Aboriginal Activists Marked One Year Since the Death of Ms Dhu in Custody

Tuesday was the first anniversary of the death of a Yamatji woman in police lock-up in South Hedland, Western Australia.

Jarni Blakkarly

Images courtesy of author

On Melbourne's busy Burke Street mall during the rush of the lunch hour, the low voice of the singer Kutcha Edwards rang out in prayer; "Is this what we deserve?"

On Tuesday in major cities across Australia Indigenous rights activists gathered for the one year anniversary of the death of Yamatji woman Ms Dhu, who died in police lock-up in South Hedland, Western Australia, after medical complications.

Despite being almost the exact opposite side of the country from where that death occurred, Kutcha was singing to the dozens who gathered to mark the date and protest for justice as well as reform. The song was for the white-collar workers rushing by.

In a country which has become accustomed to the news of Indigenous deaths in custody and startling statistics of Aboriginal and Torres Islander imprisonment, Ms Dhu's story has captured more attention than many in recent years. Her death is a rallying for the Indigenous de-carceration movement.

Goonyandi activist Vivian Malo

Ms Dhu was arrested on the 2nd of August last year for the non-payment of $1000 in fines. In WA police are allowed to arrest and hold those who haven't paid fines, a law which some say criminalises poverty.

Ms Dhu's family has been given little solid information about what happened during the days that elapsed between her arrested and her death two days later. On three occasions the police transported her to the nearby Hedland Health Campus and on the third occasion, according to the regional health director, she "was returned to the hospital by the police unconscious, pulseless and not breathing".

When Ms Dhu arrived at the hospital the third time she was transported in the back of a police wagon, instead of an ambulance. Arriving at the hospital, her already deceased body was placed upright in a wheelchair.

The rest of the answers the family will hope for later this year, as the WA government recently set a date in November for a Coronial Inquest into the death.

Mutti Mutti singer Kutcha Edwards

Veteran paralegal Charandev Singh, who has been assisting families affected by deaths in custody since 1992, told VICE the 15 months from the death to the inquest is actually an expedited process and that some families wait for up to three or four years.

One of the factors that likely sped up process has been the ongoing protests that have been held across the country. Her uncle Nhunda-Wadjarri Yamatji man, Shaun Harris, has been crossing the country for the past 12 months raising awareness and campaigning for justice.

Speaking with VICE on the eve of the anniversary, Harris said the fight for an inquest was just the first in a long-road of battles.

"From last year we've fought to where we are now. The fight is not just for Ms Dhu but for custodial reform, to get this issue attention Australia wide as well. There are so many questions that need answering. We want accountability for what has happened, only then when will we find closure. There'll be no peace until justice," he said.

Krautungalung elder Robbie Thorpe

The search for justice is has been elusive for the hundreds of the families who have lost loved ones in police or prison custody before. Australia has never recorded a successful conviction, for any offence, against a police officer in regards to an indigenous death in custody and only a handful have ever been charged.

Back on Burke Street, long-time radical Indigenous activist Robbie Thorpe hoists himself up on to the parapet of the old General Post Office, a colonial relic now turned into a H&M store. With an Aboriginal flag wrapped around a wooden stick in one hand, and a placard in the other, he waves his arms and shouts above the heads of the dozen or so activists.

"Australia's a crime-scene! No pride in Genocide!"

He shakes as he shouts and the people walking by, intimidated, deviate in a broad arc. It's hard to tell what message they take away from it all, but at least, for a moment there, they heard it.

Follow Jarni on Twitter.