What happened to Joyce Clarke? Nothing. An Aboriginal woman died in “police presence”

What is the value of a human life? It that human is an Aboriginal woman living in Australia, and especially in Western Australia, very little … and decreasing by the day. Consider the life story of Joyce Clarke, a 29-year-old Yamatji mother of a seven-year-old child. In Geraldton, Western Australia, on Tuesday, September 17, a few days out of prison and before that mental institution, Joyce Clarke started acting strangely. Not knowing what to do and fearing that Joyce Clarke might harm herself, the family called the police and asked them for assistance, asked the police to help them transport to Joyce Clarke to hospital so that someone could take care of her. They called the police. The police came. The police saw Joyce Clarke outside the house, ostensibly holding a knife. The police told Joyce Clarke to drop the knife, she did not, the police fired and killed Joyce Clarke. That’s it. That’s the story, and that’s the value of a human life if that human is an Aboriginal woman living, and dying, in Australia, and especially Western Australia. Yet again.

People want to know why the police immediately used lethal force. Now the police express “sympathy and condolences” as they urge calm, ban takeaway alcohol sales, and made clear that Joyce Clarke’s death would be “classed as a death in police presence, not in police custody”. Meanwhile a family friend, Marianne Mallard, create a GoFundMe page to help the family pay for Joyce Clarke’s funeral.  If interested, you can donate here. Now the various stories about Joyce Clarke’s difficult and her loving life emerge. Likewise, now we hear, yet again, about how the police officer who shot and killed Joyce Clarke is devastated, on leave and receiving support and counseling from the police department. Yet again, we hear of the abysmal lack of any mental health support for Aboriginal and Indigenous people.

In November 2012, Maureen Mandijarra, a 44-year-old Aboriginal woman, died in police custody in Western Australia. In August 2014, a 22-year-old Aboriginal woman, called Ms. Dhu, died in custody in Western Australia. Ms. Dhu was Yamatji. Ms. Dhu’s family are from and continue to live in Geraldton. They live under the menacing sky of Yet Again. To this day, they await something like justice. In April 2019, Cherdeena Wynne died in police custody in Western Australia. Cherdeena Wynne was Noongar and Yamatji. Yet Again.

In Western Australia, Debbie Kilroy co-founded Sisters Inside to stop the abuse and incarceration of Aboriginal women, specifically, and Aboriginal people and communities, generally. Sisters Inside works to turn Yet Again into Never Again, but that requires a transformation of state. Meanwhile, this past weekend, Noongar woman Keennan Dickie was attacked, robbed, beaten, injured. She called the police for help. The police came, noted her injuries, and told her that, because she had outstanding fines, she’d have to go to the police station, once she healed, to report the assault and robbery. Keennan Dickie spent Saturday night in hospital. Still in pain, Keennan Dickie went to the police station the next day. They arrested her for unpaid fines and shipped her to Melaleuca Women’s Prison. As Debbie Kilroy noted, “We are seeing over and over again the arrest of women living in poverty who cannot pay their fines. It is not that they don’t want to pay their fines. We are seeing the criminalisation of poverty and the default response to that is prison.” Yet Again 

What is the value of an Aboriginal woman’s life, in Australia, in Western Australia, anywhere? Yet Again. Never Again. Yet Again. Never Again? Never Again.

(Photo Credit 1: Green Left Weekly / Deborah Green) (Photo Credit 2: West Australian / Geraldton Guardian / Francesca Mann)

What happened to Cherdeena Wynne? Nothing. An Aboriginal woman died in police custody

Cherdeena Wynne

In Western Australia, yet another Aboriginal woman died in police custody. Cherdeena Wynne was 26 years old, mother of three children, living with mental illness. According to Shirley Wynne, Cherdeena Wynne’s mother, at 3:30 on April 4, eight police officers entered Shirley Wynne’s home and, in the dark, wrestled Cherdeena Wynne to the floor, where they handcuffed her. According to Shirley Wynn, the officers kept calling Cherdeena Wynne by another name. Finally, after 20 minutes, the officers left the house and Cherdeena Wynne understandably terribly upset. Cherdeena Wynne ran from the house. Police encountered her blocks away from her mother’s house. Police handcuffed Cherdeena Wynne, for her “protection.” Cherdeena Wynne passed out. Officers uncuffed her, administered CPR. She revived and was taken to hospital, where she was placed in an induced coma and died, on Tuesday, April 9. Police are not investigating her death because, basically, nothing happened. It gets worse.

Cherdeena Wynne was the daughter of Shirley Wynne and Warren Cooper. Cherdeena Wynne was Noongar and Yamatji. In 1999, Warren Cooper was arrested. Warren Cooper died in police custody. Both Cherdeena Wynne and her father Warren Cooper were 26 years old when they died in police custody. Jennifer Clayton, Cherdeena Wynne’s grandmother and Warren Cooper’s mother, said, “It’s time for this to stop. I have lost my son and now I have lost a granddaughter.” Carol Roe, Jennifer Clayton’s cousin, agreed: “If kids die from natural causes you can go on, but the way our kids die we can’t go on. We are lost in the system and they don’t care two stuffs.” Carol Roe is Ms. Dhu’s grandmother, the same 22-year-old Ms. Dhu who died in custody in 2014, also in Western Australia. Ms. Dhu was arrested for unpaid parking fines. Ms. Dhu and Cherdeena Wynne were executed for the crime of being-Aborigina-women.

Monday, April 8, marked the 28thanniversary of the publication of the findings of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody. That Commission studied 99 Aboriginal deaths in custody between 1980 and 1989. Of 99 deaths, 33 occurred in Western Australia, one of six states. The Commission issued 399 recommendations. At this point, a third of the commission’s recommendations lay untouched and without implementation. In 2016, at a commemoration of the 25thanniversary of the Commission, Carol Roe said, “They do the talk, but they need to do the walk and take action and help us and support us. Set the people free for petty crimes, instead of locking them up. Eighteen years ago my nephew died in custody. Two years ago it was my granddaughter. When is it going to stop, our heart still bleeds … I think Australia and the world need to see how my granddaughter was treated. Dragged around like a kangaroo. They need to look at it, let the world see. Shame, shame on Australia.”

We have described the deaths of the following Aboriginal men and women in Western Australia before: Mr. Ward, 2008Maureen Mandijarra, 2012;  Ms. Dhu, 2014. Two years ago, we described, after three years, there was still no justice for Ms. Dhu, her family, or Aboriginal women generally. Repeatedly we have seen Western Australia as the epicenter for the rising incarceration of Aboriginal women and the expanding and intensifying abuse of Aboriginal women in the various forms of detention in Western Australia. None of this is new.

Currently, there is no accountability and no justice for the deaths of Aboriginal and Indigenous women and men in Australia’s prison. Cherdeena Wynne was handcuffed in police custody when she fell unconscious. The police decided not to investigate. Nothing happened, less than nothing. It’s time for this to stop. Stop sending Aboriginal women and men to jail for drunken behavior, sleeping rough, unpaid fines, mental illness, being Aboriginal. It’s time, it’s way past time, for this to stop. 

Ms, Dhu

(Photo Credit 1: The Guardian) (Photo Credit 2: ABC)

Three years on, still no justice for Ms. Dhu, her family, or Aboriginal women generally

Ms. Dhu, who died in police custody, August 2014

In Australia, for Aboriginal women and their families, the wheels of justice do not turn at all, but they do try to grind the people into dust. On August 4, 2014, a 22-year-old Aboriginal woman, called Ms. Dhu, died in custody in Western Australia. She was being held for unpaid parking fines. Ms. Dhu screamed of intense pains and begged for help. She was sent to hospital twice and returned, untreated, to the jail. On her third trip to the hospital, she died within 20 minutes. Reports suggest she never saw a doctor. Her grandmother says she “had broken ribs, bleeding on the lungs and was in excruciating pain.” That wasn’t enough. In her death, Ms. Dhu joined a long line, actually a mob, of Aboriginal women who have died in custody in Australia. Ms. Dhu’s family joined a longer line of Aboriginal family members seeking justice. Three years later, Ms. Dhu’s family still struggles for peace and something like justice concerning the circumstances of their loved one’s death. To make matters worse, the statute of limitations is running out soon, and so Ms. Dhu’s mother, Della Roe, and her brother, Shaun Harris are preparing to sue the State, not because they want to but because the State has pushed them to this moment. As Della Roe explains, “I want justice and someone pay for what they did to my baby. They need to be accountable for it.”

The State did its own accounting, and that’s why, and how, Ms. Dhu died. Like the United States, Canada, and others, Australia has invested heavily in the devaluation of Aboriginal women’s bodies and lives. The rising rates of incarceration married to the plummeting budgets for assistance say as much. So do the women’s corpses, decade after decade, year after year. For Aboriginal women, the histories and lived experiences of colonial occupation and violence not only continue to this day. They are intensifying.

A contemporary postcolonial, anti-colonial politics begins and ends with the State murder of Aboriginal women’s bodies, which runs from lack of services and assistance, from cradle to grave, to mass incarceration to dumping into the mass graves of historical amnesia. Another world is possible, and it requires more than an endless cycle of “discoveries” followed by commissions.

Della Roe, Shaun Harris, and the spirit of Ms. Dhu are represented by George Newhouse and Stewart Levitt, prominent human rights attorneys. According to George Newhouse, “It’s three years since her death and time’s up. Time’s up. These reforms need to take place and I’m hoping that the case will lead to real reform in WA.” Stewart Levitt adds, “It’s been like hell. How else can I explain it, you know? No-one’s been accountable for it, it’s terrible. The last three years has been like hell.”

Ms. Dhu was murdered by State systems of accounting. She was in jail for $3,622 in unpaid fines. The jail staff and the hospital staff decided she wasn’t worth believing or treating. She wasn’t worth the bother. And so Ms. Dhu died and remains dead. No amount of accounting will bring her justice. And her mother and uncle and kin and community are left to struggle with the State systems of accounting that value their lives as beneath assessment. What would justice for Ms. Dhu mean today? To begin, stop sending Aboriginal women to jail and prison. Stop the slaughter now.

Ms. Dhu’s mother, Della Roe

(Photo Credit 1: ABC) (Photo Credit 2: Huffington Post Australia)