In 2000 Ben Johnson was a youth delegate representing the Salvation Army on a journey of Reconciliation from Canberra to Uluru.
Today the coronial inquest into the Aboriginal Death in Custody of Tanya Day was concluded. Tanya Day passed away in December 2017.
It took over two years to get to this point. This would be the first case of an Aboriginal person dying in custody where systemic racism would be considered as a factor in Ms Day’s death. This was live streamed due to COVID-19 which meant more people could watch, it meant I could watch. The proceedings finished. I reflected. I sat in stunned silence for quite awhile. It is harrowing to hear all the evidence. I feel a sense of emptiness, anger, injustice, and deep sadness. I can only imagine what Tanya Day's family must feel. I am sorry for systems that are not just broken but that are built unjustly.
Racism is alive and well in Australia - no matter what a Coroner may find. Racism is alive on a train, in a jail cell, and in delays in implementing recommendations from the 1991 Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody and in the delay in every State and Territory implementing recommendations from every Aboriginal Death in Custody Coronial Inquest that has ever been held, and in the denying of a person’s human rights. As Uncle Jack Charles once said, "Aboriginal people suffer a peculiar type of racism and if you don't know that I don't know why you don't know that."
My heart is heavy tonight in the midst of this Holy Week where we acknowledge, remember, and reflect, on Jesus life death, and resurrection. Tonight in terms of the Easter story is the night Jesus is arrested. Tonight I will reflect on Jesus, an innocent man, and his arrest. Tonight I will also reflect on Tanya Day and her arrest – an arrest that resulted in a “preventable death”. Just before Jesus was arrested he said, "My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends." John 15:12-13. Imagine if such love was extended to an Aboriginal woman who fell asleep on a train…
The disciples ran away when Jesus was taken into custody. Will Australia do the same with Tanya Day’s Aboriginal Death in Custody? My prayer is you join me tonight as we reflect on Jesus life, death, and resurrection, as we remember Jesus name, that you will remember Tanya Day’s name, and Wayne Fella Morrison’s name, and Cameron Doomadgee’s name, and Mr Ward’s name, and Ms Dhu’s name, and David Dungay Jr’s name, and John Pat’s name, and so many others, and that knowing their names, their stories, their injustice will drive you to run – not away – but to run towards Jesus, justice, and action.
Prayer by Anne Annear
Holy God of the Dreaming and Father of us all, You gave Christ, your Son, to live amongst us, teaching the true meaning of your Justice and Reconciling Love. He was nailed to the Cross and faced the desolation of darkness and death.
We remember today, all our First Nations sisters and brothers who have suffered the desolation of darkness and death in car chases, police lock-ups and prisons, leaving grieving families in the shadow of death – all of them your beloved children.
We pray that, through Christ’s Resurrection and promise of eternal life, all those who have suffered through denial of Your Justice may now live in the glorious light and love of your presence, and that their families may know Your consolation and compassion.
And we ask that You will guide with wisdom and insight all who work in the Justice system and those who work to bring about change.
God of Holy Dreaming, we offer our prayer to You, through Christ, our Lord. Amen.
What you can do:
Follow up on our 2019 National Reconciliation Week action and write or rewrite to the Minister for Corrections and Minister for Police in your State or Territory.
Ring a member of Victorian Parliament and ask for an end in the delay to repealing the offence of public drunkenness which the Victorian government committed to 7 months ago but are yet to implement. In Queensland it still exists as an offence. This was recommendation 79 of the 1991 Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody – we have been waiting 29 years for this to be implemented in every State and Territory. “79. That, in jurisdictions where drunkenness has not been decriminalised, governments should legislate to abolish the offence of public drunkenness.” https://www.commongrace.org.au/339_recommendations_from_the_rciadic
Brooke Prentis is the CEO of Common Grace, an Aboriginal Christian leader, descendant of the Wakka Wakka people, and co-ordinator of the Grasstree Gathering.
Photo: Charandev Singh