Forty-one deaths in custody, one year on from #BLM in Australia

Forty-one deaths in custody, one year on from #BLM in Australia

One year ago, the NSW Court of Appeal overturned a Supreme Court decision ultimately allowing the #BlackLivesMatter march to go ahead as planned.

Tens of thousands of people flocked to Sydney’s Town Hall to take a stand for the #BlackLivesMatter movement. Protesters were demanding an end to deaths in custody, with 434 deaths at the time since the 1991 Royal Commission.

Since last year, that number had risen to 475, according to statistics from The Guardian. The additional 41 deaths is a scathing indictment of the blatant lack of change since the monumental marches last year.

The last-minute authorisation

On Friday June 5, the NSW Supreme Court refused to give permission for the rally to go ahead on public health grounds. This was due to the COVID-19 crisis.

O’Brien Criminal & Civil Solicitors represented Raul Bassi, an organiser of the protest, in appealing the decision to the Court of Appeal.

Twelve minutes before the scheduled start time, the Court declared the rally was an authorised assembly.

This meant that police could not arrest protesters for blocking roads along the planned route from Town Hall to Belmore Park.

The more than 10,000 people marched to Belmore Park, where they took a knee at 4:32pm to mark the 432 Indigenous deaths.

A peaceful protest turned sour by police action

Shortly before the protest, police tasered and arrested a 23-year-old man who was involved in “a physical altercation”. A 51-year-old was arrested over an alleged “breach of the peace” when he raised a sign that said “black, white, all lives matter” on the steps of Town Hall.

The peaceful protest turned sour after most protesters disbursed after marching to Central railway station. Police “kettled” some protesters into the station and subsequently sprayed them with pepper-spray.

41 Deaths in Custody in 12 months

A protester at the Sydney #BLM march on June 6, 2020.
A protester at the Sydney #BLM march on June 6, 2020.

In the year following the June 6 protest, 41 more First Nations people have died in custody, according to data from The Guardian.

At least 434 First Nations people had died in custody since the Royal Commission by June 6 of last year. Now, that number is 475.

At a Senate estimates in March, the National Indigenous Australians Agency (NIAA) admitted that it does not keep data on Aboriginal deaths in custody. NIAA officials said they relied on the AIC as well as “monitoring media reports”.

The Australian Institute of Criminology (AIC) announced it will change reporting on the issue to every six months. This is a remarkable shift from the previous 16 month, then 12 month periods.

Labor Senator Kristina Keneally said the acceleration was “quite remarkable” and would help drive policy change.

“The usefulness of this is to know if certain interventions are working,” Keneally said.

“There’s no point knowing that deaths went up or down three years ago because you have to really go back and try and figure out what was happening, three years ago?”

“That’s right Senator,” Dr Rick Brown, acting director of the AIC replied.

“So like nearly all of our reports, they’re there to inform policy agencies for a policy response to problems and issues. So the more timely, obviously, the better.”

Officials confirmed that at least 475 Aboriginal people have died in custody since the end of the 1991 royal commission. They said Aboriginal people were more than six times as likely to die in police custody and 10 times as likely to die in prison custody than non-Indigenous people, because of the disproportionate rates of incarceration.

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Sarah Gore
Sarah is a civil solicitor who primarily practices in defamation, intentional torts against police, privacy and harassment.

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