The death of Miss Dhu at the South Headland police station in August of last year highlights the significant racism still entrenched in Australian society. Ms Dhu suffered cardiac arrest due to pneumonia, septicaemia and complications from a previous rib fracture. Her imprisonment was in relation to unpaid fines amounting $3600.
Miss Dhu was hospitalised three times over the course of three days. On the third occasion, she passed away. “By the morning of 4 August, 2014, Ms Dhu’s clinical state rapidly worsened, and although it was not appreciated by the police officers involved, some of whom believed that Ms Dhu was feigning her illness, she was in an advanced state of septic shock and only hours from death,” counsel assisting the coroner, Ilona O’Brien said.
Despite the royal commission into Aboriginal deaths in custody almost 25 years ago, cases such as Ms Dhu, or Muluridji Doomadgee at Palm Island community, are still occurring.
The question is legitimately asked, had this been a middle class white male, would he have been imprisoned for failing to pay parking fines?
If it had of been a middle class white male, would what is now known as pneumonia and septicaemia, be suggested to be behavioural issues?
Government initiatives such as Close the Gap, and the Indigenous Advancement Strategy, often continue to metaphorically chug along, yet they do not engage and empower those community members who need to be supported to lead their people. The Elders Report into the troubling suicide numbers coming out of both northern and southern Australia cites a regular lack of community input into implemented programs. The consequence of this lack of input is a lack of empowerment, something that is so desperately needed to tackle the issue of Aboriginal deaths in custody, Aboriginal incarceration rates and Aboriginal suicide rates.
Perhaps the most condemning statistic is that Western Australia incarcerates the Aboriginal peoples of its State at 9 times the rate of Apartheid South Africa. Professor Pat Dudgeon has described the resulting instances of youth suicide amongst indigenous communities as reaching ‘crisis proportions’ over the last 30 years.
Why do Aboriginal people not have a louder voice in helping their own? Why are Aboriginal people’s likelihood of suicide or incarceration so much higher?
Miss Dhu is an example of just how out of touch the justice system is with the people it proclaims to serve. Imprisoned for the lack of payment of a fine. Miss Dhu wasn’t given the opportunity to work while incarcerated. She was simply incarcerated. How the fine was going to be paid with her locked in a prison cell is anyone’s guess.