Who is ac­count­able for our deaths?

The Guardian Australia - - World News / Opinion - Latoya Aroha Rule

Wayne Fella Mor­ri­son died in cus­tody on 26 Septem­ber 2016 from rea­sons in­clud­ing sp­it­hood and re­straint as­phyxia (suf­fo­ca­tion). He was a 29-year-old father, a fish­er­man and an artist. Wayne had been on re­mand for six days prior to his death. He spent three days on life sup­port in the in­ten­sive care unit of the Royal Ade­laide hospi­tal in South Aus­tralia. He had never been in trou­ble with the law be­fore this in­ci­dent. Dur­ing the fi­nal mo­ments of his life, CCTV footage from the prison shows him be­ing re­strained by at least 12 cor­rec­tional of­fi­cers. Fol­low­ing his re­straint, he was po­si­tioned in the back of a cor­rec­tional trans­port van with seven of­fi­cers where he spent ap­prox­i­mately three min­utes. He was pulled out un­con­scious and died three days later.

Wayne Fella Mor­ri­son was my older brother.

In 2015 I posted a video to the ABC’s Q&A tele­vi­sion pro­gram, call­ing on the Aus­tralian gov­ern­ment to re­spond to the press­ing is­sue of Abo­rig­i­nal deaths in cus­tody over sym­bolic re­form. My video to the Q&A panel posed the ques­tion: “At the time of the 1991 royal com­mis­sion into deaths in cus­tody Abo­rig­i­nal peo­ple ac­counted for one in seven deaths. That num­ber has now soared to one in four. If the gov­ern­ment’s re­sponse to Indige­nous is­sues is to re­move sym­bolic rep­re­sen­ta­tions of racism from the Aus­tralian con­sti­tu­tion, will we ever see prac­ti­cal change? Or is it time that us First Na­tions peo­ples sought in­ter­na­tional aid?”

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Wayne died in cus­tody roughly a year af­ter I recorded the video. I staged a phys­i­cal protest sur­round­ing deaths in cus­tody at the Q&A live show on Kau­rna land (Ade­laide), on what would have been Wayne’s 30th birth­day.

The coro­nial in­quest into Wayne’s death be­gan mid-2018 and will con­tinue into the be­gin­ning of Fe­bru­ary 2019. There are close to 400 Abo­rig­i­nal deaths in cus­tody cases oc­cur­ring prior to my brother’s death, with no con­vic­tions af­forded for the bru­tal­ity by po­lice/cor­rec­tional of­fi­cers of such vi­o­lent events. I worry that Abo­rig­i­nal deaths in cus­tody have con­tin­ued as com­mon prac­tice and, in fact, nor­malised in prisons and po­lice sys­tems. I re­flect on the sym­bol­ism of the coro­ner’s court and how rec­om­men­da­tions are largely made to change prac­tices within the prison and strengthen the prison’s abil­ity to ac­com­mo­date more Abo­rig­i­nal peo­ples, rather than abol­ish the sys­temic racism that sup­ports the prison in­dus­trial com­plex in the first in­stance. I think about the dis­course this cre­ates de­riv­ing from the lack of jus­tice for our peo­ple’s deaths.

For ex­am­ple, just re­cently lawyers for the seven cor­rec­tional of­fi­cers in the van sought a blan­ket re­lease from giv­ing ev­i­dence, cit­ing the coro­ner’s act spe­cial priv­i­leges that pro­tects in­di­vid­u­als from the pos­si­bil­ity of self­in­crim­i­na­tion. They didn’t even want to af­ford us the ben­e­fit of see­ing their faces and be­ing ac­count­able to what hap­pened in the fi­nal mo­ments of Wayne’s life un­der their care. Thank­fully South Aus­tralian coro­ner Jayne Basheer made a fi­nal de­ter­mi­na­tion that of­fi­cers would have to ap­pear in court, but what re­ally does the Aus­tralian jus­tice sys­tem pro­vide us if Abo­rig­i­nal peo­ple’s lives con­tinue to be sub­ju­gated within it? Who is ac­count­able for our deaths?

To ex­plain, I am in no way im­ply­ing that coro­nial pro­ceed­ings are not im­por­tant to Abo­rig­i­nal deaths in cus­tody cases. In fact, in­ves­ti­ga­tions sur­round­ing the cause of death in prisons can have a great im­pact for our griev­ing fam­i­lies to at least get an ac­count of what hap­pened to our loved ones in the ab­sence of our care. It can also raise the spot­light on the be­hav­iours of cor­rec­tional and po­lice of­fi­cers – like those that piled atop of my brother’s body. How­ever, it is time for us to ad­mit that in­sti­tu­tional re­form within prisons is not enough and that we need to shift the paradigm to one of prac­ti­cal trans­for­ma­tion through de­coloni­sa­tion.

When I recorded my video ques­tion to Q&A I was aware of the fact that Abo­rig­i­nal peo­ple were be­ing killed in cus­tody and Aus­tralia needed to do some­thing about it. In 2019 I no longer call on the gov­ern­ment hop­ing they will dis­man­tle their own geno­ci­dal sys­tem. I no longer put my faith in a sys­tem that ex­ists upon the dis­ap­pear­ance of Abo­rig­i­nal lives and the sub­ju­ga­tion of Abo­rig­i­nal sovereignty. I no longer ques­tion the need of draw­ing at­ten­tion to sys­temic vi­o­lence and bru­tal­ity by Aus­tralian po­lice and cor­rec­tions out­side of the state it­self.

So in Jan­uary 2019 Kalee­sha Mor­ris and I from the War­riors of the Abo­rig­i­nal Re­sis­tance (WAR) will be trav­el­ling to Tur­tle Is­land (Wash­ing­ton, DC) to share the story of Wayne’s life and death, and the is­sue of Abo­rig­i­nal deaths in cus­tody in Aus­tralia at the In­ter­na­tional Indige­nous Peo­ples March. We will stand in sol­i­dar­ity with Indige­nous peo­ples across the world and we will con­tinue the work of those who have come be­fore us in hope of achiev­ing a bet­ter fu­ture… or rather a fu­ture, at least.

This piece was first pub­lished on Indige­nous X. It has been re­pub­lished with per­mis­sion.

Pho­to­graph: Glenn Hunt/Getty Im­ages

Latoya Aroha Rule and Kalee­sha Mor­ris from the War­riors of the Abo­rig­i­nal Re­sis­tance are trav­el­lingto the US to high­light Abo­rig­i­nal deathsin cus­tody at the In­ter­na­tional Indige­nous Peo­ples March. Pic­tured is a rally held in Bris­bane in 2014.

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