'We need to be just as outraged': George Floyd protests in Australia raise the specter of Indigenous deaths in police custody

Asanka Ratnayake/Getty ImagesProtestors at a Black Lives Matter protest on the steps of St Paul Cathedral in Melbourne, Australia, on June 06, 2020.
  • On Saturday, thousands of demonstrators marched in Australian cities in a show of solidarity with the US Black Lives Matter movement.
  • But critics say the issue hasn’t been confronted in Australia, where 432 Indigenous adults have died in custody since 1991.
  • In 2015, David Dungay, a 26-year-old Indigenous man, suffocated while being held facedown by five prison guards.
  • This week, a video surfaced of a constable in Sydney tripping an Indigenous 16-year-old and slamming him face-first into the brick footpath.
  • New South Wales Premier Gladys Berejiklian said the video showed “we still have a long way to go in our country.”
  • Visit Insider’s homepage for more stories.

Anger over the police-related deaths of George Floyd and other people of colour has translated into protests around the world, including Australia.

On Saturday, thousands marched across Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, and Adelaide, in a united stance against police brutality and racism. Some held signs reading “Indigenous lives matter” or shouted “Too many coppers not enough justice.”

Ruby Wharton, who spearheaded the demonstration in Brisbane, said she wants Australians to see the connection between the Black Lives Matter movement in the US and the plight of Indigenous people in their own country.

“We are taking a step back and looking at the issue for what it really is,” Wharton, a coordinator for Warriors of the Aboriginal Resistance, told Insider. “That black people had to die in order for communities across the world to come together.”

Wharton was one of dozens of at a vigil Wednesday in Musgrave Park, where the words “I can’t breathe” were spelled out in 433 candles, symbolizing the 432 Indigenous Australians reported to have died in custody since 1991.

The 433rd candle, Wharton said, was for George Floyd.

‘I can’t breathe’

The images of unrest coming from the United States have given Australians an opportunity to reflect on police brutality against the Aboriginal community, activists say, and have reignited the debate on why it hasn’t received a similar reckoning.

“There’s so many modern parallels with what’s going on in Australia and the United States,” Sudanese-Australian activist Yassmin Abdel-Magied told CNN. ​”It’s the same institutionalized racism, it’s the same black deaths in custody and police getting away with it with impunity.”

In November 2015, David Dungay, a 26-year-old member of the Dunghutti people, died while in a Sydney prison hospital.

Officials stormed his cell after Dungay, who was schizophrenic and diabetic, refused to stop eating a bag of cookies. They dragged him into an observation room, where at least four guards held him facedown.

Echoing George Floyd’s plea, Dungay said “I can’t breathe” 12 times before losing consciousness and dying. But, unlike Floyd, his death was not followed by nationwide protests.

A protester in Melbourne holds a sign referencing the 432 Indigenous people reported to have died in police custody in Australia since 1991.Asanka Ratnayake/Getty ImagesA protester in Melbourne holds a sign referencing the 432 Indigenous people reported to have died in police custody in Australia since 1991.

In 1991, the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody determined 99 Indigenous people had died in custody between 1980 and 1989.

It made hundreds of recommendations for preventing loss of life -including improved access to records, better medical assistance, an end to racist language against Aboriginal people, and incarceration only being used as a last resort.

But few of its suggestions have been implemented in the past three decades.

And in that same timeframe, not a single officer has been convicted of killing an Indigenous person in custody.

In 2004, a coroner in Townsville, Queensland, determined that an officer had caused the death of an Indigenous man found dead in his cell.

She testified Senior Sergeant Chris Hurley punched David Doomadgee in the jaw and continued to pummel him on the ground,according to the BBC. No attempt was made to resuscitate Doomadgee or later investigate his death.

Queensland Police Union president Gary Wilkinson dismissed the coroner’s testimony, insisting it came from “unreliable evidence from a drunk,” the BBC reported.

A jury acquit Hurley on manslaughter and assault charges in less than four hours, the Australia Broadcasting Corporation reported. He was the first officer tried in the death of an Indigenous person in custody.

Doomadgee’s death was followed by rioting on Palm Island, where he lived. Hurley’s home and the Townsville courthouse and police station were burned down.

In response, 80 riot police in ski masks were flown in, armed with guns and tasers. They barged into residents’ homes and arrested more than two dozen.

In 2016, the raid was found to be a violation of the Racial Discrimination Act.

Familiar echoes

For David Dungay’s nephew, Paul Francis-Silva, it’s hard not to compare what happened to his uncle to the tragedy of George Floyd. And hard not to feel like more needs be done.

“We really do feel for the family over in the US, because we do know how it feels to actually watch a video clip of a loved one being suffocated to death,” he told The Guardian. “We need to be just as outraged with what’s going on in our own backyard.”

Leetona Dungay (R), whose son David died in Sydney's Long Bay jail in 2015, at Black Lives Matter protest in Sydney, Australia, on June 06, 2020.Lisa Maree Williams/Getty ImageLeetona Dungay (R), whose son David died in Sydney’s Long Bay jail in 2015, at Black Lives Matter protest in Sydney, Australia, on June 06, 2020.

Though only about 2% of Australians identify as Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander, Indigenous adults are 15 times more likely to be incarcerated than non-Indigenous Australians, according to a 2018 report from the Australian Bureau of Statistics.

That same year, the Australia Institute of Health and Welfare reported that Indigenous juveniles were 26 times more likely to be in detention than their non-Indigenous peers.

‘We still have a long way to go in our country’

The issue of police violence returned to the fore on Monday, when a video surfaced online of an unnamed Sydney constable slamming an Indigenous teen face-first into a brick footpath after the youth told the officer he would “crack you across the jaw, bro.”

While the clip sparked outrage – and led to the constable being put on restricted duty – New South Wales Police Commissioner Mick Fuller said the officer “had a bad day” and shouldn’t be fired “after making such a commitment to the community.”

NSW police minister David Elliott also defended the constable, saying he was “horrified” by the teen’s language.

“I was just as disturbed about the threat from a young person to physically assault a police officer as I was with the response,” Elliott said, according to The Guardian.

Young people, he added, need to learn “there are levels of authority there that really command respect.”

But New South Wales Premier Gladys Berejiklian told reporters the video showed “we still have a long way to go in our country.”

“I think what’s happened in the US is a good wake-up call for all of us,” she said. “All of our hearts are breaking as to what’s happening in the United States, and we certainly have to ensure that we do what we can in our own country to protect all of our citizens.”

A last-minute appeal

In Sydney, the “Stop All Black Deaths in Custody” rally almost didn’t happen at all.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison on Friday asked people to avoid the rallies over public health concerns. Then the New South Wales Supreme Court ruled the Sydney gathering was in violation of current coronavirus restrictions.

Protesters won an appeal just hours before the event was slated to begin.

Protesters with placards march on Parliament House in Sydney, Australia, on June 2, 2020.Speed Media/Icon SportswireA protester with a ‘Stop deaths in custody’ placard marches on Parliament House in Sydney, Australia, on June 2, 2020.

Many had vowed to go forward regardless of whether the demonstration was legally sanctioned or not.

“Black lives matter and we are not going to stop, we are going to march,” David Dungay’s mother, Leetona, told SBS News on Friday. “We don’t care what an act of law says, because those acts of law are killing us. I’m marching for my son, and nothing is stopping me.”

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