I would like to acknowledge the Aboriginal people and Torres Strait Islander people who are not only the rightful owners of this continent, but who are the spiritual and inherent guardians of the living landscape. We will always be the heart and soul of Australia and I pay my respects to the Traditional Owners of the land on which we are gathered, the Ngunnawal people.
It’s my pleasure and privilege today to introduce the founders of the Black Lives Matter movement.
The Black Lives Matter movement emerged in the United States of America and in Canada following the alarming number of deaths of people of colour at the hands of police. Deaths that were often entirely unnecessary and that were conducted largely with impunity by officials of the state.
The outrage among the community that follows these tragic deaths is not just because of the unnecessary and senseless loss of valued members of their family and community. It is also because these deaths are the inevitable result of a system that, historically and to this day, perpetuates oppression, segregation and institutional and systemic bias against people of colour. It is the very real feeling that the lives of some communities just don’t matter as much as the lives of others. A justice system that is meant to protect us all, and to ensure that we are all equal under the law, is in fact a justice system that reaps injustice on some people and communities.
I know that the Black Lives Matters movement has resonated with many, many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people here in Australia. Our history of colonisation, dispossession, separation, assimilation and the failed attempts to destroy our culture means that we too feel that our lives, as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, are treated as less valuable by the systems and institutions that are supposed to support and protect us. That our valuable place as this nation’s First People – who have survived and thrived on these lands for over 60,000 years – means nothing.
In the Australian context, this historical and continuing experience also manifests itself most obviously in our justice system. Many people know about the mass incarceration of people of colour in the United States, but most are not aware that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are the most incarcerated people in the world.
We make up less than 3% of the Australian population, but we are more than 25% of the prison population. While the causes of crime and imprisonment are complex and varied, what we do know is that the underlying causes of crime are poverty and disadvantage – which are often exacerbated by a system and institutions, such as the police and courts, that act to the further detriment of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
Unfortunately, imprisonment rates are even worse for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander young people – our future – who represent 50% of the youth prison population. We are eagerly awaiting the findings of the Northern Territory Royal Commission into youth justice and child protection following the revelations at Don Dale. While the Royal Commission has been documenting issues specific to the Northern Territory, we know that terrible abuses of children are happening in prisons in other states and territories right around the country. And 20 years after the Bringing Them Home report was handed down in 1997, our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children are still being removed from the home and alarmingly at even greater rates than ever before.
I also want to specifically mention Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women – our mothers, sisters, daughters, nurturers and leaders. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women make up 33% of the female prison population and are today the fastest growing prison population. Lamentably, 90% of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women in prison have been victims of violence or sexual assault, and 80% of them are mothers – torn away from their families and children.
These statistics are encapsulated in the tragic and unnecessary death of Ms Dhu. Ms Dhu, a beautiful 22 year old Yamajti woman, was taken into police custody because she had unpaid fines. Three days later, Ms Dhu died an agonising and painful death in police custody from injuries she sustained from a domestic violence incident. Rather than supporting and protecting her at perhaps the most vulnerable moment of her life the police locked her up. Three years after her death, and following a coronial inquest, the Western Australian government has still not implemented key findings made by the coroner.
Sadly, stories like Ms Dhu are far too common for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families and communities here in Australia. Rebecca Maher, 36, was found dead in a cell at Maitland police station at 6am on July 19 this year. The Wiradjuri mother of four had been picked up by police for being intoxicated. She was accused of no crime. She was placed in a cell alone at about 1am. Police failed to follow legal protocols that require them to notify the Aboriginal Legal Service as soon as an Indigenous person is taken into custody. The service was only notified of Ms Maher’s death 24 days after she died.
Twenty-six years ago, the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody clearly documented that the justice system has been stacked against us from the beginning. While progress to implement the Royal Commission’s 339 recommendations has been far too slow, we are currently at a critical juncture for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
Through the Redfern Statement process, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leaders have been calling for a new relationship between state, territory and federal governments and our people. As Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, we have the solutions to the issues many of our community’s face. Governments must stop holding us back. This is a shared responsibility, that all of our leaders need to act on.
The government’s current Closing the Gap refresh presents a significant opportunity to achieve this, including by setting national justice targets to reduce the rates of imprisonment and violence experienced by our people. We must be working together to build institutions and systems, including the justice system, that respect and support Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, rather than oppress us.
This is a draft of a speech by Jackie Huggins, co-chair of the National Congress of Australia’s First People. Top image: Jackie Huggins, Rodney Diverlus (Canadian co-founder of #BlackLivesMatter Toronto), Misha Schubert (National Press Club) and Patrisse Cullors (US co-founder of #BlackLivesMatter).