Silent reminder of Indigenous deaths in custody

By John Lewis

A graphic reminder of an appalling statistic will confront walkers and cyclists in the centre of Shepparton on Saturday.

Shepparton Region Reconciliation Group members together with members and supporters of Shepparton's indigenous community have organised a silent vigil in which 437 stakes bearing messages will be placed around Victoria Park Lake marking the number of indigenous people who have died in police custody since the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody ended in 1991.

Rumbalara Aboriginal Co-Operative chief executive Felicia Dean said the intention was to highlight the continuing problem of indigenous deaths in custody in the context of the worldwide Black Lives Matter movement.

“It's not just a thing that just happens in America, it happens here. There are systemic issues that are still happening,” Ms Dean said.

She cited the case of Yorta Yorta woman Tanya Day who died in 2017 from a brain haemorrhage 18 days after falling in a Castlemaine police cell following her arrest on a train for public drunkenness.

“There's lots of examples of Tanya Days across Australia. I saw the video that was shown of her — and it's terrible. It makes you cry that people are treated like that,” Ms Dean said.

“This is an opportunity to say to Goulburn Valley people, enough's enough. All lives matter — but not all lives are at risk when they go into custody. Black lives are,” she said.

Reconciliation group convenor Dierdre Robertson said the vigil was aimed at drawing attention to inequality.

“It's really saying why is it in this country that we value some lives less than others? It's asking what are our values in Australia? Is this the sort of nation we want? Or can we be better — and I think we can be a lot better,” Ms Robertson said.

She was keen to emphasise that Saturday's vigil was not a gathering.

“People can walk past each stake and just reflect,” she said.

City of Greater Shepparton Mayor Seema Abdullah said Greater Shepparton City Council was committed to fighting racism in all its forms.

“Aboriginal deaths in custody have to stop and accountability needs to be addressed. Council acknowledges the need for broader understanding of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community experiences, past trauma and history,” Cr Abdullah said.

“The intention is to listen, understand and ultimately help share the full extent of our history here in Greater Shepparton, and create a new history of unity, reconciliation and equality for all.”

Greater Shepparton City councillor Chris Hazelman said he was shocked at advice given out at the start of COVID-19 restrictions in March.

“Aboriginal people aged over 50 years were told to stay at home because they were considered to be high risk. But the age of high risk people in mainstream communities was 70 years.

“That difference in ages really brought it home to me. It said: we've got a lot more work to do to address inequality,” Cr Hazelman said.

“It's an issue we can no longer ignore — since 1991 not a singe recommendation of the royal commission has been implemented. The figures are pretty stark,” he said.