On Monday, a red-headed, freckled-faced 11-year-old girl was, thankfully, found safe and sound in a stranger’s house after disappearing from her family home in Bondi.
Michelle Levy had reportedly run away from her family after a fight over a chocolate. In the two days she was missing, her face dominated social media, and found its way into mainstream media as well.
Around 1,000 volunteers mobilised to help search for the girl, and 6,000 people joined the “Find Michelle Levy” Facebook group in the space of a day. This morning, her story was on the top of news bulletins, and had notched up more than 100 news stories listed in a Google News search.
NSW Jewish Board of Deputies chief executive, Vic Alhadeff told Fairfax that Michelle’s case had touched the public in a unique way.
“What was wonderful about it is that it was not confined to the Jewish community,” he told Fairfax.
“It was this extraordinary grassroots movement which rose up and responded to a family in crisis and a young child in need.
“People dropped whatever they were doing and joined in…. There was something about this case that touched people in a very real way and they reached out to help.”
The role of the Jewish community in helping find Michelle can’t be overstated, and the community should be lauded for its part in helping to ensure a bad situation didn’t become worse.
When children go missing, you would hope this is always the sort of response. But the awful truth is that the disappearance of a child doesn’t always garner such attention. We may all be created equal, but in the eyes of the Australian community – and in particular the Australian media – some children are more equal than others, and more worthy of media attention.
The difference is their race, and their financial circumstances.
On November 6, a NSW parliamentary inquiry will hand down its report into the response to the Bowraville murders. Three Aboriginal children were murdered from the same mission between 1990 and 1991, and despite there being overwhelming evidence pointing to one person – a non-Indigenous man – he has never been convicted.
The families of Colleen Walker, 16, Evelyn Greenup, 4, and Clinton Speedy-Duroux, 16, have been fighting, protesting and crying for justice ever since.
In the first crucial days of the kids’ disappearances, they were completely ignored by local police, who told parents that their children had probably gone ‘walkabout’.
In fact, Colleen’s mother, Muriel Craig-Walker, was questioned by police about whether or not she was, in fact, Colleen’s mother, and whether Colleen was even Aboriginal, given her fair complexion.
The only other contact Muriel ever received from police in the original investigation was a phone call weeks after Colleen’s disappearance, to inform her that her daughter had been found on a bus on the way to Brisbane. When Muriel rushed to the police station, she was told it was a case of mistaken identity – the Colleen Walker on the bus was an elderly white nun.
Last year, Clinton Speedy-Duroux’s father, Thomas, was told by NSW Attorney General Greg Smith that it was time he got counselling and moved on, but only after Smith first mistakenly called him by the alleged killer’s name. No politician, except for Greens MLA David Shoebridge and the members of the parliamentary inquiry, have ever visited Bowraville, despite many promising to do so.
The families had to protest outside the police station in 1991 simply to get investigators to take notice. Furious about the lack of action, Colleen’s aunty, Elaine Walker (who passed on earlier this year without seeing justice for her niece), asked the local police inspector Bob Moore why he didn’t listen to the community when they gave him information about the killer’s identity.
Inspector Moore’s response was that “you people” had to work with police in solving the crime. What the community didn’t know, until nearly two decades later, was that rather than hunting a killer, local child protection authorities had been called in to investigate the community on suspicions of child abuse. Those same authorities were later appointed as homicide detectives, despite having no experience in the area.
The Bowraville families had to repeat their protests on numerous occasions over the next 20 years to even secure the parliamentary inquiry. It represents a slim, but crucial, last chance for justice.
In one protest, which filled Macquarie St, I watched as a white man walked past the streaming Aboriginal flags and “Justice for Bowraville” posters and yelled out “Go and get a job”.
It’s this level of racism, and apathy, that the Bowraville families have had to rage against for 20 years. Not two days. 20 long, hard years.
If they had received the sort of attention afforded to Michelle Levy, maybe they would not be in a situation which has compounded since the first day Colleen went missing.
The murders ripped the heart out of Bowraville, and unless there is justice, there is no chance of healing. The opens wounds of this community will continue to bleed as the old people die and the young inherit their trauma.
So why didn’t Bowraville receive the same level of attention as other cases?
The reason can be found in the testimony of Detective Inspector Gary Jubelin, who headed the second investigation into the case in 1997. Jubelin brought to the case 20 years experience investigating homicides, and he says the Bowraville story can’t be told without mentioning one word: Racism.
He told the parliamentary inquiry earlier this year:
“I have been investigating crimes for 20 years and I am still shocked by the lack of interest that has been shown in this matter,” he told the inquiry.
“… We have a serial killer and three children were murdered. It has been heartbreaking to see the families suffering. The only time they seem to get things happening is when they attract the media’s attention or when they publicly protest. That is very unfortunate.
“The families know the reason. The families told me the reason when I first met them in 1997. They said ‘it’s because we’re Aboriginal’.
“At the time when I met the families I did not believe them. Unfortunately, the truth of the matter is, having worked with the families now for the past 18 years, I think they identified the problem.
“…. It is all very nice for society to say that all victims are treated equally. I do not think that is entirely correct.
“I am a homicide detective; I am not a do-gooder or a bleeding heart. However race, and to a lesser degree, socioeconomic factors have impacted on the manner in which these matters have been investigated.”
I would like to say that Bowraville is an isolated case. But it is not. Black children have long been deemed less worthy, and their stories are either completely ignored, or quickly forgotten.
Think of the case of the little boy in the remote community of Borroloola. He went missing in November 2007 as soldiers were rolling into Northern Territory communities as part of the Howard government’s NT intervention. Australia was outraged about claimed widespread sexual abuse of children by Aboriginal men in every NT community, claims that later proved false.
The lack of concern over this little boy’s murder reveals the national angst for black kids for what it was – confected. It was driven by paternalism and media-fuelled racism.
When the little boy went missing, his family knew exactly what went wrong. They traced his footprints and knew immediately that there had been foul play. His body was found in a dirty water hole in which he would never go swimming, weighed down with rocks. Police actually saw the rocks fall out of his shorts as the lifeless body was removed. And still they said it was a case of drowning.
When the boy’s body was brought to a morgue and laid on a slab, more large rocks fell out of his pants. And yet still, the boy was considered to have drowned.
It would be five years before a coronial inquiry into the death uncovered the litany of police errors. They were indignities that could only ever happen to the corpse of an Aboriginal child, because it simply never happens in non-Aboriginal Australia.
The coroner found police had “irrationally” focused on trying to show the death was accidental, despite strong evidence to the contrary. There were no proper searches around the scene, evidence was destroyed and police failed to get reports to the coroner.
All the family have received to this day is a police apology, and that was only after ABC’s Four Corners highlighted the case. There is no word on whether the investigation will be re-opened.
The Four Corners investigation into the murder last year told the story of how the boy died, but it never really delved deeply into why the investigation was botched.
It glossed over the most crucial aspect of this injustice – the racism that clouded the NT police’s ability and unwillingness to do its job. But the story did include a quote from the boy’s father Cliff Taylor, who asked a very valid question:
“You know when a certain person goes missing somewhere else there’s big articles, there’s big news things about it. There was nothing for him. And you know… that’s what makes me angry. There was nothing… I feel sorry for people that have lost their kids and that, yes okay, but they’ve had that, you know, they’ve had that spotlight.”
Why do children like the boy from Borroloola and the kids from Bowraville remain unknown, while Daniel Morcombe is a household name? Why are the parents of Michelle Levy afforded one level of attention, while we ignore the cries of Aboriginal parents?
It’s not to suggest that Daniel or Michelle are not deserving of the attention. But why are our kids less deserving?
It illustrates the two laws in this country – the black and the white – and the sad fact is the onus is always on Aboriginal people to try and bridge the divide.
Aboriginal people are forced to protest for their justice, and they risk the continual demonization of their communities when they do.
They risk their own incarceration.
Look at the death in custody of Mulrunji Doomdagee, who was savagely beaten to death by a police officer on a watchhouse floor on Palm Island. Mulrunji had his liver cleaved in two, and suffered the sorts of injuries you might expect to see from the victim of a plane crash.
Both the Queensland government, federal government and the media all ignored it. The community were forced to stage an uprisingm and curn down the courthouse, police stations and police barracks before they were afforded any level of attention – media or government – and even then it was negative, and resulted in the incarceration of almost two dozen protestors.
To this day, the only people who have served jail time over the killing of Mulrunji Doomadgee have been Aboriginal people. No cop has lost a cent of pay, let alone seen the inside of a jail cell.
When an injustice happens in Aboriginal Australia, new injustices emerge.
While you can certainly be happy for the family of Michelle Levy, you have to wonder why Aboriginal families and other minorities don’t receive the same public outpouring of empathy.
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