by David Denborough


Recent events in Redfern, Sydney (featuring violent conflict between young Aboriginal people and police), have once again focused attention on the issue of police relations with Indigenous Australia. While there continues to be a significant search for meaning in relation to these events, much of the media discussion seems to have ignored the broader historical context of the relationship between the police and Indigenous Australia.

Relations between police and Indigenous Australia have long histories. Unlike in many countries, various state police forces played a critical role in the colonisation of this country using considerable violence and often enlisting some groups of Aboriginal people against others. What’s more, police harassment of Indigenous Australians was a central theme in the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody that took place from 1987-1990.

For those of us who live in Australia but are neither members of the police force, nor members of Indigenous Australian communities, what do these recent events mean to us? How do we seek to understand the scenes of violent confrontation between young members of the Redfern Aboriginal community and members of the Police? And how can we respond?

The Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody found that Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people die at similar rates in custody. This is testimony to the harsh and dehumanising regimes that we call prisons and police cells. The Commission also found that Aboriginal people are vastly over-represented in our prison system. This over-representation continues. While making up 2.4% of the total population1, Indigenous Australians account for 19% of adult prisoners and 41% of people in juvenile institutions2.

Anyone who has spent considerable time behind bars knows what these figures mean. I worked within the prison system for a number of years in the early 1990s and there I came to see that the police and prisons play a central role in the lives of so many young Indigenous people, especially young men. As far as I know, there has been no decrease in the percentages of Aboriginal people in custody since the Royal Commission. In fact, some studies point to an increase.

Aboriginal people resist the ongoing incarceration of their young people in countless ways. Indigenous activists throughout the 1980s raised awareness and political will to generate a Royal Commission and to draw attention to ‘deaths in custody’ – a phrase that is now familiar to all of us. Everyday, Indigenous mothers do everything in their power to try to protect their children from police harassment and those parents who have lost children in custody keep the memories of these children alive. A considerable amount of energy also goes into visiting relatives in prison and keeping their spirits and hopes up. Community ‘night patrols’ exist in many communities in which local community members act as a buffer between the community and police. Much work is also going into the creation of ‘Circle Justice’ and other initiatives so that the process of responding to incidences and crimes can actually contribute to the rebuilding of community relationships and community control, rather than further division. And this month, young Aboriginal people in Redfern resisted the police presence and the history of this police presence in their lives.

There is no doubt that Indigenous Australians – elders, mothers, fathers, young people, children – will all continue to do everything in their power to reduce the number of their family members who are incarcerated and who lose their lives and hopes as a result. There is no question about this. This resistance began well over 200 years ago and continues to this day.

The question is what efforts we, as non-Indigenous Australians, will make to respond to the ongoing injustice of so many Aboriginal people being held in our prisons. Will we take the effort to learn about this issue: to learn about what sort of crimes people are being imprisoned for; to learn about what life in prison is like; what are its effects on families, communities, and individuals? Will we take the time to learn why suicide and attempted suicide are so common behind prison walls? Will we try to understand why there may be a rage against the police? Will we take the time to find ways in which we can work in partnership with Indigenous Australia to redress this long-standing Australian injustice?

This issue is not only relevant to Redfern. It is true across the country, and this means there are opportunities for action and partnership wherever we live.

David Denborough is the author of Beyond the prison: gathering dreams of freedom (Adelaide: Dulwich Centre Publications, 1996).


1. ABS 4713.0 Population characteristics: Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Australians 2001, Commonwealth of Australia, Canberra 2003. P.15

2. Eades, Sandra J. ‘Reconciliation, social equity and Indigenous Health: A call for symbolic and material change’. Medical Journal of Australia 2000; 172:468-469

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