Australia’s “I can’t breathe” moment … or not


Last night, Australians watched in horror as the investigative journalism series Four Corners showed the torture and abuse of children in a so-called juvenile justice facility in the Northern Territory. The show opens: “The image you have just seen isn’t from Guantanamo bay…. or Abu Ghraib.. but Australia in 2015… A boy, hooded, shackled, strapped to a chair and left alone. It is barbaric. This is juvenile justice in the Northern Territory, a system that punishes troubled children instead of rehabilitating them – where children as young as 10 are locked up and 13 year olds are kept in solitary confinement. Most of the images secured by Four Corners in this investigation have never been seen publicly. They are shocking – but for the sake of these children who are desperate for the truth to be known, we cannot look away.” It may “shocking” but none of it is new. We have known all along.

At a number of points in the near hour-long documentary, children are heard to plead, “I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe.” To no one’s surprise, their pleas go unattended, or worse, their pleas incite the guards to further and more intense violence. From Staten Island to Berrimah, where the Don Dale Youth Detention Centre is located, “I can’t breathe”. Eric Garner haunts the world … to no one’s surprise.

To no one’s surprise, a majority of the children in the video and center are Aboriginal. To no one’s surprise, Indigenous incarceration in Australia is rampant.

To no one’s surprise, this very torture of Aboriginal children in custody had been reported, and largely ignored, last year. It takes a video to document the destruction of a child.

When indigenous leader Nova Peris was a Senator, she raised this very issue in Parliament, and now she asks, “How many more royal commissions do Aboriginal people have to get excited about? There was a lot of hope when the royal commission into Aboriginal deaths in custody was done, yet barely any recommendations were implemented. In 1997, the Bringing Them Home report about children in out-of-home care gave us hope, but what actually happened there, if anything? No-one listened. These kids need rehabilitation, they don’t need torture: hate breeds hate, they need to know that there is life outside. Over the years people brushed these kids off, calling them ‘little bastards’. These are kids as young as 11 years old, how are they even thinking criminal activities. Let’s look at the underlying issues here.”

To no one’s surprise, the Indigenous Affairs Minister ignored earlier reports of abuse. They didn’t “pique” his interest.

So now, the Northern Territory Minister has been fired; the “shocked” Prime Minister has called for a Royal Commission; and the guards in the video are still guarding the very children they were taped abusing.

Abu Ghraib. Guantanamo. Eric Garner. The new Gulag Archipelago, same as it ever was. We all share Australia’s shame. I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe.

 

(Image Credit: Fastcodesign) (Photo Credit: ABC Four Corners)

You’re killing me. I can’t breathe.

Many murals will emerge bearing the words, “I can’t breathe.” Maybe one of them will show Charles Jason Toll, Jimmy Mubenga, and Eric Garner, brothers in arms, tender comrades in a war they never declared but which killed them nevertheless. Perhaps another will show Jane Luna, Adrienne Kambana, and Esaw Garner and their combined struggle for justice.

Charles Jason Toll, Jimmy Mubenga, Eric Garner all died, or were killed, by `criminal justice officers.’ In each case, according to witnesses, they repeatedly said, “I can’t breathe.” In all three cases, coroners concluded the death was a homicide. In the cases of Charles Jason Toll and Eric Garner, those charged were acquitted. The trial for those involved in the death of Jimmy Mubenga is going on right now.

2010: Charles Jason Toll was 33, diabetic and living with mental illness. One hot August night, in Riverbend Maximum Security, in Tennessee, where Toll was in solitary confinement, guards rushed into his cell, pushed him to the floor, handcuffed and shackled him. When he repeatedly begged, “I can’t breathe”, he was told, “You wanted this.” A little while later, he died. Toll was in prison for a parole violation. Why was he in solitary? Why did no one in charge know his medical history? Part of Charles Jason Toll’s story is the vindictive system in which a slip can send you down a hole from which there is no escape, and for which there is no accountability. Toll’s mother, Jane Luna, is suing Tennessee for having killed, and tortured, her son. Jane Luna didn’t even know her son was arrested until she received notice of his death.

2010: Jimmy Mubenga had fled Angola and gone to England seeking asylum. According to his wife, Adrienne Makenda Kambana, he was on a government hit list, “They killed my father and they threatened to kill Jimmy. They were looking for him. We had no choice but to leave.” On October 12, 2010, having lost his last battle for asylum in the UK, Jimmy Mubenga boarded a plane for Angola. Within 50 minutes on the plane, he was dead.

Witnesses report that the guards, G4S private deportation `escorts’, jumped on Mubenga and throttled him to death.  Escort deportation has become big business. This week, in court, witnesses on the plane testified that they could hear Jimmy Mubenga screaming, “You’re killing me” and “I can’t breathe.” Passenger David Brown was sitting 15 rows from Jimmy Mubenga: “I could hear that things were still happening. I could still hear him saying ‘I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe‘.” Brown said he heard Mubenga scream and, again, cry, “I can’t breathe.” When Brown spoke to the guards, one responded: “He (Mubenga) is OK, once we take off he will be all right. He is on his way home.”

He is on his way home but he is not quite there yet.

In July of this year, Eric Garner repeatedly said, “I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe,” as a police officer ignored and held him in an outlawed chokehold. Garner died, speaking those words. When Eric Garner’s widow, Esaw Gardner was asked if she accepted the apology of the man who killed her husband, she replied, “Hell no. The time for remorse for the death of my husband was when he was yelling to breathe.”

This is what happens when prisons become zones of abandonment, including abandonment of any rule of law or sense of humanity, and then the streets become extensions of prison. When almost nobody can breathe – Black men, Latinos, Black women, Latinas, Native men, Native women, working people, youth, those living with mental illness, elders, the poor, the homeless, trans women, trans men, lesbians, gay men, those living with HIV, `heavyset people’, diabetics, asthmatics, women on the streets `at the wrong time’, people with shadows, people without shadows – when almost nobody can breathe, the time for remorse is over. I can’t breathe. You’re killing me.

 

(Photo Credit: Getty Images)