This X is the target that Aboriginal people have had on them in this colonised country for over 230 years. It is the X in the scope of a gun, too often turned on Black men, women, and gender-diverse people by police in this colony.
It is a grey day at the snap rally Justice for Kumanjayi Walker, a 19-year-old Warlpiri Aboriginal man who was shot by police in his home in Yuendumu, 300 km north-west of Alice Springs, in central Australia, on Saturday 9 November, 2019. A crowd begins to gather at the intersection of Bourke and Elizabeth Streets. A man with a sad expression, lines on his forehead, and a streak of rich red hair licking up from the right of his forehead addresses a circle of orange-and-yellow high-vis supporters. No microphone, but I see him mouth They say it’ll be a rally in the rain, well it’ll rain. Those of you who’ve done this before… A fat Black man with a clipped beard and red Indigenous-design dots across a red sports-style vest leans his face into the chest and over the left shoulder of a thin man in front of him, taking comfort from him. Two little Black girls huddle together under their Aboriginal flag to protect them from the beginning rain. A sign rises over the crowd. THE FUTURE IS BLACK. A chill wind blows down Elizabeth St and through the pillars I stand between at the top of the Bourke St post office steps.
The signs are heartbreaking. I see women looking desolate under hand-written and printed signs KILLED IN CUSTODY, the red and yellow letters stark against the black background. A fierce, articulate Black man gestures with his right hand as a bank of cameras point at him, Terra Nullius is a legal fiction! (Terra Nullius, Latin for “nobody’s land,” was the legal principle used by British settler-colonists to justify stealing the territory of Australia from its Aboriginal Traditional Owners during British colonisation in the late eighteenth century.) A woman with short white hair nods during the speeches, an Aboriginal flag rises above the lowered zip of her open black hoodie. Her mouth wobbles, she bends her head down to her left hand to wipe a tear, never putting down her sign End the brutality! Stop the killings! Justice for Wayne! Her stricken face resonates between the placards and I can’t look away from her grief. The sacred smoke of burning eucalyptus leaves rises over the crowd in a wind that blows down Bourke St. An Aboriginal Elder raises his voice and a smooth dark brown staff and projects to us his name and his Country, and that he is from the Stolen Generations. He raises his hands to the sky and describes the spirits he is connected with—I have been blessed. A ripped cardboard sign rises before me, BLACK LIVES MATTER with strong strokes in yellow and red. The crowd has swelled and fills the tram tracks. I see the kind eyes of Aunty Tanya Day smiling from a poster.
Jaeden Williams, a Yalukit Willam man of the Boon Wurrung people, speaks. My family have been here for 4,000 generations, for 100,000 years. This land has a story that is a lot longer than 150 years. According to the Boon Wurrung, this land was created by Bunjil, who travels as an eagle. He taught us to welcome all friends and guests. Bunjil’s Laws are two promises, and these promises have been the essence of the land since time began. He asks the crowd to speak after him, and we join our voices to say,
to look after the land
and the water
and we promise
to look after the children
That’s been the spirit of this land, of Melbourne, of my culture, since time began.
A sign, white text on a black background:
16 . 03 . 2019
Veronica Baxter 34
IDENTIFIED AS A WOMAN
THROWN IN A MALE PRISON
FOUND HANGING IN CELL
Does anyone have clapsticks? asks a speaker. The powerful Elder raises his staff and says, I’ve got a weapon of mass destruction! and the crowd laughs along with him. A woman speaker asks us to put a hand over our hearts—Breath in from our ancestors. The crowd is silent, stricken faces, the pulse-pulse of our hands tapping a heartbeat on the cloth over our hearts. After finishing, I think our ancestors heard us. A tram leaves the intersection toward Queen St.
A speaker reads statements from Elders in the area, later published in The Saturday Paper.
From Marly Wells Naparngardi, a Warlpiri woman: We came on Sunday morning to stand together in our grief and were presented with smirking police officers and no answers. Two mounted police attempted to bring their horses closer, an intimidation tactic. Someone requested them to leave and I heard one of the officers say, “If you had any respect for the horse’s life you would stop waving the cardboard in its face. He doesn’t like it. You’re intimidating him.” If you had any respect for human beings, if you had any respect for the Traditional Owners of this land, if you had any respect at all, you would be questioning the systems in place—the systems you benefit from, the systems that keep Aboriginal people down. “SHAME!” breaks out and spreads across the crowd.
A person of colour in a white knit jumper and navy headscarf holds a sign spray-painted on the back, beneath three inverted triangles in the queer anarchist movement’s pink and black,
A man sings a Warlpiri song, a sad melody, and translates after every line—He’s missing his kids. Signs are held over heads as the rain begins. Police must not investigate police! A woman with a rainbow beanie asks to take a little boy with pale short hair past me down the steps to see the speakers. The crowd cheers a speaker and the boy turns around in his bright giraffe-print coat to give her the thumbs-up. The boy explains to her that he’s giving the thumbs-up to the speakers when the crowd claps to show his support. Use of bush medicine, cultural practices, and Law. Between speakers, a quiet descends over the crowd. A baby cries to my left and a motor idles on Elizabeth St.
The wind changes direction and blows up the steps towards me and I smell the sacred smoke of the eucalyptus. The women behind me are trying to find their friends in the crowd. “He’s running.” “Is he a super fitness nut?” The march begins and I join the back of the crowd and remember the enthusiasm and solidarity. A man and woman’s voices begin the chant behind me, Too many coppers: Not enough justice! A person with short hair and intricate spiderweb and flower tattoos emerging from their sleeves holds a sign lettered in black, yellow, and red,
The red of TRUTH drips in the rain down their left wrist off the bottom of the sign, ominous. Too many coppers! begins the chant and breaks off into giggles as Too many coppers! rolls back from the front of the crowd and confuses the rhythm. We cross Swanston St and bank up, the roar of the crowd swells. A Black woman with short black curls holding her takeaway dinner with a tiny sauce tub on top rests on a short plinth and smiles, and I recognise her expression—gratitude and pride.
19 . 11 . 2004
DIED IN CELL WITHOUT TREATMENT
Too many cop-pers! Not enough—the crowd breaks off and a woman in yellow next to me adds hesitantly, Justice?
The crowd banks and turns to the left and a woman behind me asks, Are we stopping here? and it’s because there is a line of police in yellow high-vis in front of the Melbourne East Police Station, the letters of the sign booming towards us in 3D. I realise that the high-vis people I saw at the beginning are there to physically stand between us and the police, to protect us from their potential violence. Our guardians. They wear paper gas masks loose at the side of their necks, just in case, water bottles in their backpacks. The police watch uncomfortably.
We cross Russell St and a woman walking a shopping trolley and carrying a silver walking stick pipes up No justice, no peace! as she walks through the intersection. A woman with braids in a short, fluffy, red-lined jumper wheels her wheelchair with the march in front of us. I see two Eureka flags and the Torres Strait Islands flag flicking in the wind of the intersection ahead. A woman with a cane has an Aldi shopping bag and thongs—her feet look cold! She turns and laughs at her friend, a generous smile that rises from her cheeks under ginger bangs and hair trailing her shoulders and spilling out of a knitted beanie. A man with a sign, “Do ya want some water, Schazz?” “Yes please.” A silver-haired man in a red beanie and a worn leather jacket with a small gum branch tucked over his ear grins and embraces a friend. I see the two rows of guardians bringing up the rear of our march. Water trickles down the tram tracks. I see the boy with the giraffe-print jacket in fluoro pink gumboots at the edge of the crowd.
The crowd banks up at the Parliament steps.
In 2017, Aunty Tanya Day fell asleep on a train after drinking and was woken up and arrested by police under an archaic law for public drunkenness that has been historically disproportionately used to incarcerate Aboriginal people. During her four hours in a cell, she fell and injured her head, unsupervised. When she was discovered, it took an ambulance one hour to arrive. She never awoke and died in hospital.
At the protest, Tanya’s daughter Apryl Watson speaks, her voice struggling from the emotion: We’ve seen again and again deaths in custody, straight-up murder. Her voice is exhausted. Can you tell me how many people went to the Melbourne Cup, got blind drunk—How many whitefellas died in a cell? How many white women had ambulances? They didn’t give a shit about mum. Her voice breaks down at the end of her line. I’ve got my daughter at home, I can’t even have her sitting next to me when I get breathalysed, she’s crying because she doesn’t know what’s gonna happen to me, because she knows what happened to mum.
The sinking sun illuminates the stone-faced pillars and the tiny gold sphere is a dot in the inscrutable sunglassed eyes of every cop on the steps of Parliament.
We hear the righteous anger of a speaker. 12 years ago my nephew was found handcuffed in an alley and do you think anything happened to them police? The look of ’em, looking at us like we’re dickheads. They’re racists, they’re murderers! Every year this is happening! This Victorian government here was the first Constitution—Terra Nullius began here. If we had sovereignty recognised in this country, would we be in their jails? Would they be stealing our children? His voice rises to a sharp growl. They don’t give a fuck about us!
A line of Black women at the front hold up red-painted palms to the police line as we in the crowd chant Blood on your hands! Apryl Watson, her palms reddened, wipes her face with the back of her hand and, looking exhausted, walks down the steps.
Since her death, Aunty Tanya Day’s family fought for the Victorian state public drunkenness law to be abolished, and the law is set to be abolished on Melbourne Cup Day in November 2023.
Constable Zachary Rolfe faced a murder trial for the shooting of Kumanjayi Walker. He was acquitted of all criminal charges by an entirely non-Indigenous jury. It was the first time a Northern Territory police officer was charged with an Aboriginal death in custody since the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody in 1991. There have been at least 517 Aboriginal deaths in custody since the release of the Commission’s report. No Australian police officer has ever been convicted of an Aboriginal death in custody.
Dr Ariadne Starling is an award-winning writer from Melbourne working in literary essays, sex writing, and queer literature. Her work explores sexuality, disability, neurodiversity, culture, identity, and social justice. She has won 5 national and international scholarships and 16 awards for academic and creative writing—starting at the age of 11. She was shortlisted for the Overland Fair Australia Essay Prize and the City of Melbourne Lord Mayor’s Creative Writing Award for Narrative Nonfiction. She has published in Transcultural Studies, Colloquy, Cordite Poetry Review, and Verity La.