Day inquest highlights threat of police profiling

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For years, within feminist circles, I have seen countless memes and articles about the measures women allegedly take to make themselves feel safe while being out at night. How women keep to well-lit areas. How we hold our phones constantly or pretend to speak on them while walking so that potential attackers think we're connected to someone. How we lace our keys between our fingers just in case we need a weapon at a second's notice.

Protestors walk for justice for Tanya DayI've never been able to relate to this for two reasons. The first is that statistically, I know the least safe place for me as a woman is at home. The domestic and family violence studies point this out time and time again, yet still the social messaging to women is that we need to be at home with our male 'protectors', living half-lives. I also know that I am statistically less likely to become the victim of a public attack than any sole male walking around the streets.

The second reason is this: as an Aboriginal woman walking the streets at night, I am significantly more concerned about being brutalised by those charged to keep our streets safe — the police — than I am about any fellow lone wanderer on the streets. Particularly if I am protesting on the streets. Or if I have had a few beers and I cross their path while trying to make my way home. I have felt this way for years. The case of Tanya Day reinforced to me that my fears were well-founded.

The inquest into Day's death in police custody has been going on while I have been overseas, but it has not been hard to follow news coverage of the courtroom proceedings and feel incredibly distressed and disturbed by what has been coming out of it. It appears a lot of people with power made disastrous and uncaring decisions, yet not a single one of them believes they made the wrong call. Even though their decisions, their potential racial profiling of an Aboriginal woman on a train, led to them locking her up in a police cell, which in turn led to injuries from which she passed away 17 days later.

Take, for example, the V/Line conductor who called police after encountering Day sleeping on the train. Shaun Irvine described her as 'unruly' even though on his arrival, the arresting police officer confirmed she was asleep and made little fuss. Irvine noted Day failed to produce a ticket even though she did, in fact, have one. So how exactly was a sleeping woman with a ticket considered 'unruly' enough to warrant police intervention, rather than perhaps medical attention or even just a watchful and caring eye for the rest of the two hour train journey? She did, after all, have family waiting to collect her at the end of the journey and take her home safely.

Irvine didn't believe he had shown unconscious bias based on race and didn't recall whether he had identified Day as an 'Aboriginal woman' in his call to police despite the police confirming that he had identified her as such. As his final line of defence, Irvine stated that he'd had childhood Aboriginal friends and therefore did not believe that he held any bias against Aboriginal people.

If I had a dollar for every time I'd heard the 'Aboriginal friend' defence, I would have been able to retire 15 years ago. Indeed, I am certain that at least one, or possibly 100, racist people who have encountered me in the span of my lifetime would have invoked me as their 'Aboriginal friend' in a bid to deflect their racism. Yet despite their alleged proximity to me, all — from distant relations to passing acquaintances — have still managed to be pretty damn racist.

 

"It is through their actions in the most awful circumstances that all Victorians, not just Aboriginal people, will have the chance to arrive home safe to their loved ones without fear of criminal prosecution just because they've had a drink."

 

The footage of Day's time in that Castlemaine police cell was played at the inquest. Day's family fought to have this footage released to the public so they could themselves see the truth of Day's final moments. It is harrowing viewing.

A news report following the court viewing noted Day had fallen after getting up to get herself some water. It made me wonder why the ticket conductor hadn't simply just brought her a bottle of water and then come back to her when she was more able to communicate effectively. Once, on a beach in Thailand, after I'd stupidly decided that a bucket of Thai whiskey and Coke was a great idea, a kindly British woman saw me looking worse for wear and gave me a bottle of water. I drank it thankfully and then retired to my hotel room when I was ready to do so. Being an Aboriginal woman, I have to wonder if a similar kindness would be shown to me here in Victoria, or would bystanders have called the police and allowed me to be arrested and carted away like they did Tanya Day?

Then there are the police actions. Such as the police not telling Day she had been arrested. Such as them choosing to arrest her in the first place rather than taking her to the hospital for medical monitoring. Such as them failing to conduct proper periodic checks on her welfare despite knowing she had injured herself and essentially engaging in victim blaming by stating that she was in 'an undignified position for a lady'. Such as them telling her son that she'd had a simple 'knock to the noggin' whilst they allowed her to haemorrhage for three hours. Finally, such as them stating that they would do nothing different. Really? They believe their actions were correct and they are fine living with this entirely preventable outcome?

Just prior to the inquest, Premier Dan Andrews took to his social media page to announce his government's commitment to repeal the criminalisation of public intoxication. While I found it commendable that this commitment has been made, and made with reference to both Tanya Day's inquest and the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, it is appalling that it's been nearly 30 years since the royal commission recommended these laws be abolished and the government is only acting on it now — after a grieving family used their grief to take to the streets with petitions in the hope of preventing other Aboriginal families from going through the same.

In those 30 years, how many other Aboriginal people have been locked up purely for intoxication in Victoria? How many Aboriginal people have criminal records simply because they had a drink one night? How many others have lost their lives in police cells across the country under similar circumstances? Why has it taken nearly 30 years for a Victorian government to admit that Aboriginal people have been disproportionately targeted by public drunkenness laws?

To watch the footage of Day's family fronting the media to explain what happened to their mother and what they hope will come out of this inquest is both inspiring and heartbreaking. It is through their actions in the most awful circumstances that all Victorians, not just Aboriginal people, will have the chance to arrive home safe to their loved ones without fear of criminal prosecution just because they've had a drink. I hope that at the end of the day, Tanya's beloved family receive some sort of justice from these proceedings. They, and Aunty Tanya Day, deserved so much better, yet through their activism they have left a legacy in the name of their mother which we all should acknowledge and be proud of.

 

 

Celeste LiddleCeleste Liddle is a trade unionist, a freelance opinion writer and social commentator. She blogs at Rantings of an Aboriginal Feminist.

Topic tags: Celeste Liddle, Tanya Day, Aboriginal deaths in custody

 

 

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Existing comments

I am so pleased that Celeste has the opportunity to make comment on the death of Tanya Day while she was in custody. I wonder how many white people die in custody when being charged and locked up for drunkenness whether they were drunk or not. I cannot believe the large numbers of Aboriginal Deaths in Custody and have been researching this issue for a number of years. It is about time the broader community become aware of what has happened and is still happening. It is disgraceful and in my eyes definitely racist. Our laws need to be changed and changed quickly. I cannot believe that we have white people allowed to drink on the streets and get into all kinds of fights but an Aboriginal woman who is travelling home on a train that is a presumably safe thing to do; finds herself charged and locked up in a gaol cell without proper attention that obviously led to her death. As this lady had people meeting her train and transporting her home it seems ludicrous that she was forced off the train before her stop and from the moment she was charged and taken into custody her life was in jeopardy. I feel sick to the stomach that this kind of thing still happens. The injustices that Aboriginal people still face in their own country astounds me makes me even more ashamed of this country.
Mavis Jean Symonds | 10 September 2019


Congratulations Celeste on bringing the details of the Tanya Day tragedy to our attention. Unfortunately it is far to common for our communities to accept levels of intoxication in public places such as clubs, pubs and footy crowds when the offenders are Caucasian, they're just "having a good time" or a bit tipsy! However, if such behaviour occurs in Redfern, Alice Springs or any other place where indigenous people gather or live then it is regarded as disgraceful and typical - the effects of excessive consumption of alcohol is not socially acceptable, regardless of the race or colour of the person involved. Perhaps our law enforcement officers should be far more solicitous about the behaviour of those responsible for such "responsible sale or service of alcohol?
michael schell | 10 September 2019


Reflects the failure of Governments over so may years to implement the recommendations of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody. Thanks for your article, Celeste and for honouring Tanya Day and her family in this way
Denis Quinn | 10 September 2019


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