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Stop Black Deaths in Custody protest marks 30 years since the royal commission

Few of the recommendations from the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody have been implemented.

Photo: Ranuka Tandan

Around a thousand protestors took to the streets of Sydney today, demanding an end to Black deaths in custody and the establishment of an investigative body independent of police or corrective services.

Several First Nations activists spoke with anger at Town Hall against ongoing Aboriginal deaths in custody, followed by a march and a sit-in on Park Street before the crowd regathered at Djarrbarrgalli (Sydney Domain) for more speeches. Protestors were flanked by a large police presence, including riot police, but no arrests were made.

The rally in Sydney on Gadigal Country was part of a National Day of Action which saw thousands attending rallies in capital cities across the country, 30 years on from the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody (RCIADIC).

Tireless activist and Gumbaynggirr Dunghutti Bundjalung woman Elizabeth Jarrett spoke to the large crowd, which responded with resounding calls of shame. “While we’re on that hype of knowing Prince Phillip is dead, do we know that there were five Aboriginal deaths in custody in the last five weeks?”, said Jarrett.

A recent investigation by Guardian Australia found that at least 474 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have died in custody since the royal commission and that “Aboriginal people are disproportionately arrested, remanded, and jailed, and so die at higher rates in custody as a proportion of the total population.” 

Around a thousand protestors attended the rally at Town Hall. Photo: Ranuka Tandan

Dunghutti woman and mother of David Dungay Jr, Aunty Leetona Dungay drew attention to the fact that nothing has changed since the royal commission: “They hand down their findings, and tell us they are going to change but nothing has ever changed. No more royal commissions, I want real justice. The life of an Aboriginal man is worth something.”

The RCIADIC handed down its report thirty years ago in April 1991, outlining 339 recommendations around reducing incarceration, procedures for people in custody, better collaboration with Indigenous groups, and ensuring adequate medical assistance — few of which have been implemented. 

Greens MLC David Shoebridge stated: “One of the critical recommendations from that royal commission was to remove all of the hanging points out of the jail cells across the country … there isn’t even a dedicated funded program to remove them.”

Many speakers at the protest highlighted the issue of correctional officers neglecting to follow their own procedures for providing required medical care to Aboriginal people, which is one of the leading causes of deaths in custody.

Jarrett read a statement provided by the family of Dunghutti and Anaiwan man Nathan Reynolds: “We know now that he died of a preventable asthma attack because NSW Corrective Services and Justice Health failed to give him adequate healthcare … When he was dying of an acute asthma attack the first nurse on the scene gave him an antidote for a drug overdose … Nathan was stereotyped as a drug user because he was Black and in jail.”

Student contingents regathered at Djarrbarrgalli to hear from more speakers. Photo: Ranuka Tandan

Wiradjuri woman Rhonda Ryan also spoke against systemic racial profiling during police strip-searches and arrests: “We are targets. All lives don’t matter until Black lives matter … When you get locked up in these jails for being intoxicated and for minor things you get killed … The only way our people are coming out is in body bags … The system is written against us, there’s policies written against us.”

The nephew of David Dungay Jr, Paul Silva gave an emotive speech after the crowd recongregated at Djarrbarrgalli: “A death in custody doesn’t just impact the immediate family and community, it impacts every Aboriginal person in Australia.”

“When will the killings stop? When will the systematic racism stop against the First Nations people? That’s my question. It won’t fucking stop until we come together and smash this fucking system to the ground that it’s built on.”