“Every generation needs to be told why Black Lives Matter. Here we are again.”
Distinguished academic and author Professor Marcia Langton AO has delivered the Byron Writers Festival 2020 Thea Astley Address, using her speech to spur on protests calling for systemic alterations to the country’s criminal justice institutions.
Professor Langton has been a vocal advocate on the issue of Indigenous incarceration and deaths in custody for years, frequently appearing on ABC’s Q&A saying that protests must continue to agitate for changes in Australia’s structurally racist, criminal justice system.
In her powerful address, Professor Langton re-told the story of the death of Mulrunji, Cameron Doomadgee, in custody on Palm Island in 2004, and the ensuing failure of the police and the criminal justice system to deliver justice for Doomadgee and his family.
Langton went on to describe a series of similar cases, exposing the perpetual crisis of the over-representation of Indigenous incarceration and demanding the fulfillment of outstanding recommendations from the 1987 – 1991 Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, where she was an assistant commissioner.
“The denial of rights of, and natural justice to, the victims in the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander deaths in custody saga, the arrest and incarceration [rates] of Aboriginal adults and children, have reached the level of a national crisis,” she said.
“The tragedy of this situation is that hundreds of people have died because those recommendations were not implemented fully.”
In the long history of Aboriginal deaths in custody, “cynical contempt for justice demonstrated by many in the judiciary cannot be ignored,” she said.
Professor Langton noted that many Indigenous people, human rights advocates, and many in the legal fraternity believe the rates of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander deaths in custody and the arrest and incarceration Aboriginal adults and children have reached the level of a national crisis.
She cited The Guardian Australia’s study of Aboriginal deaths in custody in Australia where a team of journalists and reporters read 589 coronial inquests, which found a record of systemic failure and neglect. They also reported on a number of key issues often ignored by the police and the criminal justice system.
“There has been no justice … just a cold silence from the authorities,” Professor Langton said. “Are the police and correctional services racist? Is there structural or systemic racism in the Australian criminal justice system? The answer to these questions that emerge from the thousands of pages of evidence is a resounding yes.”
“Governments need to recognise that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are particularly at risk of losing their lives when they go into detention. It is now too late for all of those people who’ve died in custody at the hands of careless and negligent officers, but it is not too late for the generations to come.”
Professor Langton worked as assistant commissioner the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody from 1989 to 1990, and said its chief recommendation was to ensure prison was a last resort for Indigenous people, though states that “even the most reasonable reforms have been rejected.”
She has been at the University of Melbourne for 20 years where she is a Professor of Australian Indigenous studies.
On ABC’s 7:30 earlier this year, she described herself as having become very politicised at a very young age, and “understood the urgency of intelligent wide-spread civil rights campaigns.”
Professor Langton concluded her Thea Astley Address by discussing the current state of the Aboriginal health sector during the COVID-19 pandemic, noting the ‘excellent’ results among Indigenous population.
“Governments need to realise that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander People are particularly at risk of losing their lives when they go into detention.”
“It is now too late for all of those people who have died in custody at the hands of careless, negligent officers. But it is not too late for the generations to come. It is the primary responsibility of the Australia government to act immediately and to further prevent further deaths of
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander People in custody.”
Listen to the address here, on the Byron Writers Festival website.