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Australia still turns a blind eye to Aboriginal people dying in police custody

By Celeste Liddle


Solidarity with US protesters following George Floyd's death is important, but Australia also needs to address its own racism.

In April, after a long battle, the family of Tanya Day achieved a victory. The inquest into the death of their mother following a fall while in Castlemaine police station found that unconscious race bias had played at least some part in her arrest.1 While the coroner fell short of labelling the neglectful actions of the attending police as such (though they were found to have violated Day's human rights), she did find that the train conductor had made judgement calls based on Day's Aboriginality which contributed to him calling the police on her in her intoxicated state.

In other words, had Tanya – who had a valid ticket – been left to merely sleep on the train like so many other intoxicated commuters who aren't Aboriginal are, she might still be with us today.

This finding followed an earlier victory Ms Day's incredible children had achieved: that "public drunkenness" would be removed from the criminal code in Victoria. In 2019, the Victorian premier promised this would happen2 – a mere 28 years after this recommendation was handed down by the royal commission into Aboriginal deaths in custody because it was found that such laws disproportionately criminalised Aboriginal people. It's thanks to the family of Tanya Day that all Victorians now have the right to make it safely home, without police interference, no matter what our state. 

I mention this case because it's one that everyone who lives in Victoria, and Australia, should know. Day's family joined the countless other heartbroken Aboriginal families in this country who have had to embark on a journey for justice for their loved ones who have died in police custody. Over 430 of them,2 incidentally, since the royal commission findings were handed down. Yet despite the fact that this keeps happening, Australia mainly turns a blind eye to the problem, or bends over backwards to justify the fact that Aboriginal people are the most incarcerated race of people on the planet.3

It's therefore been interesting, and disheartening, watching the Australian response to the riots happening in the US following the death of African American man George Floyd while in police custody. The world should be outraged by his death and should be taking action to ensure it never happens again. Yet the 24-7 coverage here shows just how much more newsworthy a Black death in custody from the US is here than the many Aboriginal deaths in Australia.4

I've had people on Twitter tell me that perhaps if there were riots here, there would be more interest. The thing is, there are riots here. Recently, Palm Island residents were awarded compensation after the federal court found police used excessive force on residents during riots following the 2004 death in custody of Mulrindji Doomadgee.5 Despite the fact that only Aboriginal people were imprisoned for what transpired on Palm Island, the best Nine News could muster in response to this compensation payout was a news report essentially accusing residents of fraud and reckless spending of "taxpayer monies".6

Redfern rioted after 17-year-old TJ Hickey was killed riding a bike while police pursued him.7 His body was impaled on a fence. Yet I guarantee you that hardly any Australians remember these riots, let alone his name and the fact that his family are still calling for justice.

Or what about Joyce Clarke, who was shot by police in Geraldton last year as she was apparently experiencing a mental health episode?8 The police officer who shot her entered a not guilty plea to his murder charge only days ago. Authorities at the time were so concerned there would be a riot following Clarke's death that their racist solution was to ban alcohol sales to certain locals.9 How many in Australia would have taken to the streets for Joyce?

Further salt is rubbed in the wound when we see Black Lives Matter solidarity rallies in Australia being organised without consultation with the people whose lives are impacted the most by police brutality on this soil – Aboriginal people. It's fantastic that people know police actions can't go on unchecked, and showing solidarity is key to racist institutions being challenged wherever they are in the world, but why is solidarity often lacking when it comes to Australia's own atrocities? Why did a Black Lives Matter US solidarity rally in Melbourne in 2016 attract thousands,10 yet a rally to shut down Don Dale juvenile detention centre following police brutality enacted on Aboriginal children only two weeks later failed to generate anywhere near that level of public interest, even if that smaller crowd succeeded in closing down the Melbourne CBD until 2am?11

Truth is, a large part of it comes down to Australia's inability to acknowledge and properly address its own racism. Wave after wave of immigrants can come here and experience Australia's unique brand of racism yet still manage to be more accepted and higher up the social rungs than Aboriginal people will ever be. It's too hard to deal with local issues, and therefore pointing at America and saying "but they're worse" is an easy method of avoidance.

Global solidarity for the lives of black people and the fight against institutional racism is so incredibly important. It's in this solidarity and exchange that we find the strength to continue challenging in the hope that this never happens again. I only wish that while Australia is looking abroad for reasons why it should care, it would spend a bit of time ensuring that things change on this soil as well.

Celeste Liddle is an Arrernte woman living in Melbourne. She is a union organiser, freelance writer and activist.

Reprinted from The Guardian, 2 June 2020, in Chain Reaction #139, national magazine of Friends of the Earth Australia, May 2021


1 NITV, "Tanya Day Inquest",

2 The Guardian, "Deaths in our Backyard",

3 The Conversation, "FactCheck Q&A",

4 The Age, "Floyd protests",

5 ABC News, "Palm Island riots",

6 9 NEWS, "Palm Island riot compensation spent on luxury boats, sports cars and motorbikes",

7 The Guardian, "TJ Hickey's mother seeks apology 10 years after teenager impaled and killed",

8 WAtoday, "WA police officer charged with the murder of Joyce Clarke enters not guilty plea",

9 PerthNow, "WA Police Commissioner reveals 14 witnesses saw Joyce Clarke holding a knife before Geraldton shooting",

10 ABC News, "#BlackLivesMatter",

11 The Guardian, "A national disgrace",

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