Tuesday, August 04, 2015

Deaths in Custody

Beautiful One Day.  Photo: Ponch Hawkes
Today, August 4th, marks the first anniversary of the death of a young indigenous Australian woman, Julieka Dhu, in police custody.  It's still not clear exactly how she died: what is known is that she was taken into custody for not paying her parking fines.  There's a sensitive and touching radio programme on the subject here.

There's a horrible air of familiarity about this story.  Just over a month ago, our Origins Festival came to an end with Ilbijerri's wonderful production Beautiful One Day, which was made in response to the notorious death in custody of indigenous man Mulrunji Doomadgee on Palm Island in 2004.  As well as the play, the case has led to a book, a documentary film, an art installation by Vernon Ah Kee, and (of course) riots...  You would think something might have changed.  The case of Julieka Dhu seems to suggest otherwise.

2004 was also the year when Border Crossings first became involved with indigenous peoples and their theatre, when we presented Bullie's House.  At the end of that play, there's a strong sense that one of the indigenous characters, Jimmie, will die in custody - and I discussed that with the writer, Thomas Keneally, in an interview on our website.  Tom's sense at that time was that the experience of incarceration alone could be enough to end the life of an indigenous person, and that may well be partly true - but it has become ever clearer that systematic police brutality is also a huge part of the problem.  Such brutality is only possible when people think of those they are oppressing as less than human.  It's probably naive to suppose that cultural education can solve a prejudice that deep - but we have to start somewhere, for the next generation if not our own, and it's only through culture that the humanity of the other can finally be perceived.

Thinking about this has taken me right back to the experiences which led me to set up Border Crossings in the first place - directing in West Coast America after the LA riots had been set off by the police attack on the black taxi driver Rodney King.  And it had brought me very close to home: the 2011 riots in Wood Green, where we have our office, were sparked by the police shooting of the black man Mark Duggan.  I am not saying that these events are all equivalent to one another - but I am saying that they are part of a recognisable pattern across the world, where black communities feel that policing had become an instrument of oppression rather than protection.

Contracting the police force and asking them to operate on a slimmer budget is not going to help overcome this.  Only a sustained engagement on an educational and cultural level will overcome it, and that is something that is very unfashionable right now.

Oddly enough, the day Mark Duggan was shot in 2011 was August 4th.

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