Remembering John Pat

Rally outside parliament

Rallies have been held around Australia to mark the 30th anniversary of the death of a 16-year-old Aboriginal boy.

John Pat's death in police custody in 1983 sparked the demand for a Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody.


The protesters have been questioning if anything has changed since.


Ryan Emery reports.


Protestors gather at the front of Western Australia's Parliament House.


They've come here to remember 16-year-old John Pat.


He died thirty years ago in police custody after a drunken brawl with off-duty police officers outside the Victoria Hotel in Roebourne, Western Australia.


His mother, Mavis Pat, is in the crowd.


"I'd like to see justice be done, you know. It's been so long and nothing has been done for it."


The protestors called for an apology from the state government.


Opposition MP Ben Wyatt, a descendant of the Yamajti people, tabled the motion in parliament and it was passed unanimously.


"I want it to be respectful, acknowledging the memory of John Pat. Acknowledging the fact that John Pat's family still grieve, they still mourn his loss and to bring to the attention of West Australians that the history of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people is how we still see the impact of laws, the impact of people's roles in society and I think people need to acknowledge that and the parliament's the right place really to have this discussion."


Journalist Jan Mayman was the first to cover John Pat's death.


She won a Gold Walkley for the story and subsequent coverage.


Her teacher friend had been told about John Pat's death and urged her to investigate.


Mayman flew to the north western town, which had, and still does, a mainly Aboriginal population.


"Well, it was night time and I went to the local hotel. I was following the Aboriginal Legal Service lawyer around, but he didn't want to talk to me. And we were in the hotel dining room and I was pestering him and being really rude and a very big, tall, impressive Aboriginal man was looking and he could see what I was going on about. He came up to me, I'd never met him before, he just beckoned me and I sort of followed him out of the room and he led me to a hotel room and he had eight Aboriginal people, all men, and they were lined up sitting on two beds and he said tell her. And they all told me this shocking story of a brawl in the main street of Roebourne."


Mayman filed the story for The Age and it made the front page.


In 1983, it was rare for stories about Aboriginal people to get such coverage, but the paper backed their journalist and the story continued to gain prominence.


Another Mayman report - this one into the coronial inquest into John Pat's death - also gained the highest billing.


"One of my reports actually shared the front page with the Melbourne Cup. When I saw that I realised that Mike Smith, the editor at the day, thought it was an important story and this was evidence from a police sergeant who said in court 'when blacks gets angry and get stirred up, they tend to get all greasy, so we have to grab them by the hair'. And I had a photo that I had taken of one of these men who'd been all stirred up, and he actually had two large bald patches where his hair had been pulled out by somebody or another. It was a pretty good picture I must say, and that was on the front page of The Age too."


The inquest led to the four police officers and Aboriginal police aide involved in the brawl being charged with manslaughter.


They would be found not guilty.


Mayman's and other's reporting into John Pat's death and the subsequent legal wrangling sparked a public outcry that grew into the demands for a Royal Commission.


It began four years after John Pat's death.


The Royal Commission into Aboriginal deaths in custody made 339 recommendations in 1991 including arresting people only when there was no other way to sort out a problem.


Another recommendation was to use prison as the absolute last resort.


Critics, who also held rallies in Sydney and Melbourne, say things have not improved and point to cases of neglect or negligence.


In Western Australia, an Aboriginal man, Mr Ward, died in the back of a prison transport van of heatstroke in 2008.


The custodial officers failed to check the air-conditioning was working in the back of the van during the four-hour trip in the hot Goldfields of Western Australia.


Mr Ward's body temperature soared to 41 degrees and he couldn't be revived.


But Labor MP Ben Wyatt says positive steps have been made.


"I find the relationship between police and Aboriginal people has fundamentally changed since the death of John Pat. Certainly I'm not saying it's a perfect relationship. The number of Aboriginal people who end up in jail shows that there's issues to be resolved still, but certainly now when I move around Western Australia, one of the things I do is go and visit the police in remote communities or regional centres. The police that I speak to have a much more respectful relationship with Aboriginal people. They're much more aware of cultural obligations, but also much more aware of that often very cruel history between Aboriginal people and non-Aboriginal people. So things have changed fundamentally. It's never always perfect that's reality, but it's certainly changed a lot."


Feature by Ryan Emery



Source SBS Radio, World News Australia

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