“State-Sanctioned Genocide”: Indigenous Australians Say Deaths In Custody Are Being Ignored

A protest was held outside NSW Parliament today.

deaths in custody

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Protesters gathered outside NSW Parliament today to demand justice for the families of Indigenous people who have died in police custody, calling the current state of affairs a “nightmare” and “state-sanctioned genocide”.

The protest marked the one-year anniversary of the death of Rebecca Maher, a Wiradjuri woman and mother of four who died in a Maitland police holding cell after being detained without charge. The most recent Indigenous death in custody occurred just two weeks ago, when Kamilaroi man Eric Whittaker died after sustaining unexplained head injuries at Parklea prison.

Indigenous speakers at the event called for an independent investigation after every death in custody, calling scenarios in which the police are able to conduct internal investigations “inherently flawed”.

Speakers also called for the Custody Notification Service (CNS) to be properly enacted, as recommended by the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody and required by law. The CNS requires that the Aboriginal Legal Service (ALS) be notified when an Indigenous person is taken into police custody, but the ALS says no notification was received in Rebecca Maher’s case.

It’s 26 years since a Royal Commission into Aboriginal deaths in custody handed down 339 recommendations — very few of which have been implemented.

Kathy Malera-Bandjalan spoke at the protest as a family friend of Rebecca Maher, saying too much remains unknown about Maher’s death one year later.

deaths in custody protest

Protesters assemble outside NSW Parliament.

“If they were concerned for her welfare, why did they not take her to a hospital, or seek any medical advice or opinion? Why did it take over six hours for the police to notify her mother and her family of her death?”

Malera-Bandjalan said that “when you speak to Rebecca’s mother, her pain is obvious. It has not reduced over time, and it’s been compounded by the fact that society does not care.”  

Aunty Dianne Whittaker, a relative of Eric Whittaker, expressed her own anger at the circumstances of Eric’s death earlier this month, saying he had been poorly treated.

“The mentality he was arrested in — the first thing they do is lift him up in the air and slam him on the ground, like he’s on a football field.”

Whittaker was taken to hospital around June 29 when he sustained unexplained head injuries while being held at Parklea prison. Dianne Whittaker said that while in a coma and on life support, Eric was kept shackled to the bed.

She also said that hospital staff pressured the family about donating Whittaker’s organs, feeding the family “bullshit” and showing misunderstanding and disrespect towards the family’s cultural opposition to donation.

Jenny Leong, the Greens member for Newtown, also spoke, acknowledging the “grief and horror” shared by the aunties.

“If this was a white person dying in custody can you imagine the uproar?” Leong said. “But we struggle to find this in the news”.

Some Indigenous Australians have criticised the media’s coverage of deaths in custody this week, saying that the death of white Australian woman Justine Damond in a police shooting in the US has dominated Australian media headlines, while Whittaker’s death has been underreported. 

All speakers at the protest called on Parliamentary representatives to do better to respond to and prevent Indigenous deaths in custody. Kathy Malera-Bandjalan turned to the NSW Parliament building to ask “what are you doing, sitting on the Royal Commission’s deaths in custody recommendations. Use them, they were worthwhile.”

Another speaker, who did not give a name, turned the megaphone towards NSW Parliament.

“Every time we come out here we have only one party, the Greens, who come and support us. But what about the Liberal and Labor parties, what are they doing?” he yelled, to cries of “shame” from those assembled.

“Our words are not being heard by you mongrels. Our words are not being heard by your institution.”

Another protest will be held at 11.30am on Friday July 28, to mark 18 months since the death of Indigenous man David Dungay. The meeting place is Hyde Park North.

NSW Police were unable to comment on Rebecca Maher’s case as the matter is still before the Coroner.

Regarding the case of Eric Whittaker, a spokesperson for NSW Corrective Services provided the following statement: “Corrective Services NSW expresses its deep sympathy to the family and friends of a 35-year-old man who died on 4 July while receiving medical treatment at Westmead Hospital. All deaths in custody are investigated by the CSNSW Investigation Unit and the NSW Police, and a report is prepared for the NSW State Coroner, who conducts an inquest into each case.”

Images: Sam Langford.

Sam Langford is a Junkee Staff Writer. She tweets at @_slangers.