What’s Next For The Fight To Stop Indigenous Deaths In Custody?

“This has happened far too many times and it hurts, it’s just wrong.”
indigenous australian rally
There have been almost 500 Indigenous deaths in custody since the introduction of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody in 1987, with zero convictions.SOPA Images / Contributor

On the 22nd of October, JC’s family emerged from the Western Australian supreme court in devastation. The police officer who’d taken the 29-year-old’s life had been acquitted of charges of both murder and manslaughter. “I’m in shock,” were among the few words that Bernadette Clarke, JC’s sister, could muster outside the courthouse.


In September 2019, the accused was one of eight officers to respond to a call that JC, a Yamatji woman who is known for cultural reasons only by her initials, was walking the streets of Geraldton wielding a knife. Upon arrival, however, he was the only one to draw his gun, firing the fatal shot. With an identity that cannot be revealed for legal reasons, the officer’s month-long trial ultimately ended in a three hour verdict: not guilty.

A week later JC’s family made a national call to action and on Thursday small but forceful rallies erupted around Australia. Powerful opening statements prepared by family and friends were relayed by local Indigenous leaders, not only demanding justice for JC, but also for the continued genocide of Indigenous Australians.

“This has happened far too many times and it hurts, it’s just wrong.”

In 1987, the Australian government declared a Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody after growing concern that a number of indigenous people who were incarcerated were dying at the hands of police. This included 16-year-old indigenous boy Jon Pat, whose death resulted from a fight between a group of local men and off-duty police officers in Western Australia. Since then, there have been almost 500 Indigenous deaths in custody and no guilty verdicts. JC’s case has proven to be one of particular historical importance: it’s the first custodial death where an officer has been charged for murder in over a century. 


“This has happened far too many times and it hurts, it’s just wrong,” came a statement from JC’s sister, Bernadette, read at the rallies on Thursday, “That wasn’t a verdict, that was a show.”

Speaking at the Sydney rally outside of the NSW Supreme Court on Thursday, Gumbaynggirr Dunghutti Bundjalung woman Lizzie Jarrett told a crowd of around 80 protestors the decision had “caused outrage across the nation.” 

“It had been a matter of hours and the police officer walked out free,” she said. “A free man - and afforded protection with a suppression order to not disclose a name.” 

Jarrett, who led the rallies in Sydney, was joined by Kyah Patten, the niece of Kamilaroi man Eddie Murray, who died in custody almost 40 years ago. 

“Today’s a very hard day. It’s very hard because we’re here and still fighting the same battles just at a different timeline,” Patten told crowds, “The same story, different timeline. The genocide in this country is still real and it’s still alive. They're still taking our babies, they’re still killing our people.” 

At one point she broke down with emotion. “You see,” said Barrett, “how hard this is. Give her some love.”

As Petten resumed her address, her voice grew, “Tell me this is not about colour,” she said, “because the facts and the statistics tell you that this is about colour.” 

To date, Indigenous Australians are the most incarcerated people on Earth. Though they represent just 3 percent of the national population, they make up 29 percent of the Australian prison population and 18 percent of all deaths in custody.


“People are now asking: Who’s going to be the next JC? We are now asking for the full implementation of all the recommendations from the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody.”

Charmanine Green, a Yamaji Badimaya Wajarri woman and organiser of the local rally in JC’s hometown of Geraldton, told VICE that despite making up 3 percent of the city’s population, no Indigenous locals were invited to a recent meeting for a community safety plan.  

“We are over collaborations.” she said.

“We have Reconciliation Action Plans, whatever they mean; the police now have set up an Aboriginal Affairs Division; they've got Aboriginal police strategy. We have mental health police response teams. But what does that mean? That people have to get killed and murdered before things are put in place? I have no idea.”

Alongside the opening statements supplied to rallies around Australia, JC’s family also declared a list of demands that pushed for an independent tribunal with substantive First Nations representatives to investigate deaths in custody. It also placed emphasis on secondary and tertiary level education for incarcerated Indigenous people, and the launch of suicide prevention and trauma recovery projects.

“People are now asking: Who’s going to be the next JC? We are now asking for the full implementation of all the recommendations from the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody,” said Green.


This is not the first call for change from Indigenous communities across Australia – nor will it be the last. The anger and outrage of Thursday’s rallies culminated in peaceful gatherings around the country. In Perth, crowds were met by police officers standing at the steps of Parliament House. In Geraldton and Sydney, a number of officers watched on from the sides. 

“Non-Aboriginals in town have said that we were going to riot the streets and do all sorts of damaging things, which was totally not true,” said Green, “The beautiful Yamaji people sit today in the grassy area across from the courthouse, and across from the police station, to have our voice heard and to comfort each other as best we can.” 

“If people think that ‘it can’t happen to them’ or their family, they need to think a little bit more clearly about that.”

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