How much longer can the law justify the killing of Aboriginal people?

Teela Reid

The article below attributed to Teela Reid is both delightfully articulate and deeply offensive. It turns on the matter of Northern Territory police officer Zachary Rolfe and his attacker.  If a hardened criminal is coming at you with a sharp object you are supposed to just cop it because the attacker is black? That seems to be the claim by Ms Reid.  It was the Aborigine who initiated the series of events leading to his own death, no-one else.  The law did not "justify" the death on frivolous or unreasonable grounds.

It is in fact Ms Reid who is most open to the claim of unreasonableness.  She repeatedly skates over important details in the matters she refers to.  In referring to the Coniston masssacre, for instance, she ignores the fact the the precipitating event there was also the work of Aborigines.  They killed a white man who was friendly with them and who camped with them.  And even then the matter was not glided over by the authorities.  It was the subject of official reports, three court hearings and a Board of Enquiry.  The outcome of the various hearings has been claimed to be unfair but if the acquittal of Const. Rolfe was unfair, whence unfairness?

It is true that white setters in the early days did mount punitive expeditions in response to attacks on isolated whites by blacks but that was indeed defensive.  Aborigines had formidable skills derived from their hunting lifestyle.  They had genius-level skills at sneaking up on alert prey animals and killing them. Evidence that such skills were being turned against whites was justifiably terrifying to local whites. To comfortable present-day urbanites, what the whites did is easily seen as unfair and unjust but they were not in the shoes of the whites concerned. In law, as in much else, context is not everything but it is close to it.

I could go on to dissect further the foolish screed below but I think I have said enough to show it for the inspissated  bias that it is

The killing of Kumanjayi Walker, a 19-year-old Aboriginal man in Yuendumu, reminds us that the law does not always equal justice when it comes to Aboriginal experiences within the criminal process. In the wake of Northern Territory police officer Zachary Rolfe’s acquittal, the Walpiri people have stood strong and dignified in their calls for ceasefire, police accountability and control of their homelands.

This case begs the question: how much longer can the law justify the killing of Aboriginal people?

Without cavilling with the not guilty verdict or the conduct of the trial, there are legitimate concerns about the training and recruitment of the Northern Territory Police Force. How is it that NT police officers are trained and drilled that an “edged weapon equals a gun”, as Rolfe’s lawyer argued, and in this instance that the three bullets Rolfe shot into Kumanjayi’s body were a lawful response to his threat of having a pair of medical scissors?

It wasn’t just the shooting of Kumanjayi that sent shockwaves across the desert; it was also the fact he died alone in the most undignified way inside a police station while the rest of his family and community sat outside wailing and waiting for answers, wondering if he was dead or alive the same day the Walpiri buried his uncle.

Surely, there are more appropriate and humane ways to respond and disarm a person. And the Northern Territory police have proven an alternative approach is possible when the person posing the threat is a white man. In June 2019, the same year Kumanjayi’s life was cut short inside a family member’s home, Benjamin Hoffman, a white man who terrorised the streets of Darwin in a one-hour killing spree that resulted in the death of four people, was spared his life. Why is the response different when it comes to Aboriginal men like Kumanjayi?

The disparity is jarring and the rage and fear felt by First Nations people across the continent is valid. Police preparedness to shoot Aboriginal men was reinforced during the Kumanjayi murder trial – as the jury deliberated Rolfe’s fate, the Northern Territory police fired six shots into another 19-year-old Aboriginal man in Palmerston.

Not long after the trial and further shooting, Samara Fernandez-Brown, the cousin of Kumanjayi, stood on the steps of the Northern Territory Supreme Court and described how his death has affected other young Blak men. “We are all in so much pain, particularly our young men. They have struggled, they have been scared, yet they have been respectful of this process.”

Our Blak men deserve better.

And it is not as though Australia doesn’t know what to do. The issues were ventilated in the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody more than 30 years ago that made 339 recommendations. These were reinforced in the royal commission into Don Dale, and they continue to be revealed in the many coronial inquiries and highlighted in mass protests for Black Lives Matter – yet the suffering of Aboriginal people at the hands of state-sanctioned violence continues. This is an indictment on our nation and a status quo none of us should accept.

Since Rolfe killed Kumanjayi, the Walpiri made clear their community had remained in Sorry Business for the past two years. On Friday, in a powerful statement, Walpiri elder Ned Jampijinpa Hargraves broke his silence after attending the five-week trial: “We want ceasefire. No more guns in our communities. It must never happen again. The police must put down their weapons. We have been saying this since the beginning. We cannot walk around in fear in our own homes.”

To appreciate the significance of this demand, we must understand the terror and disempowerment that stems from the 1928 Coniston Massacre in which up to 60 Walpiri, Anmatyrre and Kayteye men, women and children were slaughtered by settlers. This is Australia’s most recently documented massacre.

None of the perpetrators have been held accountable for the murders and an inquiry set up to investigate the killings ruled the settlers “acted in self-defence”. A justification that has become all too familiar when it comes to Blak victims and white perpetrators.

It is the relentless injustice where the law protects white innocence, yet Blak people are often considered guilty until proven innocent and have all aspects of our lives policed. It is the fact that we can see in plain sight white police officers shoot our Blak men and walk free, meanwhile, our children as young as 10 sit inside police cells for doing a lot less.

It is the abuse of police power monitoring Aboriginal communities that is exacerbated by the lack of accountability for the wrongs perpetrated against First Nations communities that reveals a racist system that privileges white supremacy at the expense of Blak lives – too many Blak deaths, not enough justice.

The criminal process, coronial inquests and royal commissions cannot bring back the Blak lives already lost.

But we can prevent many more unnecessary deaths if we ameliorate the tension between the police and Aboriginal communities.

We need enforceable police accountability mechanisms for abuses of power and systemic changes to confront and dismantle the systemic racism that is rife among the police forces across Australia.

If there is any jurisdiction in Australia that exposes the urgent need for a powerful First Nations Voice enshrined in the constitution to guarantee the voices of the Walpiri are honoured, and proper independent oversight of the implementation of countless recommendations that have been ignored by governments, it is the Northern Territory.

And, perhaps, we all need to show Blak men a little more love to ensure their lives do, in fact, matter.

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