On Tuesday I was booked to appear on ABC’s The Drum. On any given day the line-up of topics to be discussed on the program are usually set around lunchtime but depending on how the events of the day unfold new subjects can be included at short notice.
And so it was on Tuesday.
Shortly after arriving at the ABC’s Sydney studio I was informed by one of the show’s producers that a new story had been included.
We were to be joined by guest Cheryl Axelby to discuss an arrest of a young man in South Australia that had been caught on film. Axelby is the National Co-Chair of NATSILS, the peak body for Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Legal Services and experts on Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander peoples and the justice system.
An Aboriginal man had been riding his bike on Monday night when he was pulled up by police. They had been called to attend a domestic violence incident in the neighbourhood and upon seeing this young man, singled him out.
The producer showed me the footage. It made me feel sick.
The incident, captured on a phone camera, escalated very quickly. It’s chaotic. There are upwards of ten officers and a man is held down by three of them. A woman can be heard screaming “Let his head up!” and then “Get off his head!”.
Some officers try to disperse the crowd. Pepper spray is reportedly used. An officer can then be seen repeatedly punching the man while he’s pinned down on the ground against a fence, and the shock among bystanders is audible.
Noel Henry, 28, was charged with hindering police, resisting police and property damage. He spent Monday night at Port Adelaide police station but was released on Tuesday morning with no charges. It’s reported that he left with injuries to his head, arms and legs.
The woman who filmed the incident on her phone, Emma Pereira, lives near Henry and knows him. Emma told the ABC she thought he may have been targeted by police.
“They always come here to be honest, they were probably driving by and saw Noel riding his bike. He was going to come and join us,” Pereira said. “This is not the first time … this has just been filmed at the right time. It’s happened before and no-one’s got it on film. The police’s behaviour is very aggressive, very unnecessary and in fact is exacerbating the poor relationship that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples already have alongside black and other indigenous people and people of colour with police.”
It seems to be a cut and dried case of racial profiling: he was riding his bike and the next minute he was being brutalised by the police.
I should not be shocked. But I was. I felt sick.
That fact that at this moment in time, when there is national focus on the shameful, violent treatment of Indigenous Australians by police due to the Black Lives Matter protests, here and overseas, an officer would even contemplate beating a young, un-armed, Indigenous man on the street is deeply troubling. That he would openly launch such an excessively violent response is utterly sickening.
As I sat in my solo studio at the ABC, we were divided for social distancing purposes, watching the footage I quite honestly wanted to cry. The cruelty and injustice is overwhelming. And so is the guilt.
I kept thinking about my brother and my husband and my brother in law. My younger male cousins too. The chances of them – all white Anglo-Saxon men – being pulled up, randomly, by police for simply riding a bike are negligible. If they were, the idea of it descending into violence is improbable. It is not something I imagine they ever have to consider.
If they were Indigenous it would be totally different.
SA police have essentially said the reason why Noel Henry was pulled over was due to racial profiling. Read their statement here: https://t.co/eUDUQ2qEj8— Latoya Aroha Rule (@latoya_aroha) June 16, 2020
We call for an independent investigation into SA police brutality and for charged to be laid immediately!
Listening to Cheryl speak reminded me of the interview Fran Kelly did recently with the mother of the Indigenous teenager who was arrested in Surry Hills a few weeks ago. An incident that was also caught on film, that also showed police responding with excessive and unnecessary physical force.
The mother, who cannot be named to protect her son’s privacy, said a few things that made me cry.
She did not excuse her 16 year old for the manner in which he spoke to the police. He was rude, yes, she said. But that hardly warrants the physical intervention he faced as a result. If her boy wasn’t Aboriginal it’s hard to imagine it playing out the same way.
His mother was disappointed though because, she explained, she had drummed into her children what had been drummed into her as a child. ‘If a police officer ever speaks to you the right answer is Yes, Sir. No, Sir. Three bags full, Sir.’
And the part about that that properly cracked my heart is that it’s not a conversation I have ever had, nor needed to have. It’s not a lesson my parents needed to share with me or my siblings. It’s not a subject we’ve ever had to explore as an extended clan. It’s not a conversation I’ve considered needing to have with my daughters.
‘Be polite’: yes, absolutely. ‘Respect authority’, sure. But ‘don’t you dare step out of line if a police officer so much as looks at you’? Never been raised.
Yet for generations of First Nations people it remains pertinent not as a hypothetical but as a matter of survival.
And, if these violent arrests weren’t captured on film they would barely create a ripple.
It’s shameful. And, evidently, it is not a historic relic. The video that emerged on Tuesday confirms it is dangerously alive and well. It is deeply uncomfortable footage to watch but it needs to be seen.
It is proof of the racism First Nations Australians live with daily. It is proof that Black Lives Matters is every bit as relevant here as anywhere else in the world. It is proof, once more, of the chasm that divides Australians according to skin colour.
The SA police officer involved has reportedly been placed on ‘admin’ duties. If he doesn’t face more serious repercussions what hope is there of ever fixing this?
It is not a ‘bad day’ when someone abuses their power and exercises excessive physical force. It is unforgiveable.
And if you’re unconvinced please consider this.
What type of response would footage of an Aboriginal police officer physically assaulting a white teenager elicit? Or an Aboriginal officer throwing punches at a white man being pinned down?
I am convinced that those ‘bad days’ would result in widespread condemnation and immediate suspension. The double standards are sickening.
433 Aboriginal deaths in custody and not a single conviction? Systemic, institutionalised racism is the only possible explanation. It is clear that police aren’t being held to account for the way they treat Indigenous Australians and it’s clear that operating with impunity is too often resulting in violence and death.
Enough. On The Drum last night my fellow panellist Dr Kudzai Kanhutu made the salient point in response to this incident that racism doesn’t begin or end with the police force. She is absolutely right. It is far more widespread and entrenched than a single workforce.
But it is appalling apparent how pervasive racism within police ranks is. Accountability is well overdue.