnout at ISJA march emphasises Sydney’s lack of engagament with Indigenous incarceration

The event provided an opportunity to centre public discussion on preventing Indigenous deaths in custody

Activists in a circle talk to each other at Town Hall, in front of a flying Aboriginal flag. Photography by Linda Casey

For the past two weeks the Indigenous Social Justice Association (ISJA), a Sydney-based activist and solidarity group for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander issues, has congregated around Town Hall. ISJA aim to raise awareness of the ongoing incarceration, killing and devastation of Indigenous people by the Australian state, which continues to thwart their concerted attempts at self-government.

ISJA’s activities coincided with the Head On Photo Festival, where a photograph of corrections officers violently assaulting 26-year-old Indigenous man David Dungay — causing him to go into irreversible cardiac arrest — was displayed outside Queen Victoria Building. Another installation was showcased at Paddington Town Hall.

In 1991, when the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody was finalised, Indigenous people were 8 times more likely to be imprisoned than non-Indigenous people. Today they are 13 times more likely to be incarcerated. This partially explains why more than 400 Indigenous Australians have died since the Commission, but it does not explain why no individual or institution has been held responsible. Besides the obvious failures of the establishment, the continued negligence of most settlers, including many activists, to provide meaningful solidarity for First Nations struggles is crucial.

The exhibition at the Head On Festival provided an opportunity to centre public discussion on preventing Indigenous deaths in custody, where ISJA dedicates much of its resources. Yet there was no media coverage of the installation, despite the fact that it is the size of a shipping container and stationed directly outside the QVB. Turnout for the Election Day protest against the apathy of most politicians to Indigenous rights was also minimal. Attendance for the silent march against deaths in custody on May 12 was better, but still just the usual faces.

The problem is that continuing violence towards First Nations Australian’s reflects not just apathy or ignorance but public complicity in a settler regime, where agitation against institutionalised oppression is largely ignored, and where reform is consistently frustrated.

At the time of the Bringing Them Home report in 1997, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children — who with their parents and relatives constitute 3% of the population — represented 20% of children living in out-of-home care (OOHC). Steps were taken, including increased support for OOHC services instituted and managed by Indigenous people themselves. In 2007, the Howard Government moved decisively to dismantle these programs, including by wholly abolishing Community Development Employment Projects. According to the Human Rights Law Centre, the subsequent Intervention in the Northern Territory violated “the right of Indigenous self-determination through measures including the compulsory acquisition of land [and] the suspension and direction of representative community councils… The legislation was passed without adequate consultation with Indigenous communities” and partially suspended “operation of the Racial Discrimination Act.” After Labor gave its imprimatur with the ‘Stronger Futures’ legislation in 2012, we should not be surprised to discover that Indigenous children now constitute 36 per cent of those living in OOHC.

Self-determination is not possible when family and community bonds are continuously severed. Electoral squabbling has little impact on the offending institutions, which continue to devastate. Colin Chatfield, who lost his son Tane in 2017, told the audience at the silent march that if he manages to sleep at all, he dreams about his son. The hardest thing, however, is trying to explain to his grandson — who reminds him so much of Tane — that his dad isn’t coming back.

After another unsurprising defeat for the ostensible bulwark against Australian conservatism, the Left have a good opportunity for consulting the chalkboard. Honest reflection should reveal that a “better outcome” would have posed no threat to Parliament’s overarching control of First Nations communities; a capacity regularly flexed, given the nature of the system. This arrangement makes any tenable notion of justice, “climate” or otherwise, either absurd or unobtainable.

ISJA and Fighting In Resistance Equally are two local organisations dedicated to Indigenous struggle. Both organisations are on Facebook and hold regular meetings open to any that want to help.