In a national day of action, protestors across the country today will call for an independent inquiry into the death of Ms Dhu, a 22-year-old Aboriginal woman who passed away behind bars after being refused hospital care twice while in excruciating pain.
Ms Dhu, whose first name can’t be published for cultural reasons died on August 4 this year in a South Hedland watchhouse in Western Australia, three days after she was arrested.
Much has been made about the reason behind Ms Dhu’s incarceration – she was locked up for failing to pay an estimated $1,000 in parking fines. The initial autopsy listed her cause of death as inconclusive.
She was taken to Hedland Health Campus twice where she was deemed fit to be sent back to custody, despite complaining of acute pain, fever and paralysis, which could have stemmed from a suspected leg infection.
The Australian has reported on two witnesses, one Ms Dhu’s partner Dion Ruffen, who allege Ms Dhu cried for three days in pain, begging to be hospitalised but was ignored.
She reportedly never saw a doctor.
According to her grandmother Coral Roe she “had broken ribs, bleeding on the lungs and was in excruciating pain”.
The rallies, to be held across the country (Hedland, Perth, Geraldton, Canberra, Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide and Brisbane) will call on an immediate coronial inquiry into her death, a second Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, and a Custody Notification Service to be installed in Western Australia.
A Custody Notification Service was a recommendation of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, and is only operating in New South Wales. But the Aboriginal Legal Service NSW/ACT had to fight tooth and nail to save it last year after the Commonwealth withdrew funding.
Ms Dhu’s case has angered many across the nation, with a petition to WA Premier Colin Barnett calling for an independent inquiry signed by over 40,000 people on Change.org.
But above all these issues, the first conversation we have to have is about institutionalised racism, and how it led to the death of Ms Dhu, the latest victim to a system that locks up Aboriginal people at the highest rates in the world.
This matters because ultimately this isn’t a story about parking fines, it is about the intersection of Ms Dhu’s race, gender and geography, and the racism underlying the troubling reality that Aboriginal women are the fastest growing incarcerated group in the country.
There are many questions left hanging, and Ms Dhu’s family are struggling for answers.
Death in Custody Watch WA’s Marc Newhouse told New Matilda there was a failure in informing Ms Dhu’s family about the circumstances behind her arrest and around her death.
“It’s part of the problem. There’s been poor communication between the Coroner’s office, the police and the Department of Corrections. The family doesn’t have any information. But they’ve got all these questions,” he told New Matilda.
The Barnett government has knocked back calls for an independent inquiry into Ms Dhu’s death, and instead seems to be relying on the coronial inquiry, according to Death in Custody Watch WA.
“There still has been no independent inquiry into her death. The government refuses to step in. There’s been no commitment to fix the system that led to her preventable death. Nothing,” Ms Dhu’s grandmother Coral Roe said.
The Coroner was awaiting the internal police report before commencing the inquest, which has been handed in according to the Guardian.
“That’s how every death in custody has been investigated since the royal commission and we’ve going on about it – you need to have an independent authority, separate from the police to do that,” Mr Newhouse said.
Mr Newhouse says the whole system is responsible for the deaths in custody of Aboriginal people, more than two decades following the Royal Commission.
“There’s clearly a culture within police services across the country of treating Aboriginal people as second-class citizens, not taking them seriously, whether they be victims of crime, or someone who is being questioned. And then you’ve got these layers of laws and policies that people claim apply to everyone, but in fact, they disproportionately impact on Aboriginal people,” Mr Newhouse told New Matilda.
It wouldn’t happen to a non-Aboriginal woman.
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