Thirty years ago, a young Aboriginal boy was beaten to death by five off-duty police in Roebourne, Western Australia. His crime had been to defend his friend, who’d been called a “black cunt” and set upon by the officers. His head was bashed in and he was left to die in a cold prison cell.

The autopsy revealed a fractured skull, haemorrhage and swelling as well as bruising and tearing of the brain. He was just 16 years old.

John Pat’s brutal death led to an outpouring of grief and anger. Thousands mobilised across the country, forcing the federal Labor government to announce a Royal Commission into Black Deaths in Custody.

A coronial inquiry committed the five officers to stand trial – not for murder but for the lesser charge of manslaughter. A year later, they were declared innocent by an all-white jury in Karratha.

The police returned to active duty and later were promoted. While they literally got away with murder, in a sickening twist, charges were laid against some of John’s friends, all of whom were Aboriginal. They were fined for assault, resisting arrest or hindering police.

The Royal Commission into Deaths in Custody made 339 recommendations. To date, most have been ignored.

At the time of the commission’s final report in 1991, Aboriginal people were eight times more likely to be imprisoned than non-Aboriginal people. A decade later they were 10 times more likely to be imprisoned. Today Aboriginal people are 14 times more likely to be jailed.

John was not the first to die at the hands of racist police, and tragically won’t be the last. Since 1980, more than 2,000 Aboriginal people have died in custody, yet not a single police officer has been convicted.

The Pat family, along with countless others, continue to fight for justice and an end to the systemic racism of the police force and the legal system that protects them.

The Deaths in Custody Watch Committee - Western Australia, together with the Pat family, have called for a national day of action with community rallies and a remembrance ceremony to be held in a number of states. The committee is calling on the WA government to table a motion apologising to the Pat family.

Deaths in Custody Watch Committee chairperson Marc Newhouse told Red Flag, “In Western Australia, 3 percent of the population is Indigenous, but they make up 38 percent of the adult prison population and 68 percent of the juvenile detention population. This is outrageous and clear evidence of systemic racism in the criminal justice system.”

Actions for justice

Perth: Remembrance Ceremony, rally and apology motion – 4pm Wednesday, 25 September, Parliament House.

Sydney: Thirty years but still no justice! – 12pm Saturday, 28 September, Town Hall.

Melbourne: Thirty years but still no justice! – 12pm Saturday, 28 September, State Library.


John Pat, by Jack Davis

Write of life / the pious said

forget the past / the past is dead.

But all I see / in front of me

is a concrete floor / a cell door / and John Pat.


Agh! tear out the page / forget his age

thin skull they cried / that's why he died!

But I can't forget / the silhouette

of a concrete floor / a cell door / and John Pat.


The end product / of Guddia* law

is a viaduct / for fang and claw,

and a place to dwell / like Roebourne’s hell

of a concrete floor / a cell door / and John Pat.


He's there – where?

there in their minds now / deep within,

there to prance / a sidelong glance / a silly grin

to remind them all / of a Guddia wall

a concrete floor / a cell door / and John Pat.


* “Guddia” is a Kimberley (north Australian) term for “white man”.