#JusticeForWalker cannot be divorced from Australia’s colonial legacy
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;
Story

#JusticeForWalker cannot be divorced from Australia’s colonial legacy

Issues/First Nations
NT
21st Nov 2019
#JusticeForWalker cannot be divorced from Australia’s colonial legacy
The killing of Kumanjayi Walker must be understood through Australia's legacy of colonisation and institutional sanctioned violence.

There has been yet another Aboriginal death in custody. This time the victim is 19-year-old Kumanjayi Walker from Yuendumu in the Northern Territory. Whilst the facts about the incident are in contention and subject to investigation, Zachary Rolfe, the officer who shot Kumanjayi, has been charged with murder.

This is an exceptional departure from the lack of accountability we usually see surrounding Aboriginal deaths in custody. It's been more than 25 years since the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody (RCIADIC) was handed down by its final Commissioner, Elliot Johnson, in 1991.

The report itself spans five volumes with 339 recommendations, some of which directly deal with policing. Recommendation 60 states that police services take all possible steps to eliminate violent or rough treatment or verbal abuse of Aboriginal persons including women and young people, by police officers.

Whilst not legally binding the RCIADIC was, as noted by the recently appointed South Australian Director of Public Prosecutions Martin Hinton, a watershed moment. It has 'made the consequence of colonisation plain for us all to see'.

It is through the legacy of colonisation that the killing of Kumanjayi Walker needs to be understood. This is a legacy involving dispossession, ethnic and cultural cleansing, forced removal and enduring racism. All of these factors worsen the plight of Indigenous Australians and their continued involvement with the police and criminal justice system.

Starting from this point of reference, we can understand why so much anger is being expressed by Australians, both Indigenous and non-Indigenous, at what they see as colonial paternalism or a remnant of our violent history towards First Nations People.

Katrina Fanning, a Wiradjuri woman and Chairperson of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Elected Body in Canberra, says that the number of people rallying on the streets is a testament to the fact that people across Australia have taken notice and shown that they care about what happens to all Australians.

The death of anyone in custody by gunfire warrants serious concern. But when the death is that of an Indigenous young person in his own home, it becomes a question of institutional sanctioned violence. This devaluing of Aboriginal lives harps back to colonial-style governing and excessive state interference— 'the indelible stain', as Henry Reynolds terms it, on Australian history.

Colonial-style governing arguably hasn't faded but has rather continued from the very first days of British colonialism up until the present day. The 2007 Northern Territory Intervention is one manifestation of this, while constitutional non-recognition of First Nations People is another. The high rates of incarceration of Indigenous people and the introduction of mandatory sentencing in the Northern Territory are also part and parcel of the colonial stain.

RCIADIC found that Aboriginal deaths in custody weren't necessarily higher than the deaths of non-Indigenous people in custody, but Aboriginal people do find themselves in custody at much higher rates than non-Indigenous people. In fact, Indigenous Australians are the most incarcerated in the world.

According to Thalia Anthony, an expert in criminal law and indigenous policing, there have been over 400 deaths since the 1991 Royal Commission. Despite some positive changes, what has prevailed is a law and order culture 'which has led to more people being taken into custody and deaths in custody.'

Many have questioned the excessive custodial powers that are being exercised by the police as well as the legitimacy of the police itself. Nayuka Gorrie, in a recently pulled episode of Q&A, said that 'what we need to remember is that the police started, its very formation, was to serve white sovereignty in this country...It is there to be violent...[and] I think it shouldn't exist.'

Academics such as Chris Cunneen have pointed out that the formal end of colonialism has not meant the end of colonial relations. We see those colonial relations in practice today. The rejection of Indigenous customary laws, the devaluing of Indigenous knowledge, language and culture, the lack of Indigenous political representation are all underpinned by colonial relations, as is the unwillingness to change the date of Australia Day.

Yuendumu residents in response to Mr Walker's death have called for police in remote areas to be free of guns, but this call has been rejected by the Northern Territory Police. The police claim that carrying guns is part of operational safety requirements. However, the claim that more guns lead to better policing has been seriously challenged. In fact, there is a direct correlation between the carriage of guns and increased risks posed to police officers themselves.

Ms Fanning believes there are other options available to police which should be used before the use of lethal force. Meanwhile, Ms Anthony points out resources such as the community-led Aboriginal night patrols in the NT. These patrols operated as a check on police power and mitigated the need for state police.

'I've worked with some people in Yuendumu and I know they have a huge capacity to look after their communities. I think they feel very let down by how they are being treated in this incident by the police and how they are being treated on a day to day basis with over-policing on the streets and in their homes,' says Ms Anthony.

There needs to be community ownership of these issues by Indigenous people. Yet without fully appreciating the legacy of colonialism, its invidious violence and systemic disenfranchising of Aboriginal livelihoods, hopes for Aboriginal self-determination will never be fully realised. Police reform can only happen when the foundations of injustices towards First Nations People are addressed, and that will take more than just reforming the police.

The historical and continual inequity faced by Indigenous people through criminal incarceration and custodial deaths cannot be remedied by 'equal' treatment, but rather through an informed understanding of how Australia's colonial legacy has destroyed generations of Indigenous communities and rendered them victims in their own homes. At its core, that's what #JusticeForWalker is about.

Paul Keating in his 1992 Redfern Speech said 'more I think than most Australians recognise, the plight of Aboriginal Australians affects us all'. And so it should.

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