6 Dec 2012

'My Family Is Calling For Justice'

By Patricia Morton-Thomas
You'll see Patricia Morton-Thomas in an episode of Redfern Now dealing with Aboriginal deaths in custody on ABC TV. Her nephew died in custody eight weeks before she took on the role
The episode of Redfern Now on ABC TV tonight deals with the issue of Aboriginal deaths in custody.

I was asked by my long time friend Rachel Perkins, who directed the episode, to come on board and play the character of Mona, who has lost her son to a death in custody.

My own nephew Kwementyaye Briscoe had died in the Alice Springs lock-up just eight weeks prior.

I went away and thought about whether I was emotionally capable of carrying this character. Whether I could draw that line between myself and this character. I decided to go ahead with it, and figured playing the part could be quite therapeutic.

At that stage I hadn't seen the horrific CCTV footage of my own nephew's death. There's no way in the world that I would have agreed to play the character if I had seen the footage. I would not have been able to contain the anger I felt and continue to feel.

I would not have been able to carry her dignity. The lovingness and forgivingness of Mona. It would have only been rage coming through.

On the night my nephew was picked up he committed no crime. He was taken into "protective custody". It was the 31st time he had been arrested like this.

He had been drinking with some friends in a public park in Alice Springs. The police came along and they all ran. I believe my nephew was scared. He had had his eye cut open by police just a fortnight earlier.

My nephew was chased down by police. They threw him in the paddy wagon. There were two or three other men who had not been searched properly and one had a bottle of rum with him.

On the way to the police station my nephew and those men drank almost the whole bottle, with my nephew drinking the bulk of it. I would do this myself if I was looking to face another night in the lock up bored out of my brain.

When he was picked up he was moderately drunk. But by the time they put him in the holding cell he was extremely drunk.

He was then dragged out of his cell and assaulted in the reception room.

The coroner used words like "flung and slung across the floor". But if he was being honest he would use the word "assault". My nephew was thrown head first into a counter and cut his head.

He lost consciousness. He was dragged and then carried to the cell. He was placed in the cell face down on a mattress in a very awkward position. He couldn't breathe in this position and died from positional asphyxia.

No police officer ever gave him a medical assessment or any first aid. They checked off an assessment form saying he was fit for the cells.

Other prisoners were calling and screaming for them to come down and pay some attention to him because they believed there was something seriously wrong with him. They were first chastised and then ignored.

Police spoke to each other a number of times about his deteriorating condition and his need for medical attention. But they decided not to take him to hospital because "he might run away".

While he slowly died police sat on Facebook and listened to their iPods.

The Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody was concluded 20 years ago. Millions of dollars were spent.

We were given reassurances by government after government that things would change — but the situation is getting worse.

In 2009, Kwementyaye Trigger died in very similar circumstances in the Alice Springs lock up. The police at that time assured the coroner that changes would be made and that it wouldn't happen again.

My family is calling for justice, we are not calling for revenge. We are not calling for anything other than what a court of law owes my family and my nephew.

We want these police charged with negligent manslaughter. They owed my nephew a duty of care. He is dead because of their callous disregard for his life.

We've been assured police have faced "internal discipline".

I am starting to firmly believe that there's no such thing as justice in Australia, especially for deaths in custody.

I truly hate to think that Australia is the kind of country that will turn a blind eye to this kind of treatment of it's citizens. But so far this seems to be the case where our politicians and where our legal system is concerned.

My nephew was treated as subhuman.

But official policy treats Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory as subhuman.

We are still living under the Intervention, renamed "Stronger Futures", which strips away our fundamental rights.

I am on the BasicsCard like thousands of my people. I am capable of acting in an internationally-acclaimed drama for our national broadcaster, but because I'm black and from the NT, the government says I'm incapable of managing a Centrelink payment.

Aboriginal people are fourth class people in a first world country and I don't understand how that can happen.

We are not seen as human beings, we are unwanted fauna on the landscape.

Dave Tollner, the Health Minister for the Northern Territory, recently said he wants to criminalise public drunkeness so Aboriginal people will be forced "back into the scrub" if they want to drink.

The approach of our Health Minister to such a serious problem is to push people where no tourists can see them — and if that's the attitude at the top, imagine what it's like further down the scale. It's that attitude that killed my nephew.

I walk among a great many filmmakers and film producers and people who are very capable and open-minded. They are well-educated about what goes on in Australia. But when I start to talk about the Intervention they have no idea what is really happening here.

When even the most informed people in the country are not informed, then you have very serious situation.

On 10 December, Human Rights Day, we will be holding a rally in Alice Springs to bring some light onto issues of deaths in custody and to call on the Northern Territory Government and the DPP to lay charges for the officers responsible for my nephew's death.

Alice Springs is really not such a large town. But in the last four years there have been four deaths with the involvement of the Alice Springs Police or Corrections Service.

That body count is way too high.

I am hoping people join us at the rally to say: "we are not going to accept this in our town anymore and we are not going to accept this in our Territory anymore, and things have to change."

Poor non-Aboriginal families, the African community and other members of minority groups in Alice Springs are also being constantly harassed by police. This treatment has to stop and the police force has to made accountable.

I would like to personally put all this aside and rest. My family have had a hell of a year.

But we must speak up.

It is so important that we all start speaking up.

Even if you are doing something as simple as adding your signature to a petition or boosting the numbers at a rally, it makes a huge difference to change in our country.

And change has to come. It is extremely important that every single Australian stand up and be counted on these incredibly important issues, social issues that will shape the future of our country.

The time to do that is now.

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Dr Dog
Posted Thursday, December 6, 2012 - 13:30

Thank you Patricia for telling this sad and infuriating story.

When you say "I am starting to firmly believe that there’s no such thing as justice in Australia" I have to feel that you are a better person than me. Many would have reasonably abandoned any notions that our society would provide anything like justice for your people.

I thank you for your engagement with the idea that police could be charged with the crime they committed, but sadly think that as things stand it will never happen. I appreciate your desire to work within the systems that so often are used to abuse, belittle and of course murder your family members and, more broadly, your people.

While I hear your anger, I am struck by your patience. If this had happened to one of my family I suspect that I would be consumed with hate. My thought that perhaps you are better able to handle this offense because it remains a common event for Aboriginal people fills me with horror.

Thank you again for speaking out at such a difficult time, you have my support, in petition and at whatever rally I can attend.

Posted Friday, December 7, 2012 - 22:02

An extraordinarily restrained and heart wrenching account. You have my admiration, Patricia, for surviving with your decency intact; and my deepest sympathy for having to endure such disgusting and shameful behaviour, conditions and responses from other Australians - especially the police. It seems to be getting worse. After Palm Island we hoped the police had learned something - they did, that they are untouchable - they can do whatever they like and get away with it if it concerns indigenous people. It is sickening, degrading to everyone and incomprehensible. Clearly the selection panels that recruit police officers are doing a terrible job, and internal investigations of police criminality are worthless.
Who is watching and protecting us from our guardians? No one, it seems.

Black Pepper
Posted Saturday, December 8, 2012 - 23:43

What a terrible tradgedy described by Patricia Morton-Thomas, and as depicted in the recent episode of "Redfern Now". One's heart cannot help but go out to the family and friends caught up in these awful events.

But, unlike Patricia and other commentators, I feel just as much for the police involved. What a terrible job they have, day after day, night after night, having to deal with perpetual and often violent drunks, being constantly taunted and abused verbally, and having to clean up the vomit, urine, and excreta. If this only occurred on an occasional basis you could expect (and no doubt get) considerable compassion and tolerance from our police officers. However, considering that this is constant, and the miscreants many, it is easy to see how the compassion hardens after a time; insensitivity creeps in, and as the supervising officer put it in the Redfern episode, behaviour can become "unprofessional" at times.

There were a couple of interesting "Aboriginal" articles in the "Weekend Australian" today. One told of a young man who had been given the best of education and advantages, but is currently in gaol. The other told of a young man wasting his life, but who was virtually forced to undertake 13 weeks of vocational training and hard work. Three good meals a day provided, no grog, strict social rules etc. He's now been offered a full time job. A most telling aspect of this story comes from Colin Saltmere, a traditional owner who set the scheme up: "Most indigenous people only have a small amount of respect in them and that's what we work on. After about 6 weeks their skin changes, they are eating right and they start to shine and their attitudes and work ethic change; they look you in the eye".

Ever noticed that? How so many Aboriginals won't look you in the eye when you talk with them? This bloke's nailed it, it's about respect: self respect. And that's something that the recidivist drunks certainly lack - self respect - and this results immediately in no self discipline, no responsibility, and no respect for others.

Many things have been tried by many people over many years to improve the lot of Aboriginals, but the situation is arguably worse now than it has ever been. We need more programs like those pioneered by Colin Saltmere.