On August 4, 2014, I was phoned by Ms Dhu’s family. Only hours before the phone call, she had passed away at the hand of racism. Some will argue racism did not kill Ms Dhu, but I am of the view racism did.
Mainstream Australia only became truly aware of Ms Dhu’s death on December 16, when the CCTV footage of Ms Dhu’s final moments was finally released publicly, after a lengthy legal battle. Ms Dhu’s family wanted the footage to be shown for the benefit of the public interest.
When handing out her findings into the causes of Ms Dhu's death, the West Australian coroner found Ms Dhu's death was preventable, and police were 'unprofessional and inhumane'.
As the CCTV footage lays witness, Ms Dhu was dragged, carted, and hauled to the pod of a police vehicle, as her spirit left behind her mortal coil. The footage is disturbing.
Some would say Ms Dhu was dumped into the paddy wagon ‘like a dead kangaroo’.
The renowned singer/songwriter had been reading my articles on Ms Dhu’s death and had contacted me to find out more.
Felix wanted to do something to raise awareness on Ms Dhu’s needless death. He felt the nation had to know about her abhorrent treatment in custody, and believes people should demand change.
Mid-last year, Felix emailed me a draft song: an ode in memory of Ms Dhu; a call to the nation’s principled and compassionate people to come as one and plea for justice.
When many rise, change happens
The song is a journey into injustice. It enumerates the wrongs Ms Dhu suffered in her last 48 hours.
Teenage female Aboriginal and Torres Strait youth choir, Marliya (Yindjibarndi for bush honey) from far north Queensland partnered with Felix.
Felix and Marilya capture the veils and layers of institutionalized systematic racism when they sing:
“…they carried her ‘like a dead kangaroo’, from her cell back to the same hospital who’d assumed that her pain must be invisible.”
The lyrics allude to some police having testified they thought Ms Dhu was faking illness and was coming down from drugs. Medical staff also thought she was exaggerating.
The bigger question is – why did police and hospital personnel decide ‘she was faking it’?
This assumption cost Ms Dhu her life. It denied her a proper health assessment and the care she needed.
Racism mires this nation, despite the denials of the many who reduce the debate to a minimum. Unsurprisingly, our state and federal governments remain idly quiet, as their parliaments do not reflect the demography of the nation in their make-up.
I endured racism as a child and have been haunted by it ever since. I have dedicated much of my research to unveiling it, but only so that we journey forward. I am exhausted by White Privilege talking down to minorities as if racism didn’t exist, as if White Privilege could ever understand what it is like to experience racism.
When Western Australian Coroner Ros Fogliani delivered her findings on Ms Dhu’s death on December 16, no one expected any damning condemnation from the coronial inquest.
We have been burnt so many times, hope was non-existent.
When 16-year-old John Pat died in 1983 in Roebourne, after being bashed to death by an inebriated police officer, Roebourne became to Western Australia what Birmingham had been to Alabama two decades prior: five police officers, who with furious fists laid into Yindjibarndi youth, were acquitted by an all-white jury.
A little over two decades later, we would be let down again when Mulrunji Doomadgee was critically injured in police custody. These police officers are still ‘serving the public’. So too are the police officers and health personnel who were ‘caring’ for Ms Dhu at the time of her death.
In November 2015 and March 2016, I attended most of the coronial inquest hearings into Ms Dhu’s death. I saw the footage, and though it broke the heart to see it, I was not surprised. Much injustice is perpetrated when racism, classism and sexism take hold.
Health personnel and police officers pleaded their innocence during the coronial inquest.
Felix and Marilya capture it best in the song:
“It wasn’t me, wasn’t me, I’m innocent, say the ones who betrayed her in every sense… Now they’re white washing away evidence, will we ever see a cop locked up for negligence?”
During the coronial inquest, I listened to ludicrous assertions, such as, ‘there is no racism or discriminating in the work places of hospitals and police stations’.
All anti-discrimination, anti-racism and cross cultural training teaches us to recognise that every workplace is tainted by racism and discrimination, and only by recognising this can we manage and reduce incidences of racism and discrimination.
Last November, I met with Coroner Fogliani to discuss some of my work in suicide. I also took the opportunity to discuss briefly Ms Dhu’s death and urged for the Custody Notification Service to be recommended.
This service would have mandatorily provided a stout advocate for Ms Dhu, which could have saved her life. I found Coroner Fogliani to be an open-minded individual, and I held out hope that she would come good in the findings and recommendations, despite the weight of pessimism rightfully felt by others.
Coroner Fogliani made eleven recommendations, the majority of which were much needed and long overdue.
She described the maltreatment by police as “unprofessional”, “inhumane and cruel”. However, she did not mention racism.
I would’ve gone further to describe the police’s treatment of Miss Dhu as brutal, malicious and racist. Yes, there was domestic violence incident, and yes, there was a staphylococcus infection and septicaemia. But what ensured Ms Dhu’s death was the police locking her up for fine defaulting, despite the fact that they had been called out to a domestic incident.
The police should have focused on Ms Dhu’s wellbeing, which was their duty of care, not her fines.
The Western Australian Police Commission has a lot to answer for, but has limited itself to reprimands. Country Health (WACHS) issued a statement in December accepting “the comments and recommendations made by the Coroner about the care Ms Dhu”.
The response reads: “WACHS has received, and is currently reviewing, the full Coroner’s report, and is seeking additional advice as to whether any further actions are reasonably required by WACHS”.
The coroner’s eleven findings, which include the call for the Custody Notification Service, were appropriate; however, they fell short of making involved police and health professionals accountable before the criminal justice system for their conduct. The coroner didn’t call out the role racism played, or required compensation for the Dhu family.
As the song illustrates:
Ms Dhu pleaded for her life.
“I am in so much pain.”
“Oh God, someone please help me.”
They did not. Where to from here?
22-year-old Ms Dhu would have turned 25 on Christmas Eve.