Another disgraceful episode of Australian racism unfolded in the High Court on 22 March. After decades of campaigning, farcical investigations and police racism, the families of three murdered children were denied a chance at justice.
Over the course of six months in 1990-91, three Aboriginal children from Bowraville – 16-year-olds Colleen Walker Craig and Clinton Speedy Duroux , and 4-year-old Evelyn Greenup – were murdered. Their killer was never brought to justice. An accused man was previously acquitted of the murders of Evelyn Greenup and Clinton Speedy. But the New South Wales attorney-general applied for a retrial on the basis that new evidence had come to light. In NSW, people can’t be tried for the same crime twice unless there is “fresh and compelling evidence”. This was what was at stake on 22 March.
For more than an hour, the legal argument raged: Was the evidence fresh? Was it compelling? What does “fresh” actually mean? The end result is there will be no retrial. But that decision doesn’t belong to the families of the victims or the Indigenous community in Bowraville. It belongs to lawyers and judges who’ve never set foot outside of the private school-college-law intern pipeline. And it was delivered with such language that, if you watched the case without prior knowledge it would be impossible to tell it concerned the disappearance and murder of three children.
Racism can manifest as fascist street marches and Nazi terror attacks. But it also manifests in courtrooms. At no time was it more apparent that I was standing on stolen, occupied land than at the beginning of the proceedings, which are heralded by the announcement: “The High Court of Australia is now in session; God save the Queen”.
The justice system that rejects a retrial on a legal technicality also tears up native title legislation to satisfy the greed of the mining bosses. It makes Aboriginal people one of the most imprisoned people on earth. It is so blatantly racist that every single child in juvenile detention in the Northern Territory is Indigenous. It refuses to take even the most basic steps to prevent deaths in custody, despite having well over 300 recommendations on how to do that from a Royal Commission conducted more than 30 years ago. Aboriginal people are still thrown in jail for unpaid parking fines while the man alleged to have murdered three Bowraville children doesn’t even stand trial.
As the families, activists and supporters descended from the 14th floor to the ground, despair turned to anger. Family members of the murdered children painted the glass walls of the court with ochre – as they had done to the glass walls of the New South Wales Court of Criminal Appeal in September, when they were also turned away. But the families have fought for almost three decades and will not stop.
“Today is no different from the last time the courts denied us justice. They say ‘no’ and we say ‘not good enough’, Gavin Stanbrook, Colleen’s cousin said. “We will continue to fight until our three kids get the justice they deserve”.
The fight for justice started with a protest outside the Bowraville police station in 1991, demanding that they take the investigation seriously. The families have been forced to claw their way through a hostile legal system that has tried to stop them at every point, just to get the same level of respect expected by any white Australian.
As shown by the numbers at the yearly Invasion Day rallies around the country, there is a growing consciousness that something is deeply wrong with the way Aboriginal people are treated in Australia. The state shows its true face every time there is a death in custody, every time Aboriginal land is destroyed for developers and every time an Indigenous family is denied basic justice.
But injustice has never existed without resistance. For anyone who wants to fight against oppression and build a more just world, there are few inspirations greater than the families of the Bowraville victims.