Statements for Ms Dhu, Survival Day, 26 January 2017



A photo of the campaign image of Ms Dhu being projected onto a building in Perth. Text on the projection reads 'Justice for Ms Dhu'. Text overlayed above the photo reads "The 26th January means nothing to me, they invaded our country and killed our people, they are still doing it today and no body has been made accountable." - Carol Roe, Ms Dhu's Grandmother'.

‘We mark Survival Day 2017 with this series of comments on the painful death suffered by Ms Dhu in state custody. These statements by women from a range of countries coincide with the Women’s Marches in Washington and sister marches across the world. They articulate solidarities against racist and gendered violence by the state. Ms Dhu’s death and the failure of the court to respond with justice is one of the most egregious instances of this violence.’

Carolyn Lewis, Hannah McGlade and Suvendrini Perera

Statements were made by Judy Atkinson, Rosie Batty, Dawn Bessarab, Elizabeth Grant, Debbie Kilroy, Carolyn Lewis, Melissa Lucashenko, Hannah McGlade, Paora Crawford Moyle, Jenny Munro, Kim Pate, Suvendrini Perera, Sherene Razack, Jana L. Walker and Nicole Watson.

Photo taken by Marziya Mohammedali at a protest for Ms Dhu. A woman is seen carrying a placard of Ms Dhu that says 'Unpaid fines should not be a death sentence', in the other hand she carries an Aboriginal flag. She wears a stop deaths in custody shirt organised by Ms Dhu's family.


In death Ms Dhu leaves us with an important legacy. This legacy is our responsibility to accept that through her death, we are forced to confront injustice at many levels. Our actions could be her long-term legacy.

I want to focus on three layers of injustice in particular.

First, we need to fully investigate the ongoing injustice of violence against Aboriginal women, with the lack of real and relevant services to met their specific needs. Even when a woman, for a number of reasons, does not seek help specific to the violence she has, and is experiencing, we need a trauma informed service which asks basic questions: is this women experiencing violence?  Does she have injuries that need attention?  Does she need protection from her assailant?  What are her health and well-being needs?

Second, the police response to her unpaid fines was to lock her up. Women in crisis often incur fines, for reasons related to issues of violence-trauma. Recently in reviewing a situation of a woman incarcerated in the Northern Territory, I became aware that her multiple fines, and then incarceration for driving without a licence, were because she was often driving to get away from situations of violence by her partner.  We need a different approach within the legal system, than fining people who cannot pay, and incarcerating them where they do not pay.   Such people are generally in deep trauma crisis and surviving on a day-to-day basis. Trauma specific programs need to be offered to met those critical needs.

Finally, and more critically, we need to continue to confront the criminal neglect and treatment of Ms Dhu by both the West Australian police and WA health professionals. Their behaviour, as shown on television and footage at her inquest, show gross human rights violations. There is a critical need, across all service delivery, for workplaces to have trauma informed policies and practices.  More particularly the workforce must have a knowledge of Aboriginal lives and historical and contemporary circumstances, with trauma specific skills to respond to these critical circumstances.

It is time the workforce across all sectors, has a trauma integrated approach to all human needs, more particularly in the instance of Ms Dhu, the history and situations that put her where she was, to be treated with the depth of disrespect and criminal behaviour that contributed to her death. Attending to issues of violence against Aboriginal women demands a multi-sectoral approach, with all sectors supporting such women in the complexity of their needs, through a culturally specific trauma lens.

Perhaps, in death, Ms Dhu challenges us to work together to change a system that continues to traumatise Aboriginal people, specifically Ms Dhu, both in her life and the impacts of her death on her family and others. Indeed this could be her long-term legacy.

Emeritus Professor Judy Atkinson a Jiman / Bundjalung woman, now retired, has focused on issues of violence trauma healing within Aboriginal families and communities since 1990, more particularly combining community based work with evidence based approaches that are helping change the epidemic of generational violence – trauma – incarceration, a colonial construct which needs urgent attention.

A photo taken by Charandev Singh of a projection onto the old police lockup in Perth. It is of an icon of a woman overlayed with the Aboriginal flag.


Like the family of young Ms Dhu, I know what it is to lose a child from violence that they should never have encountered.

As a young victim of family or intimate partner violence, and as an Aboriginal woman incarcerated for unpaid fines, Ms Dhu was in an especially vulnerable situation. The callous and racist treatment demonstrated by members of the police and hospital system towards this victim of domestic violence is unforgivable.

Domestic and family violence is perpetrated against women and children of all cultures and races in Australia. The responses by the legal system charged with protecting the victims of this violence has been less than acceptable.

While Australian governments have now made significant commitment to addressing violence through the National Plan of Action, the challenge is how we can translate these policy commitments to real results that ensure that all who experience domestic violence receive appropriate official responses at all levels of government.

During my last year as Australian of the Year campaigning to end violence against women I have learnt that Aboriginal women and girls, especially, experience violence at unacceptably high levels.

I do not support the continued imprisonment of Aboriginal women and girls for unpaid fines. There is too great a risk that Indigenous women, as victims of violence, will continue to die in police cells at the hands of uncaring police officers who don’t acknowledge their victimisation and suffering.

Ms Dhu’s horrific death in a police cell in regional West Australia is a call to our national conscience. On this day known to many Aboriginal people as Survival Day or Invasion Day, I stand with Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal women and say out loud that Aboriginal women’s lives do matter.

I urge the state government to commence urgent talks with the Aboriginal leaders of West Australia, especially women, to put an end to the private and public forms of violence perpetrated against Ms Dhu, and against all Aboriginal women and girls in their state, and throughout this country.

Rosemary Anne “Rosie” Batty is an Australian domestic violence campaigner and the 2015 Australian of the Year.

A photo taken by Charandev Singh of a projection onto the old police lockup in Perth. It shows the campaign image of Ms Dhu overlayed with an Aboriginal flag with the text '#Justice4MsDhu' below. In the foreground a sign that reads 'Police' with an arrow points toward the building.


Time to change the narrative

The police narratives emerging from the inquest highlight the entrenched nature of racism inherent in their beliefs which had a huge influence on the decisions, treatment and management of Ms Dhu resulting in her untimely death. Evidence by both prison and hospital staff clearly indicate the innate stereotypical narratives and racist beliefs communicated by the police and accepted by the medical staff influenced the inhuman treatment and contempt meted out by them to Ms Dhu. Rather than being judged and labelled as someone who was : ‘exaggerating her pain’ ‘withdrawing from drugs’ ‘behavioural issues’ and ‘faking her symptoms’, Ms Dhu deserved to be treated with dignity and empathy and as a suffering human being in pain. The lack of a stretcher in the lockup raises the issue of duty of care by the police to ensure that Ms Dhu was accorded dignity and treated humanely which she was not. Instead of being silenced, her condition should have been taken seriously and proper medical treatment provided regardless of the beliefs and diagnosis made by the police who are not medical ‘experts’ yet influenced the decisions, diagnosis and treatment made by the medical staff which ultimately resulted in her death.

The coroner to conclude with no blame is to continue the racial narratives in this country which justify the legitimacy of deaths in custody and fail to hold accountable the actions or lack of by police and health professionals whose beliefs and decisions ultimately contributed to the death of Ms Dhu.

Dr Dawn Bessarab is a senior social worker and researcher who has 30 years’ experience and expertise in Aboriginal health and has worked in the areas of justice, alcohol and drug abuse, violence and community development. She is a strong advocate of social justice and human rights.

A photo taken by Charandev Singh shows a man holding an Aboriginal flag in the foreground. In the background a group of protestors at a rally hold a banner highlighting the number of deaths in custody since 1989. It also reads '25 years since Royal Commission into Aboriginal deaths in custody / A national disgrace'.


Ten years ago I sat in the front room of the late Elliott Johnston’s QC’s home reflecting on the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody (RCIADIC). At the time, it had been over a decade and a half since the final report had been released and on this occasion, I was lamenting the lack of implementation of recommendations. At one point, Elliott, who had been the Royal Commissioner, looked at me over his coffee cup, paused and said “We could have done more.”

Australian society certainly could have done more for young Mrs Dhu, who suffered a prolonged, agonising and humiliating death while in police custody. Too many of the Royal Commission’s recommendations have not been implemented.

If they had, then for Mrs Dhu… Imprisonment would have been only been used as a last resort (rec. 92). Mrs Dhu would not have been imprisoned for a paltry fine default (rec. 120 and 121). On entering custody, her health would have adequately assessed (rec. 126). Mrs Dhu would not have been put in a cell alone (rec. 144). Her family, friends or other support would have been contacted and could have advocated for Mrs Dhu (rec. 145). An ambulance would have been called (rec. 136). The Police’s duty of care would have been exercised (rec. 122).

And if RCIADIC recommendation 134 where police are obligated to treat people in custody humanely had been observed, then in her dying moments Mrs Dhu would not have been manhandled, dragged through the police station like a carcass at an abattoir and shoved onto the bare metal of the floor of a paddy wagon.

The Western Australian Coroner’s Report has been tabled and it makes some recommendations principally calling for systemic change. These are only recommendations as we have failed to make coronial recommendations mandatory (rec 13). We failed Mrs Dhu, as we have failed so many others. Yes, Elliott, we could have done more. 26 years on, we must do more.

Dr Elizabeth Grant is a criminologist, architectural anthropologist, and academic with a distinguished record in the field of Indigenous architecture with specialist interests in the design of institutional environments and reform for Indigenous peoples. She holds the position of the Chief Executive Officer of the Aboriginal Prisoners and Offender Support Services, and consults to communities, industry and government on Indigenous architectural projects. Dr Grant holds an adjunct Associate Professorship at the University of Queensland and an adjunct Professorship at the University of Canberra.

A photo taken by Charandev Singh of protesters marching through the streets. One person carries a placard that reads 'A sick prison system still claiming lives'.


Nothing Changes if Nothing Changes

My heart stopped when I saw the footage of Ms Dhu being dragged by the legs and her head allowed to smash on the concrete cell floor. How could two human beings treat another human in such an inhumane way?  The short answer is that the two police officers cannot possibly have seen Ms Dhu as ‘fully human’.

White privilege is insidious. Too often, our socialisation means that we are unconscious of the racist assumptions behind our behaviour.  The implicit racism of the police was clearly seeping out in their attitude toward Ms Dhu – from her initial arrest (despite being a victim of domestic violence); to the decision to imprison her for outstanding fines for minor offences; to the heartless denial of her extreme pain for 3 days; to this, final, brutal act.  Implicit racism was also evident in the WA Coroner’s decision not to hold authorities and individuals to account for their horrendous treatment of Ms Dhu.

The death of Ms Dhu in police custody was not an isolated incident. It is critical that we see it as part of a continuing pattern of genocide which began with the invasion of Australia.  Aboriginal women and men continue to be traumatised and murdered by the hand of the state.  Our systems and structures continue to force Australia’s First Peoples into a position of subordination and vulnerability.

For as long as we have prisons; for as long as Aboriginal women and men continue to be grossly over-represented in prison populations; for as long as their rates of criminalisation (particularly for Aboriginal women and girls) continue to grow; for as long as our First Peoples are over-policed and over-penalised for poverty and trauma-related ‘offences’ … the Coroner’s recommendations will simply join the litany of broken promises to close the gap in Indigenous disadvantage

Structural racism is protected by a ‘white wall’ of privilege. Until we recognise structural racism as the fundamental issue underpinning black deaths in custody, we’ll continue to see death, after death, after death …

The only way to prevent the death of another Aboriginal woman in custody is to own and begin to redress the systemic racism and sexism which was fundamental to Ms Dhu’s death.

Debbie Kilroy is a former Prisoner, Psychotherapist, practicing lawyer, Australian Human Rights Medal recipient, and CEO of Sisters Inside, a community organisation that advocates for the human rights of women in the Criminal Justice System. Debbie is a strong activist, locally, nationally and internationally, on issues relating to prison abolition. She is the first former prisoner in Australia to be admitted to practise law.

A photo taken by Charandev Singh of Ms Dhu's Grandmother, Mother and Sister stand outside the Perth Coroner's court wearing shirts remembering Ms Dhu and carrying placards. They all loo away from the camera as if consumed in thought.


‘Women walking with Julieka’

Women walking with Julieka, I refer to Carol Roe my cousin-sister, in our way cousin-sister is someone you clearly have a relationship with, someone you hold a special bond with, someone who is significant, someone that connects the heart and souls of many woman. Sister-Carol, Della K and numerous others are the ‘Women walking with Julieka’

This statement is an acknowledgement to all the women in the life of Miss Julieka Ivanna Dhu’s – ‘Dhufish’, Rest in Peace Nana, Julieka is known to me as my nana, I’m one of her many Nana’s that unite and walk alongside her principal Nana in Sister-Carol.

I sincerely acknowledge my niece Della-K Roe, Julieka’s mother who stands beside her mother, Julieka’s sisters, grandmother, aunties and cousins on both sides of her families who’ve walked alongside her life and now take another journey a fight for justice to keep her name ‘alive’.

I need to acknowledge the other women who came into contact with Julieka, those women who were in supposed to look after her, ‘it is simple you failed her’, the findings clearly state that the unprofessional, degrading and inhumane treatment dealt out to Julieka has been extremely distressing and difficult for the women in her family and community. You women will have to live with your actions and appalling disregard for one’s life, a life in your hands you took away from the family that loved her the most. You all heard her voice, saw her pain’, you chose not to walk alongside Julieka your choice was sadly to walk Julieka Dhu to her death.

Women walking with Julieka have come together to fight for her, they’ve stood as one in solidarity, strength amongst each other, care and love to ignite the power of women to walk together for all women and to continue the Fight for Justice for Julieka. These choices are of strong women who will walk today and always, these are the Women walking with Julieka not the others.

Note: I am family I will refer to Ms Dhu as Julieka.

Carolyn Lewis – Nanda/Widi women, Carolyn is a relative of Miss Dhu and strongly believes enough is enough and their needs to be change to ensure that our grandchildren will not endure extreme racist actions toward their children’s, children.

Carolyn is a strong advocate for First Nation’s women’s grassroots viewpoint in order to generate transformation of mind sets in an ever-changing community services environment.

A photo taken by Marziya Mohammedali, shows a placard carried at a march that reads '22 years old. Justice for Ms Dhu. Stop Deaths in Custody'. It should a photo of Ms Dhu holding up the peace sign.


Nothing is Written in Stone

I never knew Miss Dhu, and now I never will.. You might say, peering in from outside Aboriginal Australia, that her death was hideous, and hideously predictable, and you’d be right. But wait a second. Nobody’s life or death is ever written in stone. Miss Dhu could be alive today, and thriving. Things could be very different.

Like Ms Dhu in life, “Sally” (*not her real name) is visibly Aboriginal, twenty two years old, and given to wearing hoop earrings. Sally has lived on the street, and has seen most forms of conventional violence in her young life. Sally has been beaten by men, and has herself beaten women. Sally’s severely disabled mother is unable to help her much. Yet Sally does not look like going to jail, much less dying there. Why? Because Sally was able, unlike Miss Dhu, to find help through community programs in inner Brisbane, an arguably less racist environment than country WA. At 22, Sally is now a young mother raising her child in stable housing and doing a good job of it. She is clean of drugs, free of domestic violence, and no longer entangled with police.

Like Sally, Miss Dhu could have been helped to leave an abusive partner, the partner who broke her rib and indirectly killed her. Like Sally, Miss Dhu could have been provided with trained people who understood the reasons for her drug use. Like Sally, Miss Dhu could have been supported to make better choices, to battle the white supremacy which killed her in the form of racist indifference to her suffering. But the services which could have helped simply were not there. Funding to black community services – already pitiful – was slashed to historic lows in the 2014 Federal budget. Because Aboriginal lives don’t matter – so why not cut such services to the bone, or outsource them to large corporations who have little clue who they’re dealing with?

The ABS estimates the economic wealth of Greater Geraldton at $5.072 billion. Just over five billion dollars, every one of them earned on or extracted from Yamatji lands. In a less racist State, Ms Dhu could have expected to enjoy some of the fruits of that five billion dollars. But she was Aboriginal in country WA and to be Aboriginal in country WA in the 21st century is to expect little from the State which dispossessed you, and to receive even less.

It could have been so different. We must fight until it is.

Melissa Lucashenko is a prize-winning Goorie novelist from Brisbane. Her essay “Down and Out in Brisbane and Logan” won the 2013 Walkley Award for Long-form journalism. She is widely published.

A photo taken by Charandev Singh of a close up of the John Pat Memorial at the old Fremantle Prison. A didgeridoo lies across it and the Aboriginal flag is reflected in the marble memorial.


In the early 1980’s, Aboriginal communities of West Australia were rocked by the death of 16 year old John Pat in Roebourne following a violent assault by five off duty white police officers. Whilst initially charged with ‘unlawful killing’ an all white jury subsequently acquitted the officers who were reinstated to duty with no further recrimination. Unsurprisingly, the flow of deaths of Aboriginal people in police lockups and prisons continued in WA and across the country leading to nationwide protests and the establishment of a Royal Commission.

More than 25 years after the conclusion of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody and its numerous recommendations, little has changed for Aboriginal people at the hands of the justice system. While the Royal Commission did not address issues facing Aboriginal women, the gendered dimensions of state violence are evidenced by Ms Dhu’s death, captured on CCTV. The Coroner’s findings, that effectively excuses all those who played such a significant part in Ms Dhu’s death, highlight the ongoing nature of colonization.

The police could not see Ms Dhu as a victim who was deserving of protection and assistance – her Aboriginality denied her this status. The abysmal failure of the medical professionals involved to provide medical assistance to Ms Dhu showed the continued practice of ‘race-based medicine’ and its fatal consequences. That no persons involved in Ms Dhu’s death were referred to any regulatory body for their actions, found ‘inhumane’, ‘unprofessional’ by the Coroner, proves that justice remains elusive and outside the reach of Aboriginal women.

Aboriginal women of West Australia now comprise more than half the population of Bandyup, the state’s sole high security prison and Aboriginal children more than half of all children forcibly removed from their mothers to the ‘care’ of the state. These figures rise steadily while Aboriginal mothers in West Australia are subjected to family violence at staggering levels and are estimated to be 17.5 times more likely to be a victim of homicide.

Ms Dhu’s death, and all the shocking aftermath, has broken our hearts. In a beautiful song made in memory of Ms Dhu, Aboriginal girls of the Pilbara sing ‘Did Ms Dhu die for nothing? No she didn’t!’

Today we stand together in solidarity with Ms Dhu’s family, in memory always.

Dr Hannah McGlade is the Senior Indigenous Research Fellow at Curtin University. A human rights lawyer and academic, McGlade is the author of ‘Our Greatest Challenge, Aboriginal children and human rights’ which received the Stanner award for excellence in Aboriginal research. Dr. McGlade is the chairperson of Aboriginal Family Law Service which supports Aboriginal victims of family violence in WA. 

A photo taken by Marziya Mohammedali at a Black Lives Matter rally in Perth. A young woman holds up a sign that reads 'A system cannot fail those it was never built to protect' with a red handprint on one side. Another woman carries a placard that reads 'Who do we call when police murder?!'


The single biggest tragedy of colonisation has been to separate us from our sacredness.  This, in the eyes of the state, in the eyes of the community, in the eyes of the system and its designers, and more grossly, when oppression has left little room for anything else, in our own eyes.  Where Freire theorized it, colonial settler states and their inequitable systems that relegated Indigenous peoples and our life ways to the sewers and squalors, perfected it.  The crying shame of our sister Dhu’s death is not that it is symptomatic of a system not working but indeed the opposite – it is symbolic of colonisation working EXACTLY as it was designed.

Australia was built on the acceptance that there were no human inhabitants that existed on those lands.  This desensitised mentality is continually enforced/ratified through the Australian government’s perpetual dehumanizing of its Indigenous people.  Our whānau were deeply impacted by what happened to our sister Dhu and had this to say, “They ignored her pleas and denied her the same respect and rights a non-indigenous person would have received. A pure neglect of duty.” From one of our elders, “Those from the darkness will be returned to the darkness never to see the light again.”  As a whānau, we recommend, a decolonization wānanga for all Australian government employees.  Further, a ten point checklist, 1. Treat every person as if they were your mother, son, brother, daughter, sister, uncle, regardless of race. Repeat nine times.

Paora Crawford Moyle is of Ngāti Porou and Welsh whakapapa, a social worker of 25 years, and is a grassroots activist against the incarceration of Indigenous children into the care of the NZ state. Paora is also a PhD student and lecturer in the school of social work at Massey University.

A photo taken by Charandev Singh at a protest in Melbourne. A man wearing a 'Warriors of the Aboriginal resistance' shirt speaks into a microphone. A man standing to his left carries a 'Stop Racism Now' sign. Another woman wears a shirt with the Aboriginal flag on it.


The most telling comments from the Inquest into the death of Miss Dhu by Coroner Ros Fogliani come at the very end of the Inquest findings on pages 160 and 161 in para 856,857,858, 859 and 860. She is explaining the reasons why Professor Thompson identifies Miss Dhu’s risk factors as follows:-

“In summary and with the benefit of hindsight, it is clear that there are many ways in which Miss Dhu was at risk; her Aboriginality and lack of resources, her age and inexperience at negotiating for help, her injecting drug use that is a risk factor for septicaemia, her living conditions, which increase her risk for staph infections, her Aboriginality and injecting drug use that mean she may be treated less well within mainstream institutional settings”.

Professor Thompson goes on in para 857 to describe this as “institutionalised racism” (p160 and 161)

“Institutionalised racism refers to societal patterns that have the net effect of imposing oppressive or otherwise negative conditions against identifiable groups on the basis of race or ethnicity. Institutionalised racism is manifested in our political and social institutions, and can result in the collective failure of an organisation to provide an appropriate and professional service to people because of their colour, culture or ethnic origin”.

Professor Thompson rightly identifies the culprit as the institutionalised racism of the Police and Medical staff as the greatest of Miss Dhu’s barriers to climb.

The Coroner goes on to point out in para 858 the Miss Dhu’s family submit that this is what happened when miss Dhu presented to the medical staff for treatment on the first instance at 8pm on the 2.8.14

She then recites in the very next paragraph (859) that:-

“I did not find that any of the HHC staff or police were motivated by conscious deliberations of racism in connection with their treatment of Miss Dhu, nor does Miss Dhu’s family make that submission. It is important to be clear on this point”

My question to both (so-called experts) Why is it raised if it is a non-issue? Why then define and dismiss it, when the dismissal fits almost word for word with the description of the institutionalised racism, everybody is at great pains to ignore. On every occasion Miss Dhu presented to the Medical Centre for treatment, Police all considered her to be “faking it”. As her Grandmother asked:-“What, faking her own death”. Medical staff consistently called it:-“ Behavioural issues and drug withdrawal”. Septicaemia develops slowly, in Miss Dhu’s case it took three days to take hold and kill her, sadly no one in charge of her care, cared enough to save her.

I believe it is raised because at the very first opportunity Miss Dhu was subjected to this institutionalised racism that eventually overwhelmed and then killed her. The sub-conscious intuitively racist decision making of all charged with ensuring her safety, failed miserably.

Who raised it first, why. If it was as notes to Miss Dhu’s incarceration, where was the confidentiality in the Police station, where innuendo very quickly became uncontested fact. Burgess, Bond, Matier all Police generally disregarded Miss Dhu’s right to adequate care and confidentiality while in their custody. The only time patient confidentiality became an issue for the Police was very close to her death. The Medical staff, Hetherington (did not take temperature or Xray), Lang (did not believe Miss Dhu about the broken ribs), and others,  pft wouldn’t let em treat my dog let alone another human being. With the exception of Nurse Jones, none showed themselves in a good light and all succumbed to the institutionalised racism to the point where standard health checks like temperature and X rays were not done for Miss Dhu. Another case of murder by institutionalised racism is buried with Miss Dhu’s remains.

It is important to note on p48 the description of Premature Diagnostic Closure in considering whether Miss Dhu’s death was preventable, where Dr. Dunjey elaborated on the premature and deadly diagnosis of Miss Dhu.

It is also important to note that the Coroner was not instructed to look for instances of neglect or findings of criminality against anyone. She leaves that for the racist state of Western Australia.

It is also important to note that before Miss Dhu was declared dead at 1:39 on the 4.8.14, internal affairs police were already on a plane to Port Hedland.

It is also important to note that Miss Dhu’s death was preventable and she could have been saved if she had been properly diagnosed and treated on the first or second occasion presenting at the Medical centre. She was never formally diagnosed with anything until her Inquest when the Autopsy results were given. Antibiotics could have saved her on either of these visits. It was simply too little too late on the occasion of her third and final fatal visit to the Hospital.

It is important to note that the WA Police made changes to its Lock Up Procedures Manual 18 days after the death of Miss Dhu, but made no admission of culpability to the Coroner. I think the Lock up update is their admission of guilt, conveniently covered up by the Coroner.

All are culpable, but will any be charged. I think not, and that is the GREAT crime in this beautiful land and it is still called Institutionalised racism.

Jenny Munro is a Kalare Wiradjuri Elder, community organiser and activist. She co-founded the Redfern Aboriginal Tent Embassy and has been a long term Aboriginal Housing rights campaigner. In 2015 she was awarded the Eddie Mabo Award for Social Justice. She is currently the CEO of Mudgin-Gal, a unique service run by Aboriginal women, for Aboriginal women. Mudgin-Gal means ‘women’s place’.

A photo taken by Charandev Singh shows a man holding a printed placard that reads 'Stop violence against women:...'

State violence against Indigenous women is no less shocking, just because it is not new. It shook me to my core to see the videotape of Ms Dhu’s horrendously brutal treatment and death.

Ms Dhu’s death in police custody is illustrative of the worst and most tragic of many racist consequences of colonization in both of our countries. Ms Dhu should never have died in police custody, but you would be forgiven for observing that her life history predetermined her death. Police arrested Ms Dhu when they were called because she was in need of protection from her violent partner. Police, doctors and nurses ignored Ms Dhu’s pleas for help and Ms Dhu died 20 years after the findings of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody in Australia.

We must dismantle the racist foundations of our legal and administrative systems and hold accountable those individuals and institutions who continue to kill Indigenous women. Addressing the marginalization and victimization of Indigenous women and girls will also help prevent their criminalization and incarceration.

The time to act is long overdue. For Ms Dhu and too many others, we are too late. We must act immediately to prevent the deaths of others. The time to act is NOW!!

The Honourable Kim Pate, C.M., B.A., B.Ed. P.D.P.P., M.Sc.Dip., J.D., D.U., LL.D. (h.c.) Professor, Faculty of Law (Common Law), University of Ottawa & Special Advisor, Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies (CAEFS)

Kim Pate is a Canadian Senator and women’s advocate. She has spent the last 35 years working in and around Canadian legal and penal systems, advocating with and on behalf of prisoners. Before her appointment to the Senate she was the Executive Director of the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies (CAEFS); a federation who provide services and work in coalition with marginalised women.

A photo taken by Charandev Singh shows a son and mother performing a song outside the Perth Coroner's court. The son plays the guitar while the mother sings 'Forever Young'. In the background a placard can be seen that reads '2 years on: still no justice, still no answers. We remember Ms Dhu'.


On a bleak morning in Perth, as rain poured overhead, a friend sang one of Ms Dhu’s favourite songs, at once a blessing and a lament: May you stay forever young. Images of the vivacious 22-year-old flapped in the wind as court functionaries walked past without a sideways glance. But neither their indifference nor the chill rain could dampen the crowd’s outrage and their determined calls for release of CCTV footage that showed Ms Dhu’s last hours.

These efforts, led by Ms Dhu’s family, eventually succeeded. The footage, made public on the same day as the coronial findings, reveals the relentlessly brutal treatment of Ms Dhu at the hands of the state. It exposes the physical violence perpetrated through actions such as dragging, flinging, shoving and other forms of manhandling of her ill and wounded body, and at the same time lays bare an equally lacerating exercise of psychic violence in the persistent assumptions that Ms Dhu was ‘faking’ her symptoms and was malingering, addicted, manipulative and hysterical. These entrenched racist stereotypes underpin and licence the physical ill treatment of Ms Dhu; indeed, it is only this framework of racist preconceptions that makes intelligible the inability of medical and custodial staff to recognize that she was seriously ill and to treat her with due care and respect.

Despite the compelling testimony of the visual evidence, the coronial findings followed a pattern that is all too familiar: one in which Indigenous deaths in custody are the outcome of unfortunate chains of random circumstances. Indigenous bodies, it appears, are somehow prone to dying in custody in circumstances for which no one bears ultimate responsibility. While individual officers may receive mild censure, their actions never appear as other than minor factors in a narrative of inevitable demise.

The release of the footage has helped expose the gaping chasm between the law’s inability to see and what is all too painfully evident on the screen. What is made plain here is the failure of the law in W.A, once again, to deliver justice. Once again, when it comes to deaths in custody, W.A reveals itself to be a state of shame.

Suvendrini Perera is a John Curtin Distinguished Professor in the School of Media, Culture & Creative Arts at Curtin University and the lead investigator on the ARC funded project, “Deathscapes: Racialised Violence in Settler Societies”.

A photo taken by Jacob Higgins show people participating in a die-in outside the coroner's court. In the centre of the crowd are two children sitting in a pram.



Pugliese writes of human beings treated as animal carcasses. This is so clearly what Ms Dhu was to her jailors: meat gone bad. Inquests into deaths of this kind, either Canadian or Australian, refuse to interrogate these moments of utter dehumanization. Racism, they typically conclude, has nothing to do with it. Yet racism is first and foremost a pervasive, institutionalized eviction of Indigenous people from the category of the human. When people are regarded as less than human, they are expendable. Marked for death, an invisible checkmark on the skin earmarks disposability. Such deaths never count as murder. We simply accept untimely Indigenous death as natural, a predictable end for a damaged people whose bodies are in a permanent state of decay.  ‘People die,’ one prison guard told a Coroner, implying that there was not much he could do when a prisoner died in the cells. It’s better that they die in the cells rather than on the streets, a police officer opined, unconcerned about the sick prisoner he didn’t bother checking on and who had died on his watch. The failure of professionals to help a sick person, the frequency with which guns or Tasers are used, the numbers of suicides that take place in prisons, (indicating how many prisoners are driven to suicide, and how easy it is for prisoners to kill themselves) and the willingness to risk Indigenous life so easily reveal an abiding disregard for Indigenous life. The same dehumanization is evident in the consistent reluctance in inquests and inquiries among other legal processes, to interrogate those moments when a person’s life is deemed to be worthless. Inquests often paper over the brutality, endlessly recommending that state actors develop a little more cultural sensitivity and remember to check cameras in police stations and hanging points in cells. Oft-repeated, the recommendations, which I call the game of improvement, indirectly confirm that settler society finds it difficult to provide the barest minimum of care and respect to populations that it over-polices and incarcerates at rates that are among the highest in the Western world.  With respect to Indigenous peoples, there is a “failure to respond,” concludes the Correctional Investigator for Canada, Howard Sapers. When we want to understand where racism is in deaths in custody such as Ms Dhu’s, we should begin with this “failure to respond,” asking where it comes from, what it sustains, and how it might change. Could there be a settler colonial state without it?

Sherene H. Razack, Distinguished Professor and Penny Kanner Endowed Chair Gender Studies, UCLA.

A photo taken by Charandev Singh at a Black lives matter protest in Melbourne. A close up of a placard reads 'We are buried up to our necks in a history of violence + brutality against people of colour'.

Statement of Concern Regarding the Death of Ms. Dhu

January 24, 2017

By Jana L. Walker, Senior Attorney, Indian Law Resource Center*

Ms. Dhu’s tragic death in government custody shines a spotlight on yet another discriminatory and seriously flawed national law and accountability system with respect to indigenous peoples. This case makes clear that too often the Australian legal system, like many legal systems around the world, not only does not protect indigenous women, but actually threatens their safety, lives, and human rights.

Indigenous women’s human rights include the right to be safe and live free from violence and discrimination. Though violence against women and girls is recognized as one of the most pervasive human rights violations worldwide, international experts have found the situation of indigenous women to be especially dire. Indigenous women often experience multiple forms of discrimination that make them more vulnerable to other forms of violence. As a result, as indigenous women, we suffer violence, we are murdered, and we disappear at higher rates than any other group of women. Yet, indigenous women are entitled to enjoy the same fundamental freedoms, the same human rights, as all other people.

Ten years ago, the United Nations adopted the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. The Declaration affirms the rights of indigenous peoples and is a human rights benchmark for all countries. Article 22 of the Declaration calls on countries to ensure that “indigenous women and children enjoy the full protection and guarantees against all forms of violence and discrimination.” The Declaration also affirms indigenous peoples’ rights without discrimination to access social and health services, just and fair procedures for resolving conflicts with states and other parties, and effective remedies for infringements of their individual rights. (Arts. 24(1), 40).

Violence against indigenous women is a human rights violation. It is a tragedy whenever and wherever it occurs. It is not acceptable that indigenous women continue to endure extreme rates of rape, assault, and murder, and corresponding lower rates of law enforcement, prosecution, and punishment of their abusers, just because they are indigenous. Countries must meet their obligations under international human rights law, and they must ensure meaningful access to justice and protection for all women everywhere including the most vulnerable—indigenous women.

*Jana L. Walker, Cherokee/Loyal Shawnee/Delaware, is a senior attorney for the Indian Law Resource Center, a nonprofit law and advocacy organization in Helena, Montana that provides assistance to Indian nations and other indigenous peoples who are working to protect their human rights, lands, resources, environment, and cultural heritage. She is the director of the Center’s Safe Women, Strong Nations project, which works to end violence against indigenous women and girls.

A photo taken by Charandev Singh shows a close up of a banner painted by Ms Dhu's family. In the centre is a printed poster with the same design featuring a photo of Ms Dhu that people wore on their shirts. The main text reads 'Forever Young'. Flowers are painted around the banner. Messages are written in marker from friends, family and community.


Anger, revulsion and heartbreaking futility – those are the feelings that one is left with after reading the Coroner’s record of investigation into the death of Miss Dhu. She was failed by virtually every person who was responsible for keeping her safe. Watching the CCTV footage of her final hours is all the more harrowing because Miss Dhu was unfailingly polite to those who treated her with callous indifference.

I cried when I read that Miss Dhu was a bright student who had trained to become a receptionist. She once played netball, had learnt Aboriginal dances, and was described by her family as very affectionate. Most 22-year old Australians aspire to rewarding jobs, travel and building a community of friends. Miss Dhu, however, was in police custody because she was poor. As she could not pay fines that amounted to $3,622.34, Miss Dhu was compelled to serve four days’ imprisonment. During that time, she was subjected to treatment that was described by the Coroner as ‘unprofessional and inhumane’. Less than 48 hours after she was taken into police custody, Miss Dhu passed from this world without so much as holding the hand of a cherished relative, or being told that she was loved.

Over a quarter of a century ago, the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody provided us with an opportunity to bring an end to the tragedy that fell upon 99 Indigenous people. They were people who left behind families, friends and dreams that would never be realised. For the most part, however, the Commission’s recommendations have only gathered dust. Politicians who want to stay in power must be able to read the electorate. Their policies and inane slogans are responsive to the desires and fears of their constituents. If Australians cared about Miss Dhu and her story, then our politicians would be compelled to take action. And therein lies the most fundamental question of all – When will Australians place value on the lives of Aboriginal people?

Nicole Watson is a member of the Mununjali and Birri Gubba peoples. She is employed as a senior lecturer in the Faculty of Law, University of Sydney.

First published by the First Nations Deaths In Custody Watch Committee.


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