In August last year, violence broke out on the streets of Kalgoorlie in the heart of Western Australia's mining country. Around 200 people, largely from the local Aboriginal community, massed around the town's courthouse—pelting the building with bottles and rocks.
"There was a lot of frustration in the town from the Aboriginal community," says George Newhouse, a human rights lawyer from the National Justice Project. "They felt they were being harassed by police, that there was a lot of racism in the town… and that frustration came out as violence."
The protests were sparked by the death of an Aboriginal boy, Elijah Doughty, who was killed when he was knocked from a motorcycle. A local white man stood accused of chasing Doughty down and hitting the teenager with his ute, suspecting the 14-year-old had stolen the bike he was riding.
If true, it wouldn't be the first time this had happened in Kalgoorlie: allegations of white locals tailing Aboriginal kids in their cars are common. Police minister Liza Harvey called it "a pattern of retribution."
But Elijah's death proved a breaking point.
After Kalgoorlie, Newhouse says many people reached out to his organisation looking for a way to hold the police to account and expose the over-policing, harassment, and brutality Aboriginal frequently face in Australia.
What NCP came up with is Copwatch, a project to try and get Aboriginal communities filming and sharing their interactions with police out to the wider public. The not-for-profit is currently crowdfunding to send its lawyers into communities to educate Aboriginal people about their rights when it comes to the police.
Already, in less than a week, they've raised over $20,000.
"The police themselves admit that all the participants in a particular incident behave better when they know they are being filmed," Newhouse says. "Young people around Australia, and in particular Aboriginal youth, are being misled when they're told they have no right to film police or any other person in authority."
"The police have been misleading community for years about the recording of incidents," agrees Indigenous leader Des Jones, chair of the Murdi Paaki regional assembly in New South Wales. Jones says he's had multiple reports from people in his community of police snatching phones off young people when they are filming, and confiscating them. But he adds this is just symptomatic of what he describes as a culture in the NSW police force that actively oppresses Aboriginal people.
"Our courts are full of Aboriginal people pulled up on little things… because police are pressuring our young people, and creating false claims," Jones says. "Who would trust a police officer who's done terrible things in your community? You've broken a link there. These officers have broken a link with their communities."
"People need to see what this racial profiling looks like on camera," says Shaun Harris, the uncle of Ms Dhu, an Aboriginal woman who died of septicaemia in 2014 while sitting in a Western Australian police cell. Multiple times, as the infection spread through her system from a broken rib, the 22-year-old tried to tell the officers looking after her that something was wrong. They assumed she was a drug addict, who was faking the pain to get attention.
"This racism is making Aboriginal people sick," says Harris. "I bet if you saw it on camera, you would feel sick."
If Copwatch reaches its $50,000 goal, NCP lawyers plan to travel out, along with journalists, to train Aboriginal communities on safely recording, storing, and sharing evidence of police injustice. Their hope is video will help build awareness about police brutality as it has in the US after the filmed deaths of Philando Castile, Eric Garner, and scores of others.
Australia has already had a glimpse of the power video has to generate public outrage on this issue. Last year's Four Corners expose on the Don Dale Youth Detention Centre sparked a Royal Commission into the treatment of incarcerated young people in the Northern Territory. This wasn't a new story but this time there was video: footage of officers stripping, tear gassing, and restraining Aboriginal teenage detainees for hours on end. The response by the Australian public was widespread and immediate.
In May this year, a video surfaced of Queensland police arresting an Aboriginal teenager on the street. The footage clearly shows officers forcefully twisting Dylan O'Connor's arms behind his back to cuff him, after accusing the 17-year-old of stealing from a local supermarket. "You're breaking his arm!" someone yells off camera.
O'Connor, it turned out, hadn't stolen anything. "Cairns police officers arrested me because it looked suspicious that a bag was handed to me by an African male," he told NITV . After the footage was posted on Facebook and went viral, an investigation was launched into the incident.
"It's sad a young person has to pull out a phone to defend themselves against a member of the government… This shouldn't be the responsibility of community people," Jones says. "[But] if the police can't manage their individual police on the ground, it falls to Copwatch."
"Not only is systematic racism a breach of Australia's international human rights obligation, but the recent Palm Island case against the Queensland police force proves that it exists and that it's a breach of Australian law," Newhouse adds.
"My advice to young people is: Keep your cameras running."
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