By Larissa Behrendt an academic, writer, film maker and Indigenous advocate
After a Missouri grand jury declined to indict police officer Darren Wilson for the killing of Michael Brown, prosecuting attorney Bob McCulloch said that the decision was based upon physical and scientific evidence, not “public outcry or political expediency”.
This call for objectivity does little in a situation where autopsies show Wilson had shot Brown at least six times, twice in the head. McCulloch seemed to compromise his own objectivity by blaming social and news media for beating up a story, rather than acknowledging that when a young person is shot by law enforcement, people expect a level of accountability.
Watching the events in Ferguson unfold raises similar questions about Australia’s own legal system. The parallel is immediately drawn with the failure to secure a conviction in the case of 36-year-old Cameron Mulrunji Doomadgee, who died in a Palm Island lockup over 10 years ago.
Mulrunji was picked up for singing “Who let the dogs out” at a police officer, Chris Hurley, who drove past him in the street. He was charged with public nuisance. He had been in police custody for only an hour when he died. An autopsy revealed four broken ribs, which had ruptured his liver and spleen.
Hurley was indicted for assault and manslaughter but acquitted in 2007. He is the only person ever charged over a death in custody of an Aboriginal person in Australia.
Emotions overflowed after Doomadgee’s death in custody. A riot broke out on Palm Island. It was, like in Ferguson, as much a protest against a single act of injustice as against a system that seemed riddled with it. No police officer was ever successfully prosecuted for Doomadgee’s death, but several Aboriginal men, including Palm Island spokesperson Lex Wotton, were successfully prosecuted for the ensuing riots and received a seven year prison sentence.
Would it have been realistic to expect this outcome on Palm Island? The Ferguson grand jury’s decision certainly seems to have been anticipated on social media, reflecting the persistence of deep cynicism about the criminal justice system.
Anyone who has lived in the US – or even visited – will notice that poverty is racialised. 15.1% of Americans live in poverty; of that 28.4% were black and 26.6% were Hispanic. The events in Ferguson are perhaps a way of highlighting that the election of Barack Obama has done little or nothing to change the US’s deeply ingrained cultures of exclusion, marginalisation and stereotyping.
Obama’s response to the eruption of a new wave of violence, and the broader disappointment and anger about the grand jury decision, showed his own understanding of the perceptions of bias in the legal system. His call to respect the rule of law was accompanied by pleas for calm and constructive protest; then-Queensland premier Peter Beattie struck a similar tone after Hurley was acquitted, urging Queenslanders “to accept the decision of the court without question.”
Obama also admitted that there were legitimate grounds for mistrust of the police, including that white police officers are seen to get away with killing young black men, while young black men seem to have no problem getting locked up. According to US Department of Justice figures from 2009, African Americans make up 40% of the US male prison population.
These patterns are replicated in Australia. Between 2000 and 2013, the adult Indigenous imprisonment rate increased by 57%, while the non-Indigenous rate did not show significant change. The rate of juvenile detention sits at about 24 times that of non-Indigenous youth. Indigenous people make up just 3% of the Australian population.
There are dozens of instances where Aboriginal people are killed in custody. The 1987 Royal Commission into Aboriginal deaths in custody investigated 99 of them. Since then, 340 Indigenous people have died in custody.
Some of these have been high profile. In 2008, respected Elder Mr Ward died in the back of a paddy wagon, after being driven 400km across the WA desert. He had been arrested for driving under the influence of alcohol.
More recently, 22-year-old woman Ms Dhu died in police custody in the South Hedland police station while she was being held in police custody to “pay down” around $1,000 in unpaid fines.
These deaths accumulate to cause a similar level of distrust with a legal system, particularly in the way it administers justice. Other than the unsuccessful prosecution of Chris Hurley, not a single charge has been laid, not a single person held to account. To return to McCulloch, is the long-term failure of African Americans and Indigenous Australians by their legal systems not also an “objective” reality?
While there is much talk about why violence occurs in this context, it also raises the more profound and long-reaching question: what will we do to fix a system where cynicism is rife and racial bias seems to abound? How do we change a conversation when there is suspicion that the system is stacked against the marginalised, and the powerful are defensive about being critiqued.
If there is a shining answer to this problem, it’s the Aboriginal community of Redfern. Riots erupted there in 2004 when TJ Hickey, a 17-year old Aboriginal man, was killed. After police chased him in their car while he was riding his bike, he was impaled on a fence. Hickey’s death sparked an emotional response from a community that had long been targeted by the police. Violence broke out and was eventually beaten back by police with fire hoses; law enforcement were castigated by the Sydney Morning Herald for their poor preparation.
Perhaps nothing was unusual about the situation in Redfern. What was unusual was the longer-term response. Police command changed and the new officer in charge, Commander Luke Freudenstein, built a relationship with the local community. A range of programs to build self-esteem in young people, particularly young men, were a success. As a result of this grassroots effort, the community transformed and far fewer young Indigenous men were arbitrarily picked up by the police, to end up in the lockup.
The lesson isn’t that good can come from civil unrest, so much as that change really is possible, if we address the issues that lead to outbursts of emotion and violence.
As the events in Ferguson unfold, it’s clear that their community is a microcosm of the deep-seated issues in the US. Ferguson is perhaps also a sign of what happens anywhere that key institutions, like the criminal justice system, are unreflective about their own entrenched biases – biases that colour outcomes when justice is what we need most.
Originally posted at Guardian Australia.