Trials, tribulations of a town like Alice
Trouble: On Trial in Central Australia By Kieran Finnane UQP, 296pp, $29.95
Alice Springs has long seen itself as a rugged frontier town developed from little more than tin sheds, red dirt and the world’s oldest living culture. Yet it has also acquired an unenviable reputation as a centre of violence and dysfunction. As Kieran Finnane points out in Trouble: On Trial in Central Australia, in 2015 the desert town’s homicide rate was almost 13 times the national average. Most of that violence is inflicted by Aborigines against other indigenous people, and ruinous levels of drinking are often involved (though per capita drinking levels for whites as well as blacks in the Territory are above the national average).
This is a grimly fascinating and deeply thoughtful book that derives its power from Finnane’s meticulously detailed reportage and her grounding of the criminal cases she describes in the wider context of the desert town’s race relations. A journalist and long-time Alice Springs resident, she views the town’s courts as a “crucible through which pass the struggles of this hard and beautiful place”.
Mostly she focuses on manslaughter cases — some of which attracted national media attention — that have come before the Alice Springs court in recent years. She accentuates the human dynamics of the courtroom, where raw emotions chafe against the strictures and stilted language of the law. Skilfully captured is the collective sense of dread that settles over proceedings while perpetrators and victims’ families await sentencing. Finnane writes affectingly of victims’ families weeping alongside offenders’ relatives or of such families sitting metres apart but never looking at one another. She also becomes personally embroiled in one case when she hears a defendant’s relative threaten a witness in open court.
The most notorious case the journalist and author revisits involved the manslaughter of an Aboriginal man, Kwementyaye Ryder, by five white men in 2009. In a drunken “joy ride”, these young whites drove a ute recklessly through an Aboriginal camp on the dry Todd River bed. Several of these offenders then bashed and killed Ryder, who in anger had thrown a bottle at their vehicle. Some commentators drew parallels between these crimes and race-hate killings in America’s deep south. Without denying the racial hostility inherent in this ugly crime, Finnane draws on her extensive knowledge of the town to conclude this view is simplistic and overwrought.
In the same year, Edward Hargrave, a white man who worked for an indigenous organisation, was stabbed to death by an Aboriginal man in an Alice Springs street fight. The fight started after Hargrave’s white boss had been racially insulted. Again the town was on tenterhooks and defence lawyers, referring to the case’s racial overtones, urged the jury to put aside their prejudices.
Also highlighted is a case that generated national headlines: that of former AFL star Liam Jurrah, who was acquitted of one assault in 2013 but jailed for another in 2014 (he pleaded guilty to assaulting two women, an ex-partner and recent partner). In a sign of just how deep the dysfunction runs in some indigenous communities, Jurrah’s mother and father were in jail at the same time he was.
Finnane explores how traditional Aborigines are caught between fraying customary laws and (sometimes misguided) family loyalties on the one hand and the demands of the Western legal system on the other. She believes the legal system should give more weight to customary law (though not corporal punishments) but she offers little evidence of how this might work in practice. She is rightly critical of the Territory’s mandatory 20-year sentences for murder, which results in most defendants pleading not guilty. (These restrictive laws also seem to result in probable cases of murder, including horrific cases of domestic violence, being downgraded to manslaughter.)
Two of the book’s more perplexing cases involve indigenous payback punishments in which innocent people were wrongly targeted. In one of these crimes, a group of offenders bashed and stabbed to death two relatives of a man who had wronged them, even though one offender later admitted to police, “Yeah, got the wrong ones.” The second crime was widely rumoured to be a revenge attack for an earlier, brutal murder of a young indigenous woman. Yet the revenge attack was itself notable for its sickening violence. In 2013, a man out walking with his wife was abducted and set on by a mob who beat him into semiconsciousness with weapons including a star picket before setting his genital area briefly alight. Although the payback motive was furiously downplayed in court, Finnane proffers this crime as a horribly distorted example of the tradition, given how indiscriminate, uncontrolled and cruel it was.
Heavy, sometimes incredible, levels of drinking were a factor in most of these crimes. So what can be done to address the twin scourges of booze and violence in the Red Centre? Kinnane argues that a drug court experiment that steered addicts (black and white) away from jail was working well when it was ditched by the Country Liberal government. Another (initially) effective reform involved stationing at bottle shops police officers empowered to stop illegal drinking in public places.
How to stem the rivers of grog that are poisoning vulnerable communities without infringing civil rights is a great dilemma of indigenous policy. Finnane doesn’t pretend to have all the answers but her compelling courtroom narratives graphically illustrate why the problem is too deep and damaging to be ignored.
Rosemary Neill is a journalist on The Australian and the author of White Out: How Politics is Killing Black Australia.
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