Does Trayvon Martin Matter Here?


The election of the United States’ first black president was one of those moments. Most of us remember were we were when we first heard about it.

I happened to be on Palm Island, a small community off the coast of Townsville, now home to more than 3000 Aboriginal people from different corners of Queensland. "Palm" is a former black penal colony, and to get sent there you had to commit such heinous crimes as refusing to stop speaking your native tongue, or getting caught hanging around a white Queensland town.

The island has a brutal history, and the tough nature of the community today is a consequence of that. But personally, I’ve always found Palm a warm and welcoming place. Had Barack Obama visited at the time of his election, he would have too. The local council raised the US flag to join in community celebrations at the announcement of a black president.

People are often surprised to learn that Aboriginal Australians take a strong interest in black American politics. Few Australians, for example, are aware of the strong historical links to the Black Panther movement in Aboriginal Australia.

It’s one of the ironies, I suspect, of modern oppression — while the oppressors somehow manage to remain stubbornly ignorant, the oppressed get more educated.

Much of it today occurs through social media, like Twitter and Facebook. And a brief glance in the last week reveals a very strong Aboriginal interest in the case of Trayvon Martin, a young Florida teenager who was shot dead in 2012 while walking home to his father’s house in a small, gated community.

Trayvon had been to the local shop to buy a packet of Skittles and a drink. He was returning home to watch the football with his dad. On his route home, Trayvon was spotted by George Zimmerman, the local off-duty Neighbourhood Watch captain.

The community had been the subject of a recent spate of robberies. Zimmerman thought Trayvon looked suspicious — what would a young teenager wearing a hoodie be doing walking through the community in the rain?

Zimmerman called police, then continued to stalk Trayvon as he waited for officers to arrive, despite being told by 911 operators not to follow the teenager. A fight ensued. Zimmerman says Trayvon jumped him and began savagely beating him. So — armed with a Tec 9 pistol — he shot the unarmed Trayvon once in the chest, killing him.

In case you missed the news, Trayvon was black. Zimmerman was not. It took police six months for police to charge Zimmerman with a crime, and only after sustained protests across the US.

This month, Zimmerman was acquitted by a Florida jury of both second degree murder and manslaughter. The protests at the verdict have reverberated not just around the nation, but around the world, including in Australia.

The issue is one that resonates with black Australia, for obvious reasons. Indeed there are so many parallels it’s hard to know where to begin. So maybe where it began for Trayvon Martin — racial profiling.

In Australia, Aboriginal adults are more than 17 times more likely to be arrested than non Aboriginal people. Aboriginal youth are 28 times more likely to be arrested.

Having been arrested, the jailing rates come into play. On that front, in the US, black Americans make up about 13 per cent of the general population, but around 40 per cent of the prison population.

But in Australia, Aboriginal people make up just over three percent of the total population, but comprise about 25 percent of the prison population.

For youth, they comprise more than 50 per cent and in some jurisdictions, such as the Northern Territory, Aboriginal people make up almost 90 per cent of the prison population.

African Americans are regarded internationally as one of the world’s most jailed people. But the fact is, they’re over-jailed at only half the rate of Australian Indigenous people. Western Australia, for example, holds the distinction of having the highest Indigenous jailing rate on earth. Our jailing rate of black males a few years ago was five times greater than the jailing rate for black males in Apartheid South Africa. Today, it is even higher.

And that’s just the statistics. The personal stories, of course, are something else.

I covered a story in Griffith in country NSW in 2009, where a young white male drove past a group of Aboriginal teenagers in his car, wearing a KKK hood and waving a tomahawk at them. Outraged, the blackfellas blocked his car, so he got out, threatened them further, and police were called.

The white male stashed the hood and tomahawk in the back of his ute before police arrived, so an agitated group of black teenagers demanded police search the man’s car.

The police refused. Instead, they sent the aspiring Knight of the Ku Klux Klan on his way before arresting several of the blackfellas (for breaching bail by being out after their curfew). Police used capsicum spray on the group in the process. One of them was a pregnant teenage girl.

Beyond racial profiling and incarceration rates, the Trayvon Martin case also raises the issue of justice for people of colour. And this is where things in Australia get really ugly.

In 2008, Mr Ward, a respected Aboriginal elder from Warburton in WA, was cooked to death in the back of a prison van after being driven hundreds of kilometres through the searing desert in a vehicle with no air-conditioning.

He died, according to the coroner, from organ failure, having suffered fourth degree burns. But Mr Ward didn’t go quietly. He bashed repeatedly on the wall of the car to try and raise the alarm. He was ignored.

Ward’s crime? Drink driving in a remote community.

No-one has even been charged with a crime over his death, despite years of warnings of the inevitably of a death if prison transport vehicles weren’t upgraded.

In Alice Springs in 2009, four young white men beat Aboriginal man Kwementyaye Ryder to death near the Todd River, after driving up and down the dry riverbank yelling abuse at homeless Aboriginal people, running over their camps, and firing a replica pistol at them.

After driving their vehicle at Ryder, he responded by throwing a bottle at them. The men stopped, and punched and kicked him in the head. He died of an aneurysm. Their sentences ranged from 12 months to four years.

This is the same jurisdiction which a few years earlier jailed Jamie Wurramurra, an Aboriginal man living on Groote Eylandt, for 12 months under the NT’s mandatory sentencing laws.

His crime? Stealing $23 worth of biscuits and cordial from a mine site kitchen. It was Christmas Day, and Wurramurra had nothing to eat.

In 2012, Kwementyaye Briscoe died in a police cell in Alice Springs after being slammed into a counter during his arrest. He was dragged to his cell and dumped on a bed, barely conscious. While police mopped up the blood on the floor, other prisoners screamed for help.

They were also ignored. One of the police listened to his iPod as Briscoe passed away. Briscoe’s crime was to be drunk. He had been arrested by police for his “own protection”.

Perhaps the most infamous of them all was the death of Mulrunji Doomadgee, an Aboriginal man who was beaten to death on the floor of the Palm Island watch-house in November 2004, where I was staying when Obama was elected to office.

I was actually there to cover the trial of Lex Wotton, an Aboriginal man who led an uprising against police after Mulrunji’s death.

His crime was to sing "Who let the dogs out" loudly as he walked past a senior police officer, Sergeant Chris Hurley, who was arresting another Aboriginal man at a domestic violence incident.

Forty-five minutes later, Mulrunji lay dead on the floor of his cell, having suffered the sort of injuries you might expect to see from the victim of a plane crash. His pancreas had been ruptured, four ribs were broken and his liver had been almost cleaved in two.

Mulrunji’s injuries were so bad that had he been beaten by police in a hospital emergency ward, he would still have died.

Like the Ward and Briscoe cases, officials ignored screams for help. At one point, footage shows Hurley walking into the watch-house, kicking a dead Mulrunji to elicit a response, and then walking out without one.

The ensuing uprising led by Lex Wotton saw the police station, court house and police barracks burned to the ground.

Lex was jailed for several years. Mulrunji’s son committed suicide. The man who comforted Mulrunji on the floor of the cell as he died also took his own life. Numerous Aboriginal people were injured and terrorized in the arrests that followed the uprising.

No police officer ever lost a cent of pay, let alone saw the inside of a prison cell.

A detective (and mate of Hurley’s) who investigated the death was caught lying on oath. There was no sanction for him, nor the investigating officers who shared a beer with Hurley on the night of the killing, as Mulrunji’s lifeless body lay cooling in the local morgue.

Hurley even got a $100,000 ex-gratia payment for property he lost in the uprising. He was later investigated for fraud (but never charged) before being promoted to the rank of Acting Inspector.

The point of all this, of course, is that Aboriginal people understand very well the outrage of black Americans (and many white Americans) at the failure of the US justice system to hold George Zimmerman accountable for the death of Trayvon Martin.

It’s a regular, almost singular, feature of Aboriginal life in Australia.

While cooling his heels in Birmingham Jail, the great black American leader Martin Luther King wrote, "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere".

It’s one of Luther King’s more famous quotes, and it was part of an open letter to African Americans everywhere.

The full text of that quote actually reads:

"We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider."

Luther King wrote that in 1963, before the advent of the internet, let alone Facebook and Twitter, the tools that increasingly allow Aboriginal Australians not only to share the pain of American injustice, but highlight their own.

Today, we live in a much more global world, so I think Luther King would probably be comfortable expanding his thesis to include anyone of colour, anywhere.

Chris Graham

Chris Graham is the publisher and editor of New Matilda. He is the former founding managing editor of the National Indigenous Times and Tracker magazine. Chris has won a Walkley Award, a Walkley High Commendation and two Human Rights Awards for his reporting. He lives in the inner west of Sydney.