Warning: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers are advised that the following article contains names and descriptions of people who have died.
Kumanjayi Walker, a 19-year-old Warlpiri man, was shot dead by Northern Territory police in November. Constable Zachary Rolfe was charged with murder as protests throughout the NT and around Australia demanded justice, pressuring state officials.
Officially declared an “Aboriginal death in police custody” Walker was shot in his grandmother’s house in front of his family and girlfriend. Police planned to arrest Walker over a suspended sentence.
Without a warrant, or permission, police entered the home using powers in the “Northern Territory Intervention” laws. Witnesses to the shooting dispute police claims that Walker stabbed Rolfe. They say Walker didn’t have a weapon. But the police were heavily armed.
Walker, wounded and dragged by the legs, was thrown in the back of a police wagon witnesses say. One policeman brandished his gun warning others not to come close or they would be shot too.
Walker died in the police station that night. It took hours for an ambulance to arrive. There were no medical staff in the community and the Royal Flying Doctor Service was not called until an hour after the shooting. They didn’t come because they “couldn’t have their safety guaranteed”.
Police refused two relatives access to the station and only announced Walker’s death the next morning, after backup had arrived.
Counter-terrorism police armed with assault rifles then occupied the small remote community, intimidating residents. Warlpiri elders called for occupying police to be stripped of firearms, but police command refused. Incredibly they argued that the firearms were a “health and safety” requirement.
It is rare that police or others are charged over an Aboriginal death in custody. Usually justice is not delivered.
The best chance of justice for Kumanjayi Walker is that the protest pressure that forced authorities to charge Rolfe is maintained. Resistance, struggle and protest have been the well-springs of improvements for Aboriginal people since land theft and genocide began with British invasion.
Already establishment politicians, police command and the corporate media have rallied around Constable Rolfe, seeking to paint him as a victimised hero and prevent the possibility of him being found guilty.
Rolfe is suspended on full pay and in an unusual move he was granted bail and allowed to return to his wealthy well-connected family in Canberra. It seems unimaginable that bail would have been granted had Rolfe and Walker’s positions been switched.
Walker’s death is the latest in an extremely long and shameful list of police killing Aboriginal people. In September Yamatji Aboriginal woman Joyce Clarke was shot dead by West Australian police in Geraldton. In the last decade there were many more horrific incidents.
Over 400 Aboriginal people have died in police custody since the ‘Royal commission into Aboriginal deaths in custody’ finished in 1991. Many of the commissions’ 339 recommendations have not been implemented.
Today Aboriginal people are jailed at a higher rate than at the time of the commission. Aboriginal people are 2.2% of the Australian population but account for 27% of those in jail, 19% of deaths in police custody and 22% of deaths in prison.
Australia’s ruling class created itself through continent-scale land theft, massacres of Aboriginal people and by promoting racist policies and ideologies. Australian police forces, courts and governments were all established by this deeply racist ruling class to serve and protect its interests.
The mining companies and others like the banks continue to plunder this continent for profit, and the racism that justifies it continues to ooze from the top of society.
Malcolm X, the famous anti-racist fighter from the US, explained that “you can’t have capitalism without racism”. Fred Hampton, a leader of the Black Panther Party, said “We’re going to fight racism not with racism, but we’re going to fight with solidarity. We say we’re not going to fight capitalism with black capitalism, but we’re going to fight it with socialism.”
Justice for Kumanjayi Walker is part of the broader struggle to do away with the scourge of racist oppression that has rooted itself in Australia.
That means fighting to uproot the racist ruling class and all their institutions of tyranny. We can replace them with a socialist society that is based on shared wealth and democratic decision making. In that way genuine self determination can be guaranteed for all Aboriginal people and we can end the police killings.
By Kirk Leonard