What next for BLM? How a new role could help end Indigenous deaths in custody

Amid a legal battle over Australia's next Black Lives Matter protest, more than $100,000 has been raised to appoint a dedicated full-time campaigner who would work to stop Indigenous deaths in custody.

Roxanne Moore

Roxanne Moore says it's critical the new role is independently funded. Source: Supplied

As a legal battle continues over Australia's next Black Lives Matter demonstration, advocates are also looking beyond the protests for ways to help end Indigenous deaths in custody.

For the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services (NATSILS), it means filling a gaping hole.

The organisation has found there is no full-time funded role dedicated to campaigning around Indigenous deaths in custody anywhere in Australia.

"It's a critical gap. Our national peak bodies aren't really resourced to run campaigns like this ... [and] our communities who are doing this work are unpaid," NATSILS's executive officer Roxanne Moore told SBS News.

The Sydney Black Lives Matter protest in June.
Source: SBS News: Nick Baker

Ms Moore, a Noongar woman, and her organisation have decided to crowdfund for the position and have already raised more than $100,000 of a $150,000 goal via a GoFundMe page.

"[This would be] an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander person, who will work with families who've had loved ones die in custody, to create a national campaign around ending black deaths in custody in Australia," she said.

"It's absolutely critical for this to be independently funded, so they can be courageous in calling for the critical change that's needed."

Since the 1991 final report of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, advocates say there have been at least 438 more deaths.

"The devastating effects of colonisation, family separation and racism have pushed our people to be the most imprisoned people on earth which means we're also more likely to die in police or prison custody," NATSILS material says.

Protesters participate in a Black Lives Matter rally in Adelaide.
Source: AAP

Thousands of Australians have taken part in local Black Lives Matter protests over recent months since the death of George Floyd in the US triggered global demonstrations.

Australia's next Black Lives Matter protest is slated to held in Sydney on Tuesday.

On Sunday, the NSW Supreme Court sided with police and ruled that the event is a prohibited public assembly amid coronavirus concerns, but organisers have said they plan to appeal and should that fail, will march regardless.

'Structural and systemic change'

Ms Moore said 
the only way to end Indigenous deaths in custody is "structural and systemic change" at the highest levels.

"The Black Lives Matter movement has made it clear that the Australian community really cares about this issue, but if our lives do matter then we need to see real change from the government," she said.

"We need to see the government working with families whose loved ones have died in custody and we need to see every single one of the recommendations of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody implemented."

In 1991, the royal commission report made 339 recommendations. While many have been implemented, others have not. An independent review in 2018 found 78 per cent of the recommendations had "been fully or mostly implemented".

But an open letter from the Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research at the Australian National University called that review "misleading" and "largely worthless".

Ms Moore said two urgent measures need to be "criminal convictions for all of the perpetrators involved in these black deaths in custody" and for "police to stop investigating police".

"One change which [the Council of Attorneys-General] is considering on Monday is raising the age of criminal responsibility from 10 to at least 14 years of age ... It would have a huge impact for generations to come and would immediately reduce the over-incarceration of Indigenous kids."

Ms Moore also cited the 2018 Pathways to Justice report by the Australian Law Reform Commission which has so far seen "no response from the federal government".  

High rates of incarceration

Indigenous people account for around three per cent of the national population but 28 of the prison population, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics. 

Nationally, Indigenous children are jailed at a rate 17 times higher than their non-Indigenous counterparts, an analysis by the Sentencing Advisory Council of Victoria found earlier this month. 

In the Northern Territory, an Aboriginal child is 43 times more likely to be incarcerated than their non-Indigenous peers.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison addressed the high rates of Indigenous incarceration after the June Black Lives Matter protests.

"The challenges of Indigenous incarceration go across so many different areas of public policy. It's health policy, it's youth policy, it's suicide policy, it's employment policy, it's welfare policy. This is an incredibly complicated area and not all Indigenous experiences are the same," he said.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison talks to the media.
Source: AAP

"There is no shortage of funds being thrown at this issue. But clearly the application of funds by governments over decades and decades and decades is not getting the results we want."

"I can assure you it's not through a lack of will, it's an admission of the complexity and the difficulty of the task."

But Ms Moore said that much more work can be done around high rates of Indigenous incarceration.

"We need to move to see real national leadership ... There are important decarceration strategies that need to be put in place by governments right across Australia," she said.

"Rather than money going into institutions like the justice system, put that into housing, into health, into education, into culturally-safe family support so that families are staying strong and together, into culturally-safe legal services and into disability supports." 

"If these are prioritised by governments, these injustices will end. But until that time we are going to continue to see black deaths in custody."


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Published 27 July 2020 at 7:47am
By Nick Baker

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