The indignities that killed Ms Dhu, are the same indignities hurting her family

There is an argument favoured by right winged shock jocks, and certain politicians like WA Premier Colin Barnett — and it goes like this:

There is an argument favoured by right winged shock jocks, and certain politicians like WA Premier Colin Barnett — and it goes like this:

“In respect to deaths in custody, avoidable Aboriginal deaths in custody are low and have continued on a downward trend since the 1991 Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody. The rate of avoidable deaths of Aboriginal people in prison in Western Australia is below the Australian average. There has also been a marked decline in the number of Aboriginal prison suicides. These may be the facts, but one death is one death too many.”

That was Colin Barnett in WA Parliament last year, responding to the death in custody of Yamitji woman Ms Dhu, who died in horrendous pain in a South Hedland watchhouse while being repeatedly refused medical attention and health care.

Comments like Barnett’s though, are designed to deflect blame and attention — to act as if this is purely a question of protocol. But a breach of procedure doesn’t describe the indignities Aboriginal people have to live with every day — and women in particular. They are the continual indignities of being black in this country, and they are the indignities that lead to Ms Dhu losing her life in the most disturbing of circumstances.

The reason why we continue to campaign around black deaths in custody is because of this: What happened to Ms Dhu would never happen to a white prisoner. It is not a matter of procedure, it is in itself a symptom of the ongoing colonial project that continually dehumanises Aboriginal people, which leads us to the current day, where Aboriginal life is seen as disposable.

The indignities that lead to Ms Dhu’s death — the mocking of her pain, the refusal to believe her over the testimony of the non-Indigenous protectors (the health professionals and police officers), the fact she was criminalised for her poverty despite being a family violence victim — are indignities that are present within the life experiences of our mob, behind and beyond bars. These indignities ensure that even if you aren’t confined by physical walls, sometimes the reality of being Aboriginal in this country can feel like a prison in itself.

And you need no further evidence of this than how Ms Dhu’s grieving family have been treated following her death. The indignities that lead to Ms Dhu’s death, are the same indignities her family now face.

First of all, they have faced the indignity of not being listened to. Like Ms Dhu, who’s pleas of pain fell on deaf ears, her family have had to campaign at their own expense, simply to force anyone to give a damn. They have travelled the length of this country, building contacts, speaking at rallies, simply to break the continual media blackout that engulfs Aboriginal deaths. They shouldn’t have to do this, just like Ms Dhu, who should never have had to plead continually for attention while she was in the death throes of septic shock.

Second of all — the indignity of being mocked. Like Ms Dhu, who cried out in pain and was believed to have been ‘faking’ it, Ms Dhu’s family have been forced to deal with the daily eruptions of racism while campaigning for their daughter — from the outright casual racism to the more insidious forms. If you go on any online forum, you will see the ignorant comments from people claiming Ms Dhu ‘should never have been locked up in the first place’ — somehow attempting to justify the denial of adequate medical care that could have saved her life.

Thirdly, the indignity of exhaustion — like Ms Dhu, her family are exhausted because they continually have to justify their protest, and their grief. No other Australian would be required to explain why their loved one shouldn’t have been locked up for no crime, let alone why she shouldn’t have died there, with no consequence. Constantly fighting to take small steps when their is still a mountain ahead, while also dealing with other traumas passed down through generations, is an exhaustion that few other Australians would understand.

Fourth, the indignity of waiting. Like Ms Dhu, who waited and waited for medical attention, only to be let down not once, not twice but three times when seeking medical attention (she died shortly after making it to the South Hedland Health Campus on her third visit), Ms Dhu’s family have been forced to wait for a long drawn out coronial inquiry, which sadly is considered ‘sped-up’ for Western Australian standards. For two years they have been grieving, lost in the traumatic experience of ‘not knowing’. Ms Dhu’s grandmother Aunty Carol Roe repeatedly tried to enquire about her granddaughter’s health while she was locked up — and was repeatedly told she was ‘fine’. We now know, after nearly two years of waiting, that Ms Dhu was not fine. How much longer will this family have to wait?

And fifth, the indignity of disempowerment. Like Ms Dhu, who lost her liberty and her life simply because she had failed to pay back over $3000 in fines, Ms Dhu’s family have been continually disempowered at every turn — the latest of which has been Coroner Ros Fogliani’s refusal to release CCTV footage of Ms Dhu’s final hours. The footage is supposed to be harrowing, and shows Ms Dhu being handcuffed, and thrown in the back of the police van like a carcass — those were her last moments. Fogliani has the audacity to claim she doesn’t want to ‘re-traumatise’ the family — but even presuming to understand their pain, and their trauma is disempowering — and harks back to the days of the old protectors on the missions and reserves across this country. The thinking is not that much different — ‘we know what is good for you’.

I think there is another indignity here as well — the fact that this CCTV footage is even required in order to wake up a complacent Australia. We shouldn’t need to see the footage of the last hours of a dying young woman in order to care. We shouldn’t have to be forced to care. But the Don Dale footage on Four Corners has shown us that Australians are blissfully apathetic unless Aboriginal pain is put straight in front of their noses.

Ms Dhu spent three horrendous days in pain, deprived of her freedom, and repeatedly mocked and ignored. And her pain continues as long as her family faces the same indignities.

It is not enough just to have a coronial inquiry that leads no-where. There needs to be some sort of accountability, an acknowledgement that her pain was just as valid as the pain of a white woman, that her life was just as precious. That her short time on earth was worth something. Because even in her death, Australia has shown time and time again that they are willing to tolerate the indignities of being black in this country. And unless there is accountability, unless there is some justice — probably in the form of convictions — these indignities will only continue.