You should know her name: Miss Dhu was Aboriginal, 22, and died four days after being in custody

"Shamefully, it took me almost a full month to even hear about Miss Dhu, let alone the circumstances surrounding her death."

"Shamefully, it took me almost a full month to even hear about Miss Dhu, let alone the circumstances surrounding her death." Photo: Kokkai Ng

In terms of infrastructure, Australia is a developed nation. We have a (mostly) affordable healthcare system, access to effective medical intervention and a welfare system that, while imperfect, is still more comprehensive than many other countries. So why do we still hear stories of people who have been so grossly failed by the system that they have become casualties to it?

Last week, the compassionate among us were rocked by revelations that an asylum seeker imprisoned on Manus Island had lapsed into a coma which rendered him brain dead after a cut on his foot was left untreated and became septic. A cut. In response, vigils were held where citizens called once again on the government to apply some basic humanity to the treatment of asylum seekers.

And yet, this despicable disregard for human lives deemed less worthy as a result of Australia’s institutionalised racism is not limited to those unfortunate souls who have the temerity to seek safety on our shores. Just over a month ago, a 22 year old woman in Port Hedland died while in police custody. Her crime? Ostensibly, the failure to pay a $1000 fine.

But maybe it was also just that she was Aboriginal.

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In early August, the young Yamatji woman (whose name we will refer to only as ‘Miss Dhu’ and whose photograph we will not publish in accordance with her family’s wishes) was incarcerated for four days alongside her partner for failing to pay a fine. In WA, recipients of fines can elect to pay them off in custody at a rate of $250 a day, a policy which the shadow Aboriginal Affairs Minister Ben Wyatt believes helps to maintain the persistently high rate of incarceration of Indigenous people while failing to address the underlying issues which might lead to this.

And so it was that Miss Dhu ended up police custody. Despite complaining early on of experiencing severe pain, vomiting and even partial paralysis (which may have been as a result of a septic infection relating to a blood blister on her foot acquired prior to her arrest), Miss Dhu was twice released from the local Hedland Health Campus after being deemed fit to return to the watchhouse. Incredibly, it has been reported that these decisions were made despite Miss Dhu not being seen by a doctor in either visit. Her partner Dion Ruffin has alleged that as she grew increasingly sicker, police laughed and accused her of acting. Around midday on August 4, Miss Dhu made her final visit to the Hedland Health Campus while in a ‘near catatonic state’.

Shortly after, she was pronounced dead.

This is an horrific outcome, by any stretch of the imagination. Yet, shamefully, it took me almost a full month to even hear about Miss Dhu, let alone the circumstances surrounding her death. And while I don’t wish to further disempower Aboriginal communities by assuming to speak for them, I do want to express my horror at the fact that something like this can happen and not cause even the vaguest ripple across mainstream Australian media. Even now, the most comprehensive reporting I can find is on the independent websites The Stringer and the Deaths In Custody Watch Committee WA, while SBS and The Australian have published a handful of pieces. When I spoke to my editor about writing this piece, she confessed she had also not heard about it.

How does such deafening silence happen without the complicity - conscious or not - of a nation all too comfortable with ignoring the systemic racism and oppression inflicted on some of our most routinely degraded citizens?

Aboriginal people make up only 2.3% of the Australian population, yet they accounted for around 18% of deaths in custody between 1980 and 2007. To put a human face on that, 379 Aboriginal people died while in police custody during this period. Between 2008 and 2012, a further 54 Aboriginal people have died while incarcerated. Despite a 1987 Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, most of its 339 recommendations (made in its final report in 1991) have never been implemented - recommendations which some people say might have saved Miss Dhu’s life.

Why are we so slow to respond to crises involving the treatment of Aboriginal people? Only one person on Twitter raised the issue with me, which was the first I’d heard of it. This silence may be wilful or it may be accidental - either way, it’s a shameful indictment on Australia’s attitudes towards Aboriginal self determination, autonomy and dignity.

Miss Dhu was a person with as meaningful and complex an identity as anybody else. And while the relative anonymity I have chosen to write about her with may seem isolating to readers used to being provided with names and faces as a point of connection, in the end this may be the most damning point of all. That for an Aboriginal woman living in the Pilbara, death in custody was a fate more likely to befall her than it is me, a middle class white woman living in inner city Melbourne.

Wider society can think of her as faceless and unimportant, just another nameless person whose death can pass us by. Or we can think of her as a symbol for all Aboriginal people disenfranchised by the system, whose oppression is aided by those of us who form part of and benefit from White Australia. She may be a single person of importance whose face can carry the weight of all those unacknowledged deaths, all that ignored pain and suffering.

A person who doesn’t matter, or a matter for all persons.

Which do you choose?

 

 

73 comments

  • The waste of a young life is an absolute tragedy. But so is the complete erosion of family and community structures in Aboriginal communities that led her to be in custody in the first place. I work in the sector and have no doubt that every single opportunity to access education and rehabilitation would have been extended to her. It's extremely naive thinking to suggest that her death was due to opression metred out by White Australia. The indigenous problem is complex but much of it stems from a systemic unwillingess by Aboriginal communities themselves to break the cycle of desperation and incarceration.

    Commenter
    Sad
    Location
    Melbourne
    Date and time
    September 09, 2014, 9:01AM
    • "systemic unwillingness by Aboriginal communities themselves to break the cycle of desperation and incarceration"
      that's very patronizing and lacks to recognize the source of the problem and just attempts to blame the victim.

      Commenter
      Victorious Painter
      Date and time
      September 09, 2014, 10:34AM
    • Clem writes: “Aboriginal people make up only 2.3% of the Australian population, yet they accounted for around 18% of deaths in custody between 1980 and 2007.”

      This is a misleading use of the statistics.

      In research earlier this year Dr Weatherburn, Director of the NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research reported that Aboriginal Australians are nearly 18 times more likely to end up in prison than other Australians. So their proportion of deaths within the prison population is less than that of other races.

      And to address the obvious response to that data from other posters here, in his book Arresting Incarceration, Weatherburn challenges the widespread view that Indigenous over-representation in prison is a reflection of racial bias in the operation of the criminal justice system.

      He said “if we want a substantial and enduring reduction in the rate of Indigenous imprisonments we need to reduce the number of crime and violence-prone Indigenous communities”.

      Commenter
      Farr
      Location
      Sydney
      Date and time
      September 09, 2014, 11:26AM
    • I agree.

      Aboriginal people are subject to the same rules as every life form on the plant: adapt, or perish.

      They are not passive victims, but make choices just like all of us. OK, their choices are more limited than affluent or privileged Australians, but they still have choices. Tragic stories like this do not lessen this truth, they highlight it.

      Unfortunately, endless victimhood and blaming the rest of us for the crimes of the colonial past (which cannot be changed) feed the discourse of passive entitlement and further "disempower" Aboriginal people. Entitlement is not empowerment: it is slow poison.

      Clementine, I would encourage you to travel to Aboriginal communities and work for a year or two to really help the disadvantaged people you seem keen to support. At least go and see for yourself. Spend some time with the nurses, teachers, social workers and police in these towns. If you do, I guarantee you will feel a little embarrassed at the shrill and righteous tone of your article. Nobody who has 'been there' in any depth would share your view.

      Commenter
      Evan
      Location
      Perth
      Date and time
      September 09, 2014, 11:52AM
    • I know, it's quite a complex problem of how we convince a people to forsake 70,000 years of history and culture and embrace our western society. Tough nut to crack that one...

      Commenter
      haz
      Location
      melb
      Date and time
      September 09, 2014, 12:15PM
    • @Sad: " It's extremely naive thinking to suggest that her death was due to opression metred out by White Australia."

      It's not naive at all. Clem Ford has noted the racist contempt with which Miss Dhu was treated by the police - and the fact that she was returned to the watch house each time without having seen a doctor.

      The problem here is the racist nature of the State in Australia, a country which has been built on stolen land. As a lad in the 1960s, I was taught that Aborigines were a dying race. Many years later, I learnt that this wasn't a regrettable observation, but rather government policy.

      The dispossession of the indigenous people of Australia is this country's original sin. Their culture is radically incompatible with capitalism, since the concept of real estate is incomprehensible within indigenous culture. Therefore, they resist. Simply being indigenous in Australia is to resist capitalism.

      A major problem that indigenous people have is that their cultures are broken. While the capitalist State of White Australia has not succeeded in destroying indigenous culture, it has done the next worst thing - breaking it up sufficiently to ensure it cannot function as an alternative to the White culture it is imposing. And this is the source of the alcoholism, the drug addiction and the family breakdown that is rampant in indigenous communities.

      What is the cure, then? Political struggle. It is through the struggle against racism and the struggle for land rights that indigenous people in this country will drag themselves up from despair and forge new indigenous cultures, ones that preserve what is valuable of traditional culture but also adapt to life in the 21st Century. They will be cultures of resistance and they will continue to resist capitalism.

      Commenter
      Greg Platt
      Location
      Brunswick
      Date and time
      September 09, 2014, 12:40PM
    • thanks Farr, much appreciated

      Commenter
      confused
      Date and time
      September 09, 2014, 1:12PM
    • "I work in the sector and have no doubt that every single opportunity to access education and rehabilitation would have been extended to her".

      Just like access to to high-quality, comprehensive health care was extended to her too, right? Can you find a way to twist this around so that she is responsible for her death?

      I've also worked in the sector and have seen how deeply entrenched the social problems are stemming from years of systemic oppression. There are no easy answers but victim blaming simply adds to the myriad problems experienced in Indigenous communities and gives racists and bigots more fuel..

      Commenter
      Fran
      Date and time
      September 09, 2014, 1:17PM
    • In a rely above, "Farr" says:
      Clem writes: “Aboriginal people make up only 2.3% of the Australian population, yet they accounted for around 18% of deaths in custody between 1980 and 2007.”

      This is a misleading use of the statistics." (End of Farr's quote).
      In fact, there is nothing misleading about the statistics - Farr has completely misunderstood what is being stated. The stats being quoted are *purely* related to the prison population - any relationship between proportions of people in prison vs proportion of people in the general population is irrelevant. so,
      1. Indigenous people constitute 2.3% of the total prison population.
      2. Indigenous people constitute 18% of deaths in the total prison population.
      This then suggests that Indigenous People are 9 times more likely to die in custody than the general prison population. Unless people wish to mount an argument that Indigenous People in the wider population are much more likely to die than the general population anyway (which in itself would be quite depressing(, these numbers are horrifying.

      Commenter
      RAD62
      Location
      Melbourne
      Date and time
      September 09, 2014, 1:31PM
    • "That's very patronizing and lacks to recognize the source of the problem and just attempts to blame the victim."

      @Victorious Painter: No it doesn't. Is it a well rounded view of what causes and perpetuates many of the problems faced by Aboriginal people? No, it isn't. But is most definitely isn't patronising nor does it mean that the source of the problems are not being recognised by Sad or others. There is an old saying that "you can;t help someone who doesn't want to help themselves". It is very true. You can recognise the sources of all evils, you can have all the plans and support structures put in place that you can think of but if the person refuses to engage them or to make the most of them then there's nothing you can do. You can encourage people to change, but you can't force it on them. Unfortunately there are many people (not just Aboriginal) who aren't really looking for change despite their disadvantages. There are many reasons for that (cycles of violence, abuse etc to name but a few) and I'm not suggesting the people who don't engage should be forgotten about or given up on, but this idea that us recognising that is somehow patronising or lacks understanding is absurd.

      You have to be honest if you truly wish to help solve complex and deep rooted issues. Using buzz words like 'victim blaming' sounds all good and PC and it is what the hipsters of today who think they can solve the worlds issues from behind their keyboards would say, but it is actually meaningless and would be highly detrimental if this sentiment was held when trying to deal with these issues.

      Commenter
      MatthiasMouse
      Date and time
      September 09, 2014, 1:37PM

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