Published at Indymedia courtesy of the National Indigenous Times (12.12.2012) – Photo courtesy of the National Indigenous Times, by Geoff Bagnall; January 26, Lobby Restaurant
Article by Gerry Georgatos – National Indigenous Times award winning journalist, PhD researcher Deaths in Custody and social justice campaigner – recently he successfully campaigned for the release of scores of Indonesian children from Australian adult prisons, and has raised the funds in shipping thousands of children’s wheelchairs to war torn countries. He has written two Masters in trying to understand and find ways forward from the ugliness of racism, and his latest book to be released in January is Climate of Death: Justice denied means more will die.
I joined the National Indigenous Times 18 months ago, after a phone call from the newspaper’s editor, Stephen Hagan, in July 2011, and here we are as we quickly march into 2013. My journey with the National Indigenous Times has been an increasingly passionate one, as a result of the voluminous ability to look into one story after another I have had the opportunity to meet peoples who have been far removed from the myriad bright merit of what is right, from what should have been their due, and for whom justice has been denied. The passion to unfold the burgeoning human rights and social justice language, and its effects, is one that the National Indigenous Times has continued to give even more rise within me. The passion burns.
Why I joined the National Indigenous Times was because of something that both the newspaper’s Editor, Stephen Hagan, and the newspaper’s founder, John Rowsthorne said to me; that this newspaper is a vehicle for the ‘voiceless’ – “to give voice to the voiceless” – no more needed to be said to me and immediately I hopped onto the National Indigenous Times news-train. There are various opportunities for continuing what work I do in contributing to the common good during 2013 and hence the possibility exists that I will not be with the National Indigenous Times from some point next year, however maybe I will remain with them throughout 2013, we’ll see, however importantly the work of this newspaper needs to continue, so as to continue to give rise to genuine through-care journalism and change agency that is sorely lacking with most other news media – There are good journalists everywhere however they are often diminished by the demands placed upon them by Boards, Chief Editors, Group Editors, and the sub-editors of their news organisation. In many news media organisations real journalism has been supplanted by ‘churnalism’ – and investigative reporters replaced by armchair critics, and balanced journalism reduced by the agenda driven demands of its owners who effectively make a mockery of their editorial policies and instead have their perceived principles and convictions mangled by cultures of favour dispensation and nepotism.
Indeed, with the opportunities presented by the latitude afforded to journalists at the National Indigenous Times to explore stories, to investigate, to feature these stories and to sustain them till all parties involved accounted themselves in terms of the public interest, some of our coverage has led to the common good being achieved. What has pleased me is the ever increasing attention paid to the National Indigenous Times during the last couple of years by other major news media – our newspaper is a source of stories for them, and this is important because it means that stories we are the first in line prepared to follow and investigate thoroughly, whom fair to write others were not prepared to follow, we gave voice to. We were prepared to give ‘voice to the voiceless’ and provide the diligence of getting the story right, digging deep, hence then other news media ride off our backs. Their backs covered, legally and otherwise, by us having walked the ground that others feared. The list of our stories that have been picked up by others in just this year alone is long, however in recent times it is fair to note that such stories include the tragic injustice that befell then 15 year old Rex Bellotti Jr on March 6, 2009, and because of the National Indigenous Times his story has been heard far and wide, and is in the Australian consciousness. This is the story of one young man and his family whose story could not be let slip. Then there is the story of the plight 800 Yindjibarndi people faced in the mess that is the Native Title Act, and the incompatibility of the National Native Title Tribunal to the intentions of the Act. There is a mining boom in the Pilbara and yet everyone else bar the Yindjibarndi are benefiting from the mineral and ore resource rich Yindjibarndi lands – the majority Yindjibarndi languish in abject poverty.
Years have passed and no-one would adequately explore and report on this story – far too many major news media said to the Yindjibarndi and to me, “We can’t touch this story.” They would not risk taking on the wealthy and the influential nor the State Government or the National Native Title Tribunal. This is not journalism. This is not democracy. This is not justice. This is not what ‘good and right’ are about. Martin Luther King Jnr once said that justice delayed is justice denied. My father, who never went to school, who worked hard all his life for the quid he made to support his family, and his brood of six children, taught me that in life you must always do what is right and let nothing get in the way of this, and furthermore that when anyone puts any question to you about your words and deeds then always be able to account for your words and deeds right there and then, on the spot.
Where no other journalist in the country, not even journalists from other Indigenous specific news media like us, were prepared to properly explore the Yindjibarndi plight I was – like any other peoples in terms of their right to be heard I was not prepared to let them down. In the last couple of months because of my coverage alone – and the National Indigenous Times with the courage to run these stories – the human and political landscape for the Yindjibarndi has changed – dramatically. The nation has heard of their plight, better understands the issues, other major news media have found the courage to highlight some of what we broke into the news, and into the Australian consciousness. I worked my media networks around the nation to get their story on the record, their voice out there. From there onwards the consciousness of humankind does begin to do its thing, and it happens that at times the good people that do exist come good all round sooner rather than later and make things happen.
No story written should ever be about revenge however it should be about righting wrongs, about remedy, about all parties opening up their eyes, hearts and minds to the other, and in coalescing as humanity to the common good. And I can tell readers of the National Indigenous Times that is definitely what is happening for and with the Yindjibarndi, that peoples and all parties are coming together in one way or another. In this year of 2012 I visited Roebourne three times, and I was touched by the truth in witnessing the plight of people far removed from the spin sold to more powerful news media however which had long sold out its will to report the truth. While investigating as best I could the issues that burned so brightly to those who were prepared to look into them however were hidden deep in the forest from the Australian consciousness – and hence people not able to distinguish the trees from the forest, I could see the darkness and the light. Roebourne represents to myself the story of much of remote Aboriginal Australia. Roebourne has a population less than 1,000, mostly Aboriginal, of whom most are Yindjibarndi. They live poor, in dilapidated homes, run down facilities and minimal services at hand. There is not even a café in Roebourne, and there are no park benches anywhere in the dusty town. However only 18 km away is Port Samson, a grafted community, and it is an oasis – right by the sea and beaches, double-storey homes, of which not one rents at less than $2000 a week, spectacular facilities and every service imaginable, it is a beautiful place – however there are no Aboriginal people there, no Yindjibarndi. And 37 kms from Roebourne is Karratha, a town built without the Yindjibarndi in mind, there are very few, if any, Aboriginal people in Karratha. It is a town built for the mining boom, for the rest of Australia to benefit from, and the town has every service imaginable and has grafted every layer of opportunity for humankind to benefit from and enjoy. Why then do the Yindjibarndi remain poor?
There are only a couple of hundred households in Roebourne and yet the layers of community development that should have been grafted into Roebourne to provide it with the opportunity to thrive, to provide its people with the right to self-determination, have not happened, none of it. We can build a suburb in any metropolis in Australia within six months and graft the full suite of services for thousands of people to enjoy. I have seen suburbs which will house 4,000 to 22,000 people go up in less than six months – and I have seen towns like Port Samson and Karratha go up in similar spreads of time however apparently it is rocket science for Governments to ensure the justice that is denied to townships and communities like Roebourne. For myself, this is clearly a racial issue -racism not only languishes wildly in Australia, racism is at the forefront of the Australian id.
What I describe of Roebourne is the story of hundreds of other towns and communities across Australia, and many of which I have seen and experienced. It is also the story of the Pilbara’s regional neighbour, the Kimberley. The Kimberley has one of the world’s highest homelessness rates – 7 per cent of its total population is homeless, it has the highest suicide rates in the nation – and most of all of this is Aboriginal. Yet, Australian Governments, State and Federal, steadfast neglect the issue of the chronic homelessness of the Kimberley and the horrific suicide rates, with Aboriginal suicide rates reaching 100 times the national average, because yes my brothers and sisters it is a racial issue. It is just accepted and subsumed and supplanted by stereotypes and other bullshit shoved down our throats. The Kimberley is a tourist mecca and resources rich and yet we have one of the world’s highest homelessness rates in this region, surpassed only by the Northern Territory. Sadly, for me I believe little will be done to address the chronic issues in the Kimberley, unless the news media cares enough to continue on highlighting the hidden tragedies and that they sour into the light of day, and hence we get the cultural waves going, and those who have scored themselves into our parliaments jump on the crest of those cultural waves. Late last year and early this year I had covered, where others had not, the extent of the rise in homelessness in the Kimberley, and furthermore had underlain my stories with my own research, extensive cluster surveys throughout the Kimberley – and my research indicated a rise in homelessness and my stories and photographs focused on giving voice to these people. No other news media adequately followed the stories, and ‘adequately’ means to sustain coverage till something was done about it all – some news media reported the contents of my investigations, however as a one-off – the news cycle is too busy often focusing on who wears what and who is making out with whom. However recently the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) concluded its five year Census and in its report included the homelessness rates in the Kimberley, etc. All the news media jumped on the ‘churnalism’ and reported the horrific statistics. However, sadly, the next time that this same news media will report on the homelessness issues that plague this country, will be in 2017, at the next round of ABS Census statistics.
Journalism should not be seen as merely reporting the news, however rather as through-care, and that there is only a fine line, as if a porous membrane, between the reporting of the news and in exacting change – there must be a can do attitude of change agency underwriting journalism – well, this is my view, and this is my way of how I go about my journalism.
If we all sit idly by and do nothing, then what we will have is the tragedy of the Northern Territory Intervention –where ignorance has allowed for its culminations to be usurped by hysteria and deport everyone into a vacuum of inhumanity.
Stories that touched our hearts in this year of 2012 include Tauto Sansbury fighting to save young lives from suicide: I wrote that suicide has crippled many Aboriginal families nationwide and only resilience born from within oppression has kept some families going. South Australian Aboriginal communities came together to hold an Aboriginal Suicide Forum in Adelaide.
“It is ‘time to talk’ about Aboriginal suicide and start conversations that will change lives,” Elder, Tauto Sansbury said.
Mr Sansbury knows the emotional toll of burying loved ones. The 63 year old rights campaigner attended eight funerals within the first 13 days of the year and these eight premature deaths sparked a resolve in him to spearhead one campaign after another calling on the South Australian Government to fund a 24 hour Aboriginal crisis centre amidst other basic services.
The South Australian Government has continued its failure in heeding the words of Mr Sansbury, and there is yet no commitment to fund a 24 hour Aboriginal crisis centre. How many more lives must be lost?
The National Indigenous Times was correct when it claimed earlier in the year from its credible sources that Chevron would pull out of the Woodside led joint venture to build the $40 billion gas hub at Walmandan (James Price Point). Walmandan Tent Embassy and Kimberley anti-gas hub protesters have made a huge impact upon the Woodside led joint venture $40 billion Liquefied Natural Gas precinct proposal at James Price Point (Walmandan). Woodside, Chevron and State Government sources to the National Indigenous Times have been proven correct by claiming Chevron would pull out of the project and those sources are now saying the remaining Woodside venture partners will probably not support the project proceeding in its current form when they make their final decision in May next year.
The sources have also claimed Chevron and Woodside directors and executives were disappointed with West Australian Premier Colin Barnett’s compulsory acquisition threats and the public fallout from that action.
Goolarabooloo Elder, Phillip Roe said his peoples would not relent from fighting for Country.
“There will be no letting up, we’ve come this far to save our heritage, our Country and the future, we’ll keep on going,” he said.
Walmandan Tent Embassy protester, Albert Wiggan said the key to their successes had been they have not desisted in campaigning for the saving of the Kimberley.
“Once it’s gone, it’s gone forever, therefore we have been fighting the good fight to make sure this will not be the case,” he said.
“This land is not Woodside’s or Barnett’s.”
A well placed source said the campaign against the gas hub had been effective.
“The vigilance of protesters, the uproar within Broome, the involvement of Bob Brown and the Sea Shepherd have taken a toll on the boards and executives of not just Chevron and Woodside but all of the venture partners including Shell,” the source said.
“Some of them don’t want to be seen as killing whales and Indigenous culture, they don’t think it’s worth it, the protests have been non-stop and high profile.
“Royal Dutch Shell wants to go with a floating liquefied natural gas (FLNG) out of sight out of mind and just drop the whole Browse Basin precinct plan.
“The pressure was from the State Government for quite a while but they’re going quiet on it too, even Premier Barnett must be feeling his back is against the wall with protesters keeping it all in the media.
“He can’t keep up with hundreds of police turning up to the Kimberley and with an election nearing.”
The FLNG is seen as “an out of sight out of mind” solution because they can be set up far from the coastline and with less environmental impacts.
“FLNG can produce the liquefied natural gas without dredging up the coastline. It maybe that a few million less tonnes of gas is got out but it might be cheaper and less of a public issue,” the source said.
The FLNG proposal has some legs in light of the fact in August Royal Dutch Shell bought Chevron’s near 17 per cent stake and is now planning a flotilla of FLNG ships.
Even though some analysts are saying venture partners are no longer considering another option – the piping of the gas 900km south to the existing North West Shelf LNG plant –this is not true, say the sources. This option is still being considered however they believe the FLNG option is building the momentum to win out.
“However there are that many influential players within these companies that a few options are on the table, so it’s not smart to rule any or all out,” the source said.
“I can say the non-stop protests, the stunts, the arrests, the concerts, the Sea Shepherd, the Tent Embassy set up near the Browse have taken their toll all the way to the top.”
It was The National Indigenous Times that was first in with the news, before parliamentarians themselves knew, that legislation to rip off Traditional Owners of negotiating rights on various land use would be rammed through both houses of the South Australian government. When we phoned the parliamentarians it was news to them!
South Australian leaders were both despondent and outraged at the State Government’s ram raid on the Aboriginal Heritage Act and were supported by the SA Greens however the changes to the Act got through.
Mineral Resources and Mining Minister Tom Koutsantonis recently rammed through parliament legislation removing negotiation rights for Traditional Owners in reference to oil and gas exploration and activity on their lands – and he did this without any consultation with Aboriginal stakeholders and groups. Once again Mr Koutsantonis is working the political landscape in favour of mining companies by pushing for changes in the Aboriginal Heritage Act that will effectively reduce a suite of Aboriginal legal rights. Earlier this year the National Indigenous Times reported the watering down of the Aboriginal Heritage Act would occur in Western Australia and two months ago revealed the
South Australian State Government planned to follow suit.
Tauto Sansbury was an Indigenous relations manager in mining, energy and engineering, former Chief Executive Officer of Ceduna Koonibba Aboriginal Health Service and Chairperson of Patpa Warra Regional council and he is disappointed there has been no consultation with Aboriginal peoples. “I think it appears clear the Aboriginal Heritage Act will be watered down,” Mr Sansbury said.
South Australia’s Commissioner for Aboriginal Engagement Khatija Thomas said she continues to be disappointed the South Australian Government continues to bypass consultation with Aboriginal peoples. Insiders have told the National Indigenous Times Mr Koutsantonis had “promised miners that heritage approvals for projects in the works would be “moved along” and the “red tape around Indigenous peoples claiming rights through the Heritage Act would be removed.”
Ms Thomas pointed out State Premier, Jay Weatherill first announced a review of the Aboriginal Heritage in 2008 with consultation on proposed changes closing in 2010. However no consultation has occurred since the Premier’s announcement.
“The consultations that took place back then form the basis of the drafting of the new Bill. The changes that have taken place in the legal and political landscape between Aboriginal people and proponents of development in the intervening years warrant an extended and new consultation process, even though that won’t go down well with Government,” Ms Thomas said.
“There should not be a Bill drafted until more consultation happens with Aboriginal communities. And then there will have to be a further consultation process on the draft Bill.”
SA Greens Aboriginal Affairs and Reconciliation spokesperson Tammy Franks slammed Mr Koutsantonis during the mining industry round table for his comments about watering down the Heritage Act so it could not be used to delay mining projects.
“If the recent parliamentary vote rushed through with unseemly haste to retrospectively abolish Aboriginal Native Title renegotiation rights in the Petroleum and Geothermal Energy (Transitional Licences) Amendment Bill is any indication, the so-called review and revamp of the Aboriginal Heritage Act will simply be a stripping back of Indigenous voices in these processes,” Ms Franks said.
“It has been nearly four years since the Premier, Jay Weatherill, then in his previous role as Minister for Aboriginal Affairs and Reconciliation, announced a review of the Aboriginal Heritage Act to better protect Aboriginal culture and heritage.
“Rather than creating better outcomes for Aboriginal people in line with the stated aims of the review to provide stronger recognition of Aboriginal ownership or custody of their heritage, the current push by Minister Koutsantonis appears to be doing exactly the opposite.
“If Minister Koutsantonis sees the freshening up of the Aboriginal Heritage Act as an opportunity for watering further down of the rights of Native Title holders he will meet strong community and Parliamentary opposition.”
However the previous Bill on Native Title rights was slammed through the two Houses of the State Parliament as the National Indigenous Times reported it would be – of 69 votes only 3 voted against it. So it would appear likely the Minister will achieve the same outcome with any proposed changes to the Aboriginal Heritage Act.
“Whilst the State Government acknowledged in 2008 a framework for agreement with Aboriginal people needed to be created, I’m disappointed if this is what they have resorted to,” Ms Franks said.
In trying to quell the outrage about proposed changes to the Aboriginal Heritage Act the State’s Aboriginal Affairs Minister, Paul Caica said the draft Bill would be out before year’s end for “consultation”. However Mining Minister Mr Koutsantonis told The Australian newspaper, “Indigenous groups and mining companies need to move into the 21st century. The existing Act is old and out-dated, it is time to catch up. I want to have legislation drafted by Christmas so both groups are happy – everyone wants certainty.”
Norwood Legal Centre lawyer, Patrick Byrt at an event with Narrandjeri Elders at historic Gum Tree reserve in Glenelg made a profound insight to the National Indigenous Times.
“What our Governments have done to Aboriginal peoples in this State and throughout Australia in terms of their legal rights is monstrous. The damage done emotionally, psychologically and physically is horrific however outweighed by the monstrous damage governments have done and continue to do to Aboriginal people’s legal rights,” Mr Byrt said.
And then there is the shame, one fraught by Governments, where the ordinary citizen is doing more for others than they are.
Clint and Deb Durham made up their minds they could no longer bear knowing toddlers and infants were sleeping hungry in the great hypocrisy that is the tourist mecca of Broome on the far north coast of Western Australia. Mr Durham is a 15 year intelligence analyst with the Western Australian police and in this time acknowledged the statistics to reality horror of many young Aboriginal offenders breaking into homes purely to steal some food or money for food, simply because they were hungry.
The National Indigenous Times earlier this year highlighted the plight of endemic Aboriginal homelessness in the Kimberley and surprisingly in Broome, with areas such as One Mile Community and Kennedy Hill blighted by homelessness and impoverished families. In 2006 the Counting the Homeless Report recorded horror figures after the Census of 638 per 10,000 Kimberley people homeless and most of them Aboriginal.
This rate is the worst in the nation and 17 times the national average.
However both the State and Federal governments and the respective Indigenous Affairs Ministers, Peter Collier for Western Australia and the Federal Government’s Jenny Macklin have turned a blind eye to the situation and other than the National Indigenous Times no mainstream news media or government department has delved into the Kimberley’s shocking homelessness rates and the impacts upon families.
However for Mr Durham it is a different story and unlike many who have turned a blind eye to the terrible situation he and his wife could not.
He made a decision to do something tangible in making a difference after completing further research into crime-ridden areas for his Master’s degree. He made the connection between juvenile property crime and poverty, neglect and hunger. Mr Durham, himself a father of two, decided he and his wife would not wait around while governments continued to let children languish without food for days and he stepped in with a way forward which clearly signifies what the solutions are. With his wife, who is a canteen manager at a local Catholic school, St. Mary’s, they started the Feed the Little Charity in February this year.
“A lot of the children come from dysfunctional families. It is just circumstances beyond their control in many of the cases,” he said.
“There is nothing deliberate in what parents and families do who are trapped by acute poverty.”
They started the charity work from their home. Using industrial sized pots, Mrs Durham started cooking up enough food to feed more than 100 children, including babies. Such is the extent of the problem in Broome and surrounding communities – the neglect by governments is shameful. However Mr Durham, with a striking humility, does not have a bad word to say about anyone, including government departments and agencies.
Volunteers distribute food packages complemented by donations of orange juice and snacks from local businesses. Families are grateful for the helping hand.
In the beginning to keep the Feed the Little Children going the Durhams dipped into their own pockets – the weekly cost for 100 food packages was about $150 per week with $50 of this donated by their church each week.
Word spread of Feed the Little Children and the Health Department offered the Durhams the use of a commercial kitchen and with a small grant they secured cooking equipment and supplies.
After a while they moved kitchen to St Mary’s Catholic School which has allowed them to do more. More people have come on board to cook and distribute, hence more children are being fed.
They are working to a dream of seeing a 24 hour, 365 a year emergency food service for children in need put into operation.
“Deb would cook Saturday mornings and we’d get to the children late afternoon,” Mr Durham said.
“After a while they knew we were coming and they’d be there every Saturday afternoon. However since a couple more cooks and more volunteers we are now are about to start cooking and delivering on Wednesdays as well.”
They go to the areas with acute homelessness like One Mile Community and Kennedy Hill however also to specific homes and into the parks where the children wait.
Donations have increased to ensure the Durhams have been able to offset costs however if more sponsors and donors get behind Feed the Little Children more children will be nourished and families helped and lives mended.
The actions of the Durhams and Feed The Little Children charity have put the State and Federal governments to shame. If anyone would like to assist Mr Durham can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
And then are the deaths in custody, which just continue. My PhD research is in Australian Custodial Systems and Deaths in Custody – and reading one tragic case after another, assisting families with various advocacy and representations have given me insights into levels of pain that people should not have to be burdened with, and furthermore my personal witness and experiences evidence that the system so to speak, the establishment has isolated them, disenfranchised them into grieving alone with the near unbearable weight of the pain.
At the 29th John Pat Memorial Day, Western Australia Deaths in Custody Watch Committee chairperson, Marianne Mackay said, “I know that we are sick of it all, it comes with being Aboriginal however we have to stand up so we make the big changes for our people. The Pat family, this is a family that has not got justice, none of our families have ever got it. There is not enough support out there for us to get lawyers and protection.” Marianne lost the father of her eldest son as a death in custody.
The Reverend Sealin Garlett read the ode to John Pat by the late Elder Dr Jack Davis and the gathering sat silent, taking in every word and the landscape each word fills – Mother Mavis with head bowed, brother Glen with shoulders lowered, both staring to the earth – “Write of life, the pious said. Forget the past, the past is dead. But all I see, in front of me, is a concrete floor, a cell door, and John Pat. Agh! Tear out the page, forget his age. Thin skull they cried, that’s why he died! But I can’t forget the silhouette of a concrete floor, a cell door, and John Pat. The end product of Guddia (white man’s) Law is a viaduct, for fang and claw. And a place to dwell, like Roebourne’s hell, of a concrete floor, a cell door, and John Pat.” The Reverend’s crackling voice rose more, and resonated John Pat alive with all of us, “He’s there – Where? There in their minds now, deep within. There to prance, a long sidelong glance, a silly grin, to remind them all, of a Guddia wall, a concrete floor, a cell door, and John Pat.”
When John Pat died Harvey Coyne was a young man in prison, at Fremantle Prison, now a museum, and where the memorial for John Pat is held every year. Harvey said, “I was inside here in this prison when news of the death of John Pat came. Our heads went down – we all felt an insecurity in the system and by the forces demanding cultural assimilation. What happened to John we knew more of it would come and it has. I have seen in many, many people around me, in prison and outside prison the mental collapse of my brothers and sisters and how we are punished for this by the very system that makes this happen. 40 years later I would have hoped things would change however they have not, the fear is still there that the system is still letting us down and shutting heavy metal doors on us.”
And then there is the story of courage by whistle-blower and Aboriginal Visitors Scheme Officer Joyce Capewell – after no-one else would touch the story The National Indigenous Times stood alongside Ms Capewell’s right to be heard. The West Australian State Government’s Department of Corrective Services has continued to delay in reinstating the Aboriginal Visitors’ Scheme (AVS) despite suicide attempts by two brothers within 12 hours at Greenough Prison at Geraldton in the north of the State. The failure to reinstate the scheme has drawn stinging criticism from an AVS officer of 20 years, Joyce Capewell who has put her career on the line as a whistle-blower by revealing the Department had effectively closed the Scheme down.
“I want to return to work and to Greenough Prison where the people need me but I can’t, not until they have reinstated the AVS and not until they fix what is wrong with AVS,” she said. “It’s a disgrace what is happening in there and throughout the region. With no AVS in place our people are suffering. If there is death in Greenough it will be blood on their hands,” Ms Capewell said.
Ms Capewell contacted the State Minister for the Department of Corrective Services, Murray Cowper to inform him the Scheme had not been in operation for at least two years in most of these towns and that it was not in place at Greenough Prison.
“This is racism at its worst, inadvertent bias and outright biases and prejudices culminating as racism shovelled at us by a system that is not listening to all the experts and to the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody (RCIADC),” Ms Capewell said. “Without AVS, the government and the DCS are failing Aboriginal prisoners. Ninety per cent of Greenough Prison is Aboriginal people.”
“The whole thing is begging for an independent inquiry and if it doesn’t happen then something stinks. This is why I am speaking out despite the risks to my career.”
“Greenough has had three deaths in custody during the last four years and suicide attempts and people in terrible conditions. We don’t need out of sight of out mind games.”
Ms Capewell said she had been stunned by a response from the State Minister, Murray Cowper who wrote the AVS was “not a primary counselling scheme and that other non-Aboriginal programs are adequate”.
A recently released inmate from Greenough Prison, Tim McIntosh told the National Indigenous Times Mr Cowper’s depiction of “robust counselling programs” in Greenough was not the case and that Aboriginal prisoners were not adequately supported by these other schemes. Mr McIntosh said Ms Capewell was desperately needed and she was “the only beacon of light we had in there. The people in there need Aunty Joyce.”
“There are Aboriginal people in there from the desert who don’t speak English and they need our people only and Aunty Joyce is the only person many of us had to help us,” Mr McIntosh said.
“Whatever problems with the AVS nowadays, it is requisite for our people and this is why it was recommended way back in 1988,” said Ms Capewell. “The majority of Aboriginal prisoners are not comfortable with non-Aboriginal people and in Greenough with prisoners from remote communities, from the desert and the Kimberley, they come from cultures that non-Aboriginal peoples are not in a position to engage well with.”
Mr Cowper has declined to meet with Ms Capewell. Yamaji State Parliamentarian, Ben Wyatt has risen to the occasion to demand Mr Cowper meet with Ms Capewell and senior members of Geraldton’s Yamaji community. Mr Wyatt wrote to Mr Cowper: “the management of Greenough Prison is of concern to the wider Yamaji community” and “the welfare of Aboriginal prisoners are matters that need to be further investigated.”
The following passage from an article I wrote earlier this year sums up many of the underlying issues for me -President of the Indigenous Social Justice Association, Ray Jackson said he was a toddler when he was forcibly removed from his Aboriginal mother after his father was killed during the Second World War.
“I have lived with so much hate and still do because I was removed from my mother,” Mr Jackson said. “You do not take children away from their parents. Our people cannot continue to be oppressed when rather they should be entitled to what everyone is to.”
Kalgoorlie-Boulder’s Wongi Reverend Geoffrey Stokes said governments did condone Aboriginal families and children living in “abominable squalor and in homelessness” whereas they would not condone such a situation for non-Aboriginal families.
“They know about it but turn a blind-eye. The appalling conditions many of our people live in would not be permitted for non-Aboriginal Australians,” he said.
As my PhD research into Deaths in Custody progressed and through this research visiting and studying Australian custodial systems and their effects with the worst culminating in deaths in custody – the major component of my research was in understanding the disproportionately high levels of Australian deaths in custody (prison, police, immigration custodial related) however all the researching led me back to the incarcerated souls and what located them into prison and many in losing their lives pre-release and many more within the first year post-release – everything led back to trauma – various trauma; situational trauma, predicaments in which people find themselves, the abyss of various traumas, multiple, that are causal to various directions we take in life or are guided to – this is the trauma or the negative social conditions to which many are born in, and not all these conditions are the by-product of familial breakdown and dysfunction however they are the by-products of conditions imposed by the State – so there is a determinism that is long manifest, before our first breath on this earth that for many folk denies them equal opportunity in life from the very beginning of life. These contemplations have led me to inculcate into my research into Australian custodial systems and the study of the effects that culminate in deaths in custody the whole concept of trauma; how the custodial systems – especially prison and police related – are underlain by the need for trauma to induce vicarious circumstance and predicament and various malicious patterns of behaviour and the subsequent responses (reactive) by the various authorities and their management systems.
Healing is a major step in the intervention of trauma, however as a society legislatively we need to move to prevention, in that we reduce, preferably eliminate, hard traumas from the social conditions imposed on many folk by the State, for instance indeed with the Emergency Response Actions in the Northern Territory – I have come to the considered understanding that the majority of Aboriginal folk in the Northern Territory are in a prison like custodial jurisdiction and hence the subsequent trauma, causal, situational, inter-generational, compounded daily by their discrimination, exploitation (be it inadvertent; however authority is hierarchical and its presence is exploitive in terms of the relations of power), and hence the stripping, the erosion, the diminution of peoples’ identities; historical, cultural, contemporary and as human beings – there is the impost of inequality.
The Northern Territory Intervention and Stronger Futures are custodial predicaments and hence the premise to the arguments by many that they are racist occurrences. Statistics indicate that everything since the Military Emergency Response in the Northern Territory have got worse and not better, and similarly with those in the acute localised custodial predicaments of juvenile and adult prisons and immigration detention people upon release from the custody of the State leave worse compared to when they went in.
Not just one, however twelve Northern Territory Elders, twelve out of twelve, said to me that the Intervention is a prison, and that they do not just live in prison-like conditions however in an actual prison, in that they see the warden, the guards, and in that they can see the walls, the bars, and the heavy metal doors. One said that when he sees his community’s youth drift, their aimless roam, the suffering from the despair of inebriation, when they scream back at the State and for those that sometimes displace anger on their own folk, when they see them die young in the confrontational personal witness of community or in the isolation of various custody such as a police or prison cell that it is no different to being in a built prison, in a locked cell, during lock-down which is generally twelve hours a day, and hearing fellow inmates crying out from other cells, in various meltdown, and then the next morning a guard finding one of the prisoners dead – similarly with the brutality of the Northern Territory Intervention, youth is found dead or in the abyss of despair and there is little than can be done because the brutality to the human identity, in stripping people of their right to be equal among everyone, in the forbidding of Aboriginal advancement by Aboriginal peoples, is a horrific contemporary brutality. The trauma of the Intervention shall eventually be much studied, sadly and patronisingly so, by the ensuing generation of academics and it will be found equivalent in trauma and damage to the Stolen Generations, and the Stolen Wages tragedies, to the Apartheid that many Aboriginal peoples lived in this country more than one and a half centuries.
An Elder said to me, “We are not boss of our people, we are not boss of us, our ways are looked down and young people and rich people come in here and tell us we are nothing, we are no good and that they know better.”
Another Elder said, “They tell us all these things that have happened in our town that we never saw happen not till they came and told us so. There were not these bad things they said but now there are. Our people are getting sick because of them and our young don’t care anymore. They have come here and caused so much trouble.”
And another Elder said, “They keep us poor for so long, no electricity, no nothing, houses they would not live in, they always refused us funding for anything we applied for and now they come here to show us like we are children how to do what they never gave us a chance to do.”
And another Elder said, “They are killing our children, look at our suicides, the numbers make the heart cry, can they not see what they have done? They are not doing any good just bad.”
And another Elder said, “They want our land, and they take it, they move our people to prisons inside prisons. All Northern Territory is a prison, and the towns prison in prison.”
The Aboriginal population of the Northern Territory is 80,000 out of a total population of 230,000, and therefore comprises just shy of 30% of the total population, however Aboriginal peoples make up 84% of the total prison population of the Northern Territory – the Northern Territory’s Aboriginal peoples are the world’s most incarcerated peoples. The Emergency Response has been not only a total failure, however an abject disaster with a litany of youth suicides, community breakdown, increasing youth unemployment, trauma and multiple traumas many of which shall encumber folk life-long, many irrecoverable and many which will contribute to self-harm by one destructive means or another and in far too many instances shall manifest flagrant suicide attempts.
2012 has brought more ups and downs for myself, and hopefully some of my journalism, my preparedness to run with the stories that no-one else was prepared to cover is some sort of contribution in making come true John Rowesthorne’s and Stephen Hagan’s urge to give ‘voice to the voiceless.’ In the end we are all brothers and sisters, and the coalescing of humanity is pivotal in unfolding the comprehensive vocabulary of the human rights and social justice languages. I was heartened this year by various invitations to work alongside my brothers and sisters – one such group was a 12 member Critical Reference Group reporting down the line to the Attorney-General’s Office in securing the funding to put together healing and yarning circles and programs in our prisons – in other words radical prison reforms that work to reduce reoffending and in saving lives by rebuilding them and subsequently those lives within the families and communities around them – in giving rise to the certainty of paths in people’s lives. My invitation to this group was through an Aboriginal body – the group works in line with Aboriginal Terms of Reference (ATR) and has 10 Aboriginal members and two ‘non-Aboriginal’ members in its family. Along the way an external question arose about the two ‘non-Aboriginal’ members on an ATR underlain Aboriginal critical reference group. I stepped back from the group to ensure that its reference remained intact however was brought into the fold after every member of the group insisted, and these two excerpts hearten much wisdom for the coalescing of humanity and our unfolding hopes and aspirations:
“My reasoning to include two non-Aboriginal people as members of the group was based upon the expertise, and professional integrity they hold within the Aboriginal community at a national (Gerry) and State (Alec) level.”
“Gerry has had many years of engagement and involvement in Aboriginal affairs through the work he does in the field of justice and at State and local Aboriginal affairs particularly in WA. I know it has taken years of hard work on your part to be where you are today within the Aboriginal community and accepted into various groups as a family member.”
“I can’t wait to have you and your family included in the invitations to my own families for our big family reunion next year. My brothers are so looking forward to ‘catching up with the brother’, particularly my brother who is down in Redfern.”
When I read this I just could not, and still cannot, put into words how touched I was, and what it made me feel and understand. I sometimes cannot believe the power of the reach we can have, the connections we can make, and the change agency that is within our capacities. I too look forward, deeply so, in catching up with my brothers.
The kind lady who wrote this to me continued, “The Aboriginal Noongars, mainly brothers who I keep in contact with, one of them who is mine and my children’s Elder, and my skin Mothers, whom I consulted regarding your inclusion in the Critical Reference Group, all spoke of your clear and definite understanding of Aboriginal Terms of Reference evidenced by the ‘the way his stories yarn about our business’ was the way it was put to me by one of them. Gerry, you work at times for the National Indigenous Times as a journalist and it was your writing in this national newspaper that was pointed out to me as evidence of your knowledge of ATR, particularly in the area of ‘black deaths in custody’, Aboriginal imprisonment, juvenile crime, family, child protection and the list went on.”
I thank this very prominent Kabi Kabi Elder from Queensland – her words are etched in my soul.
Another member from the group, Darwin based, wrote, “Being Aboriginal does not mean you know everything Aboriginal because as an Aboriginal person we are always learning about each other (many nations). Additionally, our culture is like a second skin, it is infinite and fundamental to us as an Aboriginal person (race), it defines who we are, where we come from, who we know, what our responsibilities and obligations are to each other and with each other. And with many Aboriginal nations across Australia, there comes many rules and protocols that do not need to be explained, but must always be respected.”
“For this project – it is because we are all experts in the ATR field that brought us all together, it was not because we were Aboriginal (which we are) or that we were Aboriginal experts (which we all are) and funny enough it is this ATR expertise that has kept us all motivated because we come from different spaces and concerns. If we were brought together just on Aboriginality then yes Alec and Gerry have sorely missed the boat, and need to go out and get a tan! But, from everything I have read and what (we) have stated – we were all brought together based on our ATR expertise and our legal, justice, rehabilitation, retribution and other skills, for our networks and experiences. Our role and responsibility for this project is to produce the best ATR product that we can from the Aboriginal community which both Alec and Gerry are and which the Aboriginal community have vouched for them, and for the Aboriginal community.”
“I believe we must accept that (our sponsors) have put forward the best team sourced from within the Aboriginal community from around Australia, therefore it is not our right to judge, rather it is our right to ensure we get the best from everyone by sharing, solving and championing ATR through our own networks and through this project.”
“As (our sponsors) proposed to the Attorney-General’s Department as part of their strategy that they would establish and be guided by a National Aboriginal & Islander Critical Reference Group, this is exactly what (our sponsors) have produced. Do we have to define and label us individually as being Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal members, including all our expertise? No, we should not.”
“To date, Gerry’s and Alec’s contributions to this project have been invaluable and in the end result, they should be acknowledged as being members of the National Aboriginal & Islander Critical Reference Group and not written off as non-Aboriginal experts/contributors.”
With the support of those I stand alongside with and work with hence I am guided by.
I would like to finish this Big Read, the last one for 2012, with a quote from our good friend for all times, Plato – “Be kind, everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.”
Taken in its entirety from Indymedia at http://www.indymedia.org.au/2012/12/11/the-national-indigenous-times-%E2%80%93-%E2%80%98voice-to-the-voiceless%E2%80%99