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Why Can We Speak About Ferguson But Not Aboriginal Deaths in Police Custody?

Aboriginal deaths in custody, a problem that continues unabated in our society, has never engulfed the nation like Ferguson did.
November 27, 2014, 11:25pm

This week #ferguson was the number one trending topic in Australia both on Twitter and Facebook. It was also the lead story for the ABC, Channel Nine, Seven, and Ten. In a way it was heartening that Australians felt such emotion and empathy for a community beset by racial injustice that we made it our biggest news story. But it's also worth considering that Aboriginal deaths in custody, a problem also rooted in race and police brutality, continues unabated in our society, has never engulfed the national bulletins or consumed social media like Ferguson did.

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Like the rest of the country, prominent Aboriginal leader and author Gracelyn Smallwood has been following the Ferguson story closely. She wasn't surprised by the attention Australia has paid to it, despite largely ignoring similar cases at home. "The mainstream media and the school curriculums have done so much negative stereotyping about black Australians that they can't even relate that the big riot in America is what happened on Palm Island when our brother was killed in custody."

Gracelyn is referring to Cameron Doomadgee. A decade ago, he died in a​ Palm Island police cell from massive internal injuries which were likened to those of a plane crash victim. The incident sparked protests in the area, but the only person charged in relation to the incident was a civilian named Lex Wotton who was tried for inciting a riot.

Comparing the scenes to those on Palm Island following Doomadgee's death Gracelyn commented, "Australia is horrified by the violence (in Ferguson), but the reporting on Palm Island spoke about nothing but troublemakers that all deserved to go to jail. These are things that wouldn't be tolerated anywhere else in the world except Australia because we have so far to go with race relations."

In 1987 the first royal commission into the issue was held with 3​30 recommendations for reform being made. Despite this, it's no less of an issue in 2014. In fact the past five years have seen an incr​ease in Aboriginal deaths in police or prison custody. The most rec​ent report in 2011 showed that 14 Indigenous people died in prison between 2009 and 2010—the highest yearly rate on record.

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Earlier this year a 22-year-old Indigen​ous West Australian woman died while being held over $1000 of unpaid fines. She'd complained of severe pain, vomiting, and partial paralysis and was taken to hospital twice, but sent back to prison each time untreated.

Three months later an Abori​ginal man died in another WA prison. The two largely unexplained deaths led to public o​utcry in the state, but while some rallied and rushed Premier Colin Barnett's security team calling for an inquest, little has been done about it. As of this mo​nth the family is yet to receive answers and are still waiting on an interim autopsy report. Once again, no one was brought to trial and no charges were laid.

Many of the reported deaths have been natural, or suicides. As a result, discussions have focused on neglect​ and substandard care rather than direct abuse. However, records are littered with disturbing accounts of deaths where police were more actively involved.

A 1994 National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander survey reported that nearly a quarter of Aboriginals aged 15 - 19 had experienced police harassment that year. The same investigation detailed deaths allegedly at the hands of the police themselves.

One case involved a post mortem of a Quee​nsland woman who died in custody. A head injury was listed as the cause of death, but there were allegations she was violently thrown into a police van when arrested. These reports were never investigated by the coroner. In another case the partner of an alleged victim stated she witnessed the deceased being kicked by police while holding their child. Despite later dying in custody, all allegations of mistreatment were rejected by the coroner.

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Reports of similar incidents are widely avail​able, but the Australian public remains largely unmoved. Even the aforementioned Perth protests failed to spread nationwide or result in a social media campaign anywhere near what we've seen in the US this week.

Looking at our outrage over Ferguson, our silence over parallel cases in Australia is just as outrageous. Like African Americans, Aboriginal people have faced decades of police brutality, and the most we have to show for it are semi-regular reports detailing allegations that were ultimately never pursued. We're aware of the schism between white and black Australia, but when we find ourselves crying out at another country's racial, that gap is pushed to the fore. "It's fine to look at overseas racism, but harder to look at it in your own backyard," comments Gracelyn.

Obviously no one means to make light of Michael Brown's murder; but death in custody has been viewed as normal in Australia for too long. The issue ultimately isn't one of violence, rather our own personal apathy and an ability to justify and ignore the behaviours around us. People will debate whether Darren Wilson should have gone free for years. But what we do know is that over 100 indigenous people have died in custody over the past 30-years, and Australia hasn't demanded that those responsible be held accountable.

Follow Wendy on Twitter: ​@Wendywends

Image via Flickr user ​Max Riethmuller