Latoya Aroha Rule's Brother Died in Police Custody: Here's What She Did Next
Aboriginal Resistance

Latoya Aroha Rule's Brother Died in Police Custody: Here's What She Did Next

The problems facing First Australians don't end when Invasion Day protesters go home. Here we meet a campaigner making a difference all year round.
January 27, 2017, 2:20am

In September 2016, Latoya Aroha Rule made a long journey to an South Australian courtroom to meet her big brother as he came out of remand. Wayne "Fella" Morrison had been held for six days without conviction, and was due in court that morning. But Wayne never made it.

His family had to wait over 12 hours to find out why.

Wayne was the kind of guy who liked to take his young daughter fishing at St Kilda beach. He was also a phenomenal artist, and he'd never had any trouble with the law. Yet somehow, at the hands of guards at Yatala Labour Prison, the 29-year-old Wiradjuri and Kokatha man had been left brain dead.


Sitting in that court room, waiting for Wayne to appear, Latoya and her family had no idea what had happened. Only after their pleas for help spread far and wide through Facebook—and the family's own contacts in the South Australian Aboriginal community—did they discover where Wayne was. He'd been transferred to the Royal Adelaide Hospital where he was in a critical condition.

Three days later, while Wayne was lying in intensive care on life support, Latoya's family said their goodbyes. Technically he was still on remand, so officers watched on outside his room.

Photographer Sia Duff caught up with Latoya as she helped to paint an Adelaide mural for Invasion Day. The following photos are from this afternoon

Since the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, which began in 1987, there have been about 400 Aboriginal deaths behind Australian bars. No prison guard or police officer has ever been charged. But Latoya isn't going to settle for inaction. She wants to make sure Australia knows the name Wayne "Fella" Morrison, and has began organising national rallies—not just for Fella, but for all Aboriginal people brutalised in custody.

Latoya, a 24-year-old academic, has become a prominent black activist since Wayne's death. The bloodlines of two strong Indigenous cultures run through Latoya; on her mum's side she is Wiradjuri, and her father is Maori. As a child, Latoya grew up immersed in another culture too—the Christian church. Her dad was a pastor. "I guess my life was always around Christianity, everyone's equal and all that shit," she explains via Skype from her sun-scorched home in Adelaide, an Aboriginal flag suspended behind her.


In the past, Christianity dictated Latoya's political leanings. She's open about her old beliefs; telling me she was once "anti-gay" and "super homophobic." "Everything the church carries, all its morals and values—that's who I was, believe it or not. I was just fed a whole lot of crap, and I was never critical," she explains. "I was told not to ask questions. I was always inquisitive, and really driven, but I never asked questions."

Living at home was tough for Latoya. Beyond the culture of silence she grew up with was another culture of domestic violence. "I never had the courage or ability to ask questions," she says. "I moved out when I was 17. It was me just developing in my life and being like, 'Hey, I don't have to answer to my dad, or the church, or anybody else now.'" In university, Latoya's transformation continued. She started learning about issues of human rights, sovereignty, and Aboriginal self-determination.

Then came a negotiation of her faith, a realisation that her Wiradjuri and Maori roots were vital to her understanding of herself and the world. "I realised that my dad was purposely distancing me from our culture [growing up]. It was unjust." For Latoya, reconnecting with her Wiradjuri heritage—silenced throughout her childhood—is now integral. She says she can't imagine going a day without finding some way to reconnect. But this revitalisation, an important act of resistance, also brings up wounds from the past.


Latoya's great-grandmother was killed by a white man, who ran her over with his car. The son of a police officer, the man was never charged—a story many other black families are all too familiar with. Some of Latoya's family have language, songs, and cultural knowledge that her great-grandmother passed down to them. But because of the distance Latoya's father kept from his culture, she never had a chance to discover hers. But the suffering of her family at the hands of the state was passed down, from generation to generation, and the same injustice of her great-grandmother's death lingered over her brother's.

When an Aboriginal person dies in custody, and their family call for justice, the family's grieving process becomes public. Latoya has knows this well, but felt she has had to sacrifice the private grieving process in order to fight for her brother.

"For me, the grieving process hasn't really started properly. I was pretty upset initially but then I had to go protest, because we have to enact some justice. I had to look at my brother as another Aboriginal man. You say sure, he was my brother, but he's also someone else's brother. This is not just about Wayne, it's about other people like Ms Dhu. It's systemic, it's oppression."

The preliminary fight began only a couple of months after her brother's death, when Latoya helped organise a nation-wide call for action, with protests held in Brisbane, Adelaide, and Sydney. Across the three cities, protesters signs calling on justice for "Fella" Morrison as well as for Ms Dhu, the young Yamitji woman who died tragically in a South Hedland watchhouse after being denied appropriate health care, twice.

In recognition of the continual systematic violence perpetrated against the police force and correctional services, the rally also called for justice for Dennis Doolan, who was shot by police in Cowra, NSW last September and Dylan Voller, the young Aboriginal man who was strapped into a Guantanamo-style restraint chair at Don Dale Detention Centre in the Northern Territory after suffering state-sanctioned abuse since childhood. "It is very personal to and very hard on my family…. But we have to situate these issues in a wider context so it's important, when we are dealing with our grief that we aren't just doing the western thing and being individual. He shouldn't have died, and he wasn't meant to go, but this is what happens," Latoya says.

Now, Latoya's family will endure the long hard wait to find out what happened to their loved one. They know that they could be waiting for up to two years for a coronial inquest, which often leads to little. In some cases, like in New South Wales, devastated families have been forced to wait up to five years for an inquiry to begin, like the case of Mark Mason snr, who was shot by police officers in Collarenebri in 2010.


There has never been a police or prison officer convicted over an Aboriginal death in custody.

The death of her brother has also had a huge impact on Latoya's next steps into academia. She is considering looking into the usage of CCTV footage in death in custody cases, as the family await the images of Fella's last hours.

She says unless the system changes it will remain a "tangible threat to black people's safety". "This is one of the ways black people die in this country." But as the reports continue to stream in about our mob dying behind bars, more and more young Aboriginal people are beginning to stand up. They are attending protests, making sacrifices, and lifting their voices up across the country. There is a recognition that these aren't anonymous faces behind prison bars. They aren't unknown names adorning protest banners. They all have brothers and sisters - they all have a Latoya Rule—who are fighting not just for their own, but to dismantle the system that has lead to too many black deaths.

Words by Amy McQuire. You can follow her on Twitter

Photos by Sia Duff