John Pat's death remembered

Write of life / the pious said
forget the past / the past is dead.
But all I see / in front of me
is a concrete floor / a cell door / and John Pat.

— by Jack Davis

Many Western Australians gathered in front of Fremantle Prison on October 8 to commemorate the 27th anniversary of the death of a young Aboriginal man named John Pat. They were mourning not just for John Pat, but also for each and every Aboriginal person who has died in custody, mostly at the hands of prison and police officers. The thought was quietly going around in everyone’s head that nothing much has changed 27 years after John Pat’s untimely death. The system’s discrimination and racism towards Indigenous people have stayed more or less the same.

On the evening of September 28, 1983, 16-year-old John Pat tried to help protect a friend, Ashley James, from the racist abuse of off-duty police officers. One of the police struck John Pat in the face, and he fell backwards, striking his head hard against the roadway. In that defenceless state, he was kicked in the head by another police officer. He and three other Aboriginal people were then dragged to a police van and taken to the Roeburne police station, where he lasted for only an hour before dying from severe injuries including a fractured skull.

The investigation process began on October 31 that year and went on for nearly three years, until May 24, 1986, when the trial by an all-white jury concluded. The verdict: all the accused police officers were not guilty!

John Pat’s ordeal was only one of many such Aboriginal deaths in custody over the years. Eddie Murray from New South Wales was 21 when he was found hanging in his cell in 1981. Police claimed he committed suicide despite him not being in a state to do that to himself at the time.

Twenty-five-year-old Robert Walker was killed inside Fremantle Prison in 1984 in a 20-minute assault by prison officers. In the same year, Charlie Michael was killed in a struggle with four prison officers that lasted 40 minutes. In 1985, Dixon Green was claimed to have died from a heart attack inside Broome Regional Prison, despite his front teeth being knocked out and a red mark found around his neck.

Thirty-six-year-old Mulrunji Doomadgee was murdered in the Palm Island police station in Queensland in 2004. He had severe injuries including four broken ribs, a burst portal vein and a liver cleaved in two. The case caused Palm Islanders to demand justice and the only people to face prison in the case were those who took part in the protests, including community leader Lex Wotton, who was sentenced in 2008 to six years prison. Wotton has been released on parole, but with heavy restrictions on his movement and a gag order placed on him.

In WA in 2008 an Aboriginal elder, Mr Ward died,  in the back of a prison van after he was forced to suffer in 42-degree heat for over four hours as he was being transported 570 kilometres to Kalgoorlie for trial on drink driving charges.  

Such cases nearly always have the same outcome: the victims are accused of obstructing police, and those responsible for their deaths walk free. The corporate media play a major role in the injustice by portraying the court system as impartial and fair. Capitalist “justice” is itself a crime against Aboriginal people and all who are oppressed.